With Tulsa massacre and other atrocities whitewashed, covered up, can US find lost soul?
Published: Jun 25, 2021 10:43 PM
US President Joe Biden speaks during a commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre at the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma on Tuesday. Photo: AFP

US President Joe Biden speaks during a commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre at the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma on Tuesday. Photo: AFP

"We can't just choose what we want to know, and not what we should know," said Joe Biden, addressing the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre in Oklahoma where a thriving black community was destroyed by white mobs. "I come here to help fill the silence, because in silence wounds deepen." 

These are indeed well-written and emotion-laden lines. But after emotions were shared and tears were shed, it's time for real reckoning: why now? And why Tulsa?

Why Now?

Biden's presidency would have been impossible without overwhelming support from black voters. Black voters made up 11 percent of the national electorate, and 9 in 10 of them supported Biden, according to AP's VoteCast. Fully aware of the power of color behind his legitimacy, Biden has made racial equity and justice central themes of his presidency.  

He issued an executive order on his first day in office for the federal government to assess which programs may be discriminatory and to identify possible solutions. As anti-racism protests in the wake of George Floyd's death triggered a reckoning over racism across the nation, Biden was forced to step up his efforts combating racial injustice.

While Biden has talked about tackling "systemic racism" several times, his administration has faced daunting challenges. Racial disparities persist throughout coronavirus vaccine rollout, with African Americans getting vaccinated at a much lower rate than white people. When it comes to police reform, Biden called on the Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act by the first anniversary of Floyd's death, but the negotiation and wrangling drag on till now.

Perhaps more importantly, the Democrats face high risks of losing the House, Senate or both in the coming 2022 mid-term election as Biden's bold economic plans have already suffered significant backlash from the Republicans. Any of these presumptions becoming reality would turn Biden into a lame-duck president whose hands would then be tied to pass anything substantial in the Congress. Better late than never. The centenary anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre arrives at the perfect timing. 

Why Tulsa?

Though the Tulsa Massacre remains one of the worst chapters in US history of racial violence, its anniversary has gone little marked by most Americans. Before the centenary commemoration, few locals in Tulsa knew the full picture of the atrocity, let alone people elsewhere. The atrocity was not taught in American schools until the mid-2000s and was expunged from the police records. Those who threatened to break the taboo faced disapproval or death threats. Even many black residents preferred not to burden their children with the story.

Last year, when Trump chose Tulsa as the place to mark his return after suspending his campaign rallies because of the coronavirus pandemic, he was met with fierce criticism and mass protests. Before Biden, no other US sitting president has ever visited the massacre site or recognized the historical significance of the place. Standing in stark contrast to his predecessors, Biden made Tulsa his best arena to showcase his political agenda and deliver on his campaign promise.  

"For much too long, the history of what took place here was told in silence, cloaked in darkness. But just because history is silent, it doesn't mean that it did not take place." Biden's words sound perfectly plausible. Nevertheless, history itself is never silent. It is the victors of the history and the whites in the country who silenced it and in turn could also make history speak on their behalf. 

Political gesture over real actions

In an attempt to begin making amends, Biden proposed housing and small business programs during his visit to Tulsa, but there was no mention of financial reparations for the black descendants of slavery and racial violence. His promises focused on directing more federal spending to small and minority-owned businesses and launching infrastructure initiatives for marginalized neighborhoods which could be more easily measured in economic numbers and thus met with less congressional backlash.

Now aged between 101 and 107, the only three survivors of the Tulsa Massacre filed a lawsuit against the state government and local officials last year seeking compensations. As Biden delivered his speech, their remedies were yet to be covered. Biden did back a study of reparations both in Tulsa and beyond but has not committed to any supporting payments. People have not seen any concrete action taken to correct historical mistakes and put the disadvantaged on an equal footing.

Selective apology over genuine reckoning

Besides the Tulsa tragedy, there are many other forgotten atrocities falling outside American mainstream history: the Elaine race riot in 1919, the Rosewood Massacre in 1923, Memorial Day Massacre in 1937, Philadelphia Police Bomb MOVE in 1985… The list goes on. 

In fact, long before the Tulsa Massacre happened, brutal bigotry against Chinese Americans and race massacres were commonplace in the US.

In 1871, Los Angeles witnessed what would become one of the worst lynchings in the country when a majority white mob of Americans tortured and murdered 15 Chinese boys and men. The next day, their bodies were found hanging on the makeshift gallows.

During the Rock Springs Massacre in 1885, 28 Chinese miners were killed by white miners and 15 others were wounded over a labor dispute. Following the violence, the white miners set 79 Chinese miners' homes ablaze, wiping out the entire local Chinatown neighborhood. 

In the Snake River Massacre in 1887, around 30 Chinese laborers were gunned down while mining gold by a white gang of horse thieves. The event was later remembered as Chinese Massacre at Deep Creek and is considered one of the deadliest attacks against Chinese Americans in US history. 

These crimes against humanity are blatantly and purposefully ignored in history books of the US. And the victims of these tragedies haven't had their lucky draw. Their perfect timing may never come.

Biden's Tulsa speech seems more like a publicity stunt than anything else. No actual compensation has been made by the US government so far and numerous other atrocities have been whitewashed and covered up awaiting light and truth. Before the US once again directs its moral compass elsewhere, it should first of all guide its own lost souls home.