In the wake of the George Floyd tragedy there have been voices persistent in the assertion that systemic racism no longer exists in America. Interview clips from a few high profile African Americans are featured in videos in order to give credence to the claim.
I have engaged in discussion with a few acquaintances who maintain that claims of systemic racism in America are a fiction fostered by the media of the liberal left.
I am left to wonder and ask myself the question, “When did systemic racism end in America?”
Certainly, racism was pervasive and well established in 1619 when the America Colonies first began participation in the international slave trade. How else could the Colonials justify buying and selling innocent human beings?
Racism remained in evidence during the drafting of the United States Constitution when in 1787 Article 1, Section 2, specified that enslaved persons would count as 3/5 of a free person in determining the number of Congressional Representatives that a state would be entitled to.
Perhaps one might point to America’s 1807 withdrawal from international slave trade as an end to racism except that slavery continued to flourish within many U.S. states. It remained accepted as manifest destiny that White Americans could buy and sell Black men, women, and children… permanently severing child from mother, and husband from wife.
The Civil War of 1860-65 which was “a House Divided” over the question of slavery, resulted in the deaths of 750,000 Union and Confederate combatants. That bloodbath and the defeat of the Southern insurrection must have fully and finally resolved racism, even if the liberation of the slaves under the 1863 passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution did not. It seems like such a long time ago, but then it was the time of my great-grandfather, only 3 generations removed from mine.
If the Civil War had eliminated racism then how was it that African American (men) were only extended the right to vote in the passage of the 1870 15th Amendment to the Constitution?
How then was it that the infamous “Jim Crow” (fn1) laws of the 19th and 20th Centuries could institutionalize racial segregation in such fundamental aspects of society as property ownership, education, freedom of association, suffrage… just to name a few. These were prominent in the time of my Grandfather, remained prevalent in my Father’s time, and enforced by various state and local governments until at least 1965.
In 1913 President Woodrow Wilson initiated segregation in the federal workforce. The U.S. military, already segregated, was not desegregated until 1948. Yet in the last week controversy reigns over whether U.S. military bases should retain the names of military leaders who led troops against the United States in the name of the preservation of slavery. (fn2)
Perhaps racial lynching was a matter extinguished in the era of the Civil War or at least by the 20th Century.
Unfortunately, that is not the case. Between 1882 and 1968 approximately 3,500 African Americans were murdered by extrajudicial “lynching”. Some authorities believe the number much larger as some events and the fates of those victims remain hidden.
Noteworthy was a 1909 public lynching of a Black man in Cairo Illinois which was attended by thousands. Still a historical artifact? As recently as 1998 James Byrd, Jr., a Black man, was murdered by three White men who “hanged” him by dragging him by the neck behind a pickup truck. Using the Tuskegee Institutes definition of “lynching” as a racially perpetrated murder in which three or more persons participated, the number of victims is certainly greater and includes the 2011 murder of James C. Anderson by a group of Whites.
Not systemic? In 1947 President Harry Truman was unsuccessful in his effort to enact a Federal Anti-Lynching law… an effort repeated unsuccessfully in the US Senate in 2005, and again just last week.
But the laws that abolished slavery must have also abolished racism, right?
In 1892 Homer Plessy, a man who was one-eighth Black, was prosecuted and convicted in Louisiana for riding in a “Whites only” train car. The US Supreme Court took the matter up in 1896 ruling against Homer in a 7-1 decision that declared that although the 14th Amendment granted legal equality to the races, it could not overcome or eliminate all social distinctions based on color. Thus, “separate but equal” was a sufficient protection of rights. That decision has never been expressly overturned…
…Yet in the 1954 decision of Brown v. Board of Education the US Supreme Court did declare that in the matter of education, separate is not equal. The law of the land? Not to then Governor George Wallace who in 1963 tried to block the integration of Alabama schools declaring, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”
Clay County Missouri, where I worked in the late 1970’s as a State Parole and Probation Officer and later as a practicing attorney maintained a “Whites only” drinking fountain in its Courthouse at least into the late 1950’s. In the 1970’s Clay County Prosecuting Attorney, William S. Brandom commonly referred to “NNR” (N—- North of the River) as sufficient probable cause for law enforcement to stop an African American in the county.
