There’s never been a time in the United States history when Black rebellions did not spark existential fear among white people, often leading to violent response. Even when resistance has been peaceful or purely symbolic—such as Black fists raised during the medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympics or a knee taken on the football field during the national anthem nearly fifty years later—any sign of rebellion has frequently resulted in threats or acts of violence perpetrated by white vigilantes, militia groups, and the police, often culminating in the creation or strengthening of systems of racial and social control.
The reflexive impulse to respond to Black people with severe punitiveness is traceable to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when white people desperately sought to control a large unfree population who refused to submit to their enslavement. The deep-seated, gnawing terror that Black people might, one day, rise up and demand for themselves the same freedoms and in alienable rights that led white colonists to declare the American Revolution has shaped our nation's politics, culture, and systems of justice ever since. The specific forms of repression and control may have changed over time, but the underlying pattern established during slavery has remained the same. Modern-day policing, surveillance, and mass criminalization, as well as white vigilante violence "know-your-place" aggression, have histories rooted in white fear–not merely of black crime or Black people but of black liberation. Nothing has proved more threatening to our democracy, or more devastating to Black communities, than white fear of black freedom dreams.
An excerpt from "Fear," by Leslie Alexander and Michelle Alexander (pp. 101-102), in The 1619 Project, edited by Nikole Hannah-Jones.