“Once the classic method of lynching was the rope. Now it is the policeman’s bullet.” These words come from a petition that civil rights activists William L. Patterson and Paul Robeson submitted on behalf of the Civil Rights Congress (CRC) to the United Nations on December 17, 1951. The purpose of the petition was to charge the United States with a crime that had just recently been given a name: genocide. Nearly seventy years later, in the wake of the death of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, among far, far too many others, the CRC’s petition remains as relevant as ever.
The mere mention of genocide is likely to stop many people in their tracks. Many will likely refuse to consider seriously whether the crimes historically committed against African Americans have ever amounted to genocide (which the UN itself defines as “acts committed to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, or religious group as such”). The point of this piece is neither to support or reject the specific legal charges of genocide. Rather, it is to shed light on some of the insights that stem from the far-too-long history of activism against anti-Black violence in the U.S.
In a book-length document with 94 signatories, the petition that Patterson and Robeson submitted to the UN compiled the names and details surrounding 152 recent killings and 344 other violent crimes directed at African Americans between 1945 and 1951. This represented a small sampling of actual incidents, of course, as most were never recorded. It opened with a declaration, “Out of the inhuman black ghettos of American cities, out of the cotton plantations of the South, comes this record of mass slayings on the basis of race, of lives deliberately warped and distorted by the willful creation of conditions making for premature death, poverty and disease…” It proceeded to frame anti-Black violence in the US as part of a web of social, political, cultural, and economic patterns that ultimately dehumanized Black people, devalued Black life, and shortened Black life expectancy by as much as eight years. Three critical insights for our time are worth highlighting here:
First, the petition offers a gruesome reminder that the death of Black people at the hands of law enforcement—in both official and self-deputized forms—long predates the cell phone videos that attract public attention to these issues today. Of course, the roots of anti- Black violence in this country reach back to fifteenth-century kidnappings on the African continent. As Patterson, Robeson, and the CRC recognized, this pattern took on a distinct character after the Civil War, when the emancipation of 4 million slaves sharpened anxieties among White Americans concerning how to maintain a sense of order in the absence of slavery. Violence, and the threat of it, proved an effective method toward this end. In fact, according to the CRC’s petition, at least 10,000 African Americans had been killed since 1865, not to mention all who had been “segregated, despoiled, impoverished, and denied equal protection before the law.” Over time, the specific forms of anti-Black violence have changed, but the imperative to maintain a White supremacist social order remains.
Second, the petition underscored that accountability for the killing of African Americans reached far beyond individuals involved in murders themselves, and far beyond the arms of law enforcement more generally. For the petitioners, these murders were the consequences of a social, political, economic, and cultural infrastructure that simultaneously restricted African Americans’ access to the vote, discriminated against them in the job market, denied them access to basic resources necessities for survival, and subjected them to elevated levels of illness and disease. All of these patterns combined to restrict the life chance of African Americans. Acts of physical violence and police murder were just the tip of the iceberg.
Third, the anti-racism that animated the CRC’s petition was anchored in the politics of internationalism and anticolonialism. Patterson, Robeson, and other signatories refused to treat the struggles of African Americans in isolation and instead underscored their interconnectivity with others the world over. They urged attention to the relationship between conditions of African Americans, Black people across the colonized world, other people of color, and even those “often contemptuously called poor whites, [who] are themselves suffering to an ever-greater degree from the consequences of the Jim Crow segregation policy of government.” They emphasized that “a policy of discrimination at home” inevitably reinforced a tendency “toward war” abroad, and they insisted that the challenges confronted by Black people were “not the private affair of Americans, but the concern of mankind everywhere.”
As fires blaze in cities across the country, and as streets fill with grief, rage, and pain, there will be a tendency among many observers to treat the deaths that triggered the protests as exceptional and isolated incidents. When the ash settles, there will be pressure to forget the names of the dead being chanted. There will be preoccupation with what constitutes a “proper” way of protesting, of grieving, of behaving in the face of terror. There might even be a resurgence of discussions about how better police training and expanded use of body cameras might “fix” the problems at hand.
Meanwhile, amid the looming prospect of another police murder, Black Americans are dying from COVID-19 at a rate three times that of White Americans; Black unemployment is at least twice as high White unemployment; Black Americans are more than twice as likely as White Americans to experience hunger; Black people are incarcerated at a rate five times that of White people across the country; and Black Americans are among those being aggressively purged from voting rolls. People of color in immigration detention centers, prisons, Indian reservations, and refugee encampments along the border are some of those most intensely affected by the pandemic. Anti-Asian violence surges nationwide. All the while, American militarism compounds the problems faced by people in COVID-stricken regions of the globe, from Iran to Iraq to Cuba to Venezuela.
In its own time, the CRC’s petition attracted international interest but confronted fierce opposition within the US, and US influence within the UN played a critical role in the UN’s decision not to accept the document. Nonetheless—wherever folks stand on the specific legal question of genocide as it pertains to the US—the petition set forth a framework for understanding incidents of anti-Black violence that remains urgent for us to reckon with today. May it urge observers’ attention to the deeply rooted, systemic, and systematic nature of the problems at hand. May it remind all of us of the tradition of opposition and struggles for a more just world of which the current calls for racial justice are part.
Elizabeth E. Sine is a historian of race, labor, and social movements (Ph.D., University of California San Diego) and Lecturer in History at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. She is co-editor of Another University Is Possible (University Readers, 2010) and author of the forthcoming book, Rebel Imaginaries: Labor, Culture, and Politics in Depression-Era California (Duke University Press). She is also on the steering committee of R.A.C.E. Matters in San Luis Obispo, California.
Dr. Sine’s words also happened to appear on Tropics of Meta in its earliest days, ten years ago. “Surely, there are many among us who have been thinking about working through these issues for a long time,” she wrote of the struggle against racism in 2010. “But I think it’s worth putting on the table for serious reflection and discussion in this critical moment in which new forms of solidarity are taking shape and when there is so much at stake.”