Since many of my fellow Caucasians often seem rather thick when the subject of racism is the topic of discussion, I thought I would take the time to “whitesplain” racism to the less observant among the melanin-challenged community.
“Slavery Was So Long Ago…”
No, it wasn’t.
155 years is only a blip on the timescale of history, whether tens of thousands of years of human history or billions of years of all history, but that’s not even important.
In terms of the years when actual progress was made in civil rights and race relations, subtracting out the years where nothing happened or the progress was negative, there haven’t really been that many years since the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction.
When Reconstruction ended in the late 1870s, Northern Republicans basically threw up their hands and let the social order of the Old South reassert itself, going back as close to slavery as the 13th Amendment would allow. Had they had the constitutional option to do so, Southern whites of post-Reconstruction America would have re-established slavery in a heartbeat.
From the end of Reconstruction to Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 1960s, a period of roughly 90 years, progress on civil right was glacial at best, but probably better described as negligible. In just the last few days, both houses of Congress passed an anti-lynching bill. This is approximately the 200th such bill introduced since 1882, because none of those other bills became law. Inevitably, no matter how overwhelming the vote was in favor of the bill in the House, the Conservative Southern Democrats in the Senate would put it down like Old Yeller. This was the fate of even the most milquetoast civil rights bill prior to 1957, and even the 1957 Civil Rights bill was little more than a toothless version of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act to follow.
In other words, when we’re discussing how long it’s been since the Civil War and the end of slavery, we have to subtract out the 90 years where literally nothing happened in the field of civil rights and the status of black Americans remained frozen in stasis. And that 90-year figure assumes that progress since 1965 has happened at the pace we should be able to expect in a just society. The events of late May and early June of 2020 would seem to confirm that such an assumption would be sadly optimistic.
Taking that math into account, we are probably where we should have been on race relations and civil right in about 1900 or 1910. Now maybe you’ll see why some people seem so impatient.
There is also the economic time scale. Consider emancipation to be the zero point. Slavery is, in effect, sub-zero poverty. Slaves are so poor that they don’t even possess themselves. At the moment of emancipation, a slave had exactly themselves and maybe the clothes on their back, but nothing more than that.
Right-wing media has attempted to portray poverty in the black community as the result of their lack of personal initiative or their dependence on government aid, but this is not only racist in its assumptions but it also attempts to deny the existence of a political, economic, and social system purposefully designed to exclude black Americans from both political power and economic opportunity, two things that go hand-in-hand. The Venn diagrams of people without political power and people without economic opportunity overlap quite a lot.
“People Need to ‘Get Over’ Slavery”
Right. Would you ask Fred Goldman to “get over” the murder of his son, Ron? Do you think Charles Lindbergh ever “got over” the disappearance and murder of his baby? Why don’t you try telling a sexual assault survivor to “get over” being raped and see how that goes?
This often comes from people who can’t even get over Obama being President. They can’t get over Colin Kaepernick kneeling in peaceful protest during the national anthem. They certainly can’t get over being asked to wear a mask or take other steps to protect their fellow citizens during a pandemic.
So, if you’re response to complaints about systemic racism is “get over it already,” I need you to do two things for me. The first is to get over yourself, and the second is to go fuck yourself. I’d ask you to do both at the same time, but I don’t know if you could handle that level of multitasking.
A White Idiot’s Guide to Racist History
When Europeans landed in the “New” World, they didn’t immediately begin shipping slaves over from Africa. Why bother when there were tens of millions of indigenous people already there, much more convenient for their enslaving purposes? However, the original slave labor force of the Americas lacked an immunity to Old World plagues such as smallpox, and before long, the colonial powers found that the number of available slaves had shrunk by 95%.
Rather than see this as a tragedy of continental proportions, however, European colonial powers saw this only as an inconvenient labor shortage and began turning to the African slave trade to fill their “need” for forced labor in the Americas.
Yes, there was already an African slave trade, but this was only because Africans are humans and humans can be terrible. Europeans had used slaves on a smaller scale on their African plantations, but slaves were an accepted part of the local economy at the time. Prior to the Industrial Revolution and its insatiable appetite for resources, Europeans traded with African kingdoms more or less as equals. They may not have uniformly seen the Africans are their equals, but the view of black people as subhuman savages had yet to fully form in the white mind. It would take the large-scale transport of African slaves to the Americas to make this seem necessary. Enslaving people en masse, transporting millions of them thousands of miles from home, then buying and selling them like livestock, required some world-class rationalizing to dehumanize them first. The products of that rationalization are still with us.
Almost every racist trope that gets regurgitated either on The Daily Stormer or on Fox News has its origins in that rationalization. The language might be more carefully coded now (or it might not be coded at all), but behind every disgusting, infuriating thing that Bill O’Reilly or Tucker Carlson has ever said, there is a colonial European or American slave trader, desperate not to feel guilty over treating millions of their fellow humans as livestock, shoving them into the holds of ships under inhuman conditions as part of a genocidal system of forced labor.
And when a white cop has his knee on the neck of a black man, pinning him to the ground and cutting off his windpipe, the thoughts in the cop’s brain originated with a person long dead, a person trying to rationalize the morality of slavery, to find some way to treat another human being as property and still see themselves as a good Christian.
We can’t really expect people to “get over” the enslavement of their ancestors when the intellectual residue of that peculiar institution is still being used today to oppress those very same people.