116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The imagined danger of Blackness is destructive
In February of 1915, 28th president and namesake of Wilson Middle School, Thomas Woodrow Wilson welcomed family, cabinet members, and other guests to take in the first motion picture ever screened inside the White House. Over 300 silent films were released that year — all likely options for the gathering. President Wilson, however, chose the now-infamous “Birth of a Nation.” In so doing, he offered executive branch legitimacy to a film centered on a theme that continues to plague our nation, causing death and destruction wherever it surfaces: the imagined danger of Blackness.
The film itself, naturally, was centered on whiteness; it could hardly represent any meaningful or accurate depiction of Black people since its makers, the majority of the actors including those playing Black characters, and its intended audience were white. The lionized protagonists were Klan members. Originally titled “The Clansman,” “Birth of a Nation” served as a terribly effective recruiting mechanism for the KKK resurgence by playing on the fears of a nation that had committed atrocities against the very people literally villainized on-screen. The film was considered so important by the elite group of viewers on Pennsylvania Avenue that the entirety of the sitting U.S. Supreme Court was compelled to watch it the very next day.
The imagined danger posed by Black people existing remains a box office smash, turning out voters, consumers, and vigilantes year after year after bloody year. Ron Paul, Iowa’s own Steve King, and of course the Donald (who famously called for the state-sanctioned murder of the Exonerated Five via a full-page ad in the Times) have all fanned the flames of white fear of Black people for political gain. This list is far from exhaustive, and the result of fearmongering for political gain among our elected leadership is devastating for the populace. Whether the racial threat tactics employed by those seeking to obtain or maintain power leads to division and suspicion among private citizens, or the division and suspicion among private citizens leads them to support and elect people who play into the narrative is less chicken and egg and more endless feedback loop. In the end, we all lose.
When I arrived in Cedar Rapids, I was cautioned by locals against choosing our family home in an area “where the ghetto bird flies.” This colloquialism referred to the police helicopter that patrolled the Wellington Heights neighborhood relentlessly until the program was ended in 2007. It is laughable in retrospect when I think of those who protest the notion that the 0.606 square mile area previously under nearly constant helicopter surveillance has been historically overpoliced.
All of this fear of Black people existing has very real consequences for the Black people … existing. The most extreme examples end in death; Ahmaud Arbery, murdered for jogging. Trayvon Martin, murdered for walking. Breonna Taylor, murdered for sleeping. Sandra Bland, murdered for not using her turn signal. Elijah McClain, murdered for being different.
There are, however, far more consequences at play; criminal justice disparities, health disparities, employment inequity, the list goes on. Further, these inequities damage more than just the Black community. When we allow inequality to exist, we as a whole community lose in terms of innovation, health, environmental sustainability, and all of the other benefits afforded by the ability to function as a true collective with common interests and goals.
For example: the commonly held perception impacting attitudes about public policy related to government assistance programs is that they are most often accessed by People of Color; this is simply not factual. Although most of the beneficiaries of these programs are white, the association of poverty with Black people has been so successfully programmed into the American psyche that many will actively oppose funding such programs due to implicit racial bias even though they are personally related to someone who relies on them for survival. This has similar implications for those able to learn about environmental injustice and separate themselves from it even though climate change threatens us all.
By screening “Birth of a Nation” for those in power, President Wilson traded on division and fear for political gain. If we were better able to view ourselves as the community that we could and should be, we would hold our elected leaders to a higher standard of service to all members of the populace than was acceptable when Woodrow darkened the White House lights and propagated the lie. Only by demanding equity as a contingency of leadership will we accelerate the progress necessary to survive the dangers and leverage the opportunities that the present offers and the future has in store.
Sofia DeMartino is a Gazette editorial fellow. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org
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