Last week’s Daily Camera featured a guest column by Frank Walsh, criticizing the movement to acknowledge the central role of slavery in building our country. He often writes to deflect our attention from very real, current harms.
In the simplest terms: Four hundred years ago, white people brought Black people over here and enslaved them. And sold them. And treated them as less than human. For 250 years. While white men built the country and created its laws and its systems of government. While 10 to 15 generations of white families got to grow and flourish and make choices that could make their lives better.
And then 150 years ago, white people “freed” Black people from slavery. But then angry white people created laws that made it impossible for Black people to vote. Or to own land. Or to have the same rights as white people. And even erected monuments glorifying people who actively had fought to keep them enslaved. All while another five to 10 generations of white families got to grow and accumulate wealth and gain land and get education.
And then 60 years ago, we made it “legal” for Black people to vote, and to be “free” from discrimination. But angry white people still fought to keep schools segregated. And closed off neighborhoods to white people only. And made it harder for Black people to get bank loans, or get quality education or health care, or to (gasp) marry a white person. All while another two or three generations of white families got to grow and pass their wealth down to their children and their children’s children.
African Americans face all sorts of systemic racism as I write. Walsh thinks many Black people are in jail because they commit more crimes. Not so. Our criminal justice system is a crucial aspect of systemic racism.
The number of Black men in prison reflects the war on drugs. This “war” was started specifically to keep minorities from voting. John Ehrlichman, President Richard Nixon’s top aide, freely said so.
“You want to know what this was really all about. The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and Black people,” he said. “You understand what I’m saying. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
President Ronald Reagan expanded the “war” and imprisonments skyrocketed. Nonviolent drug arrests increased from 50,000 in 1980 to more than 400,000 by 1997. The arrests were disproportionately of minorities.
But now we have entered an age where we had the technology to make public the things that were already happening in private – the beatings, the “stop and frisk” laws, the unequal distribution of justice, the police brutality (police began in America as slave patrols designed to catch runaway slaves).
And only now, after 400-plus years and 20-plus generations of a white head start, are we starting to truly have a dialogue about what it means to be Black.
White privilege doesn’t mean you haven’t suffered or fought or worked hard. It doesn’t mean white people are responsible for the sins of our ancestors. It doesn’t mean you can’t be proud of who you are.
But it does mean that we need to acknowledge that the system our ancestors created is built for white people. It does mean that we aren’t disadvantaged because of the color of our skin and it does mean that we owe it to our neighbors – of all colors – to acknowledge that and work to make our world more equitable.
PHOTO: Wikimedia commons: Russell Lee / Public domain