Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger
To some of us the transition from slave to citizenship by those Africans brought in chains to these shores for economic exploitation and horrific abuse ended with the “Emancipation Proclamation”. To others its’ end might have been marked by “Brown v. Board of Education”, or by the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Those of somewhat more insightful bent may have said that the true emancipation occurred when Barack Obama was elected President in 2008. In my view, as much of an impact as all those milestones (and more such as Jackie Robinson i.e.) made to American consciousness, Black people in the United States clearly still lack the benefits and rewards of citizenship. I would go further and say that in the United States, at this time; most Black people still suffer the degradation and challenges brought about by both institutional and emotional racism. This is not to say that in our country other groups, such as Latino’s and Native Americans are free of oppressive prejudice, but to assert that given their history in this country Black people are slotted into the bottom of the economic and social ladder and are still struggling to obtain even those most minimal of rights that most Americans see as their birthright.
This article is a very personal one for me, even though I am not a Black American. As someone born in 1944 I have lived through a great deal of significant Civil Rights history and even contributed to the struggle albeit in a minor way. As a Jewish kid from New York, born into a progressive family, my experience with Black people was minimal until the age of eighteen. There were no non-Whites in my High School, for instance. Yet as someone from a large family, where both set of grandparents immigrated to this country, we as Jews were quite aware of the Country’s innate prejudice towards ourselves and many of us translated that awareness into understanding the prejudicial plights of other ethnic groups. In America though, even among Jews, as each new wave of immigrants found success and acceptance many among them viewed Blacks with disdain believing something to the effect of “If I and mine “made” it, why can’t they. What’s wrong with them? The following will be my personal explanation for “what’s wrong with them” and to me the inevitable conclusion will be what’s wrong with us, the US being this country.
The first African slaves were brought to Virginia in 1619. As the centuries passed this was seen by those profiting from it as a fortuitous economic innovation. Pre-Revolutionary American also had another longstanding, economically exploitive and fortuitous use of lowering labor costs known as indentured servitude. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indentured_servitude European immigrants sign a legal document committing them to a certain term of service as “servants”, during which time they received no pay, only food and lodging. They could be discipline through beatings and their contracts were fully enforceable by law. The practice began to die out with the proliferation of African slaves, since the Blacks had a lifetime obligation of service which ended at death, they were economically more feasible a solution. With history memory fades quickly, especially if a whole cottage industry of media propaganda has been produced to “smooth” its edges. “Birth of a Nation”, one of the most cinematically acclaimed films of all time, present Blacks as rabid sub-humans, who required a heroic Ku Klux Klan to keep them in line after the Emancipation. “Gone with the Wind” an even more financially successful film portrays the Blacks in it as sort of loyal simpletons who wouldn’t know how to exist without white people to give them guidance. Racist, denigrating portrayals of Blacks ran rife through the American Cinema and indeed the arts. Stereotypes become universal mythological archetypes and even many of those who believed in freedom for Blacks were skeptical of their capabilities for acting as average citizens.
Looking back at the history of Black slavery in America, I believe we need to re-emphasize an aspect of it that though well known, is usually given intellectually short shrift as to its long term effects. Genocide comes in many forms. Given Twentieth Century history genocide connotes outright murder such as those committed by the Turks against the Armenians, the NAZI’s against the Jews, homosexuals, Gypsy’s and mentally incapacitated. We can add Stalin’s “agricultural reform” via murder, Pol Pot’s political purification via the “killing fields” and the various tragic genocides taking place in Africa today. Yet in that past Century we have another example of a less murderous, but no less horrific genocide as exhibited by Mao’s “Cultural Revolution”. This was an effort less to murder people and more to provide them with a harshly imposed re-education and as such I see the “Genocide” of American slavery as a pre-cursor of Chairman Mao.
Except for instances of sadism, or extreme disciplinary example, it was not the intent of the American slaveholder to murder his/her slaves. They represented property and wealth. They could be put up as chattel for loans and they could be sold for profit. The “smart” slave investor wanted to keep his “property” healthful and in good shape for possible profit via sale. What that investor, entrepreneur may we say, didn’t want was any particular slave believing that they had the right to do anything but serve the will of their Master. Cultural genocide was what was imposed upon the captive Africans, to destroy any memories of their past history and to dent them the normal human comforts of wives and family. The truth, conveniently ignored by common history books to sugar coat the horror of imperialist exploitation of Africa, was that existing there was rather strong and sophisticated cultural heritages. These were not “savages” falling upon each other in constant strife and living unsophisticated lives as “jungle denizens”, but rather richly developed cultures that had a sophisticated cross-cultural interdependence. That some of the more powerful tribes sold their fellows into slavery was not a good thing, but actually slavery in the Western world’s history goes back to our “cultural forebears” the Athenians, the Trojans, the Carthaginians and of course the “glory” that was Rome. Human’s tendency to exploit other humans for personal gain seems endemic to our history as we see today in our “great banks”, or phony entrepreneurs like Mitt Romney.
Slaveholders in America needed to ensure docility by expunging the African memories and identities of “their” slaves by renaming them, destroying personal bonds such as marriage and parenthood, and most importantly teaching their unwilling slaves that all the stereotypes of their inferiority were true. They succeeded fairly well in many cases. I could put in here the actual truth that the slaves were highly resistant and developed their own intellectual and cultural movements, including many rebellions, but if you don’t know of the lives of Frederick Douglas http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_Douglass and Nat Turner http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nat_Turner it might profit you to do a little research. Nevertheless, the slave holder propagandists did have widespread success in their genocide of cultural destruction, abetted by the mass media and certain historians forgetfulness of the true history of American slavery.
