The last week has seen images of the Ku Klux Klan grip news coverage on Charlottesville, Va. However, they weren’t the images of old: that hooded, grotesque interpretation of mythical Southern-gent chivalry, who lynched and brandished fire in faceless anonymity. The new Klan had a face. To understand why, we need to talk about belligerence.
After the 2015 shooting of fleeing Laquan McDonald, a 16-year-old black boy, Lamon Reccord, went around attending Chicago protests. One of his nonviolent stare-offs with police officers was aired on Megyn Kelly’s old show—the one before she moved to NBC and everyone forgot her race-baiting. She and former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik sparred against panelist Richard Fowler. When Fowler dared assert that it was the boy’s First Amendment right to have a peaceful, silent protest, she countered: “It’s not a question of what his constitutional rights are. It’s a question of what’s appropriate.”
She was right. He wasn’t appropriate—but neither was the standard for what constituted appropriate anymore.
Belligerence is deeply rooted in the black community. It’s the heft in the weight of the chip on our shoulder as a community that emphatically acknowledges that America is not a meritocracy. It’s in the venom and praise of ruthless ambition ubiquitous throughout hip-hop. It’s in the August Wilson-esque armor of pride with which we’re taught to carry ourselves.
In every case in which black belligerence has boiled over into new headlines, there were a variety of variables that inflated racial tensions until something gave way. Rodney King’s beating was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back and culminated in the Los Angeles riots. The shooting of Trayvon Martin ratcheted up the heat under America’s rising racial tension until anger spilled over into protests that birthed a new movement.
This movement was more belligerent. It worshipped the value of a black life without bending the knee to those who said that a breath devoted to proclaiming a black life’s worth should divide its time discussing the worth of other lives. This movement made poster children of poise-perfect protesters like Iesha Evans. It was, to borrow a phrase from Kanye, “the abomination of Obama’s nation.”
President Barack Obama’s election wasn’t directly responsible for the creation of Black Lives Matter or the resurgence of a belligerent edge to black protests. However, to see approval, in every direction of the social pyramid, of those who mattered to you—from those protesting around you to the leader of the entire nation—made belligerence a thing to take pride in. To know that—even when a unified message got muddled at the hands of an increasingly tumultuous crowd, and sound bite coverage would draw from the worst of it—there remained a leader with the dexterity and spotlight to give eloquence to our vehemence made belligerence a thing to have faith in.
Now it’s the KKK’s hour for faith. The Klan never adopted the hoods for anonymity’s sake. The original KKK, born in the embers of the post-Civil War South, never had the hoods. When the Klan was reborn around the same time that the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation depicted Klansmen in their more iconic uniform, the order decided to adopt it.
Amid public approval of Jim Crow laws and lynchings, they didn’t need the hoods to hide—though they eventually discovered that the hoods created a sense of Stalinist terror. They created a paranoid paradigm that anyone—your neighbor, even—could be a Klansmen. Nevertheless, as America’s moral compass changed, anonymity became important.
So what made them do away with the hoods in Charlottesville? I rather like Matt Thompson’s take over at the Atlantic: “The ‘Unite the Right’ rally wasn’t intended to be a Klan rally at all. It was a pride march.” However, that conclusion doesn’t leave us with much. They may have seen this as a pride march, but the risks that, say, a gay-pride marcher and a neo-Nazi face in exposing themselves are hardly comparable.
Pride is rarely enough to get people to risk their jobs and safety. Does a woman go to a Free the Nipple rally knowing that someone’s photo and a boss’s hangups could get her fired? Does a black man risk getting arrested marching with BLM because he’s proud? They march, not just because they are proud of their values or they see a problem they believe needs solving, but because something allows them to take pride in their belligerence and have faith in a leader’s ability to give it voice.
Trump is that leader. His tacit approval of white pride made belligerence an object worthy of pride and faith and made Klansmen feel comfortable without hoods. When Trump struggled to call a white terrorist what he was, even as the rest of white America did; when he failed to do the calculus on the worth of Heather Heyer’s life, in comparison with a memorial to a racist general who died defending of slavery; when, like a petulant child, he insulted a black businessman who distanced himself from Trump over his half-assed response to Charlottesville, more quickly than the president disavowed Nazis—white supremacists saw in Trump the same support for their belligerence that we once found in Obama.
So don’t be surprised if they eschew the hoods at the next rally … or if some still-belligerent black boy will be there to stare them down.