The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democratic candidates are finally talking about domestic terrorism. Here’s why that matters.

When Beto O’Rourke referred to the Tulsa massacre, he was correcting the record on racial violence.

Smoke billows over Tulsa during the 1921 massacre, which left as many as 300 black residents dead and destroyed more than 6,000 homes. (Alvin C. Kurpnick Co./Library of Congress)
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Earlier this month, Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’ Rourke visited Oklahoma, making stops in Tulsa and Oklahoma City. O’Rourke, who has spent much of the month focused on the white supremacist shooting in his hometown of El Paso, highlighted the common historical thread that connects the two Oklahoma towns: their shared history of racial terrorism. He noted that the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 flowed from the same vein of domestic terrorism and white nationalism as the violence perpetrated against African Americans in Tulsa’s Greenwood District in 1921.

During his tour of the Greenwood District, O’Rourke referred to the 1921 event in Tulsa as “one of the largest acts of white-nationalist terror” and lauded the black entrepreneurs who skillfully built businesses that made up Tulsa’s “black Wall Street” and resiliently rebuilt after the massacre.

Ten years ago, and even during the last presidential election campaign, O’Rourke’s categorization of racialized violence as “white-nationalist terror” would have been unthinkable. And his description of the Tulsa massacre as something other than a “riot” would have probably been dismissed by many as “politically correct.” But this is no longer the case, and it shows how much Democratic candidates, in an effort to reach the party’s diverse and progressive base, have become far more historically literate than their predecessors.

Large numbers of African Americans first came to the Greenwood District in an effort to escape racial violence. After the Civil War, from the 1870s to the 1890s, the region that would become the state of Oklahoma (then known as Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory) saw an influx of over 70,000 African Americans, fleeing lynchings, poverty and political coercion. The Greenwood District, built on land taken from Native Americans by the U.S. government, represented their new beginnings, their hard-fought social independence and the peak of their economic fortunes.

Tulsa began as a supply station for the oil fields throughout the region, a place where oilmen would go to find laborers, drills and scientists. Like their white counterparts, resolute African Americans found that they could run prosperous businesses that fed off the wealth brought in from the oil fields. The Greenwood District, a portion of Tulsa defined by its all-black-owned businesses, became known as “black Wall Street” because of the financial success of the grocery stores, rooming houses, movie theater, auto repair shop, and dentist and physicians’ offices that lined its streets.

It was these very accomplishments that aroused the jealousy of whites in the community, who used the pretext of an African American man’s purported assault of a white woman — a common excuse for violence — to massacre over a hundred black women and men.

As James S. Hirsch recounted in his examination of the events in Tulsa, on May 30, 1921, an African American teenager had an interaction of some kind with a white, 17-year-old elevator operator, leading her to scream. Although it is doubtful that the elevator operator, Sarah Page, was sexually assaulted, that is the story that quickly spread across Tulsa, making its way into the afternoon newspaper. Whites reacted, rousing friends and family members to violence under the cover of avenging white femininity, while black Tulsans hurried to protect jailed black men — often the victims of mob “justice” — and their property. By the evening of June 1, the white mob, which included law enforcement officers, had destroyed millions of dollars in property, much of which would never be fully recovered.

In the decades following the massacre, newspapers and history books either erased the achievements of African Americans in Tulsa and the traumatic episode that led to their misfortune, or purposely mischaracterized it as a “riot” brought about by violent black miscreants. The word “riot” suggested something uncontrolled and mindless, rather than the very specific targeting of black success. Further, by flipping victim and perpetrator, these accounts both blamed black Tulsans and absolved the white mob.

Only recently have white politicians and journalists begun to change the way they understand and talk about racial violence. They have done so in response to black activists who have pushed them to bluntly call out the racist language and policies of the Trump administration. These activists have, for instance, advocated for the use of the word “racist” instead of the more sanitized “racially charged” or “problematic” to describe words and actions that clearly call for violence or policies that would discriminate against people of color. (They won the argument: Earlier this year, the Associated Press changed its style guide to require the descriptor “racist” rather than euphemisms such as “racially charged.”)

The top candidates in the Democratic presidential primary have shown that they are listening and taking heed, to varying degrees. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala D. Harris elicited outrage from some on the fifth anniversary of Michael Brown’s death when they referred to his shooting by a white police officer as “murder.” The uproar demonstrated the power (and drawbacks) of defining police brutality in the way that many in the African American community recognize it, rather than by its legal definition.

Why is this new rhetorical framing so significant? It demonstrates that the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates are finally recognizing the power of the black vote. Nor is it just rhetorical: The party is finally taking decisive steps toward creating a far more progressive platform on issues such as incarceration, police violence, narcotics and income inequality.

While black Tulsa residents have long known what their forebears experienced as racial terrorism, O’Rourke’s adoption of this language signaled a change on a broader scale. In replacing “riot” with “white-nationalist terror,” he not only acknowledged the true purposes of domestic terrorism perpetuated against African Americans (to destroy economic success and stop political involvement), but also created a space to introduce these histories of black success, which undermine racist stereotypes.

The political candidates’ choice in language and their attention to black issues have already made a relatively small change. In writing about O’Rourke’s visit, many news outlets referred to the events in Tulsa as a “massacre” rather than “riot,” which has been regularly employed in the recent past. If language is our litmus test for the recognition of historical wrongs against people of color and minorities in this country, perhaps we can take comfort in the fact that it seems, even in the midst of mass terrorism events, change is coming.