Now with Black Lives Matter and their supporters in the streets protesting racial injustice and a national election approaching, we can seize the moment to correct historic wrongs.
Maya Angelou once offered these hopeful words, "History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again." 1
But that requires an honest reckoning with America's past and giving up once and for all the racist lie that African Americans are inferior. As the famous black abolitionist Frederick Douglass declared in 1893, "There is no Negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have honesty enough, loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough to live up to their own constitution." 2
American colonists did not invent the institution of racial slavery, but by the 1660s they did adapt it and use it to control and to exploit Black Africans. Slavery came first, then racism to justify it. Eventually a nation would be established with slavery written into its constitution, with claims to the blessings of liberty reserved for whites only. 3
The Civil War may have ended slavery but not the racist belief that Blacks were inferior and needed to be controlled. In the South the Black Codes, an exploitative sharecropping system, a murderous convict labor system, debt peonage, Jim Crow laws, and rigid segregation were created to place Blacks in a racial caste at the bottom of society. Vigilante justice, including physical threats, beatings, shootings, torture, burnings, and lynching, was used to keep Blacks "in their place." 4 That's a lot of painful history to sweep under the rug.
From 1915 to 1975, the Great Migration brought six million Blacks out of the South and into northern and western cities. For most of them, it was out of the frying pan and into the fire. Blacks faced de jure segregation in the South and de facto segregation in the North. As Black migrant Richard Wright discovered," I fled one insecurity and embraced another." 5
Blacks in the North and West were forced to cope with discrimination in employment, housing and education, and countless acts of humiliation. 6
The post-Civil War constitutional amendments, Supreme Court rulings, and the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s have been too often honored in the breach.
Now, in 2020, we face again the challenge and the opportunity to insure that people of color are treated equally and respectfully. The task is awesome, but we should not be deterred.
Racism is insidious and ubiquitous. Belief in racial stereotypes has been passed down from generation to generation, and racism has been written into the laws of the land. Police reform must occur before any more Black lives are lost. Law enforcement's primary mission should be to respect and to protect the citizens in their neighborhoods.
The next president needs to make racial justice a top priority. A national task force on race or a Truth and Reconciliation Commission should be charged with investigating racial inequities and proposing corrective measures. Everything should be on the table, including the issue of reparations. Racially discriminatory policies, laws, and practices should be identified and steps taken to eliminate them.
New laws may be needed. But laws are only effective if they are applied and enforced fairly. We can change the laws easier than we change closed minds with deep-seated prejudices. That means we must elect principled anti-racists who will enact anti-racist legislation, allowing anti-racist ideas to become the common sense of the majority, who will in turn hold their elected leaders accountable. 7
We must create conditions whereby the economically and politically powerful come to see anti-racism is in their self-interest.
Maybe then we can finally overcome the dichotomy between a nation based upon slavery and exclusion and a nation born of liberty and equality under the law.
Don Strasser, a Minnesota State University professor emeritus of American History, taught African American history for 30 years.
1. Eddie S. Glaude, Jr, Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own. New York, Crown, 2020, p.186.
2. Colin Woodard, Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of the United States. New York, Viking, 2019. p.278.
3. Darlene Hine, William Hine, and Stanley Harrold, The African American Odyssey. 2nd ed., New Jersey, Prentice Hall, 2003. Ch. 3.
4. Ibid. Ch.14.
5. Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns. New York, Random House, 2010. p.242.
6. Hine, Hine, and Harrold, Ch.16.
7. Ibram X.Kendi, Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. New York, Nation Books, 2016. p. 510.