An Elephant in the Room: idiom: an obvious problem or difficult situation that people do not want to talk about.
On June 7, 1998 James Byrd Jr. accepted a ride from three men, Shawn Berry, Lawrence Russell Brewer, and John King, in Jasper Texas. One of the men, Shawn Berry, was familiar to Mr. Byrd, as they knew each other from town. It is likely that Mr. Byrd knew the other men as well, or had, at the very least, seen them, as the population of Jasper, Texas was far less than 10,000 persons. Brewer and King, however, were known “white supremacists.” Byrd accepted a ride from the three men, although it is unknown to where or for what purpose. The three men drove Mr. Byrd to a remote road, beat him, and subsequently chained his ankles to the back of a pickup truck, dragging him along an asphalt road for three miles. He was conscious for the entire ordeal until his head and arm were severed. The murderers continued to drive his headless body for an additional mile until they dumped his body as a segregated African American cemetery in town. His only offence was being black and accepting a ride from these men that night. The murderers, either knowingly or unknowingly, left evidence of the murder along the road; a lighter with a name on it, a wrench with initials on it, and a few other items. They were unmoved, driving to a barbeque after murdering a man who’d done no wrong, committed no crime, had caused no offense save being black in Texas.
This terrible occurrence was a reminder to some of most horrific public lynchings in the United States, including one that occurred in October 1934 in Greenwood, Florida. On October 18, 1934, Claude Neal was tortured, castrated, and hung after being accused of the rape and murder of a young white girl in Greenwood. Whether or not he committed the crime is unknown. And while heinous, Neal was not alone in his victimization. Years later, fourteen-year-old Emmitt Till was accused of speaking to and “disrespecting” Carolyn Bryant, a white woman in Mississippi. Till was mutilated, shot, and dumped in a river in 1955. Sadly, Bryant admitted in 2008 that her accusation was fabricated. Nevertheless, the men who murdered Till, Bryant’s abusive husband included, were acquitted of murder in September of 1955. These three examples do not serve as outliers, but instead are exemplars. It must be noted that more than 4,000 African Americans were lynched between 1877 and 1950. And while we rarely use those terms to describe the current model of racialized violence the feelings and purpose is still the same. The constant loop of the murders of people like Oscar Grant (2009), Trayvon Martin (2012), Eric Garner (2014), Philando Castille (2016), Laquan McDonald (2014), Rekia Boyd (2012), Sandra Bland (2015), and too many others to name since the end of reconstruction, all serve as modern examples of racialized violence. The role of lynching and racial violence cannot be ignored nor denied in the American consciousness, as they were used, and arguably are still used, to instill fear and maintain a sense of stability of the racial order. They were not used as a means of obtaining some sort of justice as much as they were used to remind individuals of their place. The racial violence that African Americans have always endured in the United States has rooted in the ideology of and is weaved into the very fabric of the nation.
And while our collective consciousness become focused on these events when they happen and gain national attention, and maybe for a few weeks beyond, we seemingly have a short national attention span. The ability to see how all of this is linked from century to century and generation to generation seems to be missed. And when these occurrences happen, the conversation centers around, “how can this happen? Why are things getting worse?” rather than, “What are the similarities?” and “how does this continue to happen?” Indeed, I’ve frequently asked myself, “How is Emmitt different than Trayvon?” However, the questions of similarities and legacy is washed away as something else catches our attention and we go back through the same cycle. The similarities and legacy looms like the elephant in the room.
We sometimes make mention of discrimination, racism, murder as though it is the elephant in the room. However, it goes far beyond that. And while it may indeed be true that racism, discrimination, and systemic oppression operates like the elephant, these are simply the outcomes and not the vehicle through which the society maintains homeostasis. These outcomes are not what keeps the society and the systems of oppression afloat. Which means that much of our attention is focused on the outcome and symptoms rather than the root cause. How silly would it be to hear the squeaky brakes in our cars and complain that the sound only happens because the volume on our stereo does not go high enough? In the same way, how silly is it to see these events and complain that it is only because “the white supremist” has been given a voice, as though they are not simply a symptom of a larger machine.
What is this beast? And how is it so invisible? The beast is White Supremacy. It is time that we acknowledge that we do indeed ride on its back and that it is not a fringe movement. White supremacy is embedded into the very fabric of the nation; indeed, it is a tie that binds, that allows for social solidarity. But we rarely discuss white supremacy in this way because it has, in large part, been rendered invisible; not ignored, like the elephant in the room, but rendered invisible. It reminds me of a take on the popular Febreeze commercial, “America has a gotten used to the smell of racism and White Supremacy. Yep. America has gone nose blind. Social scientists need to stage an intervention.” To be fair, it isn’t invisible, it isn’t without odor, but rather, again, we ride on the back of the beast. The beast of White Supremacy is the vehicle for educational disparities, academic gatekeeping, economic and occupational injustice, environmental injustice, political injustice, and gendered violence. We ride atop the looming beast, the elephant that fits in no room. It has carried us from century to century, from generation to generation. We are only subconsciously aware of the beast, acknowledging the beast only when it defecates, and the stench makes us take notice. Once we no longer smell it, we continue to ride. The march that occurred in Charlottesville in 2017 was such a dump. As was James Byrd, Jr. As were Freddie Grey and Trayvon Martin. Then and only then do we mention the beast upon which we ride. We do not, however, climb from its back; but instead become habituated and nose blind to the stench, and the beast continues to march on.
In the fall of 2017, a march was held in Charlottesville, North Carolina. It was billed as the “Unite the Right” rally, with the stated goal of protesting the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee in a public park. Protesters included self-identified and self-proclaimed white supremacists, white nationalists, Neo-Nazis, and Neo Confederate and white militia groups. The marchers carried with them both political signs ins support of Donald Trump, as well as other nativist signs. They also carried rifles and confederate battle flags. The response by those in media as well as lay people, was to suggest that these were “white supremist groups” and individuals, emboldened by the perceived shift in the political climate.
This labeling was not a new phenomenon. In fact, this tends to be the trend; public displays of white supremacy are met with shock and surprise, as members of the groups who wear these labels proudly do so publicly. What is missing, however, in these discussions is how frequently these discussions happen. We act as though these are isolated events, individual occurrences, and not woven into the very fabric of the nation. These public displays of white supremacy are so much a part of the history of the United States that we cannot pinpoint a period of time in which these occurrences, this physical and legal violence against Black Americans, did not occur.
I remember just as the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally was happening, individuals who I follow on social media began to say things such as, “this is not America.” Given what I know of history, I was surprised by the incredibly ahistorical nature of such statements. This WAS and IS America. Denying that history and present offers a color-blind approach that is only possible BECAUSE we ride atop the looming beast; meaning, there is no elephant in the room that we ignore. This ahistorical analysis is only possible because we ride atop it’s back. In other words, it is not that we are ignoring the DISCOMFORT, avoiding a difficult conversation, crowded out by the elephant in the room. It is that we are comfortable within the vehicle, until it reminds us that the vehicle is a wild beast.
As we become aware of this beast, it is imperative that we decide as a society to change vehicles. It is imperative that we climb down from its back. It is imperative that when modern lynchings and public displays of racialized violence occurs that we call it by its name – not an isolated fringe group of white supremacists, but rather examples of how present White Supremacy is an institution within the society. We will only have racial equity and parity when THAT conversation happens. Otherwise, will be forever discussion the symptoms and not the cause.