America's historical problem with racism

Image: RTÉ Brainstorm
Jun 25 2020 Posted: 11:45 IST

Author: Professor Daniel Carey, Moore Institute

Opinion: George Floyd's death led to a remarkable wave of protests, but will this moment succeed in transforming America?

In August 1797, in the midst of the ongoing Haitian Revolution led by slaves on the island, Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend about the "revolutionary storm" sweeping the globe. He predicted that "the day which begins our combustion must be near at hand; and only a single spark is wanting to make that day to-morrow. If we had begun sooner, we might probably have been allowed a lengthier operation to clear ourselves, but every day’s delay lessens the time we may take for emancipation."

The pattern of occasional urgency followed by acquiescence lies deep in American history in its response to racism and racial injustice. The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25th has led to a remarkable wave of protests and large-scale demonstrations, creating a new incentive for change. But will this moment succeed in transforming the country?

The first step is to acknowledge the depth of the problem and its durability. Jefferson himself offers us some hints. Even as he was acknowledging the grave situation laid bare by events in Haiti, his search for a "peaceable accommodation" at home was troubled by the question: "wither shall the colored emigrants go?" As a slave owner who sired children with an enslaved family maid, Sally Hemings, Jefferson had more than a just a political relationship to the question.

Abraham Lincoln, who would issue the Emancipation Proclamation during the American Civil War in 1862, struggled with the same concern of where freed slaves might go. In 1854, he wondered about the feasibility of returning them to Liberia in Africa, in a reversal of the journey made in the Middle Passage, but recognised that whatever the "high hope" for such a plan in the long run, "its sudden execution is impossible".

What was the alternative? "Free them all, and keep them among us as underlings? Is it quite certain that this betters their condition?" he asked. The more radical approach would make them "politically and socially our equals", but at this stage in his thinking he allowed: "My own feelings will not admit of this, and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of whites will not."

Both Jefferson and Lincoln (at this stage in the latter’s career and in spite of his opposition to slavery) still entertained the idea of a separation of peoples. It was a future imagined for America where whites and blacks were kept apart, perhaps with an ocean between them, assuring that whites would retain complete political and cultural hegemony in the country.

Slavery - America’s original sin, as some have called it - was abolished in 1865, but its corollary, racism, has proved intractable. The manner of Floyd’s death has spoken powerfully of this truth: his head pinned to the ground under a white police officer’s knee, the unheeded plea that he could not breathe, combined in a literal and symbolic moment to express the suffocating effect of racism.

The refusal to see or accept the reality of such oppression suggests that the work of abolishing systemic racism is unfinished in America. The failed Reconstruction period after the Civil War set the conditions of political compromise and permitted the imposition of formal discrimination under the Jim Crow laws in the South. Major changes brought about by the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s addressed some of these problems, but the vision of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. remains a dream deferred.

As an American, I can see how the country makes compromises with itself to keep the pernicious system of racial injustice in place. On the one hand, a select group of African-American figures in the world of sports, entertainment and media is accorded adulation by the great mass of Americans. On the other, whites largely remain attached to the premise that African Americans have a diminished humanity.

The result is an often schizophrenic relationship where race is acknowledged and unacknowledged, avowed and disavowed. How many films have we seen where "pretend" race relations of normality are represented, with white pals out for dinner or drinks being joined by an accommodating black friend, who remains present but mysteriously absent of history at the same time? The Lily character in The Devil Wears Prada comes to mind as an example.

American museums have sought to tell the story of the black experience and retain it as part of public memory and imagination, most recently with the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington, DC. When I visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, I was struck by the way that the museum combined historical information with dioramas of a kind, including a chance to sit on a bus like the one Rosa Parks boarded in 1955, with a sculpture of her in a seat near the front and an audio loop of the white driver telling her to go to the back of the bus.

The visit comes round eventually to the actual room in the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King spent his last hours, the remains of a meal conveying presentness of the moment and the bed turned down, before one sees the balcony where he fell to a sniper’s bullet. We have not lacked for moving ways to recount a tragic and enduring legacy.

Caught between shifting polarities of bad conscience and bad faith, White America needs to evolve a different understanding which recognises the country as a co-creation of the races. This is true economically, from the institution of slavery onwards, despite many attempts to deny it. But in an even deeper sense, there is no America without the interplay of these forces, no dynamic to the culture, to its self-expression, identity, style, and distinctiveness.

Donald Trump's presidency and its racist agenda, together with the realisation of powerful disparities in the impact of Covid-19 on people of colour (in death rates and economic consequences), have sharpened this moment of reckoning and set it apart. A long hot summer awaits.

Near the end of Ralph Ellison's great novel of African-American experience, Invisible Man (1952), the unnamed central character says "without the possibility of action, all knowledge comes to one labelled 'file and forget,’ and I can neither file nor forget." As Independence Day approaches on July 4th, we are left to wonder if America will once again ignore its founding ideals ("liberty and justice for all", as the Pledge of Allegiance puts it), and remain content to "file and forget". Or will the country, at last, confront systemic racism and take action to dismantle it?


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