By David Morse / New American Dimensions
Part Two: African Americans
On the evening of November 4, 2008, President-elect Barack Hussein Obama, flanked by his wife Michelle, and his daughters Malia and Sasha, took the stage at Chicago’s Grant Park in front of tens of thousands of people, many who shouted “Yes we can!” It was his first address to the nation after winning a decisive victory to become the nation’s first African-American to ascend to the highest elected office in the nation. This was no ordinary election, and it had been clear, ever since Obama won the Iowa caucuses, that race would be a key factor. For many, the election was a symbol of a 400-year struggle, not just for dignity and human rights, but to be fully honored as an essential part of the American quilt.
For some pundits at the time, the election of Barack Obama was the dawning of the age of a post-racial United States. A common argument was that if Americans can elect a black man to be president, then the nation has truly arrived, and can move on from the racial divisions that have burdened us all. Our national stain has been wiped clean. Or so the narrative went.
However, from our vantage point in 2017, it is how to imagine how so many of us could have been so naive. Rather, at this point in time, blacks and whites could not be more divided in our views of race and racism.
Take a look at the issue of slavery, a topic that rarely comes up in “polite” conversation. To have enslaved 12.5 million Africans and shipped them off to the New World is so abhorrent, so grotesque to our modern sensibilities, so opposed to our view of who we Americans are as a people, that it is much easier to avoid the issue. Many whites consider the mere mention of the word to be divisive, if not potentially explosive. But if we are to ever have an honest dialogue about race, it is a subject that demands being addressed, a story that needs to be recounted.
The first record of slavery in the future United States is likely that of a Dutch ship, which brought Africans to Jamestown, in 1619, in exchange for tobacco. By 1661, the General. Assembly of Virginia legalized slavery, and in 1662, it declared that all children born of a slave mother were slaves. In 1705, with the development of the “slave codes,” slaves were declared to be real estate, thereby eliminating any doubt as to what the status of Africans in Virginia was to be.
By the late seventeenth century, the idea of racial differences, whereby human beings were understood to possess discrete physical types and unequal moral and intellectual capacities, had been fairly well established. Racial categories were, by no means, universal. In Spanish and Portuguese America, an intricate system of racial classification developed, and compared with the British and French, the Spanish and Portuguese were much more tolerant of racial mixing, an attitude that was encouraged by a shortage of European women. By contrast, the United States adopted a rigid two-category system of racial categorization in which any person with black blood was to be considered a “negro.”
The idea of black inferiority grew as a direct response to demands for emancipation, particularly when suffrage was extended to all white males, and there was a need to make white domination and black subservience seem “natural and unavoidable.” The prospect of emancipation struck both fear and repugnance in the hearts of whites. A staunch belief in black inferiority made whites, particularly in the South, recoil at the prospect of co-mingling with blacks, and their revulsion was fortified by the fear that blacks nurtured deep vengefulness that would make them a dangerous presence. Some whites, including Jefferson, speculated on the possibility of combining emancipation with the colonization of blacks outside the United States. As Jefferson put it, it would be impossible “to incorporate the blacks into the state” because of “deep-rooted prejudices entertained by the whites.”
When the Civil War ended in 1865, 4 million African Americans were free, and among the most pressing needs of the government, apart from mending the social and economic fabric of a nation that had been ripped asunder, was what to do with them. When it became evident that President Andrew Johnson was going to sanction white rule in the South, Republicans in the north were outraged, which ultimately led to his impeachment on February 24, 1868. The end result was passage of the Reconstruction Act of 1867, one of the most dramatic changes in American history. As a result, there were black members of Congress, lieutenant governors, sheriffs, prosecuting attorneys, and even an interim governor, C.C. Antoine, who served forty-three days in Louisiana in 1873 when his predecessor was removed from office.
In the end, Reconstruction was to die a regrettable death. White Southerners were pardoned, restraints were relaxed, and legislation repealed. By the mid-1870s, Republicans were losing their taste for protecting black rights. Secret societies, the most treacherous being the Ku Klux Klan, sprang up in the South, establishing a reign of terror, assaulting and murdering local Republican leaders, destroying black crops, houses and barns, and many were whipped and lynched for voting Republican. Although federal marshals and U.S. troops brought to trial scores of Klansmen, the North’s commitment to blacks had rapidly deteriorated. Many felt that the South should solve its own problems.
Once blacks were disenfranchised, there was no stopping the rise of white supremacy. In 1870, Tennessee enacted laws against intermarriage of races. Five years later, it adopted the first “Jim Crow” law. Beginning in 1883, blacks were banned from white hotels, barbershops, restaurants, and theaters. Soon most Southern states had laws requiring separate schools. On June 7, 1892, in New Orleans, Homer Plessy took a seat in the whites-only section of a train run by the East Louisiana Railroad railway on a train bound for Covington, Louisiana. Four years later, the case made it to the United State Supreme Court. In a landmark decision, Plessy v. Ferguson, the Court ruled by a vote of seven to one, that state laws requiring racial segregation in public facilities were constitutional under the doctrine of “separate but equal.”
