I was finishing an essay when I got the death threat.
I usually ignore calls that are blocked or from unlisted numbers, but for some reason, I was feeling adventurous that day. “You’re trying to start a race war with your articles, Larry,” said the voice on the other end of the line. “You won’t be around long to write many more.”
That call angered me (partly because of his use of the name Larry—I cannot express how much I hate that name)—but it also scared me. This person found my phone number. He knew where my office was located. If he wanted, he could follow me from my office and attack me when I was alone. The Charleston Nine came to mind, and the reminder that hate can kill made my stomach turn.
Some claim that overt racism is largely a thing of the past. And while I am willing to admit that some progress has been made, I’ve also learned that all you need to do is write an article telling hard truths about the lived experience of black people in this country, and you will receive emails calling you a race-baiter—and that’s if those outraged by your work are feeling charitable.
Last week I wrote an article aimed at black students on their way to predominantly white institutions. I hoped to prepare them for the fact that many college campuses are filled with people who hold stereotypes and treat students according to the biases they hold. I then encouraged black students to love themselves and build community with others who know what they are going through. The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans shared the piece, prompting the conservative website Campus Reform to mischaracterize my argument. Soon thereafter, the emails and hateful comments started rolling in.
“What a horrible person you are to write such things,” said a reader in an anonymous tweet. “What a detrimental force you are, a wicked, seditious man. Of course the White House published you. They are America hating racist trash with filthy minds, just like you.”
Commenting on the Campus Reform article, one reader opined, “So … I guess to make blacks feel welcome whites should put bones in their noses, wear weaves on their heads and pants around their knees, speak Ebonics, rap about thugs-n-hos using simpleton sing-song rhymes, foreswear knowledge of their fathers, play bassetbaw 24/7, attain a 72% bastardy, not know what wheels are, flashmob-rob stores, and blame all failings on endless, unseen, unconscious ahistorical vapors.”
I’m going to go out on a limb here, but I’d be willing to bet that these are Donald Trump supporters.
Even Rush Limbaugh got in on the action. Speaking on his radio program, he said, “So here we have an article rooted in divisiveness, highly touted by the administration and tweeted out from the White House, which wants to be known as a unity administration … what we're looking at here is the further division of America along racial lines, not promoting integration, not promoting healing, not promoting one together nation, nothing of that stuff.”
Limbaugh makes the mistake of equating uncovering the reality of white supremacy with creating divisions between races. It would be similar to saying that a doctor created the cancer found in a test. It’s utterly absurd. The practice of ignoring, silencing and bullying people of color in this country and on college campuses is exactly what we mean by white supremacy. It’s not about people; it's about biased institutions and silencing behaviors that serve to prop up oppressive systems.
I started to get in my feelings about the abuse I was enduring—until I discovered that I was not alone.
“The thing that is most exhausting about being a black writer is how everything I write is second-guessed,” said Robert Jones Jr., the creator, writer and curator of Son of Baldwin.
“Many begin at a place of distrust for the black perspective because they feel implicated and unraveled by it," he continued. "So their goal is to eradicate it by employing every argumentative fallacy they can think of, moving the goal posts, and denying the veracity of the testimony.”
I also discovered that being a black man comes with a level of privilege not offered to women of color. If you are a black woman, the response to your work in the public sphere can be violent and invasive.
“People threatened to torture and kill me on Twitter after things I posted right after Ferguson,” said E., a black female associate professor and author who, because of threats of violence, asked not to be named. "I had to get Twitter management and local police involved. I have also received racist literature at my office address denying slavery and the Holocaust."
Black women must prepare themselves for violence that is intersectional in nature. Racism and misogyny are likely to feed the responses they get when they dare to step into the public arena and speak truth to power.
Attempts to silence black and brown people are an American strategy to prop up the idea of exceptionalism. This tactic was used during slavery in an effort to quell the abolitionist movement; then again after World War I, in the wake of the Red Summer of 1919; and once again after World War II, when black solders came back home to discover unmitigated levels of racism. Attempts to silence voices telling the truth about hardships faced by those living on the underside of the American democratic experiment are not new.
So … I’m not alone. Campus Reform, Rush Limbaugh and white supremacist internet trolls have tried to discount my ideas and my experience, but attempts to silence black voices are not new, and I certainly am not alone in having had to endure threats of violation at the hands of strangers.
Zora Neal Hurston said, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” So let me speak from the bottom of my heart to each and every person who engages in silencing behavior, whether that be discounting people's experiences, engaging in death threats or putting people's economic security in jeopardy: We will not be quiet and we are not afraid. Because, as Maya Angelou said, “I come as one but I stand as 10,000.”
Lawrence Ware is a progressive writer in a conservative state. A frequent contributor to Counterpunch and Dissent magazine, he is also a contributing editor of NewBlackMan (in Exile) and the Democratic Left. He has been featured in the New York Times and discussed race and politics on HuffPost Live, NPR and Public Radio International. Ware’s book on the life and thought of C.L.R. James will be published by Verso Books in the fall of 2017. Follow him on Twitter.