In matters of housing: I live in an area of Kansas City developed in the early 1900’s. Indelibly recorded into the chain of title of homes in this area are covenants that these properties cannot be owned by persons of the Negro race. It was not until 1968 that the federal Fair Housing Act declared such restrictions illegal. Many neighborhoods, mine included, remain de facto segregated as the result of the inertia of history, and resistance of certain sellers, realtors, and lenders (“red-lining”) to change.
In matters of marriage: It was not until 1967 that the US Supreme Court (Loving v Virginia) struck down state anti-miscegenation laws that made “race mixing” criminally punishable. It remained unusual to see mixed race relationships in public and in the media well into the 21st century. I have been told by couples in mixed relationships that it remains “uncomfortable” in certain areas and among certain groups. (fn3)
Sports? Jackie Robinson broke the “color barrier” in 1947. What is less well known is that collegiate sports remained segregated in the South into the 1970’s. In the 1950’s and early 1960’s Louisiana and Mississippi each enacted laws that prohibited integrated sports competitions. It was not until 1971-72 that all SEC conference teams became integrated. It was not until 4 decades later that the SEC saw its first Black head coach and Black athletic director. Today, African American coaches, referees, and athletic administrators remain an underrepresented curiosity in the United States, especially in light of the proportion of Black to White athletes.
Health Care: I intended to skip this topic because it could justify a stand-alone post. However, today (June 12, 2020) State Senator from Ohio and ER physician, Steve Huffman, implied by question in a senate hearing that the higher rates of COVID-19 infections in the “…colored population” are because they “…do not wash their hands as well as other groups…” He has since been fired from his position as an ER doctor.
Voting: One need only look to the history of “poll taxes”, “literacy tests”, and other “legal” impediments designed to disenfranchise Black voters to understand the purpose of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Portions of that Act authorizing federal oversight of election procedures in certain states were struck down in 2013 by the US Supreme Court in Shelby County v Holder. The results and controversies remain a matter of current events, just one example being the disparity in the number of polling places to registered voters in predominantly White and Black race Georgia precincts this last week.
Our History: In the absence of systemic racism then surely two very similar massacres would have been equally reported in the annals of history and given equal voice in our schools’ American History textbooks.
In 1867 General George A. Custer and 267 of his officers and enlisted men were massacred at the hands of thousands of “savages” at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, more commonly known as “Custer’s Last Stand”. Who has not heard of the “valor, daring, and sacrifice” of the noble Custer and his men as mythically portrayed in books, movies, and television.
Yet, between May 31 and June 1, 1921, a mob of Tulsa Oklahoma’s White residents looted and burned Black owned homes and businesses. Over 35 square blocks in the Black citizen owned Greenwood District were virtually leveled. Over 800 Black residents were injured, and approximately 300 were murdered. The precise numbers will never be known as Oklahoma did not conduct an investigation into the events until 75 years later. Non-invasive archaeological research disclosed probable mass gravesites. The Greenwood District, then the most prosperous Black community in the nation ceased to exist and over 10,000 residents were rendered homeless. The 100 year silence that has surrounded the 1921 “Tulsa Massacre” is deafening.
Perhaps systemic racism is under attack and continues to erode. Ended?… I think not. As for those who believe otherwise, I will loosely borrow with apologies from Friedrich Nietzsche: “Perhaps those who were seen dancing were thought insane by those who refused to hear the music.”
Peace Everyone. Pete
fn1: The phrase “Jim Crow Law” was coined by the New York Times in an 1892 article about Louisiana’s passage of a law criminalizing the mixing of races in rail car accommodations. “Jump Jim Crow” was an 1830’s song and dance caricature of Negros performed by Thomas Rice in blackface which became synonymous with the negative depiction of the Black race.
fn2: For example, Fort Bragg, North Carolina, is named in the honor of General Braxton Bragg (1817-1876) who lead Confederate troops against the Union Army in at least 8 engagements. He was successful in only one and was relieved of command by CSA President Davis. Bragg is considered by historians to be one of the most inept commanders in the Civil War.
fn3: Today, June 12, 2020, is “Loving Day”, the day that it became universally legal in the United States for members of one race to marry members of another race.