The Tulsa Riot of 1921: Collective Violence and Racial Frames

Article excerpt

Introduction

Interracial and collective violence has a well documented and extensive history in the United States. Researchers have focused on a number of factors associated with collective violence, particularly its causation (Gurr, 1968; Lieberson & Silverman, 1965; Myers, 1997; Smelser, 1962; Spilerman, 1970). However, research has focused far less on how racial and ethnic groups interpret forms of collective violence such as riots.

This research examines the role of divergent frames associated with collective violence. That is, we explain how two racial groups, armed with the same objective facts and conditions, may interpret the causation of collective violence in diametrically opposed ways. We argue that these frames not only legitimate racial violence for particular groups after the fact, but they also help cause racial violence by providing the necessary rationalizations to participate in violence. Our research explores these issues through an examination of a 1921 riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The cause and explanation which gained primacy immediately following the violence, according to most black and white accounts, involved black militancy. Despite this apparent consensus, we illustrate how these groups interpreted the appropriateness of militancy in drastically different ways. Most importantly, we show that many whites drew from a master narrative, or a white racial frame (Feagin, 2009), to rationalize mob activity and the subsequent destruction of the black community, while many blacks drew from their own past experiences to form a counter-frame that legitimated violence in the initial stages of the riot. We do not contend that all members of each race were of like mind, but we highlight the most prominent themes and frames that emerged in newspapers, testimonies, official investigations, and narratives offered at the time. We consider how these divergent interpretations were rooted within much larger and more systematic racial frames (Ehrlich, 2009; Feagin 2006). Finally, we argue that a much more hegemonic white racism, which paralleled an official frame of the riot, facilitated the ascendancy of particularly white interpretations of racial violence.

Racial Framing

According to Feagin (2006), a white racial frame originated in the colonial period and has been used throughout United States history to subordinate, oppress, and discriminate against blacks and other racial minority groups. Indeed, the white racial frame has been used as a legitimation device for a hierarchically structured society that privileges whites. Feagin (2006) defines the white racial frame as:

   ... an organized set of racialized ideas, stereotypes,
   emotions, and inclinations to discriminate. This
   white racial frame generates closely associated,
   recurring, and habitual discriminatory actions.
   The frame and associated discriminatory actions
   are consciously and unconsciously expressed in
   the routine operation of racist institutions in this
   society, (p. 25)

This frame has been afforded a hegemonic and patriarchal status and has infiltrated white society's macro- and micro-oriented underpinnings, including its institutions, stereotypes and cognitions.

A critical characteristic of the white racial frame is its fluidity and the ability to adapt to social changes. As American society transitioned from slavery to legal segregation and later to the Civil Rights movement, the hegemonic white racial frame has responded by legitimizing the continual discrimination of blacks, even in the contemporary setting. Feagin (2006) notes that modern white racism "can be seen in persistent white images of blacks as dependent on welfare, as not as work-oriented as whites, as less intelligent than whites, and as an intermarriage threat to white families" (p.30).

Despite the hegemonic status of the white racial frame, Feagin (2009) also points to the existence of black counter-frames, or narratives of resistance that are designed to actively modify and transform the stereotypes, racism, and discrimination that blacks experience. …