The Enduring Legacy of Slavery

February 18, 2019 § 2 Comments

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This came through my feed on Facebook a few days ago.  It’s worth re-posting and it’s worth a deeper commentary.  The United States was founded upon slavery.  Fact.  The Founding Fathers included slave owners.  Face.  The Founding Fathers didn’t deal with slavery in the Constitution.  Fact.  The Civil War happened because the South seceded over slavery.  Fact.  The Southern response to Emancipation was Black Codes, the Ku Klux Klan and segregation.  Fact.  Desegregation only happened because of the intervention of the Supreme Court.  Fact.

But.  None of this is a Southern thing.  Slavery initially existed in the North as well.  But even after the North banned slavery, it benefited from slavery.  The American industrial revolution began in Lowell, MA, due to the easy availability of Southern cotton.  The North got wealthy, in other words, on the backs of Southern slaves.   The North countenanced slavery.

After the Civil War, the North countenanced segregation.  The second Ku Klux Klan emerged in Atlanta, true, but it operated all over the country.  And, following Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that desegregated schools, the North was affected, most notably during the Boston Busing Crisis in the 1970s.

But even with the official end of desegregation with Brown v. Board, it’s not like segregation went away.  Schools today remain very segregated across the United States due to the outcomes of racism, poverty and housing choices.  In fact, one of the outcomes of the Boston Busing Crisis.  The busing ‘experiment’ in Boston ended in 1988, by which time the Boston school district had shrunk from 100,000 students to only 57,000.  Only 15% of those students were white.  As of 2008, Boston’s public schools were 76% African American and Hispanic, and only 14% white.  Meanwhile, Boston’s white, non-Hispanic population in 2000 was 55% white.  White Bostonians pulled their children out of the city’s public schools and either enrolled them in private schools, or moved to the white suburbs.

As for housing, the Washington Post found last year, the United States is a more diverse nation than ever here in the early 21st century, but its cities remain segregated.  Historian Richard Rothstein has found that the segregation of American cities was not by accident.

Then there’s the question of redlining, which was officially banned with the Fair Housing Act of 1968.  But all that means is that banks and financial institutions have become more clever at discriminating against African Americans and other minorities.  And more to the point, those areas of American cities that were redlined when this was legal in the 1930s continue to suffer from the same prejudices today.

Slavery and the complete and utter failure of Reconstruction after the Civil War means that African Americans in the United States today live in the long shadow of slavery and institutionalized racism.  So, while the meme above is correct that it was only in 1954 that segregation is outlawed, I would be a lot more hesitant about the green light African Americans have there from 1954 onwards.

 

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The Simple Fact of Racism

August 7, 2017 § Leave a comment

Last week, a Facebook friend posted this article, ostensibly about travelling while black.  Ijeoma Oluo is an African American woman, and she speaks eloquently about the fears African Americans can have travelling in the US, due to racism.  I thought immediately of John Lewis’ graphic novel, March.  In Book 1, he talks about a trip he took with his uncle in the 1950s from Alabama to Buffalo, NY.  In his recollection, his uncle carefully planned out their route and where they could stop, especially south of the Mason-Dixon line.  We have this belief that because segregation is long over, that the Civil Rights era was 50 years ago, that Barack Obama was elected president, race is no longer a factor in American life.

It’s easy for white people to think this, we are not confronted by the reality of race in America on a daily, continual basis. We do not face constant micro-aggressions, let alone macro-aggressions, based on our skin colour.  Most white people probably don’t even think about race in any real sense, as in it’s also not something we think about when we see someone of a different skin colour.  (Race, of course, is a social construct, it is not science).  But.  Racism persists.  Racism is all around us.  And Oluo reminds us of this.

And so back to Oluo.  She was nervous about going into a Crackle Barrel in a small town in a Red state.  As she notes, Crackle Barrel was once fined by the Justice Department for racist practices.  She posted on Twitter:

And, boy oh boy, did the responses come in.  In fact, you can go to Oluo’s Twitter page for a sampling of the racism.  Or read the article I linked to above.

But, back to the Facebook post of my friend.  The first comment lambasted Oluo for being ‘racist.’  I pointed out that she isn’t racist.  She may have, as she notes in the article I linked, used some bad humour to deal with her trepidation of heading into Cracker Barrel.  But this isn’t racist.  Nor, as I noted to him, would it be racist if he made a similar comment about heading into a black business. It’d just be stupid.

See, the thing is, for the most part, African Americans, Latinx, and Asians are rarely in a position to be racist in America (or Canada, or the UK, or France, or Ireland, etc.).  Racism is predicated on a discriminatory or prejudicial belief in the superiority of one’s own ‘race’ over another.  And this is coupled with power.  This discriminatory or prejudicial belief becomes racist because white people, usually (not always), have power.

For example, one of my students in Alabama told me that she, her husband and young child were unable to rent an apartment in the small city we lived in because they were black.  Landlords used all kinds of excuses, from claiming they didn’t allow children (one said this while a group of kids played in the parking lot behind him), to saying their credit rating wasn’t good enough, to being concerned about their economic stability (she goes to school at night, they’re both orderlies at the local hospital).  The same thing, interestingly, happened to a bunch of Los Angeles Chargers players upon the relocation of the franchise from San Diego to Los Angeles.

That is racism.  The reason African American, Latinx, and Asian people in the US (or Canada, or the UK, or France, or Ireland, etc.) are not in a position to be racist is that they are not often in positions to be racist.  Like all people, they can be biased, they can be prejudiced.  They can also be stupid and tone deaf.

But racism is rare.  Thus, Oluo is not racist for this tweet.  She is expressing her fears, based on a lifetime of experiences.

But the responses to her?  Well, they kind of prove her point.  The violent, misogynist racism spewed back to her on Twitter and Facebook is beyond the pale.  That is what racism looks like.  And racism is a fact of life for African Americans (and Latinx and Asians).

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