Our past is not past

mikereynoldsThe past is never dead. It’s not even past.” — William Faulkner

The unending torment of American racism preoccupies the nation after a season of murders of unarmed black men and children. The crimes have spotlighted the corrosion of justice brought on by recent decades of zero-tolerance law enforcement and mandatory sentencing law. Communities of poor African Americans have borne the brunt of the violence.

The Justice Department investigation of the Ferguson tragedy reveals policies established by the Ferguson city commission to generate annually increasing revenue from misdemeanor violations. The impact of those policies on Ferguson’s municipal court system was to incentivize violations of the Constitutional rights of poor, mostly black citizens. The push for revenue altered the purpose of the Ferguson police. The department ceased to be a defender of public safety and became an occupying force required to make money for the city.

Conventional wisdom, shared by many whites, is that racism is a feeling of hatred and contempt toward blacks. It is a private matter that a person must wrestle with to overcome. Many whites deny American racism exists; they are satisfied that persons are treated alike now regardless of their skin color. Racism has been eliminated from society, equal opportunity for blacks achieved, and the damaging effects of bondage and inhumanity are receding into the mist of history.

True, we have made progress. But racism is much more than the individual feelings you and I hold. It is a tangled and largely unacknowledged web created by centuries of racial legislation, lynching, economic exploitation, and custom. It has not been wiped away; nor is it likely to recede soon.

The horrific facts of the murders in Charleston, Baltimore, Cleveland, and Ferguson force us to acknowledge racial prejudice is the muscle and sinew of our national politics. From the Three-fifths Compromise in the Constitution to the Thirteenth Amendment, race is the fulcrum of American political conflict. The wholesale migration of southern white Democrats to the Republican Party following the Civil Rights Act of 1964 confirms that racism is alive and well in the United States. (This exit of Democrats to the Republican Party only occurred in the states of the old Confederacy.)

Since the first slaves arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619, notions of the inherent inferiority of blacks have been interwoven into our nation’s Constitution, laws, trade, and social customs. They pervaded the daily life of colonial America with a code of complex, deeply-rooted beliefs about racial inferiority that were publicly normative well into the 20th century. White supremacy and racially motivated violence are still with us. Only last month in Birmingham, Alabama, a black man was beaten by a mob of Donald Trump supporters.

Three stereotypes of blacks have persisted for centuries; you can hear them repeated today in “code words” and political issues indirectly associated with racial fears and resentments among whites. First, blacks are shiftless and lazy. Secondly, they are inherently criminal and have an innate desire to subjugate whites. Finally, they are sexually promiscuous and predatory, a danger to white women. These stereotypes of blacks have been used to justify centuries of withholding citizenship and suffrage, discriminatory criminal laws, disregard of family bonds, chattel slavery, rape, and lynching.

America’s original sin is more than the animosity of individuals toward black persons. It is a shared sin passed from father to son in American social and legal structures established to deny life and liberty to black human beings for the profit of whites. This shared guilt renders irrelevant whether my great grandfather ever owned a slave. Very few citizens owned slaves; but all Americans participated in and benefitted from the economic system built on our slave society.

We underestimate American racism when we reduce it to personal feeling. We misjudge the depth of American racism if we think Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and a few decades have eliminated the cancer of racial injustice. We do not see the magnitude of our offense against humanity if we believe we have paid the bill for American racism and a great deal more will not be required of us.

The damage to both races is too great; the economics of racial injustice have yet to be fully addressed. If we see only the tip of the iceberg — our private feelings — but not the massive obstruction of law and custom still with us beneath the water, we will continue to flail about in the existing racial predicament. It is likely to be a long slog. It will not be less long because white citizens deny racial injustice exists.

These words of Abraham Lincoln in his March 4, 1865, second inaugural address take the measure of our original sin and illuminate the nation’s future:

“Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as it was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘the Judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.’”

Michael Reynolds, a Rome resident retired from Georgia Tech, is a graduate of the School of Theology at Boston University. He writes for the website MOVE GEORGIA FORWARD and may be reached at MoveGeorgiaForward@gmail.com.

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