Monday, March 10, 2014

Leadership on race

A new generation must take us where we need to go

In August 1965, the Voting Rights Act was signed into law. Two months earlier, I had graduated from a large urban high school that was more than 90 percent African American. Most of the white graduates went on to college. Most of the black graduates did not. I've been thinking about race, and especially about the position of African Americans in the United States, ever since.

Race and racism, and what the United States has done to African Americans and continues to do--the reality of slavery, the race-based evil present at the founding of the country, the promises Americans have broken to themselves and their neighbors since, the history and present and future that we refuse to confront, the lies that we tell ourselves--is our original and continuing sin, is democracy and fairness unrealized, is lives tossed away, is the disability we have been unable to overcome. Or so it seems to me.

Next month, my son Brendan and about 25 E.L. Haynes high school classmates will be taking a week-long trip to Atlanta, Birmingham and Selma, where they will learn more about the Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s and '60s. Student preparation for the trip includes watching parts of three different movies that illuminate various aspects of slavery, of Jim Crow and of the continuing oppression of African Americans.

The first of the three films, "Slavery by Another Name," documents the post-Reconstruction criminalization of joblessness, vagrancy and debt, which made blackness the face of crime for the first time, and allowed Southerners to continue the exploitation and treatment of former slaves under virtually the same conditions that had existed before emancipation. The biggest single difference lay, perhaps, in the fact that the ex-slaves were no longer owned as assets by plantation owners. They became more disposable than they had been on the plantations.

And just as slaves had been used to create a good portion of the infrastructure and great wealth that would put the United States on the path to becoming the wealthiest country in the world, sharecropper and convict labor would continue to be a means to build more wealth utilized by those in a position to benefit. U.S. Steel, the largest corporation in the world at the beginning of the 20th Century, is only one example of a corporate expropriater of the labor of African Americans, who were used to break strikes in Pittsburgh area steel mills, and to mine coal, build factories and operate the steel mills of Birmingham, Ala.; in reality, de facto slave labor after Reconstruction built the industrial center of the deep South.

"The Loving Story" the second in the series of films, screened at Haynes last week. The documentary tells the story of Mildred and Richard Loving, a mixed-race couple convicted in 1959 for violating Virginia's anti-miscegenation law. The Lovings were not activists by any understanding of the term. After their conviction, and a suspended sentence of one-year in prison, they moved with their children to Washington, DC, motivated exclusively by a desire to avoid continued persecution.

But Washington was too urban and distressing for the couple. For years after their conviction, the Lovings continued to sneak back into Virginia to visit family. Eventually, Mildred wrote Robert F. Kennedy, then U.S. Attorney General, seeking his help. Kennedy recommended that she contact the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed an appeal of their conviction. The appeal reached the Supreme Court, and in 1967 the court struck down the Virginia law under which the Lovings had been convicted and explicitly struck down the other anti-miscegenation laws still on the books in 16 states from Texas to Delaware (though it took until 2000 for Alabama to formally repeal the last remaining law).

The small-group discussions that followed the screening were guided by a series of questions, one of which asked participants to note the ways in which "whiteness" continues to be a protected condition today. The responses noted, in particular, the differential enforcement of drug laws and sentencing that send a disproportionate number of African Americans, young black men, especially, to prison. Other examples included failing public schools, particularly in urban areas where minorities live in significant numbers.

Watching the films, sitting down with teachers and parents and children, discussing what we watched and what we think, has made me, by turns, weepy and sad and angry. But listening to 15- and 16-year old Haynes kids express their feelings about the film, about the legacy of slavery and about the persistence of social conflict and problems that have their origins in race-based oppression and bigotry, also made me hopeful.

At about the same time as the Haynes discussion, I encountered this reflection, posted by Robert Reich on his Facebook page:

"I'm sitting here in the Toronto airport, after giving a lecture here last night. Every time I visit Canada I'm reminded what Canadians -- who look and sound almost exactly like us Americans south of the border -- don't have that we do (guns, the National Rifle Association, huge piles of money corrupting their democracy, withering poverty, strident and vitriolic politics), and what they do have that we don't (single-payer health care, affordable public universities, civil discourse, conservatives that would be called moderate Democrats in the States). Can any of you from Canada please explain why?"

