My first thought about Tarrant County councilman Tommy Bryant using the n-word this noxiously –“Do we have a house (n-word) in here”–was that he was reaching back to slavery to express his contempt for the black women on the city council. In her Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hill Collins emphasizes the extent to which controlling images of black women like the “mammy” and the “jezebel” reach back to the slave period. The same is the case with language like the n-word. One of my favorite Morehead State (KY) students observed some time ago that whites had retreated from segregation only as much as they had to. The same is the case with the language of slavery as well.
No doubt Bryant was reaching back. As MSNBC anchor Joy Reid observed on twitter. Bryant seemed comfortable with the language of racial smears. “It’s how easily the word rolls off his tongue… clearly he puts it to frequent use…”
But there’s also a contemporary context. Bryant’s on the city council of Tarrant, AL with two Black women and serving along a Black mayor. Given its 53% black population, Bryant is “forced” to recognize black people as having an authority that’s at least equal if not greater than his. In this context, Bryant’s outburst might be seen as a scream of pain against the black authority in his life and Bryant himself saw it in terms of attacking Mayor Wayman Newton.
Public discourse ignores the extent and significance of both black moral and political authority and white conservative panic over black authority. If there is a historical touchstone of moral authority in American society, it is Martin Luther King and the Black Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s. That’s not just the case for Black Americans or whites on the center-left, it’s also the case with white conservatives who use King’s “I Have a Dream” speech as the anchor point for their arguments for a “color-blind” ideal. As he was dying, the late John Lewis became an American icon because his suffering a cracked skull during the Selma March made him an embodiment of the suffering and accomplishment of the Civil Rights Era. Other historical figures of moral authority include Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, and W.E.B. DuBois while a moral authority also exemplified by Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, LeBron James, Colin Kaepernick, and Black Lives Matter protesters in the present.
A very long book could be written on the presence of black authority in American society. Let me just say that black authority has more than enough of a presence to cause disorientation and panic among white racists like Tommy Bryant and that this kind of racial panic is one of the motivations behind the rise of Trumpism, conspiracy theories, and white nationalist insurrection. Many white conservatives would rather withdraw from society, fall seriously ill, or die than live in a place with as much black authority as can now be seen in the United States.