WHEN IT COMES to racial terror, it’s easy to feel superior to Americans. Certainly, New Zealand has nothing in its colonial history to match what happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on 31 May/1 June 1921 – exactly one hundred years ago this week.
In a frenzy of race hatred, a veritable army of whites descended on the prosperous African-American neighbourhood of Greenwood and laid it waste. As many as 300 African-Americans were murdered by the rampaging white mobs, who came against their fellow citizens with pistols, rifles, machine-guns and even aircraft. Upwards of 30 city blocks were burned to the ground.
The Greenwood community, so full of black expertise and entrepreneurship that journalists dubbed it “The Black Wall Street”, never recovered. The story of the massacre, one of the most deadly and destructive race riots in US history, was buried by the Tulsa authorities for decades. Only in the last 20 years have the efforts of African-American historians and activists succeeded in forcing White America to confront this dreadful incident from its bloody past.
What made them do it? The story put about at the time was all-too-familiar: a young black man had ‘disrespected’ a young white woman. That’s all it took. The findings of an official commission of inquiry, convened three-quarters-of-a-century after the massacre, told a different story. Released in 2001, the final report stated that “the city had conspired with the mob of White citizens against Black citizens”. Why did they do it? The screenplay of the movie Mississippi Burning offers a powerful insight into the mindset of the sort of Whites who burned down Greenwood:
You know, when I was a little boy, there was an old negro farmer that lived down the road from us, name of Monroe. And he was... well, I guess he was just a little luckier than my daddy was. He bought himself a mule. That was a big deal around that town. My daddy hated that mule, ‘cause his friends were always kidding him that they saw Monroe out plowing with his new mule … One morning, that mule showed up dead … After that, there wasn’t any mention about that mule around my daddy … I knew he done it. He saw that I knew. He was ashamed … He looked at me and said, ‘If you ain’t better than a n*****, son, who are you better than?’
Still, those 300 Greenwood deaths require some context, because, appalling as that number is, it represents barely 5 percent of the estimated 6,500 African-Americans who fell victim to racial terror between the end of the American Civil War in 1865 and 1950.
Before we Pakeha New Zealanders start feeling too smug, however, we should give some thought to what our Settler State did to thousands of young Maori – especially young Maori males – in the decades following World War II.
These were, of course, the years of the great internal migration of Maori: from the rural margins of New Zealand into which they had been shunted by the settler economy; to the cities, where their unskilled labour was urgently needed by employers who had run out of unskilled Pakeha to exploit.
For the New Zealand state, this huge demographic shift was fraught with potential problems. Would Maori be able to adapt to the new and profoundly different lifestyle that awaited them? And, what should be done with those who couldn’t – or wouldn’t – behave themselves?
Part of the answer came in the form of the special “boys’ homes” established by the state to corral the wayward offspring of Maori families in transition. Young people in general were widely perceived as problematic in post-war New Zealand, but young Maori males provoked all manner of racially-charged fears.
The callous, indeed almost frivolous, incarceration of young, brown people in out-of-sight, out-of-mind state institutions, where all too frequently they were victimised and abused, must stand as one of the most scandalous misapplications of state power in New Zealand history. The Royal Commission of Inquiry Into Abuse in Care has calculated that upwards of quarter-of-a-million young New Zealanders – most of them Maori and Pacifica – suffered horribly in the course of what some might call these slow-motion lynchings.
The Tulsa Massacre represents race hatred at its most vicious and unequivocal. New Zealand’s racial terror has always been inflicted with considerably more discretion.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 4 June 2021.