Shortly after the November election, a wave of hate crimes swept across the United States. Invigorated by the Trump campaign’s racist rhetoric, a number of white people engaged in a campaign of violence and terror against people of color. A number of tweets about these incidents were collected by Shaun King as they happened. They make for harrowing reading. This was a scary time for people of color in the United States.
Social media became a crucial means for victims of this aggression to document and circulate it. But it also quickly became a space of conflict. Shortly after activists began to note this pattern, a backlash coalesced around the idea that the people reporting racially-motivated harassment and violence connected to the election were fabricating evidence. At the time, I copied a few comments I saw on this theme from facebook and twitter:
This kind of skepticism (to put it very charitably) is not new. It’s just one manifestation of a pattern with deep historical roots. Over the past three centuries, the practice of denying black testimony has formed an essential foundation for American white supremacy. White people have long avoided reckoning with the consequences of slavery and racism by ignoring, qualifying, or discounting truths spoken by people of color.
In 1692, Virginia enacted a law that prevented enslaved persons from testifying in capital cases unless it was to confess. By 1705, Virginia barred all slave testimony. In 1723, this statute was altered—but only because planters feared that without allowing for some slave testimony, they would be unable to convict whites conspiring to foment slave insurrection. These laws set an important precedent. Unable to speak for themselves, enslaved men and women were helpless to make others aware of the most dangerous and violent manifestations of white supremacy. Crimes could be committed against slaves with impunity and without any hope of redress.
Over time, those who were most directly invested in the slave system developed the mythology that people with dark skin were inherently untrustworthy. In 1777, planter Landon Carter wrote, “Do not bring your negroe to contradict me! A negroe and a passionate woman are equal as to truth or falsehood; for neither thinks of what they say.” Likewise, in 1858, a pro-slavery legal theorist living in Georgia named Thomas R.R. Cobb wrote that “the negro, as a general rule, is mendacious, is a fact too well established to require the production of proof, either from history, travels or craniology.” For Cobb, African Americans’ inherent dishonesty was so obvious that he didn’t even feel that it was necessary to supply evidence for that conclusion. These racist ideas allowed observers to dismiss all evidence that slavery was harmful to slaves, because evidence for that conclusion tended to come apparently untrustworthy sources.
After the Civil War, as slavery itself formally ended, the need to deny black testimony became more urgent. In 1866, for example, Kentucky’s governor signed a bill into law that conferred some civil rights to African Americans in his state, but continued to prohibit black testimony in courts. State officials understood that the extension of this right would threaten the perpetuation of white supremacy. Republicans and freedmen in Kentucky protested vigorously against this “remnant of barbarism” and demanded to “be heard in the courts as suitors and witnesses upon the same terms and conditions as others.” Even after a Federal law attempted to guarantee black Americans the right to testify in all courts, Kentucky’s government and courts attempted to prevent African Americans from taking advantage of this right, provoking activism late into the decade.
This wasn’t only true of former slave states. In California, as Republican lawmakers attempted to legalize black testimony during wartime, a Democratic assemblyman explained his opposition to the measure: “The negro race was universally recognized as an inferior race, and any attempt to elevate them would only result in degrading the white race to their level.” In other words, accepting the validity of black testimony was an existential threat to white supremacy. But even with a formal legal right to testify, the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists frequently intimidated and threatened potential African Americans witnesses. Eventually, the Reconstruction-era federal government was forced to pass a law that became known as the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 that specifically addressed witness intimidation.
Even after Reconstruction, generations of white supremacists began to look back on slave narratives with renewed skepticism. Historian Ulrich B. Phillips dismissed slave narratives because they were, in his words, “issued with so much abolitionist editing that as a class their authenticity is doubtful.” For many years, even until the present, historians have tended to use slave narratives not to assess the external facts of slavery—for which they use sources created by white people—but as a way to illuminate the feelings and internal struggles of the slaves themselves. When historians did take slaves’ accounts seriously, they were often reluctant to view them as anything more than an isolated case. Stanley Elkins, for example, believed that Frederick Douglass’s narrative was “obviously not the work of an ordinary slave.” While few would doubt that Douglass’s experiences were unusual, these kinds of claims assuaged white guilt by allowing white readers to focus on the particular injustices that Douglass faced, rather than the systemic injustices that his story represents.
This pattern continued into the Civil Rights era of the mid-twentieth century. As anxiety over their power rose, white supremacists grew increasingly desperate to prevent black testimony from being heard. After Emmett Till was brutally murdered in 1955, law enforcement officials detained key black witnesses in another town under false names in order to prevent them from testifying. With the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, intimidation and violence against witnesses became even more commonplace. But this could also operate in subtler ways. Mary Hamilton, an African American activist, was held in contempt of court in Alabama after she refused to answer questions on a witness stand. She objected to the fact that while white witnesses had been addressed formally—as “Mr. Jones” or “Mrs. Taylor”—she had been addressed simply as “Mary.” In doing so, the prosecutor involved was attempting to subtly undermine Mary Hamilton’s authority as a witness.
Many of us remember Bull Connor and the violence directed against African American protestors in Birmingham, Alabama, from our high school history classes. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders in the Civil Rights movement chose to focus on Birmingham because they expected Connor to brutally overreact. Knowing that images and footage from Birmingham could be distributed around the world, Civil Rights leaders hoped to dramatize the larger injustice directed against African Americans in the American south. Indeed, shots of police dogs and fire hoses directed against protestors played into protestors’ hands. They understood that the only way to communicate the injustice that they faced was by documenting it through film and photography. The testimony of African Americans was too easily dismissed.
Black testimony continues to be under assault. After the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, witnesses against the police officer Darren Wilson were reportedly “scared out of their minds” to give evidence before a grand jury, for fear of retribution. It is no coincidence, of course, that the age of the camera phone has contributed to white liberals’ increased awareness of the pervasiveness of white supremacy in modern America. Just as photography and video allowed Civil Rights protestors to document violence against them in the 1960s, today the camera phone allows African Americans to witness racism and police brutality without bearing the weight of the testimony themselves and thereby subjecting themselves to additional scrutiny. It’s worth asking, would the outrage surrounding the death of Alton Sterling, for example, have been the same if Americans did not see the video, but only the testimony of the people of color who witnessed the shooting?
Today, we do not live in a slave society or one with formal legal restraints on black testimony. But when we place an extra burden of proof on people of color, when we rush to see a hate crime as an “isolated incident” rather than as a manifestation of a widespread pattern of abuse, when we assume that people of color must be acting for political and personal motives, and when we intimidate and insult people of color for sharing their stories, we are enacting the same violence that has supported and emboldened white supremacists for hundreds of years. Rather than rushing to discredit these stories, we should rush to care for the victims, to stand against hatred, and to protect those who are most vulnerable in our society.
Note: a presentation by historian Edward Baptist in the summer of 2016 provided me with several ideas, particularly about slave narratives, that grew into this essay.