By Sharon Parker (Click here to view the entire issue)
Racism is embedded in the dominant American culture so deeply that we often fail to see it. Most importantly, we fail to see that it continues to affect all of us. Every person, immigrant and refugee of every race, age group and religious, social, legal, artistic, business, educational, and government institution in the country. Many Americans want to believe that racism has been overcome and that White Americans have no responsibility for slavery because it ended 129 years ago. Such an attitude is consistent with the American historical perspective: we are short-sighted, unilateral, and vainglorious. As rugged individualists, we are conditioned to believe that we can fix any problem and overcome any challenge that tarnishes the idealist image of America. But we have not yet fixed the problem of racism, and we cannot even hope to do so until we, as a nation, are willing to look beyond the utopian image to the root causes. The legacy of slavery is definitely a root cause of the persistence of racism in today’s society.
I use the pronoun Awe because, regardless of our race, ethnicity, color or culture, as Americans, we are all responsible for this legacy. It is not just the problem of African Americans to rise again and again. It is not just a problem of relations between African Americans and White Americans. Nor is it simply a matter of oppressor vs. oppressed, or perpetrator vs. victim. We have all been victimized by racism; but worse still, we continue to be victimized by it… today! That is why I am so distraught at the notion of a national commission to study the damage racism did to African Americans.
Rep. John Conyers’ advocacy for federal legislation to establish a national commission is troublesome to me because it only looks at one part of the problem. Once again, the root cause may be ignored and an opportunity for real change will be missed. Rep. Conyers says, “my contention is that African Americans are still victims of slavery as surely as those who lived under its confinement. I do not deny the truth of that statement, but it is only a partial truth”. A national commission that only focuses on part of the issue is like trying to build a national health care program by only focusing on physicians, or deterring crime only by building more prisons.
The cost to all of us is demonstrated in the local, state, and federal budget priorities on funds for security and punishment rather than education and employment; education systems which cannot address their purpose because of overcrowding, understaffing, inadequate facilities and supplies; health care systems responding to the crisis needs of assaults and drug-related accidents rather than disease prevention and treatment; substandard services and goods because workers are not literate, are under great stress, or are malnourished and weak. Incalculable is the loss of human dignity and potential.
Slavery is one of the foulest, most despicable eras of our society. Racism, however, is not the result of that terrible history; it was perpetuated by it. It was racism, fueled by the superstitions and ignorance of the Dark Ages and justified by economic greed and power mania of the European monarchies and churches, that allowed Europeans to classify Africans as sub-human and, hence, legitimize slavery. To most slave dealers, this occupation merely involved the exploitation of another resource in a land full of promise but devoid of ready laborers.
So, with the importation of slaves and the sanctioning of the slave trade, raw, stark racism took hold in the colonies. As with everything else that has grown to become uniquely American in the intervening centuries, racism too evolved to suit the unique blend of peoples and activities carried out in the New World. It mutated and survives today.
It survives as such a fundamental part of the fabric of society that we stoutly deny its existence except in individual incidences we call Ahate crimes. But those who manage to step outside societal confines and look closely enough see an entire culture predicated upon the oppositional natures of White and Black: a legacy of the times when Africa was considered a dark and mysterious continent and its people, savages—devoid of soul and culture. In his book “Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal”, Andrew Hacker noted that White, like Black, is not a simple reference to a homogenous race of humans. It is a symbol of acceptable or unacceptable status in the societal order developed in the U.S. White privilege is only measured in terms of Black penalty and exploitation. Black people and the concept of Black identity are essential to maintain the power and authority of Whites. This is both an abstract concept and a daily reality. This reality means that people who are defined as Black can never fully become a part of society as people because of the way society is constructed.
I would happily support a commission to study the impact of slavery, or racism, on Americans today. But if Rep. Conyers’ advocacy for reparations for the descendants of African slaves is successful, the best I could hope for would be that such action would have the effect of propelling Americans to thoroughly examine the legacy of slavery and provoke critical awareness. Trying to remove only one piece of the cancer of racism will not result in healthy people. It will only prolong the suffering of Congress.
Too many Americans of all hues still look at the condition of the African-American community and do not see the legacy of slavery and discrimination presently manifesting itself. The deficit of resources (institutional and capital) that are more available to European-Americans is not a result of differences in the gene pool. No one wants to talk about the fact that this deficit results from what was immorally and viciously stolen from African-Americans and that many benefits from that theft still flow disproportionately to European-Americans.
Even some African-Americans do not want to talk about racism any more as if they might be asked to struggle for something bigger than their own individual paychecks. Jewish people refuse to let the world forget anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. In spite of responses of irritation and antagonism, they persist in reminding us of all that was done to Jews. They have no problem talking about the material aspects of that tragedy. Their persistence has resulted in the creation of the State of Israel.
Although it may be unpleasant, America still needs to discuss slavery, discrimination, racism, and the aftermath and consequences. As Richard America points out, the whole country’s competitiveness and productivity at a macro level is being damaged by the avoidance of this problem. Our ability to compete economically as a nation is being hampered by the energy and resources being dedicated to keeping racial conflicts under Control.
Let us not indirectly address it or avoid the discussion by hiding under an effort to create a Marshall Plan for the Cities. That plan is needed and may be more politically palatable than reparations. However, if what was stolen from African-Americans is not directly spoken of in the Plan, a likely result would include propelling low-income African-Americans out of the urban core. Cities would be successfully rehabilitated, but the conditions of the African-American community would not change. It has happened before.
Americans respond to forthrightness. Unfortunately, many of our more recent warriors against racism have lacked passion, boldness, and clarity; they have been mealy-mouthed. Yes, there is much that the African-American community can and should do without outside help, but that does not absolve anyone (past or present) or any institution of their participation in the crime. Neither is there any reason that a precise weighing of the material consequences of slavery and discrimination would cause hostility from other racially defined minorities nor strengthen any assumption about the necessity of white aid to bring about prosperity in the African-American community. What we need to do is one thing: what happened and is happening to our community is another thing. Let us not accept either victimology or blaming-the-victimology.
Sharon Parker is Director of Social Responsibility Programs for the Union Institute (1731 Connecticut Ave. NW, #300, Washington, DC 20009). Prior to that recent appointment, she was Director of Stanford University’s Office of Multicultural Development.