The “Abolitionist Movement” in America gained strength to the point of electing an American President who shared somewhat similar sentiments. One of the bloodiest wars in history was fought on American soil and in the end the forces of Abolition seemed victorious. Lincoln was of course murdered only days after the Gettysburg surrender and replaced by a somewhat less committed and capable President Andrew Johnson. While the plans for “Reconstruction” had been drawn prior to the Civil Wars end, Johnson’s ability to fully implement it and truly give freed Blacks the chance at full citizenship and freedom was limited by the deal he had to make to keep from being impeached. Slavery was over but “Jim Crow” replaced it with a system no less harsh and certainly no less murderous. Historically and in the doctrines of our courts “Jim Crow” was the law of the land and Black people were for the most part not allowed the normal rights of American citizens, most importantly the right to vote.
What is forgotten in all of this is the psychological effect this condition of “Jim Crow” had upon Black Americans, particularly males. Imagine living a life where you are not only constantly under suspicion for mischief, but extremely likely to be incarcerated or lynched for innocent actions? Imagine having to step into the gutter when encountering a white person on the sidewalk? Imagine being afraid to look a white person in the eye for fear of being charged with the “crime” of being “uppity”. Imagine being educated in severely under funded school districts, with poverty the impetus to drop out early to work and with lack of books to help one in their study? Imagine having to take a “literacy” test to vote, or having to pay a “poll tax” in order to vote? Imagine seeing angry policeman staring at you as you approached a polling place and knowing that they could beat you senseless just for the fun of it? Imagine being called “Boy” by someone years younger and your life in danger if you don’t acquiesce?
Imagine as a father being unable to find, or hold a job as easy as your wife and the shameful baggage that goes with the knowledge you are unable to support your family? Imagine needing welfare assistance for your family to survive, yet having to either move out of your home, or pretend not to live there lest the Welfare authorities cut off your family’s entire assistance? Imagine living a life of having to suffer constant humiliation and degradation of your self-esteem? What I’ve just written only briefly touches upon the psychological genocide that was inflicted and still is being afflicted upon the Black portion of our people.
That so many Black people have thrived, despite all of these difficulties, is a tribute to the intelligence and talents of this portion of our population. That such a rich cultural heritage has been produced by Black Americans is a similar paean to the strength of their culture and to the many examples of true genius that exists amongst them. So yes in America we have a Black President, many distinguished Black legislators, educators, entertainers and sports stars. I would assert to you that while on an individual basis that is a cause for celebration, on an institutional basis things have not really progressed much beyond “Jim Crow” and we may actually be entering a time of retrenchment if we don’t see the ominous signs.
Last week my fellow guest blogger Lawrence Rafferty made this excellent contribution: “Probable Cause..Black, Latino and Young”. http://jonathanturley.org/2013/03/24/probable-cause-black-latino-and-young/#more-62063 In it he discussed the ongoing New York City “Stop and Frisk” policy instituted by Mayor Bloomberg and his Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. While the trial isn’t over the evidence is pretty conclusive that for the past decade people of color have been targeted by the NYPD simply based on their appearance:
“According to department data, the NYPD has made roughly 5 million street stops in the past decade, the vast majority of those stopped being young African American or Latino men. Nearly nine out of 10 of those stopped by police have walked away without a summons or arrest.”
Explain to me please the difference between these actions and those Blacks lived through during “Jim Crow”? Now due to his media savvy I have no doubt that Mr. Bloomberg, that champion of the elite, has publicized this to the point where we think it is simply a New York City phenomenon. In truth this is common practice all over this country and especially in places like Los Angeles, San Diego and Joe Arpaio’s famed Maricopa Country. Indeed in all of Arizona one can be stopped for driving as a suspected Mexican. Seriously, can you deny that in the “formerly Jim Crow” South this is still not a common practice?
A companion piece to this is something that I have previously written about: “The Incarceration of Black Men in America” http://jonathanturley.org/?s=The+incarceration+of+black+men+in+america
To quote from that piece:
“Black males continue to be incarcerated at an extraordinary rate. Black males make up 35.4 percent of the jail and prison population — even though they make up less than 10 percent of the overall U.S population. Four percent of U.S. black males were in jail or prison last year, compared to 1.7 percent of Hispanic males and .7 percent of white males. In other words, black males were locked up at almost six times the rate of their white counterparts.”
How can we honestly say given the above, if you accept it, that Black people share equality of citizenship with their fellow Americans? The “stop and frisk” actions lead to predominantly minor charges, that despite guilt are plea bargained away due to lack of viable legal representation. Arrests and jail records make finding gainful employment harder, which leads to a kind of “what the hell” despair that imbues the psyches of may Blacks, despite their intelligence, strength of character and the stability of their communal connections. We still live in a land of “Jim Crow” and those who pretend we do not are either politically and/or racially motivated, or suffering from denial in my opinion. To any who might dispute my conclusions, or think they are based upon lack of evidence beware, because the evidence of this fact is so overwhelming that this guest blog would run into the tens of thousands of words were I to produce them. Until all of our citizens, despite their backgrounds are treated on an equal basis than the idea of our Constitutional Republic is a mere sham. It must seem so for so many people of color.
Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger.