Nelson Mandela’s government came to power in South Africa in 1994. He and his advisors were aware that something had to be done to expose and redress the many government sanctioned wrongs that had taken place during the almost 50 years of institutionalized racial segregation known as apartheid. They decided to convene a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to try and provide their citizens and their country as a whole with a peaceful and satisfactory way forward. The commission listened to the statements of both people who had been abused under apartheid, as well as apologies and pleas for amnesty from perpetrators who had worked for the government. The hearings ran for five years, and at the end a permanent institute was established to provide a place where further testimony could be given. Canada followed a similar path to recognize and make reparations to indigenous people who had suffered in government established residential schools. Lessons about the Holocaust and the Nazi era are mandatory in German schools, and almost every student at some point visits either a concentration camp or a Holocaust museum or memorial. It is as true for countries as it is for individuals that historical mistakes must be acknowledged and, as far as possible, atoned for. How can such errors be avoided in the future if they are never recognized as having happened in the past?
There is one country that seems unable or unwilling to recognize this truth, and that’s the U.S.A. I have never heard a single American leader acknowledge the debt their nation owes to an enslaved people whose free labour accounted for half of their country’s wealth at the time of the Civil War, nor have I seen them show any remorse that the federal government abandoned newly freed slaves during reconstruction. Lyndon Johnson signed both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act in 1964, but many states have since undermined and sidestepped these laws by enacting strategies which circumvent the prerogatives contained therein. I have certainly heard many politicians pay lip service to how terrible slavery, the Jim Crow laws and segregation were. I’ve also heard them lament that currently too many people of colour are disenfranchised by voter suppression laws and are being railroaded into prisons. They are especially effusive about these issues when trying to garner the black vote. Very few of them, however, and certainly no Republicans that I know of, have ever suggested that the federal government needs to formally apologize for the historic and ongoing systemic oppression of African Americans, nor that they should make monetary reparations to the descendants of slaves.
Such a move is not without precedent. President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act in 1988 to compensate more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent who were incarcerated in internment camps during World War II. The legislation offered a formal apology and paid out $20,000 to every surviving victim. There was a scant 40 years between when Japanese Americans were wronged and the federal government’s act of contrition. I mention this because African Americans were initially brought to the U.S. in about 1619. They have been oppressed and abused for 400 years, so where is their apology? Where is the official recognition of how systemically persecuted they have been since their ancestors first unwillingly landed on North America’s shore?
These are very deep and complex questions, but I would imagine the main reason for not making reparations, at least, is that it would be an incredibly expensive undertaking. There were just over 48 million African Americans in the States last year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Let’s estimate low and say 25% of that number are adults with verifiable slave lineage. If each one of these individuals was given $20,000, as the Japanese Americans were, that is still a whopping $240 billion. It’s impossible to imagine such a figure being approved by both houses of government, particularly if Republicans are in the majority.
I suspect that part of the reason for not officially acknowledging the extent of the oppression is pride. It is always embarrassing and difficult to accept blame and to apologize. It is an extremely humbling experience, and America is a very proud country. Almost my entire extended family is American, as a girl I spent every summer holiday in the States and I have visited there countless times as an adult. I have been observing and absorbing American culture and the American ethos, both consciously and unconsciously, for my entire life. After 59 years of close study and near immersion, I feel confident in asserting that most Americans believe absolutely in the existence and attainability of the American dream, and further that they are unquestionably the greatest country in the history of the world. As Ronald Reagan said in his farewell address, they are “the shining city on the hill.”
Germany is also a very proud and arrogant country. The first two lines of their national anthem translate as, “Germany, Germany above all, above all in the world.” No equivocation there. Yet German school children are first introduced to the folly and terror of Nazism in grade three. They remember their horrible, bloody history as a nation to ensure that they do not repeat it. Which begs the question; if über patriotic Germans are willing to shoulder the abject humiliation of having fostered and supported arguably the most evil regime in the 20th century, then why can’t Americans admit their part in the subjugation of blacks? Is it possible that many white Americans and thus their legislatures and institutions are so intractably racist that they don’t see their culpability?
