"Would black people riot if Sen. Barack Obama didn't win the election?" That was the question a white man in Memphis recently asked a racial reconciliation group with which I am involved.
After five years of being a columnist for the daily paper in Memphis, I wasn't surprised by the absurdity of his query. Many whites still labor under the illusion that black folk act en masse and that if you ask the right one, you can get the official position of some 40 million people. If a few of us get angry, that logic allows, it must surely result in a riot.
Riot because we didn't get our way? Please. Black people have more than their share of experience with disappointment and dashed dreams. (See: King, Martin Luther; Evers, Medgar; Chaney, James.) Matter of fact, I'd go so far as to say we're experts in making the best out of a losing hand.
The reply to the curious white gentleman: "No! There is no reason to believe black people will riot if Obama does not win."
But soon after getting this man's e-mail, I started to wonder if he was on to something, if he had noticed what I had: a seething, barely constrained, ugly anger and frustration that makes good riot fuel. The kind of anger that prompts people to shout "Kill him!" and "Off with his head!" at rallies. The kind of hatefulness that would prompt a man to bring a stuffed monkey with an "Obama" sticker on the toy's head to a campaign event.
That kind of group-fueled nastiness must surely beg the question: Will white people riot if Obama wins?
Not all white people are McCain supporters. (See caucuses, Iowa.) Not all black people are backing Obama. (See Negroes, self-loathing. Just joking.)
But there is a small but vocal segment of white Republicans who just might have an aneurysm if the next occupant of the White House is a black man.
If the polls are accurate—and Obama wins—will these few angry white people make good on their oral declarations? And will those who stood by them silent, join them? With dreams deferred, can angry whites do what Langston Hughes taught us—to let it fester like a sore, even to let sag like a heavy load? Or will the dream of a perfect streak of white men in the White House, if deferred, cause white people to explode?
Might they torch stores and overturn cars? Or worse, will angry whites take out their disgust on black people by, say, denying loans, or jobs or housing? Burned-out stores and cars, that's unsettling. But the damage angry whites could inflict if they really go off—that's scary.
Will angry white people riot if Barack Obama wins the election?
There may be some people who think this is an absurd question. I honestly don't know. But it is no more absurd than asking it about blacks.
Wendi C. Thomas is the metro columnist for The Commercial Appeal. She's been a writer or an editor for The Charlotte Observer, The (Nashville) Tennessean and The Indianapolis Star. Among her many journalism awards is her 2008 induction into the Scripps Howard Hall of Fame for her opinion writing.