America witnessed him late Thursday in the form of Micah Xavier Johnson. Johnson was the black, 25-year-old former soldier who went on a murderous rampage specifically against white cops, as he admitted to police negotiators. This model of the revenge story has existed since 1900, when Robert Charles, a 35-year-old black man in New Orleans, felt so wronged by racial injustice that he went on a murderous rampage against that city’s white cops. Charles’s murders included four officers; Johnson’s counted five.
Charles and Johnson, though separated by six generations, are one and the same. Just as black slave insurrectionists like Nat Turner, Gabriel Prosser and Denmark Vesey were 18th- and 19th-century white America’s biggest nightmare, Charles and Johnson are that to 20th- and 21st-century white America — black men who violently sowed their disillusionment.
There were upward of 4 million Africans and their descendants enslaved in this country in the run-up to the Civil War. A century and a half later, half of black men are arrested by age 23, a study said, and they are locked behind bars at a disproportionate rate to whites, which damages their ability to continue schooling and be full participants in our society. In 2013, there were more than 1.2 million black men locked in chronic, or long-term, unemployment, according to a 2013 federal report, which noted that black men suffered unemployment at a greater rate than any other demographic group.
It was at this crowded intersection of race, societal order and emasculation that Johnson, like Charles, picked up his gun. Both men were exorcising pent-up frustration with historical and systemic injustice with horrific consequence for those nearby.