I'm not Canadian, but to me, the single most important distinction between the United States and Canada, accounting for a good bit of our political polarization and contested social terrain, is rooted in our race-based history and culture.

It's the kidnapping and murder of Africans. It's slavery. It's a constitution that made African Americans less than Euro Americans. It's a constitution that declared African Americans less than human.

It's the Dred Scott decision and the Missouri Compromise. It's the unfulfilled promise of 40 acres and a mule. It's the fatigue that ended our national willingness after the Civil War to undo what we had done, and brought the end of Reconstruction and of black empowerment in the South for the next 100 years.

It's the near-century in American history after the Civil War when no white person, anywhere, was prosecuted for the murder of a black person. It's the post-Reconstruction decisions that made blackness criminal and lynching endemic. It's slavery by another name.

It's separate but equal. It's Jim Crow. It's Selma. It's the murder of black children. It's the Supreme Court decision in 2013 striking down key portions of the Voting Rights Act.

It's the terrible disproportion between the percentage of African Americans in the population (about 12 percent) and their percentage in the prison population (approximately 40 percent). It's the collapse of public education in African American communities.

Race and the history of race in the United States, all of it, is the biggest single difference between the United States and Canada and explains, better than any other factor, why we are an angry and ungenerous people. But were we to confront that history, and look at how it has led us to where we are today, we could free ourselves, and make amends, and move forward. We would end up a different country and the future might find Canadians asking how come they don't have what we have.

During the discussion following "The Loving Story" Te, a sophomore at Haynes, asked how come it took so long (33 years) after the Loving decision for Alabama to formally repeal the state's anti-miscegenation laws. I'm going to presume to answer that question, too.

For the biggest problems, there are no easy fixes, Te. We should all be mindful of Martin Luther King Jr.'s formulation: The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Yes, two hundred fifty years of slavery and another 150+ years of segregation and a continuing war, not on poverty, but on the poor, is edging toward a long time, a very long time, by human standards. Twenty generations, maybe.

But getting to where we are now, getting from the Middle Passage and the establishment of slavery in the British colonies in the 17th Century and getting through a civil war and to the passage one hundred years later of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, is no small accomplishment. And, in the process, the list of movements and heroes who have pursued and fulfilled some dreams, but nowhere near all of them, is no small accomplishment. New voter ID laws passed in many of the states of the Old South creating new obstacles for African American and other minority voters, the continuing impoverishment of historically black communities, the generation-after-generation imprisonment of young black men, and the daily murder of black children on the streets of some of America's richest cities, are all measures of how far we still must go to achieve the dream of a just society.

That will take more than the 33 years you asked about, Te. And it will take new heroes, perhaps you and Brendan and your classmates, to lead us, lead us with the kind of love for each other that kept the Lovings going when the odds were stacked against them. Pleased be assured that I will help.

1 comment:

  1. An amazing essay, Jeff. Your call to action--and salvation--for the new generation to take us where we want to go, takes me back in years when my grandmother pined that racial strife between whites and blacks would be eradicated when the old folks died off and the new ones took over. That happened to some extent. Indeed, you acknowledge that in the long centuries since slavery was abolished "...the list of movements and heroes have pursued and fulfilled some dreams," and that that is "no small accomplishment." But you point out that "we have been unable to overcome," the disability of "our original sin," of--not only slavery--but its aftermath of Reconstruction, defacto slave labor that built the industrial center of the deep south, and the socio-economic deprivation that generally made blackness a crime. I find hope in your son's school field trip that will take his class to Selma and points south where the sin played out, but the healing began as well. And, I do think the school is getting it right--studying historic videos that offer a back story of truth that will set the stage for what those young people will see, and hopefully feel. I think it might be possible to multiply the ruminations in your son's schools with some others across the least I hope so. At any rate, it'll be interesting to see if the torch will be passed to a new generation of Americans. Again, this is an outstanding article.