Understanding why racist violence continues to be surprising to so many liberal-leaning whites involves trying to make sense of the glaring contradiction between the racial equality many whites profess to want for the United States and the racial inequality they sometimes uphold through their behavior and allow to persist through their inaction. The popular explanation now propagated by academics and anti-racist educators is that following the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement, racist practices of various types went underground (see Bonilla-Silva 2013). Overt and blatantly racist signifiers began a hasty retreat from public view, making racist prejudice and discrimination more difficult to see, harder to prove, and easier to deny. What this means—and this is crucial—is that bigots of all varieties may very well have continued their racist discrimination, but increasingly, they did so without racialized hate speech, or at least without witnesses to hear it. Euphemisms and other new rhetorical strategies have flourished in this environment, so that racialized nouns like “thug” and “you people” have come to replace the n-word.
There is a similar pattern with respect to racist violence, or what are now routinely referred to as hate crimes. Openly racist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, to take one example, became less and less palatable to the white majority, and memberships of local chapters began a slow decline. It was no longer acceptable to terrorize and murder Black men and women in such an openly racist manner. But violence against Black men and women in the United States did not necessarily decline. It only became harder to detect and prove.
The data, incomplete though they may be, supports the conclusion that if one includes the violence administered by police officers, a Black person's chances of being harmed or killed by white terrorism is not markedly different than a century ago. The exasperation and bewilderment expressed by many white liberals over the racial turmoil in Ferguson, New York, Baltimore, and other American cities suggests that these whites have never even contemplated the notion that in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Era racist violence may have never declined. In terms of violence as a means of social control, white supremacy has surrendered nothing. The dirty work of white supremacy may have simply changed hands from vigilante groups to law enforcement agencies. By handing over the reins to those agents of the state who are normatively regarded as the legitimate enactors of lethal force, the disproportionate killing of Black men and women in the United States simply appeared to be "legitimate" outcomes. For liberal whites, who have been living very different experiences from Black Americans, the violence was difficult to detect. For Blacks, it became more difficult to prove.
In April 2015, various media outlets reported on the destruction of property in the Sandtown-Winchester and Harlem Park neighborhoods in Baltimore following the death of a young Black man named Freddie Gray while he was in police custody. Initially at least, the narrative a number of media outlets latched onto appeared to be about angry Black “thugs” and “vandals” gathering in the streets, some of them smashing windows and apparently looting. But why start the narrative there? Why not report that in Maryland between 2010 and 2014, 69% of Blacks killed by police were Black, while Blacks only constituted 29% of the state’s population? A Google map appeared over night from the Baltimore Sun, which identified the locations of reported "incidents," mostly property damage, but there has been no similar map identifying the locations of people who have been killed by police over the last few years?
The fact that racism has become more covert is not a viable excuse for whites who claim to desire equality because it is primarily white Americans who are keeping the workings and effects of racism hidden...But while whites..have been centrally involved in the work of making racism more difficult to see, whites are also guilty of their refusal to notice racism.
Given that white supremacy has depended so crucially on whites hiding racialized violence, and refusing to notice the racialized violence that has occurred over generations, is it not fitting that the development of a portable, visually-oriented technology capable of producing digital video at the touch of a button is proving to be the trigger for a public discussion about racism and racist violence? A critical mass of smartphones in racially segregated America has unexpectedly created an opening, a means of forcing a broad swathe of the white public to see again what has been generally hidden. Social movements under the banner of Black Lives Matter and the Black Spring are now attempting to gain a foothold within the fissures upon which rests the foundation of white supremacy. But social change is neither linear, nor inevitalble, and it remains to be seen whether progress will be made in curbing the systemic violence directed against Black lives.
To paraphrase Kwame Touré, in order to be truly helpful, white liberals must be careful they are not simply trying to “help” Blacks adjust to an abject status. Instead, whites must use the power and privilege of whiteness to act by dismantling or reforming white supremacist institutions.