Politico has an excellent article up about a previous fake news pandemic. It would be good if we could all learn a lesson from the past.
Seventy-five years ago, tens of thousands of white Southerners responded with agitated concern when they learned both by word of mouth and in some regional newspapers that First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was traveling widely throughout the former Confederate states, quietly organizing black women into secret “Eleanor Clubs.” The club motto, “A white woman in the kitchen by 1943,” portended a dangerous inversion of the region’s longstanding racial patterns.
It was already widely believed in the South that black men had been brazenly stockpiling ice picks, pistols, rifles and explosives in anticipation of a larger race riot. With millions of white men now serving in the armed forces and stationed away from their families, the story went, white communities were vulnerable to an impending assault. When that day came, black women—many of whom worked in domestic service—intended to force their white employers to cook and clean for them. “Eleanor Clubs are stirring up trouble that never should have arisen,” a white North Carolinian observed with worry. “Clubs are making the Negroes discontented, making them question their status.”
Of course, not a word of this was true. But that didn’t make these race rumors less vivid in the minds of many ordinary white Southerners.
The parallels between 1942 and today stand out. In both cases, a country undergoing profound demographic and economic change has proven hospitable to many of the same general types of rumors. In 1942, black men allegedly plotted a violent (and sexually violent) coup against white Americans. In more recent times, a Kenyan-born Muslim managed to capture the presidency, and encouraged violent Mexican criminals to vote illegally. Eleanor Roosevelt, a powerful first lady who did in fact champion black civil rights, was allegedly complicit in prompting a race war. Hillary Clinton, a powerful former first lady and would-be president, allegedly trafficked young girls through the basement of a Washington, D.C., pizzeria.
In both eras, for many white Americans—particularly many white men experiencing a decline in economic and political power—these rumors were and are a way to protest a world in which women and people of color demanded greater privilege.
Highly Recommended Reading. Good lessons for us all.