The history of these racial platitudes and how Americans talk about race without doing anything about racism, traces back to the World War II era. Then, as in the 1960s and today, racial violence made America a tinderbox during the war.
During the summer of 1943, race riots or rebellions raged across the country. There were more than 240 reports of organized racial violence in cities and at military bases, including battles in Los Angeles, Harlem and Mobile, Ala. Similar to today, most of these conflicts were sparked by police and deputized white civilians attacking black citizens. Violence flowed largely in one direction, with white mobs raging through black neighborhoods. In Detroit, angry whites dragged black passengers from streetcars and buses and beat them in the streets.
Thurgood Marshall, who went on to become the first black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, led the NAACP’s investigation of the Detroit riot. Marshall’s report, titled “The Gestapo in Detroit,” castigated city officials for not addressing decades of police violence against blacks. “Much of the blood spilled,” Marshall wrote, “is on the hands of the Detroit police department.”
In Beaumont, Tex., a white gang went to the black business district and burned down a jewelry store, three funeral homes and a pharmacy owned by a black man who had supported the war effort by purchasing over $11,000 in war bonds. The summer of violence inspired Langston Hughes’s poem, “Beaumont to Detroit: 1943”: “Looky here America / What you done done / Let things drift / Until the riots come.” Hughes’s words would prove to be evergreen.
The racial violence that swept across the country raised questions about America’s commitment to democracy for all its citizens. “We cannot fight to crush Nazi brutality abroad and condone race riots at home,” Vice President Henry Wallace told a crowd in Detroit, criticizing white rioters. “Those who fan the fires of racial clashes for the purpose of making political capital here at home are taking the first step toward Nazism.”
While African Americans waged a Double Victory campaign against racism at home and fascism abroad, white politicians and social scientists turned their attention to what they came to call “race relations.” Gunnar Myrdal’s “An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy” (1944) received extensive national attention, and more than 100 local, state and national interracial commissions, human relations committees and fellowship groups formed to promote better race relations.
These committees debated race and published bookcases full of well-intentioned studies and educational materials. They emphasized a “hearts and minds” approach to the “race problem,” one that prioritized education and moral persuasion rather than specific policies or legislation to challenge racial structures. This way of discussing race was attractive to many white Americans because it allowed them to condemn individual prejudice without giving up their privileged access to better jobs, housing and schools.
But there was a fundamental flaw with this strategy and the studies and reports that underpinned it. Despite all of the words spilled, they had little to say about white supremacy. The race relations model obscured potential frameworks for understanding that it was pervasive structural racism — legal barriers that doomed African Americans to inferior housing and schools, less accumulated wealth, lower-paying jobs and more — and not individual prejudiced attitudes that “curdled the morale” of black Americans, as philosopher Alain Locke put it.
A more productive language for understanding racism also emerged during the World War II era. Unlike Myrdal’s “hearts and minds” approach to racial discrimination, historian and activist Rayford Logan framed racism in terms of power and the unequal allocation of resources and life chances. In 1944, he published an edited collection, titled “What the Negro Wants,” with other prominent African American writers.
Logan’s contribution, “The Negro Wants First-Class Citizenship,” outlined six fundamental civil rights demands: “Equality of opportunity; Equal pay for equal work; Equal protection of the laws; Equality of suffrage; Equal recognition of the dignity of the human being; and Abolition of public segregation.” The activists identified structural racism, before it was called by that name, and outlined specific actions needed to address the problem.
These two ways of understanding race and racism offered two very different paths in the decades after World War II. Civil rights activists demanded equal access to jobs, housing, quality schools and the ballot and they achieved substantive gains — most especially the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968.
At the same time, however, many white Americans focused on individual attitudes to avoid having to disrupt the status quo of racial hierarchies. This sensibility led to openly racist language largely becoming taboo and explains why the most cited part of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is the section that affirms that people should not judge others based on the color of their skin. Yet, it also explains why American society has never fully reckoned with the more challenging parts of the speech, such as when King said “we can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”
As the legislative victories of the civil rights era fade further into the past, the “hearts and minds” approach to race has only become more powerful, as white Americans often mistakenly believe that these laws were sufficient to sweep away all of the legal barriers constraining African Americans. This flawed framework continues to dominate and frame how race is discussed in mainstream media, political discourse and the public sphere, even as these gains are eroded, as when the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013.
It was only in 2019 that the Associated Press updated its style guide to encourage journalists to stop using the euphemisms “racially motivated” or “racially charged” when “the terms racism and racist can be used . . . to describe the hatred of a race, or assertion of the superiority of one race over others.” Yet, much of the recent news coverage following the killing of Ahmaud Arbery by white assailants in South Georgia, as well as the police killings of Breonna Taylor in Louisville and George Floyd in Minneapolis, has continued to rely on racial euphemisms.
More than seven decades ago, African Americans newspapers were able to describe wartime killings of black Americans at the hands of police and white mobs as “racist.” Today, mainstream media call similar killings “racially tinged” or adopt the passive voice constructions preferred by law enforcement.
Words have consequences. When Americans shy away from identifying anti-black racism, white supremacy and state-sanctioned violence for what they are, it becomes nearly impossible to formulate responses that are anything more than band-aids.
Many of the recent corporate, institutional and political statements of concern have fallen flat because they say little more than white organizations and people were willing to say in the 1940s and 1950s. “We have had platitudinous expressions of good will through the years, and the leading people of the nation have periodically viewed the problem with alarm . . . but there has been no courageous facing of the issue,” the Pittsburgh Courier, a leading black newspaper, lamented in 1943.
Institutions with few or no black people in leadership positions and poor track records of treating well black employees and communities have little moral standing to offer yet another round of “platitudinous expressions of good will.” We should ponder the mistakes of the past and realize that instead of calls for inclusivity, overcoming prejudice and striving for unity, only action that confronts the horror of repeated police killings of black people will begin to generate change.