I would argue that this is the case. I have heard countless American talking heads claim that having elected a black president proves that racism is dead, a statement proven empirically false by all of the white police officers who continue to murder African Americans with impunity. Some people say that while racism may still exist, it is limited to the southern states, and this again is incorrect and always has been. Oppression of black Americans is as rampant in the north as it is in the south. Martin Luther King brought the civil rights movement to Chicago in 1966. His main purpose was to put an end to economically deprived black citizens having to live in filthy, crime-ridden slums. At one point he organized and participated in a peaceful walk through a white neighbourhood where he and his fellow marchers endured hateful rhetoric while being pelted with bottles and bricks. King himself was hit by a rock. After the demonstration he said,
“I have seen many demonstrations in the south but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I’ve seen here today.”
More recently, George Floyd was killed by police officers in Minnesota and Jacob Blake was shot four times in the back by a police officer in Wisconsin. Both these states are so far north that they touch the Canadian border.
There were racists in my own American family as well. My mother told me about a time when we were visiting my relatives in Fall River, Mass. She stopped in at my Aunt Mary and Uncle Chuck’s apartment to say hello when we first arrived. My Uncle Chuck, a very sweet man, was watching a boxing match between two black opponents. My mother asked who was fighting, and he replied, “I don’t know, but I’m rooting for the lighter guy.” There was also a time when we were visiting my dad’s brother and his wife in Cape Cod when my Uncle Cesar showed his bigotry. We had just finished dinner and the grownups were chatting at the table. My mother never really like Uncle Cesar. She considered him dumb and a bit boorish, but tolerated him for the sake of my dad and because she liked his wife, my Aunt Lucky. My mom had no doubt already bitten her tongue several times during the meal, but she finally blew when my uncle used a racial slur about black people. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but the gist of it was that she couldn’t help but notice that Uncle Cesar was okay with black people when they played jazz or were good with a ball, but he otherwise had nothing but scorn for them. This made him a hypocrite and a racist. I was young enough to be shocked into silence at witnessing two adults other than my parents arguing right in front of me, but I was old enough to be proud of my mom.
White America has employed two very pointed techniques to undermine claims of racism in relation to their history. The first is to simply rewrite it. The United Daughters of the Confederacy, or UDC, was formed in 1894, just three decades after the Civil War ended. Their stated goal was to “tell of the glorious fight against the greatest odds a nation ever faced, that their hallowed memory should never die.” I find this statement to be incredibly problematic – the fight was not glorious as it was only taken up to perpetuate the abomination of slavery, the south was not a nation but rather attempting to secede from one, and no one who took part in that ignominious cause deserves to be revered or even given a second thought. The UDC is responsible for the erection of most of the Confederate statues and commemorative markers which are currently being taken down all around the country. About time!
A more insidious side to the UDC is their support of an auxiliary association called Children of the Confederacy. Chapters of this organization hold meetings where children are taught lessons from a book penned by a UDC member entitled “Catechism on the History of the Confederate States of America, 1861-1865”. This book claims that slavery played no part in the Civil War, even though many primary documents issued by southern states at the time state otherwise. The real cause of the war was Abraham Lincoln’s rejection of 11 southern states’ “legal” right to leave the union. For emphasis it exclaims in all caps that the south, “…FOUGHT TO REPEL INVASION AND FOR SELF-GOVERNMENT, JUST AS THE FATHERS OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION HAD DONE.” This obfuscation recasts Southerners as misunderstood patriots carrying forward the American revolutionary spirit, when in reality they were rapacious, cruel slave owners hell-bent on continuing a system that afforded them prosperity and leisure at the expense of an entire race. The UDC coined the phrase “Lost Cause” to encapsulate their pseudo-historical claim that the Confederacy’s struggle was heroic and just. This misrepresentation lives on in the bulk of southern history text books.
The second method white America uses to minimize the existence of endemic systemic racism is to expunge or at least severely downplay past incidents of black oppression. Consider the largely unknown massacre which took place in 1921 in Greenwood, a black suburb of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Greenwood was an absolute anomaly – an all-black, self-sufficient community and business district so prosperous that it garnered the nickname “Black Wall Street”. Oklahoma was entirely segregated in the early 20th century, so African American businessmen decided to set up an area wherein people of colour could shop and live in comfort and peace. The neighbourhood bloomed in the middle of a Jim Crow state, and many of the white residents of Tulsa were livid at Greenwood’s success.
