It’s uncomfortable, but necessary.
Our history is being whitewashed and only through confronting the truth about our past, excavating America’s original sins, can America achieve the high ideals as set forth in our Constitution. And given the fact that our President is a racist, surrounded by White Supremacists, foisting on America a racist agenda of divisiveness, scapegoating, condoning and enabling an environmental holocaust, and spearheading assaults on woman’s and LGBT’s rights, voting rights, immigrant rights, to this I would say: ain’t no better time than the present.
Trump has emboldened carriers of this cancer, coaxing them out of the closet for a full-frontal attack on our Constitution, the press, people of color, and the working poor.
But there’s a silver lining: previously, our nation labored under the delusion that the race issue had evaporated, no need to even bring it up for discussion. Didn’t we just elect our first African-American President?
Trump got himself elected by appealing to the prejudices of this base, first by using the dog whistle of code words such as ‘law and order’, ‘our kind of people’, and he then ratcheted up the rhetoric by labeling Hispanics ‘rapists, drug dealers and criminals’, labeled Muslims ‘terrorists’ and African-Americans as people descended from “Shitty” countries such as Haiti. Republican Senators and Representatives, instead of denouncing Trump for his blatant fearmongering, his moral depravity, doubled down on his hate, his scapegoating, and railroaded through legislation that deeply impacted people of color and the working poor.
And now we bear witness to Trump’s racist agenda as it ramps up full throttle at the border with ICE separating kids from parents.
This sounds eerily familiar.
Imagine a child, a child, walking to the entrance gate of a plantation where people lived in bondage, under terror, waiting expectantly for her mother to return, too young to comprehend the concept that her mother had been sold to another slaveholder and would never see her child again. And the child, who was too young to conceive such evil, continued to walk daily to the gate, expecting her mother to return, gazing hopefully beyond the horizon. Or sometimes, a child would witness their mother being sold on the auction block, and after the sale, the mother being carted away in chains, her child wailing, calling out for her Mommy whom she would never see again.
And this horror was replicated all over the South as families were systematically and brutally split. Imagine a Jewish child in Nazi Germany being told their mother was taking a shower and once showered, the mother would reunite with the child. What they didn’t tell the child was that the shower rained poison gas, not water. But the child waited, patiently, wondering how long the shower might take as a child always feels safe in their mother’s arms.
Imagine a child, picked up by ICE, being told that her mother was taking a shower and would see the child later, but the shower ended up taking two months, sometimes more, and sometimes the shower never ended,
It breaks your heart.
And the fact that ICE told the children a shower lie…well…let’s not go there…
When I was in high school in Maryland, there was an African-American who was on the football and basketball teams. He was an OK football player and didn’t play much on the basketball team. He was very personable, well-mannered, intelligent, well-liked, and probably came from a strong nuclear family.
In other words, just a regular guy who probably went on to lead a life of achievement and purpose. He had all the prerequisites that would predict success.
And then the incident: one day at lunch he was spotted walking around school grounds with this beautiful blond, arms draped over each other, their new romance in full bloom. In an instant, he went from being one of the guys to a “fuckin’ n..ger”. And this was from his teammates, brothers in arms. The woman wasn’t spared either: labeled with a couple of choice epithets: ‘goddamn whore’; ‘n..ger lover’. It was shocking the speed he went from being one of the guys to a social leper. A black man flouting a relationship with a white girl in suburban Maryland ignited a deep reservoir of hate, of vitriol. Minutes before they were your typical suburban teenagers discussing sports, girls and Friday night parties. The next moment they were consumed by this cauldron of hate, implanted by their fathers, a family legacy passed on like a family heirloom. Where did this hate come from? And it was only a couple of guys, the rest sat quiet, condoning the attack with their silence. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
These guys were a typical mix of suburban kids: most were average, above-average students, went to church—or their parents demanded they attend—and they grew up to be citizens of their communities, their racism and hatred simmering just below the surface, ready to be mined by politicians who served up scapegoats, igniting their racism by floating the code words that excavated the bile.
But what is it about white guys and their insistence on this concept of white purity, their fragile psyches, their fragile character that shatters upon seeing an interracial couple?
Where does this fear come from? And why?
Our history is saturated with tales of African-American men and boys being hung, tortured, mutilated and murdered for acts like the crime of looking at a white woman. Emmitt Till was tortured, his body mutilated, and buried in a lake for the crime of smiling at a white woman—and this was back in 1955, not the antebellum period. There was nothing that set off a white man more than just the hint of interracial interaction—didn’t even have to be sex. It could be a wink, a smile, and a black man would quickly have a noose around his neck.
Here is a quote from Senator Calhoun, a Senator from South Carolina back in the 1850’s: ‘Interfering northern whites would demand for ex-slaves “the right of voting and holding office,” resulting in “the prostration of the white race”—political servility and forced interracial marriage— “a degradation greater than has ever yet fallen to the lot of a free and enlightened people.”
And he said this out loud. (“The Half Has Never Been Told” by Edward E Baptist)
President LBJ had this to say: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pockets. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
That, my friends, is the Southern strategy exhumed by Richard Nixon, polished off by George Bush (remember the Willie Horton campaign ads?), piloted by Sarah Palin and executed by Donald Trump. In the antebellum South, as long as a white man could put their foot on a black man’s neck, they felt whole. Then and as now, they didn’t know who their suppressor was. Then as now, their suppressor had brainwashed them into thinking that people of color were keeping them down, stealing their jobs and taking their women.
