The racist massacre that occurred Saturday in Buffalo, leaving 10 Black people dead, three people injured, and a community, city, state, and nation in shock has infuriatingly deep roots. The teenage shooter, who traveled several hours to unleash a reign of terror on an unsuspecting Black neighborhood, apparently imbibed white nationalist teaching via the Internet. But the hateful teachings he learned and took to heart about “replacement theory,” which purports that Jews and racialized others want to displace native born white people, is in fact an old story, a narrative as enduring as it is false.
That this heartbreaking tragedy occurred less than two weeks before the second anniversary of George Floyd’s murder is telling. Floyd’s death triggered months of protests that helped to shape the presidential election, sparked policy debates focused on reimagining public safety, and inspired national soul searching about the roots of systemic racism, structural oppression, and white supremacy. In a stunningly compressed amount of time, against the backdrop of a global health pandemic that has so far killed 1 million Americans, the nation seemed ready to embrace the most difficult and intractable truths about its past in order to come to terms with its — at times — chaotic present.
The politics of white backlash have, once again, delayed this rendezvous with history. The period from 2008 to the present — the time of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, of Black Lives Matter and Jan. 6 — represents a third Reconstruction in American history, an existential battle pitting reconstructionist supporters of multiracial democracy against redemptionist advocates of white supremacy.
We have been here before.
The period between 1865 and 1898 represents America’s first Reconstruction, birthed in the cataclysmic aftermath of a bloody Civil War that left more than 600,000 dead, scarred much of the nation’s physical landscape, and forged, in historian Eric Foner’s phrase, a “second founding,” through Reconstruction amendments consecrated in the blood of fallen soldiers and civilians.
The 13th Amendment’s permanent abolition of racial slavery, followed by the 14th Amendment’s introduction of birthright citizenship, fundamentally transformed the US Constitution. The passage of the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed Black male suffrage, sent shockwaves throughout the nation. Black votes meant the potential accumulation of political power, just as freedom represented a new avenue of interracial labor competition. White backlash during Reconstruction took on many forms, from unfair labor contracts that introduced debt peonage to convict leasing that criminalized Black Americans and exploited their labor, to voter suppression tactics, to outright violence and racial terror. All of these efforts were designed to thwart what many white Americans felt was coming: “Negro political domination.” Racist politicians of the day — mostly Democrats, but at times joined by Republicans — amplified the hateful echo chamber that cast Reconstruction as a form of reverse racism that punished white people in service of upholding some kind of fictive Black equality.
The hate crimes during Reconstruction came early and often. In 1866, the same year that the historically Black Fisk University was founded in Nashville, the Ku Klux Klan first appeared in Pulaski, Tenn. That same year, white riots in Memphis and New Orleans began decades of racial terror that effectively, but not universally, choked off major efforts at institutionalizing Black dignity and citizenship in American democratic institutions.
Racial massacres and organized white riots became frequent enough for Congress to hold congressional hearings, that featured heart-wrenching testimony from targets of Klan violence. In 1870, nine Black people were murdered in Camilla County in southwestern Georgia, a deadly “outrage,” in the parlance of the time, that went unpunished. Three years later, more than 100 Black people were massacred in Colfax, La., outside of a courthouse where they stood guard to protect a duly elected Republican state government. By 1876, a presidential election year, white violence in Hamburg, S.C., organized by white supremacist and future governor Benjamin “Pitchfork” Tillman, served as a capstone for the waning Republican interest in protecting Black lives. By the following year, the last of the federal troops withdrew from the South, the consequence of a handshake deal over the contested presidential election that allowed Republican Rutherford B. Hayes to assume the presidency at the expense of citizenship and dignity for Black Americans.
But the violence did not end there. The efforts by Black Americans to keep the spirit of Reconstruction alive worked in parts of the South, including Wilmington, N.C., where Black activists aligned themselves with white moderates to achieve continued political representation. In November 1898, white supremacists, after months of planning, murdered dozens of Black people and staged a successful coup that elicited no federal intervention and successfully turned Wilmington from a majority Black city into a scene of abjection and terror from which Black families fled.
The Great Migration of the 20th century disbursed Black Americans to far-flung parts of the nation in search of new political vistas, economic opportunity, and a peaceful environment away from white violence. But the racist pogroms continued — in 1906 in Atlanta, in East St. Louis in 1917, Chicago and Elaine, Ark., in 1919, and the worst case of all, Tulsa, Okla., in 1921, where the city’s vibrant Greenwood neighborhood, nicknamed by locals “Black Wall Street,” was burned to the ground and 300 Black Americans were executed, their bodies stacked by locals like cordwood.
Buffalo’s violence must be placed within this historical context. Perhaps the most terrifying aspect of white violence that stems from the politics of white nationalism and the ideology of white supremacy is the lies; all these events have been written out of the mainstream history we teach in public schools or explained away as an aberration.
The summer of George Floyd promised something different. But efforts to tell a new origin story about the nation have been dismissed as “critical race theory,” a rhetorical sleight of hand that nonetheless, as during the first Reconstruction, has placed proponents of multiracial democracy on the defensive.
But we must continue to tell a different, harder, and more uncomfortable story about the nation if we are ever to get out of this endless cycle of racial violence, division, and anger. So much of this era resembles Reconstruction, perhaps more than even the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s, which is more often used as a point of comparison. The “Lost Cause” mythology that smeared Reconstruction as a negative attack on Southern values, white male patriarchy, and God-given attributes that made Black people inferior to their fellow white citizens continues to wield power in our national discourse. The 19th-century Lost Cause advocates have become the 21st-century defenders of a racial status quo that many thought relegated to history’s dustbin in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s election.
History does not repeat itself, but it most certainly rhymes. Buffalo continues an ugly and all-too-American tradition of weaponizing racial hatred, bigotry, and violence in the defense of claims of white privilege and power thought to have been settled on bloody battlefields more than a century ago, but whose legacies continue to unleash deadly echoes in our own time.
Peniel E. Joseph teaches history and public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. His latest book, “The Third Reconstruction: America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-First Century” will be published in September.