White Mobs and Privilege: A Historical Perspective

Depiction of the burning of the Provost Marshal’s office, New York City Draft Riot, July 1863Wednesday’s morning’s exhalation and glee soon turned to an international focus on the U.S. Capitol as the typically ceremonial counting of electoral votes became a takeover by a mob wielding guns, shields, and an array of flags. Everyone watched in disbelief, but for African Americans, the unfolding events captivated their attention both in terms of extreme disparity and haunting familiarity.

President-elect Joe Biden remarked: “No one can tell me that if it had been a group of Black Lives Matter protesting… they wouldn’t have been treated very, very differently from the mob of thugs that stormed the Capitol. We all know that’s true, and it’s unacceptable. Totally unacceptable… the American people saw it in plain view.”[1] The idea of white privilege is one that the pro-Trump mob would probably reject, but American history shows a double standard where death at the hands of the white mob threatens everyday existence.

In his interview for The HistoryMakers archives, social commentator Dick Gregory (1932 – 2017) said of the 1863 New York City Draft Riots, when Irish immigrants were being drafted to fight for the north: “The Irish went crazy… they was mad at Lincoln [President Abraham Lincoln]. ‘We don’t wanna lose our lives, to free some niggers,’ and … that night… lynched twenty-nine black folks.”[2] The New York City Draft Riots were both anti-government and anti-black. Tammany Hall, backed by New York Mayor Fernando Wood, called on the New York City’s Board of Aldermen in 1861 to secede from the union and “declare the city’s independence from Albany and from Washington.” He promised that it “would have the whole and united support of the Southern States.”[3] Poor whites, especially Irish immigrants, hated the Conscription Act, because the rich could buy their way out of the draft. They attacked city, state and federal institutions, and officials for nearly five days in lower Manhattan. Metropolitan Police Superintendent John A. Kennedy was chased by the mob into a pond and beaten to an unrecognizable pulp.[4] Blamed for the Civil War, African Americans were hunted and murdered, their bodies hung from lamp posts in Five Points. The Colored Orphan Asylum was burnt to the ground and the pharmacy of Dr. James McCune Smith, the Asylum’s doctor and country’s first black M.D., was also destroyed. Order was only restored by Union troops arriving from the Battle of Gettysburg. The Christian Recorder, an African American newspaper recounted black defense efforts: “In Weeksville and Flatbush, the colored men who had manhood in them armed themselves, and threw out their pickets every day and night, determined to die defending their homes.”[5] The New York City Draft Riots remain the largest and most racially motivated urban disturbance in the history of the United States. The rioters, of course, went unpunished. 2020 allowed all of us to experience the trauma Africian Americans have endured for over 400 years and STILL, NO ONE IS PUNISHED.

On Wednesday the White Mob attacked the people’s house because they believe that Democracy had Stolen their Privilege from them.

Source: The History Makers, “White Mobs and African Americans: Historically and Inextricably Tied”, January 8, 2021

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[1] Eric Bradner and Kate Sullivan CNN, “Biden Assails Different Treatment of Pro-Trump Mob and Black Lives Matter Protesters,” CNN, accessed January 8, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2021/01/07/politics/biden-merrick-garland-justice-nominees/index.html.
[2] Dick Gregory (The HistoryMakers A2007.220), interviewed by Paul Brock, July 29, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 9, story 3, Dick Gregory shares his views on the critiques of urban violence.
[3] “The Great Riots of New York 1712 to 1873, by Hon. J.t. Headley,” accessed January 7, 2021, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/6856/6856-h/6856-h.htm.
[4] Ibid.
[5] “Wilmington Race Riot of 1898,” Black Past, accessed January 7, 2021, https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/wilmington-race-riot-1898/.



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