By Dustin Pickering
“…history is potent enough to deliver, on time, in the medium to long run, most of the possible scenarios, and to eventually bury the bad guy.”
Nassim Nicolas Taleb, Fooled by Randomness
This essay assumes a personal and historical tone during time of global unrest. It is my response to the murder of George Floyd and seeks to re-imagine what could be from what is.
My great grandfather on my dad’s side loved Black people. He was respected in the small Mississippi town of Monticello where he frequented Black churches at night. As a Southern Baptist, it was an odd thing for him during that period to appreciate the Black community. This was during a time prior to the Civil Rights Era of the 1960’s.
My grandmother grew up in that era and married at age 13. Her husband was involved with Klansmen. She told me stories about violence against Blacks including an incident where she saw a Black man run into a field followed by an angry mob of white men that included the town sheriff. The sheriff told her not to worry about what was going on. She told me in confidence that when the Civil Rights Act made it possible for Blacks to run for office, she voted for a Black woman running in a local election. She told me stories of Blacks being chased from sidewalks and vapidly discouraged from smiling casually at white women, treated as second-class citizens, jazz clubs being raided, Black musicians portrayed as negative influences on youth and women for smoking marijuana, and newspapers with severely racist headlines. The picture was distant to me other than history books. She told me about the first time she witnessed a sit-in. Her shock was outrun by her admiration. She owned the Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley.
These stories will come as no surprise to Blacks, I’m sure. The Black community has suffered repression by white supremacists and societal conditions imposed on them for hundreds of years in the United States. It seems unjust that even Nature is not even-handed. For instance, the COVID-19 virus and AIDS disproportionately affected Black communities. I attended a short discussion with Tantra Zawadi, an activist and poet, several years ago during which she showed a documentary film about the suffering of Black people due to the AIDS virus. I asked her why she thought it hurt her community particularly. She responded that the Black community has learned to not care for itself. That is a long and frightening discussion.
It is often assumed that the American Civil War resolved the problems created by slavery. President Lincoln is reported as stating, “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races … I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races from living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be a position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” This was quoted from his debates with Sen. Stephen Douglas on September 18, 1858. This statement was made in defense against the Democrats who believed Lincoln would abolish slavery, what was then a radical suggestion.
Frederick Douglass said of class struggle, “Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”
The Black Codes of the Reconstruction era did just this. Even before the Civil War, such codes were designed to protect the institution of slavery. Blacks were expected to turn their guns over to white men upon the white man’s request. Through convict leasing, private parties could employ the free labor of convicts. This practice provided immense revenue to southern states. Time Magazine writes, “Prison privatization accelerated after the Civil War. The reason for turning penitentiaries over to companies was similar to states’ justifications for using private prisons today: prison populations were soaring, and they couldn’t afford to run their penitentiaries themselves.” In fact, the Thirteenth Amendment abolishes slavery except as punishment for a crime. Privatized prisons historically targeted Black males. African American families still suffer from policies such as the Drug War. The 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act created tougher mandatory sentences for possession of crack, a drug that was cheaper and easy to transport than powdered cocaine, though not much different in substance. Media hype of the 1980’s created the illusion of a “crack epidemic”, thus leading to the tougher sentencing law. This law was amended by the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act. The Sentencing Project Records the racial disparities of incarceration.
Some statements from The Sentencing Project:
“One contributing factor to the disparity in arrest rates is that racial minorities commit certain crimes at higher rates. Specifically, data suggests that black Americans—particularly males—tend to commit violent and property crimes at higher rates than other racial groups. Other studies, however, demonstrate that higher crime rates are better explained by socioeconomic factors than race: extremely disadvantaged neighborhoods experience higher rates of crime regardless of racial composition. Because African Americans constitute a disproportionate share of those living in poverty in the United States, they are more likely to reside in low-income communities in which socioeconomic factors contribute to higher crime rates.”
“The United States government’s War on Drugs has perhaps contributed more than any other single factor to the racial disparities in the criminal justice system.”
We continue to remind one another to “beat our swords into ploughshares.” We must be hungry.
