(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the hundredth anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, with more essays in the following days.) 

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s Racism Without Racists, a central text in the academic field of Critical Race Theory, asks how racial inequality persists in a country where most white people disavow racism. Bonilla-Silva’s answer is that this inequality is the product of a dominant ideology that sees racialized differences as the product of non-racial dynamics. According to Bonilla-Silva, understanding how racism persists requires looking at the systems that encode this “color-blind” ideology, rather than looking at the specific attitudes of white people.

One of the structural factors that critical race theorists like Bonilla-Silva identify that maintain this “color-blind” ideology is the intentional forgetting of racial violence and injustice. This framework helps explain the process by which the events that are now called the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 faded from popular consciousness. Today, these events are acknowledged as perhaps “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history,” one that “tore apart a city and scarred a state.” But for many decades, the history of the Massacre was obscured.

Forgetting History

In the immediate aftermath, the Tulsa Race Massacre was widely reported in news outlets across the United States and the world. Yet in the following decades, the Massacre was omitted from history textbooks, newspaper retrospectives, and public history events. One essay on the historiography of the Massacre suggests that the events were seen by Tulsa’s white business and political leaders as “something best to be forgotten” and that specific efforts to chronicle the events met with active resistance by some white Tulsans and indifference by Tulsa’s news organizations. For example, on the 50th anniversary of the Massacre, Tulsa journalist Ed Wheeler wrote an article, “Profile of a Race Riot,” that included interviews with survivors and eyewitnesses to the Massacre as well as many previously unpublished photographs of the events of 1921. Both of Tulsa’s daily newspapers refused to publish this piece. While accounts of the Massacre were passed down among survivors and their communities and through informal instruction at Tulsa’s segregated high schools, for much of the 20th century white Tulsans forgot the Massacre in plain sight.

The forgetting of the Massacre required a concerted effort. This effort exemplifies what the philosopher Charles Mills calls “white ignorance,” in which the ideology of white supremacy infects what counts as knowledge, and testimony about white atrocities is passed down only through “segregated information channels.” Two events from the immediate aftermath of the Massacre not only illustrate how white forgetting happens, but also show just how much effort is required to pull it off.

On June 7, 1921, less than a week after the events of the Massacre, a Tulsa judge empaneled a grand jury to investigate the causes of the Massacre and to issue a report. Working with alacrity, the grand jury concluded their investigation on June 25. The contents of the report were summarized by a local newspaper as “Grand Jury Blames Negroes For Inciting Race Rioting; Whites Clearly Exonerated.” The grand jury’s report identified the direct cause of the Massacre as “a certain group of colored men who appeared at the courthouse…for the purpose of protecting…Dick Rowland.” The grand jury found that two more remote causes of the events were the “agitation among the negroes of [sic] social equality” and law enforcement failures to enforce vice laws in Greenwood. The grand jury recommended “more strenuous law enforcement” in Tulsa’s predominantly Black communities. The grand jury also issued several dozen indictments, mostly for Black Tulsans, including J.B. Stratford (a prominent real estate developer and owner of the Stratford Hotel, which was destroyed in the Massacre) and A.J. Smitherman (the editor and publisher of the Tulsa Star, the leading newspaper serving Greenwood), both of whom had emigrated from Tulsa in the days after the Massacre.

This effort exemplifies what the philosopher Charles Mills calls “white ignorance,” in which the ideology of white supremacy infects what counts as knowledge, and testimony about white atrocities is passed down only through “segregated information channels.”

While the grand jury was conducting its investigation, Tulsa newspapers carried several entreaties to white Tulsans to return weapons that they had borrowed from local hardware stores and the police station for use in the Massacre. Consider the following passage from the June 19, 1921 edition of the Tulsa World:

“Not all persons who borrowed guns from the police station the Tuesday night of the negro uprising have returned them to the station. Chief of Police John A. Gustafson Saturday asked that there be no more delay in returning those firearms….‘These guns were only loaned,’ the chief explained, ‘and were loaned with the understanding that they would be returned as soon as the situated had improved to a point sufficient to justify their return.’”

The grand jury was enacting white ignorance about the Massacre at the same time that the police were attempting to unwind the complicity of white Tulsans in the events of the Massacre. Forgetting an event like the Massacre was an accomplishment, rather than a condition.

Remembering and Forgetting the Massacre

It is tempting to see the forgetting of the Tulsa Race Massacre as an artifact from a more benighted age. (The prescription of more rigorous policing as a solution to racialized violence seems less remote.) Developments such as the creation in 1997 of the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, the inclusion of curricula about the Massacre in Oklahoma history textbooks, and the establishment of official commissions to commemorate the centennial of the Massacre will ensure that the events of 1921 do not fade from our collective memories in the future the way that they did in the past.

Yet the underlying factors that generated white ignorance about the Massacre are still with us.

Recently, Oklahoma (along with a number of other states) enacted legislation that precludes the teaching of Critical Race Theory in its schools. Oklahoma’s version of this law directly prohibits schools from introducing concepts of white supremacy or race-based redress in their courses. Indirectly, this law is likely to discourage any discussion of the structural drivers of racial inequalities. To the extent that these forbidden concepts explain the events of the Massacre and its forgetting, the law could also preclude teaching this history as well. The work of Bonilla-Silva on how colorblindness entrenches racialized inequality and of Mills on white ignorance are almost certainly prohibited by this new law. So could significant parts of the official report by the Tulsa Race Riot Commission that address the structural factors that explain the Massacre. For that matter, so could this essay.

What is happening in Oklahoma is a microcosm of a broader trend of Republican state legislatures utilizing the rhetoric of color blindness and antidiscrimination to preclude discussion of, let alone redress for, white supremacy. These efforts to obscure racialized injustice serve to entrench white ignorance.

Future generations will hopefully remember the Tulsa Race Massacre. Will they also remember the forgetting, or merely relive it?

Photo credit: Ruins of Greenwood District after Race Riots, Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA, American National Red Cross Photograph Collection, June 1921.