A white man’s last visage of manhood, their last shred of honor, centered around their control of women, coupled with their implanted patriarchal view of the world. It was their last cord of dignity and they readily resorted to violence in order to preserve that identity. Back in the day they were illiterate. Slaveholders, who controlled the landscape, fought against public education, sensing it was a vehicle for change, revolution. Jobless, (all the jobs were being held by slave labor, but their last straw of dignity rested on the fact that they could control their women, could exact violence upon them as an outlet for their suppressed existence. It was their last shred of control and if a black man even hinted at a relationship with their women, it would ignite a cauldron of rage and violence and oftentimes murder.
In America, these festering, racist volcanoes have never been extinguished, much less confronted. The Civil Rights movement achieved political rights, but it never penetrated the suppressed, manipulated soul of wide swaths of whites, their hatred nourished by their family’s legacy.
So, this unexamined legacy has been allowed to smolder to the present day. A Washington Post reporter recently interviewed a Trump supporter who continues to be all in on the President, despite her being a devout Christian and turning a blind eye to her President’s moral degradation.
“The evidence was all the black people protesting about the police, and all the talk about the legacy of slavery, which Sheila never believed slavery was as bad as people said it was. “Slaves were valued,” she said. “They got housing. They got fed. They got medical care.”
In other words, being a slave was the equivalent of a stay at Trump Towers. It was practically a Brady Bunch existence, coupled with the free food and lodging and primo healthcare…well, there might of been a few hiccups like torture, hangings, lashings, rape, murder, malnutrition, multination families torn apart in an attempt to erase a collective race and culture, and not to mention the fact they were forced to pick cotton in 100 degree heat for 14 straight hours at a time and if they didn’t achieve their quota they were then whipped however many pounds their bags were short. In other words, if their quota was 100 lbs., and they picked 90 lbs., they were whipped 10 times. (Slaveholders didn’t use motivational speeches to get more production, they had the whip.). And I don’t think their take-home pay was all that great.
So, except for these few minor indiscretions, plantation life was pretty much a Club Med experience, a front runner for “Best Places to Work” award, circa 1850.
But these implanted ideas have been passed on from generation to generation, as evidenced by Sheila and the Maryland boys. These are the people that delivered Trump to the Oval Office. He knew precisely what to say that ignited their cord of hatred, of racism. But we are all culpable. Hate and racism not only damage the victim, it recoils on the soul of the perpetuator and because man is basically good, hate undermines his basic nature. We are our brother’s keeper; however, we want to deny that fact. This stain on America’s soul persists. Going earlier, we start to see the foundation constructed.
“In 1845, former governor James Henry Hammond Of South Carolina insisted that slavery should be the cornerstone of all relations, and that class subordination was just as natural. Jefferson’s “all men are created equal” was, Hammond insisted without shame, “a ridiculously absurd concept. Now a circle of influential southern intellectuals was openly insisting that freedom was best achieved when people remained within their proper station.” “White Trash” by Nancy Isenberg.
And going earlier, slavery was the driving force behind an economy that enriched not only slaveholders but northern investors, British industrialists, and French investors. Buttressing and justifying this terror, this juggernaut, this money-making industrial complex, were sermons from the pulpit that condoned the enslavement of human beings—apparently, being a slave was God’s will, part of his divine plan. And then there were Supreme Court decisions that affirmed African-Americans as property, not human, which gave slaveholders carte blanche to exploit a whole race of people.
But perhaps the original sin occurred when the Constitution was ratified, and African Americans were deemed 3/5 a person, the Southern slaveholders winning out, the Northern delegates caving in for the purpose of preserving the union.
But it went earlier when someone had the idea that slavery was ordained from the Heavens. And once it got entwined with commerce, with money, it became harder and harder for America to extract itself from its addiction. We see this today with guns, as America can’t pull itself away from this addiction, despite the slaughter of kids at Sandy Hook, despite the body counts across America, because payrolls are dependent upon these instruments of death. As long as the sale of AK-47s fill (fills) the coffers of corporations, AK-47s will sprinkle America’s landscape. Cash trumps morality every time. You saw how hard the cigarette industry fought regulation and transparency despite manufacturing a product that kills. Too much money on the table. Slavery was allowed to flourish because it fueled the economy and the people all over the world who were making money off the sweat of slaves buried their moral scruples with their monthly dividend checks.
Lincoln wrote that we need to have empathy for the slaveholder. Today, we need to have empathy for those mired in the vice grip of hate and racism. (And not from a patronizing viewpoint.) We are all complicit in allowing racism to fester. We either took the blood money or stood silent. Germans stood silent during Hitler’s rise to power. He also had a problem with the press, until he did away with them. (I seem to recall another world leader having issues with the press…) The fact that people like Shelia view slavery as benign is a scathing indictment of our educational system and our nation’s leadership. In Germany, they continue to breed Nazi apologists. Shouldn’t we be better than that?
Perhaps we can follow South Africa’s lead and conduct Truth and Reconciliation hearings where citizens were able to confess their sins which in turn began the healing process.
So yes, let’s talk about race.
We as a country have a lot to discuss.