In the 19th century prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War, factions of anti-immigrant sentiment developed and coalesced into the Know Nothing Party. They were generally working-class nativists who resented Irish and German Catholics for economic reasons. They came from industrialized cities in the North and spread into the South. The Party was founded in 1844 and rose to prominence in 1853 until the Dred Scott decision and John Brown’s raid proved slavery was a central issue to the nation rather than immigration. John Wilkes Booth was a member.
Once the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) replaced congressional edict with popular sovereignty regarding slavery in territories included in the Louisiana Purchase, what is now known as the Republican Party emerged in the North among anti-slavery advocates and Freesoil debaters. Nativists in the South became entrenched in the Know Nothing cause. Such nativist sentiment evolved into the strict anti-immigration policy in the 1920’s that was oddly lax on northwestern European flow into the United States.
It is a commonly understood fact of history that the northern economy was less dependent on slave labor, and more on the surplus capital provided by taxing the products of slave labor. In Hylton v. US (1796), Justice Patterson wrote, “The constitution declares, that a capitation tax is a direct tax; and both in theory and practice, a tax on land is deemed to be a direct tax… The provision was made in favor of the southern states; they possessed a large number of slaves; they had extensive tracts of territory, thinly settled, and not very productive. A majority of the states had but few slaves, and several of them a limited territory, well settled, and in a high state of cultivation. The southern states, if no provision had been introduced in the constitution, would have been wholly at the mercy of the other states. Congress in such case, might tax slaves, at discretion or arbitrarily, and land in every part of the Union, after the same rate or measure: so much a head, in the first instance, and so much an acre, in the second. To guard them against imposition, in these particulars, was the reason of introducing the clause in the constitution.” (bold emphasis is the essayists)
In 1895, the Pollack case redefined direct taxation to include taxes on property and income, and the 16th Amendment restored the original definition of taxation whereby to allow the progressive income tax and other measures.
The northern industrialized economy continued to exploit Black labor. According to thehenryford.org, “No single reason can sufficiently explain why in a brief period between 1910 and 1920, nearly half a million Southern blacks moved from farms, villages, towns and cities to the North, starting what would ultimately be a 50-year migration of millions. What would be known as the Great Migration was the result of a combination of fundamental social, political and economic structural problems in the South and an exploding Northern economy. Southern blacks streamed in the thousands and hundreds of thousands throughout the industrial cities of the north to fill the work rolls of factories desperate for cheap labor.” The population of Detroit nearly doubled between the years 1910-20 with a significant increase in the Black population. The Great Migration provided companies like Ford Motors with cheap labor from African Americans.
Clearly slavery shaped the United States economy and was a major catalyst of dispute as well as change. Some may argue it was necessary for the New World; however, religious groups such as the Mennonites were abolitionists as far back as 1688. Along with immigration and taxation, today’s Republican Party has utilized these antiquated hostilities; yet, the Democrats have convinced a segment of voters with other reasons. They became the party of ‘civil rights.’ Encyclopedia Britannica defines civil rights as “guarantees of equal social opportunities and equal protection under the law, regardless of race, religion, or other personal characteristics.” A July 12, 1964 article in the New York Times states, “…the pressure exerted by militant Negroes had become so great that many businessmen had dropped racial barriers in their establishments. Many others were waiting only for the excuse provided by the new law.” The spirit of the times was changing to oblige equal rights. Some may argue that law does not guarantee equality or fair treatment. However, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King stated in a rebuttal to Goldwater’s “change of heart, not legislation” approach that he agreed with Goldwater, and although legislation cannot make a man love him it can in fact prevent him from lynching him.
We should not define bigotry, xenophobia, and racial injustice along party or regional lines as the usual contemporary narratives have it. My grandmother and I used to argue about the Old South in contrast to the “New South.” A few years ago, Newsweek ran a cover article along those lines. The changing attitudes of young people and the decline of traditional narratives favoring “states’ rights” were the article’s focus. After reading, I called my grandmother to discuss it with her.
