Everybody’s afraid of something, and different cultures have different patterns tracking these fears. Some societies are very sensibly afraid of the true threats in their situation, while others ignore the true threats and are mostly afraid of imagined threats. Guess which group includes America?
I’ll help you out: America is preoccupied with imaginary threats. Real threats are ignored or glossed over. Americans should be very afraid of traffic, for instance. Traffic accidents kill many tens of thousands of people every year in America. But no, not so scary. After all, lots of people live all their lives and never die in a traffic accident! Same with gun accidents and gun violence. Both things kill loads of people in America, world record breaking numbers of people. Again, people’s main concern seems to be buying and carrying as many guns as possible. Obesity? Watching the news from around America it is obvious to me that people have no fear of obesity. People ignore these real threats while they walk around in absolute terror of real or imagined things that represent little or no threat at all.
Americans are afraid of shark attacks, even though most of them never swim in the ocean. Americans are afraid of being hit by lightning. That fear is much more reasonable, but still only a remote possibility, unless you’re a telephone lineman or something. About five hundred people a year get hit by lightning in America, and about ten percent of those people die, but almost all of them worked or took recreation outdoors for long periods of time. These are the silly examples. Others are not so silly.
Americans these days are afraid of terror attacks. Since the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center attack this behavior has been actively encouraged by the Federal government. Not that people seemed to require much encouragement to be afraid. This is about as silly as the fear of lightning strikes. In reality, these so-called terrorists have managed to kill very few Americans since that one, early home run. Most years terrorism runs a poor second to lightning. Mostly these terrorists kill each other, or innocent people of their own religion, or American soldiers that we send to kill terrorists. It’s a case of the fear only hastening the result that was feared in the first place.
Many of America’s pet fears are very abstract. People are afraid of immigrants. They are afraid of gay marriage. They are really, really afraid of socialism. They are afraid of God, which they suppose is a good thing. They are afraid of the Federal government itself! They are afraid of the United Nations and FEMA. Liberals; science; the Enlightenment; Humanism; anything “secular;” evolution; all of it. The one thing that most people are not afraid of is Global Climate Change, because they are convinced that it is a hoax. That would be a good thing to be afraid of, but most Americans prefer to be afraid of the imaginary hoax.
Right up there in the abstract realm is America’s long, intense love affair with being afraid of black Americans. We should be spending more time examining this fear, because its disastrous effects are much in the news these days. Black men are killed out of proportion to their population statistics in encounters with police, or vigilantes masquerading as police, or just private citizens, a vast catalog of Jeez-Louise! Did you see the size of him? And he was black! I was afraid for my life! Thank God I had that gun on me.
I should mention that it’s not only black men. Black women get killed for little or no reason too, by frightened non-black civilians or police. My advice to black women motorists who break down out where there’s no cell phone coverage: don’t be knocking on doors looking for a good Samaritan. Just wait it out.
There’s nothing new about this fear of black Americans, nothing new in the least. It probably started within fifteen minutes of the first boat load of slaves to reach Charleston. Someone there, among all of the greedy slavers and the merely curious, must have thought: those poor buggers, they’ll slaughter us if we give them half a chance. Over the centuries our treatment of them has mostly gotten only worse, and even in our Twenty-First-Century the horror of it has moderated only slightly. Americans are still sure that black Americans stay awake at night to dream up ways to get back at the white man, either by scamming the government for a ”handout” or by outright violence. It’s all poppycock, of course. Black Americans have, if anything, shown more forbearance than any group of victims in history, seeking only to live and work in peace and with some dignity.
This filial attitude on the part of the blacks has only been answered with lies, terrible calumnies and brutal violence. Black Americans spent the years immediately following the Civil War kind of catching their collective breathes and figuring out how to navigate their new situation. By the early Twentieth Century, however, they had some wind in their sails and they were starting to make their presence known in American culture. They did this in ways that were predictable, like the entry of blacks into the sport of boxing, and in some ways that were just magically delicious, like the invention of jazz. This new participation in American culture should have been appreciated, but it was not. This new cultural assertiveness did not go unnoticed by officialdom, and the response was anything but appreciative.
The Harrison Act, which criminalized narcotics, was passed in 1914. Up until then you could just cruise down to the local apothecary and buy whatever you wanted, as much as you could afford. It had come to people’s attention that blacks were among the customers, and non-blacks found that thought disturbing. As long as it was just white old Uncle Joe taking something for his headaches it was fine. Real newspapers all over the country came alive with stories of “negro cocaine fiends,” and ridiculous stories circulated describing the imaginary crimes and capabilities of these monsters. Jazz musicians were a particular bugaboo. Why, they play this ungodly, foreign music while they’re high on marijuana! Who will protect us from these hopped up hoards? Somebody came along pretty soon.
Prohibition ended in 1930, eliminating the need for a Department of Prohibition. In response to this imagined negro drug problem a new Federal Bureau of Narcotics was formed, with Harry Anslinger as its head. Harry had some powerful misconceptions about drugs, particularly concerning the power and the dangers of marijuana, and he had a powerful prejudice against blacks, particularly jazz musicians. Why, didn’t you know that smoking marijuana slowed down the very perception of time and placed its users in some kind of alternate reality where morals just flew out the window? That’s why jazz is so disorganized and discordant! To Harry, jazz sounded like pagan jungle rituals. I’ll bet he enjoyed imagining what terrible stuff they got up to out there in jungle/jazz land.
In 1939 Billie Holiday started singing a song called “Strange Fruit,” which is about lynching in the South. It was, and it remains, a powerful protest song, a cry for justice. Billie was already a highly regarded and well compensated musician, and Mr. Anslinger, and others no doubt, felt like she had some nerve to complain, that she was being ungrateful and, well, uppity. She obviously needed to be taken down a peg. Over the next fifteen years they succeeded in taking her down quite a few pegs, they succeeded in fact in causing her death. From the evidence, it appears that they were proud of their efforts in protecting the (white) American people from Billie Holiday.
To clarify that this was a racist effort aimed at protecting society from specifically black drug “fiends,” we need only contrast the Fed’s treatment of Billie Holiday with their treatment of Judy Garland. Judy was as big a drug addict as Billie. In fact, Judy was probably a bigger drug addict, because she had more money and a more sedentary lifestyle. Anslinger made a special trip to California to meet with Judy personally, explaining to her that it would be better if she got off the drugs. He spoke of her in glowing terms as a wonderful woman and a cultural asset. He met with studio bosses too, counseling them to be gentle with their wayward star and help him in doing what they could to help her kick the habit. She, of course, switched to pills and booze and everybody was happy.
Billie, on the other hand, was seen as a filthy, drug-addicted jazz miscreant who needed to be hounded, set-up, brutalized, framed and incarcerated even if it killed her.
The Hunting of Billie Holiday, by Johann Hari (Politico dot com)
No Man's Land, by Eula Biss, (The Believer Magazine, believermag.com) referencing The Culture of Fear, by Barry Glassner.