The Long History Behind the Slaying of Richard Collins III - Pacific Standard

The Long History Behind the Slaying of Richard Collins III

The fatal stabbing of a black Bowie State University student must be viewed in America's longer historical tradition of racial violence.
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Mourners pay their respects during a funeral service for 2nd Lieutenant Richard Collins III in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, on May 26th, 2017.

Mourners pay their respects during a funeral service for 2nd Lieutenant Richard Collins III in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, on May 26th, 2017.

The murder of any innocent person is a tragedy. Yet there's something singularly cruel in what can only be described as a modern-day lynching. On May 20th, Richard Collins III, a black student at Bowie State University, was allegedly stabbed to death by Sean Urbanski, a white student at the University of Maryland, while Collins was on the Maryland campus. In the days since, it's been reported that Urbanski belongs to "Alt-Reich: Nation," a Facebook group said to show "extreme bias against women, Latinos, persons of Jewish faith, and especially African Americans," according to university police.

What do you do in the face of such an event? School officials have asked for patience, saying, predictably, that it's far too early in the investigation to call the stabbing a hate crime. Others seem to be moved to mourn Collins more because he was "a good kid"—a recently commissioned second lieutenant in the United States Army, he was expected to graduate from college last Tuesday—rather than because he represents yet another black life stomped out by a pointless and sickening act of hate.

Especially in this troubling political season, it matters to be honest when we see violent expressions of racism and white supremacy. 

Indeed, these reactions deliver a two-pronged message: Not only will there always be people who hate black Americans simply because of the color of our skin, but there will also always be people willing or eager to overlook the fact that racial terror in this country still exists. As the Nation's Dave Zirin wrote last week, it's important that we talk about this violence in a clear-eyed and precise way. "'Hate crime' doesn't begin to describe the atrocity that took place on the UMD campus. This was a lynching," Zirin wrote, pointing to the mob-like qualities of the bigotry-laced social media group to which Urbanski belonged. "Acknowledging that is a first step toward confronting the homegrown terrorists and finally taking steps towards consigning this practice to the trash heap of history where it belongs."

Especially in this troubling political season, it matters to be honest when we see violent expressions of racism and white supremacy. For instance, the same day Collins was killed, Karl Oliver, a Mississippi state representative whose district includes the town where 14-year-old Emmett Till was brutally beaten and murdered by a white mob in 1955, wrote on Facebook that people who protest Confederate memorials (those monuments to white supremacy) should be lynched. Yet even a casual observer of racial politics in 2017 can see how empowering violent anti-blackness, and the rise of so-called "alt-right" groups (particularly on college campuses), and the danger these elements pose to black bodies are all bound together.

Many people will continue to question whether Collins' murder can be attributed to any sort of deep-seated racism: Until more information from the investigation is made public, how can we really know Urbanski's motives? Still, it's hardly unreasonable to look at what happened with a longer historical view given that the experiences of black Americans in this country have taught us to know better—that the desire to hate blackness is much more firmly rooted than many of us are comfortable thinking.

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