In May of 1921 a young black man accidentally bumped into or perhaps stepped on the foot of a white woman who screamed in response. The man was summarily arrested and charged with assault, an accusation the local paper immediately escalated into one of rape. Black men raping white women is the ultimate dog whistle for American racists. Every southerner knows this – Harper Lee knew it when she crafted the trial in “To Kill a Mockingbird”, and the men of Greenwood knew it too. They feared that whites would come and try to lynch the young man as he awaited trial at Tulsa’s courthouse, so they formed a phalanx around the building. There were a few minor skirmishes when the expected crowd came, but the outraged mob was eventually pushed back. Tulsa law enforcement responded to this perceived slight by deputizing a group of the white men involved, emboldening them to launch a full-out attack on Greenwood. They came armed to the teeth and overran the neighbourhood, killing black residents at will. There were also corroborated reports of privately owned planes dropping incendiary bombs on the area. In the end as many as 300 black people were dead, countless others were injured, and at least 1,000 were left homeless. The entire Greenwood community, all 35 blocks of it, was razed to the ground.
This is a clear example of black lives not mattering and of systemic racism at play, yet it has rarely appeared in any history books, least of all Oklahoma’s. I recently saw a black lawyer born and raised in Tulsa talking about this. He described hearing the Greenwood story in a history course at university and putting his hand up to protest that the professor must surely be wrong. He had lived his whole life not two blocks from Greenwood Avenue and yet had never even heard of the massacre. That kind of ignorance is only possible if people in charge actively keep such information under wraps.
Systemic racism and abuse of black Americans is alive and well to this very day. The 13th Amendment of the American Constitution banned slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. The prison industrial complex has taken full advantage of this loophole, and various state and federal laws have facilitated the filling of their prisons with men of colour. There have been many ways in which legislation has facilitated the travesty of mass incarceration of black men, but I just want to touch briefly on two. First, while Nixon’s “war on drugs” was ostensibly launched to keep Americans safe, his former aide John Ehrlichman admitted in 1994 that it was actually designed to paint a virtual target on the backs of inner city African Americans. Consider that crack and cocaine are almost identical at the molecular level, and yet people who are charged with possession of just 1 gram of crack are given the same sentence as those found to be in possession of 18 grams of cocaine. Now consider that crack is almost exclusively an urban, black drug, and cocaine is largely a suburban, white drug. The racial bias seems palpable.
Second, the introduction of the three strikes law and legislated minimum sentences have effectively filled up the prisons with men of colour. The three strikes statute instituted in the early 1990’s made it mandatory for anyone who had been convicted of three felonies to serve 25 years to life as long as two of the crimes were considered serious. Some states have softened or even abandoned three strikes in the past five years, but many men incarcerated under this law are still serving ridiculously long sentences. There are recorded cases of African American men being picked up on offences as insubstantial as stealing a bike or shoplifting, and then being put away for at least 25 years because this minor charge resulted in their third conviction. Mandated minimum sentences mean that judges may no longer look at extenuating circumstances when sentencing, but rather are legally obliged to impose often disproportionately long jail terms. These two legal maneuvers taken together have done much to explain why the black imprisonment rate at the end of 2018, according to Pew Research Center, was nearly twice the rate among Hispanics and more than five times the rate among whites. Once all of these black men were locked up, companies such as Victoria’s Secret, Intel, Walmart and Boeing, to name just a few, stepped right through that loophole in the 13th Amendment and started using largely free inmate labour as a means to increase their profits. This, in effect, is 21st century slavery.
LeBron James has a show on HBO called “The Shop”. It features famous men – entertainers and athletes – having a conversation about various topics while sitting in an actual barbershop. One episode included Pharrell, Don Cheadle and Seth Rogan, amongst others. At one point the panel was talking about racism in the States, and Rogan, the only Canadian in the group, mentioned something that had happened the last time he did a live show in Canada. An announcement came over the theatre’s loudspeaker before he came on stage acknowledging that they were on indigenous land and asking the audience to take a moment to be mindful of that fact. After he said this, both Pharrell and Cheadle said “Wow, that’s amazing!” with aspirational sadness shining in their eyes – aspirational because as African Americans they long for public recognition of their race’s contributions to and sacrifices for their country, and sadness because they know they will almost certainly never get it. Rogan went on to say he doesn’t understand how America can hope to move forward without a national recognition of its long racist history, and Cheadle responded that racism, “…is our country’s birth defect.” This seemed an apt analogy considering many of the men who established the United States were slave owners. Also, their founding document stipulates that each enslaved black man should be counted as three fifths of a white when determining how many representatives a state could send to congress. Some birth defects can be corrected, some cannot, but either way nothing can be done until there is at least an acknowledgment of the problem.