She didn’t seem to agree that the South was changing significantly. She often spoke against the Democrats and their effect on the South historically. Democrats caused enormous civil unrest during the Reconstruction Era, including at the Battle of Liberty Place where white supremacists defeated US troops in an attempted coup against elected governor William Pitt Kellogg. Kellogg was considered a “carpetbagger” by white southern Democrats because of his years collecting customs at the Port of New Orleans. The White League, as the paramilitary white supremacist force was known, intimidated Blacks to prevent them from voting—no poll tax or literacy tests! Reconstruction era Democrats used violence and intimidation to oppose Black emancipation! The grandson of a Confederate soldier, President Lyndon Baines Johnson who passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, supposedly remarked, “These Negroes, they’re getting pretty uppity these days and that’s a problem for us since they’ve got something now they never had before, the political pull to back up their uppityness. Now we’ve got to do something about this, we’ve got to give them a little something, just enough to quiet them down, not enough to make a difference. For if we don’t move at all, then their allies will line up against us and there’ll be no way of stopping them, we’ll lose the filibuster and there’ll be no way of putting a brake on all sorts of wild legislation. It’ll be Reconstruction all over again.” It is sometimes said President Johnson was simply navigating the political realm wisely, much like President Lincoln.
This began the era of “Southern Strategy”. The term “dog whistle” was used to indicate the new rhetoric of “state’s rights” employed by the GOP. “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger’. By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites,” Lee Atwater stated to explain states’ rights. Atwater further states, “But Reagan did not have to do a southern strategy for two reasons. Number one, race was not a dominant issue. And number two, the mainstream issues in this campaign had been, quote, southern issues since way back in the sixties. So Reagan goes out and campaigns on the issues of economics and of national defense. The whole campaign was devoid of any kind of racism, any kind of reference.” Does making race a central issue hurt or help the cause of equal justice? Have we forgotten the importance of racial dynamics in shaping this country?
I remember as a child in the Reagan 80’s I was tutored to read and write by a Black woman who came to love me as her own. This was in Mississippi, the heart of the Dixiecrat struggle only decades before.
In 2013, a high school in Jacksonville, FLA initiated a name change. It was originally named after Confederate general Nathan B. Forrest who was known to have cut off the arms of surrendered black soldiers. My father was at the forefront of keeping the name. I reluctantly signed a petition he created to keep the school’s name even though I strongly disagreed with it. The school’s African-American student population grew to over half the student body. The school used a Confederate flag in its pep rallies. I can see why the name, which was suggested by the Daughters of the Confederacy in the 1950’s, would upset Black students. Nathan Bedford Forrest was also the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. I signed the petition in a lukewarm decision to support my family, believing it was a lost cause. I was later told that the petition would not be used because only current students and their families’ voices mattered in the decision process. My father was irate.
I agree with the decision to change the school’s name. Who wants to be subjected to seeing the symbols of racism—watch videos from the Civil Rights era—symbols used to oppress and intimidate Blacks, or have a school honored after the KKK’s first Grand Wizard who was not even from Florida? I learned of my own temerity and indecision during this dispute. While the petition had few signatories generally, I was one of them. My decision to sign went against my conscience.
The high school is now known as Westside High School.
As a matter of general observation, it seems that political grievances are not resolved only politically.
Continuous police brutality against Blacks throughout history from Emmitt Till to Amadou Diallo, from Rep. John Lewis to George Floyd, is a serious concern. Blacks are 2.5 times as likely to face police violence than other racial groups. In 2019, 1,098 incidents of police homicide were recorded. According to mappingpoliceviolence.org, Black people were 24 percent of those homicides while only being 13 percent of the population. In 2017, 1,117 police homicides occurred with 27 percent of them being Blacks. According to a National Institute of Justice study, 50.6 percent of police surveyed believed that it is not unusual for police to turn a blind eye to police misconduct and disagreed that police report abuses of authority at 58.5 percent of those surveyed (Police Attitudes Toward Abuse of Authority, 2000). This study notes that 65.6 percent of those surveyed do not believe the “code of silence” is necessary to good policing. This suggests that in spite of the numbers, our police forces have integrity.
