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On February 4, President Trump addressed the country in his State of the Union address. In between his attempts to trigger applause and standing ovations, his speech was filled with harmful anti-immigration rhetoric, continuing his longstanding history of dangerous racial prejudice and discrimination. While the messages Trump broadcasted during his address are hurtful and misinformed, what is most important to recognize is the existence of a relationship between speech acts and various forms of racial violence in this country.

Wilmington’s Lie, Pulitzer-prize winning writer David Zucchino’s 2020 record of the November 10, 1898 North Carolina riot, charts a pre-meditated, murderous coup that used white supremacist rhetoric to destroy what had been a thriving multi-racial community. Democrats who felt threatened by the rise to power of a government of Black middle-class Republicans and Populists with its own press — only a generation removed from slavery — used newspapers, letters, sermons, rallies and other media to warn about the dangers of “Negro rule.”

“Nigger lawyers are sassing white men in courts; nigger root doctors are crowding white physicians out of business,” said Colonel Alfred Moore Waddell, leader of the white gunmen who marched through town on that fateful November 10 morning with shotguns, repeating rifles and pistols at the ready in their search for Black targets attempting to vote.

In that midterm election year, white people had been stockpiling ammunition and weapons for long months, determined to use the ballot or the bullet to return to the Wilmington of the 1870s when the Klan had intimidated the Black community into subservience. The rhetoric was so vitriolic and widespread that it was repeated in Northern newspapers. Black leaders appealed in vain to President McKinley for protection.

In preparation, on November 3, a group known as the Red Shirts held a formal rally and barbecue picnic sponsored by the Democratic Party. Almost a hundred heavily armed Red Shirts rode through the predominantly Black neighborhood of Brooklyn while area residents stayed inside with doors locked. The Red Shirts organized a chant: “Three Cheers for White Supremacy.”

The following evening another group of Red Shirts from a different ward encountered a small group of Black men in downtown Wilmington. Two of the Black men were stabbed with swords, others were clubbed and pistol-whipped, but a secret committee urged that wholesale violence be deferred until Election Day. A widespread and calculated rumor that there would be a Black race riot on November 10 provided the immediate catalyst for wholesale murder and arson. In the end, as many as 60 people lost their lives that day.

It is not rhetorical hyperbole to say that we seem posed on the cusp of a wholesale “race war” to which white supremacists have made increasing reference and for which they, too, have been stockpiling ammunition and weapons for years. The administration has helped pave the way by a discourse that fuels hatred against people of color while failing to curb enthusiastic appeals to the romance of an earlier, less multiracial, America.

The random cold-blooded slaying on March 20, 2017, of Timothy Caughman by 28-year-old Army veteran James Harris Jackson near Times Square is a case in point. Jackson surrendered to the police with the murder weapon and an explanation that he intended to send a manifesto to the press. “I was looking to get black men scared and have them do reciprocal attacks,” he said, “and inspire white men to do similar things.” The manifesto read, in part, “The Racial World War starts today … God has ordered us to eliminate the Negro races from the face of the earth for the good of all mankind.”

It is time to take these repeated warnings more seriously. The provocative pattern is clear, despite repeated denials that these are only individual, idiosyncratic occurrences. Juries continue to acquit lawmen of such slayings and to override the assertion that Black Lives Matter with messages that contradict that insistence. The writing is on the wall, as it was in 1898, and we are fools if we do not see the wink and the nod made at the highest levels of our government. Just look at how our president has awarded a master orator of racial divisiveness, Rush Limbaugh, the Medal of Freedom this week and maligned whole continents and their diasporas, with impunity, by referencing them as “s**t-hole countries.”

We have been warned.