Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University Op-Ed Service
Tracie Sweeney, Editor
Distributed June 1996
Copyright ©1996 by John Saillant


By John Saillant
John Saillant is a visiting professor at Brown University's Department of History and Program in Afro-American Studies.

"We see at work today one of the oldest patterns in American race relations. When attacks on African Americans or their property are unpunished and are sanctioned by some segment of the population, then vulnerable blacks are prone to attack by racist whites"

Why have so many black churches been attacked by arsonists recently? At least 40 have been burned in the 1990s, and the pace has quickened to several per month in the middle of 1996. Soon a weekly count may be necessary. Answers regularly proffered are a growth in racism, a copycat motive, a decline in the economy that has spurred whites to make scapegoats of blacks, and an authorization by the 1994 election results of an antiblack, antiliberal mood. Each answer may be correct, but neither singly nor together do they explain the increase in the number of attacks on black churches.

We see at work today one of the oldest patterns in American race relations. When attacks on African Americans or their property are unpunished and are sanctioned by some segment of the population, then vulnerable blacks are prone to attack by racist whites. Would-be arsonists are now receiving two messages: This crime is virtually risk-free and some people approve of it. Violations of the persons and property of blacks occurred in the slave trade, in the American slave system, and in the post-slavery decades. Slaves in the Middle Passage and slaves owned in the Americas as chattel were the property of their traders and owners, and only the most egregious mistreatment of a black man, woman or child could earn an owner or an owner's representative like an overseer a day in court. Most forms of physical and mental abuse were unpunished and were considered normal. Similarly, in the post-slavery decades, lynching was a socially-sanctioned practice that was rarely punished. Indeed, lynchings were often public spectacles with no need for secrecy. The Middle Passage, the whippings, rapes and tortures, and the lynchings are reflected in the flames of the 1990s.

History suggests that fire-bombings of black churches can be ended if the misdeeds are punished and the social sanction for them is undermined. It is time to rethink the strategy for fighting arson. Arrests for arson, both in general and in the racist burnings, are far too few. Perhaps new investigative techniques are needed. Perhaps new tax incentives to encourage insurance companies to underwrite investigations are needed. Perhaps new penalties for convicted arsonists, whether longer sentences or substantial reparations, are needed. Arson must cease to be the risk-free crime it is now. Police officers, legal scholars and forensic scientists should put their heads together to figure out how to make arson truly punishable.

Social sanction for the burning of black churches presents a more difficult issue than the punishment of a crime, even if that criminal activity has traditionally been risk-free. There must be some degree of support for the misdeeds: Some of the attacks were evidently group efforts and at least one teenager (a member of the set most liable to peer pressure) was likely a perpetrator. The arson has elicited outcries, but they are also part of the American pattern of race relations: The slave trade, slavery and its abuses, and lynching were never universally accepted, but in their time were unpunished and endorsed by a critical mass of whites.

The unpleasant truth - particularly unpleasant for a liberal university professor - is that America's best effort at social policy on race has had virtually no effect on poor whites and poor blacks, not only in the rural South, where most of the church burnings have occurred, but all over the nation. We liberals have been self-referential and self-reflexive in our thought on race, focusing on diversity in top colleges and universities, the professions and government service. But the liberal model of diversity has had little influence on the poor and has never had power to protect the vulnerable part of the black population.

The enormity of the burnings has incited many a public figure into public flourishes. But the best hope for the nation is the promotion of diversity, which most Americans first experience, if at all, in schools. Aside from promoting diversity, schools educate young people and allow them a measure of upward mobility, although virtually all Americans believe that the rapid and large gains of the past are over. A liberal model of diversity has been devised, but it has been confined to a small segment of society. Politicians, teachers and college and university administrators must ensure that this model appears in classrooms throughout the nation to create a critical mass of the citizens we need.