The Black community even retaliates against other Blacks, but Black violent crime is more likely to be interracial. Some solutions to these problems have been suggested. A February 4, 2017 NPR article reports that “as the ration of black officers in police departments rose – up to a certain threshold – so did the number of fatal encounters between officers and black residents… The tipping point appears to be 25 percent. When black officers reach that ratio in the force, the rate of fatal police-involved incidents levels off. The study also found that once a police department became about 40 percent black, the trendline flipped – the more black officers a department has after that point, the less likely the incidence of fatal encounters with black people.” Varieties of strain theory suggest that criminal activity could be due to strain on families, institutional and societal demands on the individual, the Ferguson effect (increased distrust of police due to police violence), and other factors. The National Review reports, “In reality, a randomly selected black man is overwhelmingly unlikely to be victim of police violence — and though white men experience such violence even less often, the disparity is consistent with the racial gap in violent crime, suggesting that the role of racial bias is small. The media’s acceptance of the false narrative poisons the relations between law enforcement and black communities throughout the country and results in violent protests that destroy property and sometimes even claim lives.” The data at mappingpoliceviolence.org notes that Black Americans killed by police are more likely to be unarmed. The broken windows approach encouraged in the 1994 Crime Bill puts undue pressures on poorer communities through increased policing of them. Some suggest juvenile delinquency is caused by the readiness of illegitimate opportunities compared to honest work.
Bloomberg reports a novel addition in this national conversation. Sarah Holder writes in “The City that Remade Its Police Force” that community policing has enabled peaceful protest. Holder writes, “Homicides in Camden [New Jersey] reached 67 in 2012; the figure for 2019 was 25.” With the assistance of New York University’s Policing Department, the police in Camden developed a new manual for use-of-force. (The manual can be read here.) Camden is hoping the rest of the country’s forces follow suit.
It seems in recent years there has been some improvement for the Black community. Graduation levels improved under the Obama administration and Black unemployment is at historical lows under the Trump administration (prior to COVID-19). Economist Walter Williams in The State Against Blacks notes how government policies such as minimum wage and affirmative action have worsened conditions and discrimination. Since the book was written in 1982, unemployment among Black youth is still about 50 percent. Redlining began under FDR by housing authorities has also contributed to impoverishment of Black families. The Community Reinvestment Act, passed in the 1970’s to combat redlining, is even said to have played a role in the Great Recession of 2008 by encouraging subprime leasing.
The riots and demonstrations going on in the United States today as a reaction against the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was not resisting arrest and cried for his life while an individual officer’s knee clamped on his neck, are not historical anomalies. The problems faced by the African American community are rooted in a history that affects us all as Americans. The cheapening of Black lives, the destruction of their communities, and the ignorance prevailing concerning these matters and their causes should be openly discussed.
Aside from institutional violence, other policies have impacted the Black community disproportionately.
Conservatives believe abortion is rooted in the eugenics cause. As evidence they mention Margaret Sanger, a eugenicist and founder of Planned Parenthood. According to a 2017 study by American Journal of Public Health, black women had the highest rates of abortion even though white women had more of them.
The study, which also notes a decline in the number of abortions in the USA between 2008-14 says, “White women accounted for the largest share of abortions among the 4 racial and ethnic groups examined (38.7%), although they had the lowest abortion rate: 10.0 per 1000. Black women were overrepresented among abortion patients and had the highest abortion rate: 27.1 per 1000.” It has been noted that clinics tend to be in poorer communities, granting easier access to minorities who tend to be economically disadvantaged. Sanger herself notes the reason for her activism: “If THE WOMAN REBEL were allowed to publish with impunity elementary and fundamental truths concerning personal liberty and how to obtain it, the birth control movement would become a movement of tremendous power in the emancipation of the working class.” (from “Suppression”) Abortion is a socioeconomic issue more than a race issue. The mistake is easily made when we forget that race and class intersect in the United States.
In spite of these facts, Sanger wrote in “The Eugenic Value of Birth Control Propaganda”, “As an advocate of Birth Control, I wish to take advantage of the present opportunity to point out that the unbalance between the birth rate of the ‘unfit’ and the ‘fit’, admittedly the greatest present menace to civilization, can never be rectified by the inauguration of a cradle competition between these two classes. In this matter, the example of the inferior classes, the fertility of the feeble-minded, the mentally defective, the poverty-stricken classes, should not be held up for emulation to the mentally and physically fit though less fertile parents of the educated and well-to-do classes.” While it is true that the poor tend to have larger birth rates with less means at their disposal to care for the children, this passage indicates Sanger’s early commitment to eugenics.
