From Woolworths Lunch Counters to Viral Videos: Showing White America Racism Isn't New

Three Civil Rights protesters and Woolworth's Sit-In, Durham, NC, 10 February 1960, as part of a series of protests that led to the end of legal segregation. (State Archives of North Carolina under Public Domain)

By now, we’ve all seen the videos taken by people of color who document the daily microaggressions — or outright racism — they've had to endure.

While racist behavior caught on camera is not new, the makers of the newer generation of viral videos have tried a new strategy by letting their counterparts do most of the talking.

Take the case of James Juanillo, a Filipino American living in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights, a wealthy and mostly white neighborhood.

Juanillo was writing “Black Lives Matter” in chalk on the retaining wall in front of his home when he was confronted by Lisa Alexander, a white woman who said he was defacing private property and claimed to know the owner of the house.

Juanillo could have told Alexander and her companion Robert that he lived there, but he didn’t. He says that was intentional.

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“I can see where Robert and Lisa make the jump from a person of color to him not having anything to do with his beautiful property ... but they were wrong ... and they rode that racial bias all the way off a cliff,” Juanillo told KQED in an interview in mid-June.

He wanted the whole world to see, for themselves, that subtle racist conflicts exist everywhere. Yes, even in an affluent, “progressive” neighborhood.

“If enough people see incidents like this, then maybe people will actually think about it and change their behavior,” Juanillo said.

Juanillo posted his video on Twitter where it quickly went viral and has been viewed more than 23 million times. Alexander later had a company sever ties with her cosmetics business, and Robert was fired from his job, according to news reports.

These conscious confrontations by people of color are nothing new, according to Stanford history professor Allyson Hobbs.

In fact, Hobbs says you can trace their roots back to the civil rights movement in the 60s when Black activists exposed the violence they were subjected to in much the same way.

KQED spoke with Hobbs about the early forms of protests against racial injustice, the role of the media and how these viral videos are reigniting the conscience of white America.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Shannon Lin: In many of these videos, it’s a person of color who is calling out racial discrimination with their camera. On the one hand, it’s about accountability, and on the other, it’s like they are documenting their experiences with racism for future generations. What are the historical parallels?

Allyson Hobbs: There's been a long history of Black people trying to show and to prove that there has been unequal violent treatment [of Black people in America]. I think it really does stem from a reality that white people aren't going to believe how bad it is unless they sort of see it for themselves.

The genre of slave narratives and the ways that Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs and many others wrote about their lives was about giving their white northern audiences a very vivid and very uncomfortable picture of what was really happening. And that kind of journalism continued into the 20th century with Black newspapers that would cover race riots and [described] the damage, violence and destruction that white rioters caused.

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And how did that evolve in the Civil Rights era of the 60s?

This was the moment when more people had television and could see this unfolding on the news. It's similar to what the cellphone does now, to see these moments that white people normally would not see.

The decision to fight for integration, using children, and sort of putting them through very traumatic situations by integrating them into all-white schools was a deeply thought out decision. Similarly, when very well-dressed, very respectable, very well-behaved Black men and women sat at lunch counters in Woolworths or peacefully protesting on the streets and then being met with ferocious violence. It really did shock the conscience of white America and would eventually lead to some changes and dismantling of some of the Jim Crow system.

Many of the activists who took part in the lunch counter protests were members of activist organizations like SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) and CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and later the Black Panther Party.  They continued to take part in other organizing efforts.

Is this “shock-and-awe” type of activism effective? At some point, don’t people become numb and return to a state of apathy and possibly ignorance?

I do worry that people can become numb, partially because I think that there is a danger of seeing Black people mistreated so regularly and seeing Black death so regularly that we do become inured to that violence.

But I think we're in a different moment right now where the conscience has been reignited and we’re acting.

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We're realizing that this can't just continue, that this is not right. Perhaps seeing all of those videos including the video of George Floyd reminds us of this long history of violence, injustice and brutality. And it makes us feel like we need to act. That's part of what we're seeing right now.

But it's important to note that the civil rights movement always had an economic plank and activists, including Dr. Martin Luther King, found it extremely difficult to push for economic justice and economic equality. After 1966, the movement fractured between those who supported nonviolence and integration and younger and more radical leaders who supported Black power. The more radical wing alienated some white allies as did rioting in northern cities throughout 1965 and 1967. More rioting occurred after King's assassination in 1968. Some historians argue that the rioting led to a white backlash that ushered in more conservative politicians and the rise of the new American Right.  A cohesive civil rights movement became harder to maintain.
Many historians would argue that we are still fighting these battles.