By World War I, the full and equal participation in all aspects of American society had been systematically barred, and in the South and parts of the North, blacks and whites lived in separate worlds. In the South, blacks were segregated by law in the public schools, while those in the North were sent to predominantly Negro schools. Racist “Sambo” images proliferated in advertisements and games. Black soldiers returning from the war were lynched by hanging and burning, often while still in their uniforms. The Ku Klux Klan warned blacks that they must respect the rights of whites “in whose country they are permitted to reside.”
From 1915 until about 1930, the first “Great Migration” of African Americans from the South to the North, transformed the face of America, particularly in cities. However, the North proved to be anything but the Promised Land. Whites were “willing to see Blacks among people generally in stores and shops, and movie theaters, even in restaurants, though not so much in swimming pools or parks.” Despite the absence of Jim Crow laws, migrants found social conditions in the North to be little different from what they were fleeing in the South, and the treatment they received was often just as humiliating and brutal as anything they had known.
Perhaps nothing could have catalyzed African-American resistance to Jim Crow more than the Second World War. Nearly a million served in the segregated armed forces. Black veterans expected to return to a country whereby the old standards of white supremacy and black submissiveness would dissolve, and their service had enabled the NAACP to press for the courts and legislature to end racial discrimination. During the 1950s, the makings of the Civil Rights movement took hold with a force that could only temporarily be stifled by Southern whites.
Following Kennedy’s assassination, President Johnson took the mantle, and on July 2, signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The act banned discrimination in places of public accommodation, banned discrimination by employers on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin and sex on the basis of hiring, and allowed government agencies to withhold federal money from any program permitting or practicing discrimination. A year later Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which enabled millions of previously disenfranchised African Americans in the South to vote. Less than a week later, the Los Angeles community of Watts exploded. In a week of looting, fires, and violence, 34 people had been killed, more than 900 injured, and 4,000 arrested. Over the next four years, cities in the North and Midwest were engulfed in uprisings in black neighborhoods, including Newark and Detroit in 1967, and throughout the country, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1968.
In 1968, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, better known as the Kerner Commission, which had been appointed by Johnson to investigate the causes of the 1967 race riots, concluded: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.”
It was Richard Nixon who used the Southern Strategy to mobilize resentful whites to vote Republican in the wake of the Civil Rights Act. But Republican Presidents and candidates after Nixon used dog-whistle politics to stir up white animosity against African Americans, effectively scapegoating Blacks, covertly and sometimes overtly, for their lack of success, which was often attributed to black “handouts.” As a candidate, Ronald Reagan repeatedly referred to a fictitious “Chicago welfare queen” with “80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards [who] is collecting veterans benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands.” He would then add, “And she’s collecting social security, she’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income alone is over hundred $150,000.”
Things changed, or at least appeared to, in 2008. The candidacy, and ultimately the election, of Barack Obama brought with it a new, albeit erroneous narrative of African-American progress, one with the story line that once and for all, America overcame its racism and was able to elect a black president. However, manifold events in the coming years, particularly during Obama’s second term in office, laid to waste any talk of post-racialism.
On February 26, 2012, George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain in Sanford, Florida, called 911 to report “a suspicious person” in the neighborhood. Moments later, neighbors reported hearing gunfire, and 17 year-old African American Trayvon Martin was found dead. Zimmerman, who admitted to the shooting, was not charged at the time by the Sanford Police, who said that there was no evidence to refute his claim of self-defense, and that Florida’s stand your ground law prohibited law-enforcement officials from charging him. A year later, on July 17, 2014, Eric Garner, an African-American man, was put in a chokehold by police in Staten Island, New York City, and held down on the sidewalk, pleading, “I can’t breathe.” An hour later, he was pronounced dead. Three weeks later, on August 9, Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, another African American man, after a scuffle in Ferguson, Missouri. For four hours, Brown’s dead body remained in the summer sun, face down, and blood flowing. Neighbors, shocked at the violence and the police’s disrespect for Brown’s corpse, took photos and shared video. “They killed him for no reason … they just killed this n-gg-r for no reason,” said one man in a video recorded just after shooting.
Brown’s murder sparked outrage. After accounts that he had his hands up when he was shot, protesters chanted, “Hands up, don’t shoot.” Americans watched armored vehicles move down small-town streets as military-clad police officers shot tear gas into crowds of peaceful demonstrators. Violence committed against African Americans continued, with one event following another, in what seemed to be rapid-fire succession. In the wake of Ferguson, Black Lives Matter emerged as the one of the best-organized and visible organizations, using Twitter and Facebook to organize and online conference calls to plan strategy. Alicia Garza, cofounder of the organization, declared:
“When we say Black Lives Matter, we are talking about the ways in which Black people are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity. It is an acknowledgement that Black poverty and genocide is state violence. It is an acknowledgment that one million Black people are locked in cages in this country – one half of all people in prisons or jails – is an act of state violence. It is an acknowledgment that Black women continue to bear the burden of a relentless assault on our children and our families and that assault is an act of state violence.”
America in 2016 is hardly post-racial and you’re unlikely to hear much of that phrase anymore. We’ve learned better. Maybe what we should hope for and work towards, in the short term anyway, is a nation that acknowledges race, acknowledges our history and biases about race, and stops reflexively retreating into a defensive crouch when the issue comes up. That would be a huge breakthrough.