5 Lessons the Tulsa Race Massacre Teaches Us about Racism Today

Don't just focus on the facts of the Tulsa Race Massacre, examine what it teaches about race relations today.

On the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, many individuals and news outlets are rightly recounting the facts of the event.

With all of the data promulgated surrounding this anniversary, however, we must not lose the opportunity to glean broader lessons from Tulsa.

  1. The Myth of the Black Brute and the Pure White Female

The events that led to the Tulsa Race Massacre began with the false accusation of assault committed by a 19-year old Black man, Dick Rowland, against a white woman.

This is what Ida B. Wells often wrote about in her anti-lynching materials. After the Civil War, the myth of the rapacious and brutish Black man out to ravish pure, innocent white women served as the specious justification for all manner of horrors enacted against Black people. It’s why castration was often part of the spectacle of lynching.

These racialized, sexualized myths also included white men and Black women. White men became the protectors of the white female virtue. It became their “right” to retaliate against any perceived threat from Black men.

Black women were set up as the opposite of white women. Where white women were pure and virtuous, Black women were conceived as promiscuous and seductive even as their natural hair and features were denigrated as unattractive.

It is a myth we see playing out all the way to the present day. When a white woman accused a Black man, Christian Cooper, who was out birdwatching in Central Park of being a threat, she conjured the same myth used to justify the false accusations that led to the Tulsa Race Massacre.

  1. The Failure of the Criminal Justice System Required Intervention

Black people felt they had to intervene to save the young man’s life who was accused of assaulting a white woman. They did not believe that the white-run courthouse jail or its officials would or could prevent a white mob from dragging out the young man and lynching him.

So Black people showed up armed and took the young man’s safety into their own hands. White and Black groups gathered around the courthouse and the tensions soon erupted into violence.

From the website, tulsahistory.org:

"Black Tulsans had every reason to believe that Dick Rowland would be lynched after his arrest. His charges were later dismissed and highly suspect from the start. They had cause to believe that his personal safety, like the defense of themselves and their community, depended on them alone. As hostile groups gathered and their confrontation worsened, municipal and county authorities failed to take actions to calm or contain the situation.

As in many cases throughout U.S. racial history, it is not merely the initial offense that causes such frustration, but the subsequent failure of the criminal justice system to protect Black people or hold white people accountable for their crimes that causes such righteous anger.

In the present-day Civil Rights movement, we must put criminal justice—from policing, to prosecution, to prison—at the fore. It has been and continues to be the cause of racial violence.

Read more about what to do about criminal justice in chapter 9 of How To Fight Racism.

  1. Wealth Makes Black People More of a Target for Racism, Not Less

The Tulsa neighborhood of Greenwood bore the worst of the devastation in the Tulsa Race Massacre. This area had been nicknamed “Black Wall Street” as a nod to the many Black-owned businesses and vibrant economic life represented in this part of the city. The prosperity of Greenwood made it a target for white racial violence.

Against those who believe that if Black people simply acquire enough wealth then they will be able to escape the worst impacts of racism, the Tulsa Race Massacre cries out in protest.

See also, for instance, the story of how Ida B. Wells became an outspoken anti-lynching advocate. One of her good friends was the co-owner of a prosperous grocery story in Memphis. This market threatened the business of white businesses and made the Black co-owners targets for murder.

Wealth actually makes Black people more of a target for racial violence, not less.

  1. This is the History Anti-CRT/1619 Project Folks Don’t Want Taught

The current war against Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project (and anitracism more generally) is actually making our children ideological casualties in the Culture Wars.

Teaching the sobering history of an event like the Tulsa Race Massacre puts lie to the myth of American Exceptionalism/greatness or that this nation is on an uninterrupted ascent toward racial progress.

This is the history the anti-CRT folks proposing bills against teaching it in schools (which is not really being done at a K-12 level anyway) don’t want this generation of students to learn.

It is really a war on any idea of ongoing responsibility for white people to repair the damages done by historic racism and a war on the idea that systems can perpetuate racism as surely as individuals can.

  1. Tulsa Was One of Many

With all of the attention focused on Tulsa, it becomes easy to exceptionalize this event as one particularly, but relatively rare example of mass white racial violence against Black people. Resist the temptation to think of the Tulsa Race Massacre as a brutal, but thankfully rare occurrence. There are many Tulsas in America.

For a start, read about the Elaine Race Massacre of 1919.

P.S. A note on terms

Language is ever-changing and it can sometimes be difficult to decipher which terms are the most accurate to use to describe horrific historic events.

Tulsa has been referred to as a “race riot.” Whenever you hear that term used in reference to a historical event during the Jim Crow era, “race riot” typically means mobs of white people attacking Black people and their property. This is important because when most people hear “race” they think “Black people. But the most violent racial attacks have been committed by white people. This is simply a matter of historical record. Thus a race riot should bring to mind white attack on Black people.

Tulsa has also been referred to as a massacre. This is an accurate term and it is to be preferred to “race riot” in many cases. It places the horrendous ethical evils at the fore of this atrocious act.

Finally, some have referred to Tulsa and similar events as racial “pogroms.” A pogrom is “is a Russian word meaning ‘to wreak havoc, to demolish violently.’ Historically, the term refers to violent attacks by local non-Jewish populations on Jews in the Russian Empire and in other countries.”

In the United States, a racial pogrom refers to the the targeted violent attacks on Black populations by white people. To call Tulsa a racial pogrom would be a fitting description.