The great Black scholar Neely Fuller once said that if you don’t understand white supremacy, what it is and how it works, everything else that you understand will only confuse you.
I thought about that truism when reading much of the reaction to the lies produced by West Cook News about Oak Park and River Forest High School’s plans for its grading system. I won’t repeat the details. One outlet after another after another — from sea to shining sea — has taken pains this past week to either amplify the lie or attempt to correct it.
Based on the general contour of the national response, one may come away with the sense that this is all about the rise of misinformation (inadvertently misleading) and disinformation (deliberately misleading), the fall of professional journalism, the rise of filter bubbles and ideological isolation, and the dangerous proliferation of right-wing media echo chambers.
All of those factors play critical roles in the West Cook News debacle, but, as Fuller said, it’s not possible to begin to construct a holistic understanding of what West Cook News is doing and the very concrete danger sites like it pose if we don’t understand white supremacy, particularly in the context of the American press.
The ugly secret of our country’s free press is that it was birthed in the very waters that feed the media cesspool that sustains the likes of West Cook News.
Robert G. Parkinson, in his magisterial book, “The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution,” writes that founding fathers like Washington, Jefferson, Adams and Franklin manipulated newspaper networks in order to broadcast “stories of British agents inciting African Americans and Indians to take up arms against the American rebellion.”
Parkinson does not dismiss that enlightened principles of press freedom and liberty and emancipation were critical during the American Revolution in the founding fathers’ efforts to mobilize 13 distinct colonies around what historians call the “common cause.”
But the thrust and the nature of the “common cause” narrative changed once the shooting started at Lexington and Concord in 1775, the historian notes.
“The American Revolution and the Revolutionary War were not the same thing,” Parkinson writes. “Now, as part of waging war against the crown, the demands to monitor information — to establish your own representations as well as undermine your opponents’ — became essential.
“War stories, appearing as facts inside printed publications, offered the best medium to cordon off friends from enemies and cement union. Representations of British deception and heroic American volunteers rushing to defend liberty were the polestars of patriot narratives during the war; they were the proof that all colonists should recognize the common cause as the proper side to take. In this context of civil war and disunity, substantiating this appeal meant the difference between an abortive colonial uprising and a revolution.”
By publishing in colonial newspapers rhetoric depicting Blacks and Indians as “domestic insurrectionists” and “merciless savages” who might take up arms with the British, the founding fathers “rallied the people around a common enemy and made racial prejudice a cornerstone of the new Republic.”
In order to unite the colonies in war, the nation’s burgeoning press duly created Black and Brown enemies — a mobilizing project, Huntington argues, that was essential to the country’s founding.
Alan Taylor’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia 1772-1832,” provides a litany of examples of war-time colonial newspapers inflaming white fears of Blacks and Indians, particularly the unfounded fear among white slave-owners that Black people wanted revenge rather than “equality and opportunity.”
Andrew Delbanco’s “The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War” demonstrates another critical way in which the American press helped sustain the white supremacist foundation on which the country was built.
Delbanco writes that newspaper advertisements “offering rewards for runaways became so common that the historian Edward Baptist has called them the ‘tweets of the master class.’”
Yes, journalism eventually professionalized, but it did not purge itself of this common cause instinct to unite whites by creating anti-white enemies; rather, over the years, the tendency splintered and mutated into at least two kinds of white media: mainstream professional journalism and explicit white nationalist media.
Professional journalism has traditionally sought to glaze over white supremacy with the gloss of objectivity while white nationalist media “announces its white identity with pride and anger,” as scholars Carlos Alamo-Pastrana and William Hoynes point out in their insightful article, “Racialization of News.”
Both strands of media, the authors write, “ultimately depend on each other to shield themselves from serious critique and interrogation of their investment in white supremacy.”
And often, especially during wartime, (which has been most of American history), the one strand has not been easily distinguishable from the other.
In 1969, the Chicago Tribune editorialized that the members of the Black Panthers (many of them Black people in their teens and early 20s) “should be kept under constant surveillance. They have declared war on society. They therefore have forfeited the right to considerations of ordinary violators of the law might claim.”
In her new book, “The Newspaper Axis: Six Press Barons Who Enabled Hitler,” Kathryn S. Olmsted fleshes out how the Tribune’s vaunted owner and publisher, Robert McCormick, “was a hemispheric imperialist who supported U.S. invasions of Latin America while warning against the dangers of confronting Hitler.”
McCormick, Olmsted adds, was “an ultra-nationalist who questioned the patriotism of his American political enemies and even the legitimacy of their laws.” And McCormick wasn’t alone (among the other five Hitler enablers were Joseph Medill Patterson and William Randolph Hearst).
There is no amount of tweeting, fact-checking, debunking, contextualizing or correcting the record that will sufficiently mute the cultural and historical force of white supremacy. Neither will a hysterical insistence on anti-racism and staying woke dull its power.
Those of us, despite our race, who are committed to fighting white supremacy have to be wise about what we’re up against and how successful that social construction has been in mobilizing people to fight for it. But we also have to know how others before us fought against it.
That means looking beyond West Cook News and their ugly common cause of white supremacy toward platforms and publics that are operating in the spirit of journalists like Ida B. Wells and Frederick Douglass and Elijah Lovejoy — truth-tellers who fought and countered the ugly narrative of the common cause by constructing different visions of human commonality, which ultimately made America better.
They struggled to construct their respective visions. Now, we have to fight to construct our own.