California’s prison system employed the decision of Buck v. Bell to forcibly sterilize 148 female prisoners without consent between 2006-10. Huffington Post writes, “In the past, sterilization of vulnerable populations in the name of ‘human betterment’ was carried out with legal authority and the backing of political elites. What current and past practices share is the assumption that some women by virtue of their class position, sexual behavior, or ethnic identity are socially unfit to reproduce and parent.” (“Sterilization Abuse in State Prisons: Time to Break with California’s Long Eugenics Patterns”, 7/23/2013) PBS.org states, “While California’s eugenics programs were driven in part by anti-Asian and anti-Mexican prejudice, Southern states also employed sterilization as a means of controlling African American populations.” (“Unwanted Eugenics and Sterilization Programs in the United States”, 1/29/ 2016)
However, Coretta Scott King had this to say about Margaret Sanger upon accepting the Margaret Sanger Award for Human Rights on behalf of her husband: “There is a striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger’s early efforts. … Our sure beginning in the struggle for equality by non-violent direct action may not have been so resolute without the tradition established by Margaret Sanger and people like her.” NPR recognizes in their Race Card Project that “black babies cost less to adopt” because of supply and demand. In other words, there are more black children prepared for adoption and less interest in adopting them.
Why have we come this far without questioning ourselves, white friends, white family, white society? It seems when the world turns a mirror to us, for us to look at ourselves, we would rather forget, argue, debate, make excuses.
I am not any better. I admit. I am not any better. It is a tough thing to look at yourself and say, “I can do better. I can encourage more equity.”
Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t about the United States. It isn’t about capitalism or socialism. Research South Africa, for instance, and find that the violence against white people is a result of a system that clearly is in favor of white people. Even post-Apartheid, Blacks are being shafted of opportunities. School books are free for white children. White farmers are wealthier and rely on the work of Black people.
This is an issue with humanity. This is an issue with the world. This is not an issue with specific groups, countries, or factions. I framed this essay in the context of my country, the USA, because this is where I see the most immediate effects of the problem. Being in the center of European imperialism and colonialism from the beginning, the United States is responsible for the lack of equity faced today.
In Timbuktu, Islamist insurgents torched two libraries containing historic manuscripts in 2013. Some of the material in the libraries dates back to the 13th century. On the edge of the Sahara, Africa preserves some of its vital history. In a battle for civilization, extremists torch the buildings. These documents include important translations of Plato, Hippocrates, and other Western thinkers, as well as writings on medicine, art, and philosophy. There are also Medieval copies of the Qur’an. Many of the manuscripts were evacuated with financial help from multiple organizations such as the Ford Foundation founded by Edsel and Henry Ford in 1936. Recalling my comments on Ford Motors earlier, perhaps we have come full circle and things are improving although only slightly? Are Blacks being recognized as independent, fully competent individuals now as compared to the Civil War era?
It is a difficult and sobering thing to let go of power. In order to see the reflection of one’s skin and the haughtiness of one’s attitude and acts, one must look into the eyes of another’s experiences.
Capitalism, emerging from the products of slavery through rapid industrialization, left many people out. Since the founding of the United States under the words “All men are created equal, entitled to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” there have been struggles to make this ideal into reality. Once John Jay, founding father, argued that ownership of property should be the sole criteria in considering the right to vote. The values of a capitalist society include the right to the product of one’s labor, free enterprise, and to do with one’s property what one decides in a fair and just manner.
The US Constitution declares we have a right to security in our persons and property. The US Constitution also declares we have a right to freedom of speech, religion, association, and peaceful petition. The world has been inspired by this model of democratic republicanism. The product of many noble minds put together through rational argumentation, the American federalist system provides a positive model for the world in struggles for freedom, as well as great abundance. With its checks and balances, both across government and the economy, the American system is constructed to encourage fairness and rational decision-making among free parties. The right to utilize one’s gifts is the epitome of justice. Human action, not time, will bring these ideals to greater fruition.
The American system is not inherently segregationist, but we still await justice to wash away this culture of supremacy entirely.
The author thanks Dr. Reza Parchizadeh, Dr. Troy Camplin, and henry 7. reneau, jr. for their editorial contributions and guidance.
Dustin Pickering is the founder of Transcendent Zero Press and editor-in-chief of Harbinger Asylum. He has authored several poetry collections, a short story collection, and a novella. He is a Pushcart nominee and was a finalist in Adelaide Literary Journal’s short story contest in 2018. He is a former contributor to Huffington Post.
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