NASHVILLE — Last week, officials at Fisk University ordered a lockdown while investigators responded to a bomb threat on campus. When I heard the news, my first reaction was a gut-wrenching sense of inevitability, and not just because more than 20 historically Black colleges and universities have received bomb threats in the last three weeks. White supremacists in the South — and far beyond the South — have been targeting Black schools and churches since these institutions were first founded.
By Feb. 2, just two days into Black History Month, the F.B.I. had identified six juveniles as persons of interest in the investigation. Since then, the bomb threats have continued unabated, in some cases against schools that had only just returned to uneasy normalcy after a previous threat. (Spelman College in Atlanta has had three this year. At Howard University in Washington, D.C., there have been four.)
“Living in the era of bomb threats is not new to people of color,” DeJuana Thompson, the president and chief executive of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, told The Associated Press. Ms. Thompson’s office overlooks the historic 16th Street Baptist Church, site of the civil rights era’s most notorious bombing, which killed four girls.
Investigators have not turned up any explosive devices on the affected campuses, but even if the threats aren’t carried out, these episodes are far from harmless. They disrupt college routines, interrupt coursework and create unexpected expenses for institutions that, in some cases, have been systematically underfunded by state legislatures for decades. Most devastatingly, they remind Black students that they still aren’t safe in this country.
Not that they need reminding. Across the nation, from university to university, college to college, they have spoken to the media with one voice:
“You get really, really frustrated when you are trying to get an education and you’re trying to do better for this world and this country, and people are trying so hard to stop you from doing that,” Nina Giddens, a student at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans, said in an interview with “PBS NewsHour.”
“It makes me realize how there are still these terrorists that are trying to stop minorities from advancing or just getting a simple education from a predominantly Black institution,” Saigan Boyd, a student at Spelman College said in an interview with CNN. “I’m just tired of being terrorized like how my grandparents were.”
“Their mission was to deter our mission for Black excellence and Black unity in the United States of America,” Zachary Wilson, the student government vice president at Rust College in Holly Springs, Miss., said in an interview with Mississippi Today, a nonprofit newsroom. “We are undeterred, and they failed. They simply failed.”
The investigation into the bomb threats against H.B.C.U.s is being led by the F.B.I. Joint Terrorism Task Forces. “These threats are being investigated as racially or ethnically motivated violent extremism and hate crimes,” the agency said in a statement. But Lecia Brooks, the chief of staff at the Southern Poverty Law Center, used more forceful language in an online meeting of university leaders and federal education officials last week: “These are acts of terrorism.”
My family moved to Birmingham, Ala., in 1968, when I was in the first grade, so I wasn’t living there during the years when Bull Connor and his ilk were blasting high-pressure fire hoses and siccing attack dogs on Black children marching for peace, or when the F.B.I. director, J. Edgar Hoover, was directing investigators not to disclose to local prosecutors the evidence they had accumulated against the suspects in a Ku Klux Klan bombing that killed the four girls getting ready for Sunday service at the 16th Street Baptist Church.
Still, it was impossible to grow up in “Bombingham,” as the city was often called in those years, without understanding what white fury directed at Black people really looks like.
No one is claiming that the bomb threats facing H.B.C.U.s today are identical to the actual bombings of the past. But they are of a terrifying piece. Progress in any arena of racial justice has always resulted in a racist backlash meant to keep Black people in a perpetual state of fear, or powerlessness, or both.
“The singular racial history of the United States is therefore a dual racial history of two opposing forces: historical steps toward equity and justice and historical steps toward inequity and injustice,” Ibram X. Kendi writes in “Progress,” his essay in Nikole Hannah-Jones’s transformative work, “The 1619 Project.” Every time ground is gained in one area of equity, ground is lost in another.
It is easy for white people to recognize the expansion of racial justice when they see it, but much harder to recognize the commensurate expansion of racial injustice that happens in response to every step forward: the unapologetic voter suppression, the systemic economic inequities, the escalating threats of violence. Many white people don’t want to acknowledge the three-steps-forward-two-steps back nature of the fight for racial justice because it interferes with their conception of this country as a land of opportunity and as a nation that prizes human equality above all other values.
Racist fury has not dissipated, much less disappeared. Nevertheless, Republicans running state legislatures in the South aren’t interested in hearing about it. And they don’t want Southern children to hear about it, either: These legislators — and the right-wing advocacy groups egging them on — are trying to limit what students are taught about racism. They are whitewashing the past and the present in one sweeping assertion of American exceptionalism.
The intimidation hailing down on historically Black colleges and universities this month has proved yet again that the only way to achieve true justice in this country is for all Americans to understand that racial justice is not inevitable, and it is not irrevocable. The only way to achieve true justice is to fight the virulent racism working at every turn to destroy it.