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The election of America’s first Black president was expected to begin a post-racial period where communities would work together to address systemic racism and ensure that racial prejudice became a social problem of the past. 

But that never happened. Barack Obama’s election became a trigger for white grievance and violence over Black progress.

American Whitelash: A Changing Nation and the Cost of Progress is written by Wesley Lowery.

In his new book, American Whitelash: A Changing Nation and the Cost of Progress, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Wesley Lowery documents the rise of white supremacy violence in the decade after Obama was elected. 

Lowery believes that studying this methodically, interrogating its intentions and ideologies, is a way to figure out what could be done to stop it from happening again and again. 

Lowery, 32, took a keen interest in the stories of people who became direct victims of hate crimes but their stories were not deemed newsworthy enough to reach a national audience. In essence, he shows that white grievance drives violence. And as he builds the narrative with each chapter, Lowery examines many issues our society and institutions have not addressed to provide transparency and justice, like the FBI failure until 2013 to document hate crime statistics for certain ethnicities or groups, including Sikhs.

Lowery’s book could be seen as a continuation of or complement to Carol Anderson’s White Rage, as he noted. Regardless, Lowery’s main motive is to send a blunt message to the country — Americans need to take white supremacist violence seriously. 

While Lowery admits these problems can’t be solved with one book, he hopes that American Whitelash prompts a much-needed conversation our country needs to have about racism, white supremacy and hate crimes. Documenting the stories of those who fell victims of whitelash is a first step to acknowledging the history of ongoing violence against people of color in this country. 

How we tell the American story, Lowery points out, is an ongoing battle that “each successive generation would have to engage anew.”

Public Integrity spoke with Lowery, who is currently serving on Public Integrity’s board of directors, early this week after he returned from London, where he was promoting his book. It’s set to be released on June 27. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Wesley Lowery poses in a blue suit, red tie and white shirt.
Wesley Lowery

Q. This book documents how Barack Obama’s election became a trigger for white supremacy violence. Do you think this is a cultural phenomenon? 

I think sometimes there’s a presentism. We want to believe that the moment that we are in is so unique and so different when in reality we are often living inside of the echo of history. 

And so what we’ve seen time and time again, whether it be following the slave revolts, whether it be in light of the abolitionist movement and emancipation and the advances of the Civil Rights movement. When there have been these real blows on behalf of equality and multi-racial democracy and the losses of structured white supremacy that we have seen this type of societal and cultural backlash and violence. … And had we done our reading and if we knew our history, we should have expected this type of violent response.

Q. I often say that in order to move forward as a country, we must accept our past. Do you think that America will ever do that?

Sometimes people invoke our history and try to talk about or focus on parts of it that are difficult. The response is very defensive. “Well, you say that we’re inherently racists or irredeemably broken.” I actually think it’s the opposite, right? People who offer critiques do so because they believe it can be different. They believe it can be overcome. They believe it can be remedied, but they know that it cannot be if we’re unwilling to face it. 

So one of the reasons it’s important for us to understand our history, understand that this has happened before: … We can more aggressively and effectively combat it and make sure that our future doesn’t have to look like our past. And so the focus on the realities of our history is not about making people feel bad, it’s about saying that we don’t have to be like our previous generations were. But the only way to do that is by understanding the truth of what happened previously. 

Q. You wrote: “Revisionist history has long been one of white supremacy’s favorite weapons. Our history is simply a story that we tell ourselves. So often the tale that we tell is a lie.” How do we, as a society, combat this? 

First, we fight for accurate recording and teaching. And at every point in our society, there have been movements to undermine the way we are taught and how we remember. And there have been people who have stood up to demand that we tell the truth. 

I think that the more we teach and the more information we provide, the better off we will be in terms of having a populace that is equipped to grapple with hard histories and to tell more of the truth. 

I think it is hard, right, that in a given moment we understand why the media coverage and why the public memory becomes such a battleground. … Because there are political victories and losses. There’ll be one with how we will remember something like January 6. It’s still actively, day to day, relevant to our politics and to people who have power and who are removed from power or might rise again. 

But I think it really does fall to a class of historians, journalists who are historians in many ways, and other people who care about reality. I think it falls to us to insist upon the accurate recording of what happens day in and day out here in the country. And so, you know, I think a big part when objective reality is being attacked and comes under question, simply telling the truth in public can be a radical act, but I think it is our job in these moments, to tell the truth in public. 

Q. What do you hope will be the biggest takeaway for people when they read this book?

When we think about hate groups, and when we think about the kind of devout racists … not about the kind of low-level interpersonal prejudice, but when we are talking about devout racists, I sometimes feel that because it’s ugly, we turn away from it. We don’t want to pay attention to it. We don’t want to interrogate it. We don’t want to think about it. That we think about these things as unexplainable. 

But for me as a journalist, sitting and watching the events of the last few years, it just felt as if there needed to be some effort to try to contextualize, both historically and societally, what we were seeing: That these people, these movements, these groups have coherent ideologies. And when I say coherent, I don’t mean to say that they’re true or accurate. But there’s a real ideological underpinning and once we understand what that underpinning is, that empowers us or enables us to begin reconstructing it or attacking it. 

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Mc Nelly Torres is an award-winning, investigative journalist based in South Florida and a former investigative...