Bloody Tulsa: Politics, History, and the Absurdity of Voter Choice
By Tarnell Brown
Election cycle maneuvering seems to be in full swing, and so the political silly season has descended upon us once again. With all of the unrest surrounding us this year – COVID curfews, demonstrations over police violence, and a nascent recession that can only be exacerbated by these other factors – this promises to be quite the interesting cycle. Current events may presage ballot initiatives regarding police funding, qualified immunity, the proper level of prosecution for rogue officers, and other similar matters that fall under the aegis of social justice. Indeed, for certain voters, the Downs paradox (the concept that for rational, self-interested voters, the benefits of voting are generally exceeded by the costs) just might be turned on its head.
I realize that for many, the notion of “social justice” is a pejorative of the highest magnitude, but as my friend and fellow EconLog contributor Steve Horwitz has observed over at Libertarianism.org, the foundational classical liberal precepts regarding a just society require vigilance to ensure that our institutions remain just:
Justice, by nature, is social, as it invariably involves the redress of grievances between counterparties with different interests. This, however, is an argument for a different day. What interests me in the backdrop of these happenings is the choice of date and venue made by President Trump to officially kick off his reelection campaign.
Ninety-nine years ago, the Greenwood community in the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma was the victim of one of the most devastating instances of interracial violence in American history. Driven by a false report of an assault by a Black teenager, Dick Rowland, on a White teenager, Sarah Page, White residents of Tulsa descended upon Greenwood in an orgy of fire and blood. Prior to the incident, Greenwood had been a successful, if segregated, community of some 10,000 African Americans comprising roughly thirty-five blocks of the city and known colloquially as the Negro Wall Street. After a lawless night of looting on March 31, 1921 by an angry white mob, several of whom had even been deputized by local law enforcement, Greenwood lay in ashes, with hundreds dead and some $25.8 million of property damage in today’s dollars.
The economic success of the residents of Greenwood, who lived in the area precisely because it was the only place in Tulsa where they were allowed to live, had long been a sore spot for the other residents of Tulsa. The fear was that with rapidly growing wealth the blacks of Greenwood would begin to demand greater political power, and they would have the economic wherewithal to achieve it. As such, they were a threat to the status quo, and in the absurdity that often comes with group threat theory, what was in fact an innocent encounter between Rowland and Page served as a pretext to eliminate that perceived threat. To further illustrate this point, despite numerous investigations, there were few convictions in the aftermath of the Tulsa massacre, nor was there any attempt on the part of either the city of Tulsa or the state of Oklahoma to provide remuneration to the dispossessed victims. Many of the suddenly impoverished residents of Greenwood simply left, their abandoned properties acquired at a discount by those who had burned them out.
That this is where President Trump has decided to begin his campaign for reelection is made even more interesting by the date on which he will appear in the city. June 19 is a day celebrated by many African Americans as Juneteenth*, or Jubilee: the day in 1865 on which the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. Although the extractive, exploitative economy of slavery was not really ended until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, the Emancipation Proclamation was still a powerful symbol to former slaves. Thus, in the sort of absurd timing that can only occur during an election cycle, we have a President restarting his campaign cycle in the city with the worst racial incident in American history on a day celebrated as a day of freedom by many African Americans during a period of heightened racial tension.
I doubt that Mr. Trump did such a thing purposefully, or was even aware of the strange symbolism that his choice of date and location would evoke, but in this strange cycle, in this strange year of instability, the underlying notion of structure-induced equilibria – that majority rule in complex societies is inherently unstable – becomes ever more apparent.
*Correction: This article stated that Juneteenth is the celebration of the day on which the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. This is incorrect, as the Proclamation was signed on January 1, 1863. June 19, 1865 is the day on which Union soldiers marched into Texas and announced the order, making Texas the last state to be Emancipated.
Tarnell Brown is an Atlanta based economist and public policy analyst.