“I wish I could say that racism and prejudice were only distant memories. We must dissent from the indifference. We must dissent from the apathy. We must dissent from the fear, the hatred and the mistrust…We must dissent because America can do better, because America has no choice but to do better.” ~ Thurgood Marshall, Associate Justice, United States Supreme Court excerpt from his speech upon acceptance of the Liberty Medal.
Justice Marshall (the first black Supreme Court Justice) delivered his “America can do better,” admonishment on July 4th,1992 just two months after America erupted in protests and riots following the jury acquittal of four Los Angeles Police officers accused of beating Rodney King. Twenty-eight years later the world witnessed the police killing of George Floyd and once again America has erupted and rightly so. In recent days we have in fact seen a worldwide eruption against injustice against blacks that has gone on for 400 years in America. 400 years. That’s a long damn time to pass without being able to solve a problem.
George Floyd’s murder was just the latest in a shameful litany of violence against blacks perpetrated by law enforcement, vigilantes, hate groups or by individuals fueled by just plain venom.
“America has no choice but to do better,” said Marshall. He was wrong. There’s always a choice. It just isn’t always the right one.
“America has a race problem.” How many times during your lifetime, however long that may be, have you heard that spoken? After 66 years I couldn’t begin to count.
America has had a race problem since before it’s founding. Upon the founding of their new nation, the so-called “fathers” had a chance to start a new country with a clean slate. Instead they baked racism into the cake. Justice Marshall addressed the constitutional inequities in 1987 when the nation was celebrating the bi-centennial of the U.S. Constitution. In a controversial speech Marshall said of the Constitution’s framers that he did not find their sense of justice, “particularly profound.”
He went on to say that the government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war, and momentous social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government, and its respect for the individual freedoms and human rights, we hold as fundamental today. When contemporary Americans cite “The Constitution,” they invoke a concept that is vastly different from what the Framers barely began to construct two centuries ago.
“…we need look no further than the first three words of the document’s preamble: ‘We the People.” When the Founding Fathers used this phrase in 1787, they did not have in mind the majority of America’s citizens. “We the People” included, in the words of the Framers, “the whole Number of free Persons.” Two hundred and thirty three years later it is STILL defective. It it wasn’t defective, if it was running smoothly, we wouldn’t be having the same conversation after another police stop gone bad, a beating, harassment, or a killing.
Marshall’s speech was not universally well received. After all it was a rebuke of the founders. It went counter to the perception of the founding fathers as sort of folk heroes and it was delivered during the middle of the Ronald Reagan Presidency, a time when America’s general perception of itself could be found in a Norman Rockwell painting. How would Marshall’s speech be received 33 years later in 2020? Times have changed for certain but much of America still wants to view the nation through the brush of Norman Rockwell.
Perception. One reason that America has a race problem is that we have a double edged perception problem. On the one edge Americans are wedded to the notion of American exceptionalism. In his farewell address, Reagan famously invoked Pilgrim John Winthrop’s notion of the new land, America, as “a shining city on a hill.” Said Winthrop, “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.” The notion of American exceptionalism began with Winthrop and continues to this day. American exceptionalism is at the heart of the history that we adults learned and that continues to be taught.
Recently a friend of mine, who I more often than not agree with, posted on social media. “These are the values I believed the United States stood for: ‘Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’ This is the America I will fight for.”
Those words, inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty are from the sonnet The New Colossus by poet and activist Emma Lazarus. I had to disagree with my friend, in part because while I do agree that they are values worth fighting for, I don’t believe that America has stood for them consistently.
Ms. Lazarus wrote The New Colossus in 1883 the same year that the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed. It was also during a period in which a wave of anti-Semitism was sweeping America. Ironically Emma Lazarus was Jewish. Oftentimes immigrants found that Lazarus’ door was not so golden. Each wave of “tired, poor, huddled masses”, the Germans. the Irish, the Italians, the Asians that washed onto America’s shores, each wave was met with suspicion, disdain and violence. The New Colossus is nice sentiment but we should ask the question, is this what we are and is this what we’ve been?
The New Colossus is emblematic of the history that we’ve been taught and is in fact what Ronald Reagan stressed, in his farewell address, should be taught. “We’ve got to teach history based not on what’s in fashion but what’s important: Why the pilgrims came here, who Jimmy Doolittle was, and what those 30 seconds over Tokyo meant.”
What did Reagan mean by not teaching “what’s in fashion?” “In fashion” probably referred to the other edge of America’s perception of itself, the darker chapters of the American story. These were and still are the third rails of American history of which slavery is a prime example. Tied to the story of slavery are two views of the founding fathers, two edges. One is that they were larger than life, visionaries committed to the notion of equality for all. The other edge, what Reagan would have referred to as “in fashion” unveils a scandalous, evil side. Consider two of the most revered characters in the American story.
James Madison, said, “Where slavery exists the republic theory becomes still more fallacious.” Madison’s public condemnation of slavery is contradicted by the fact that he employed more than 100 slaves on his plantation in Virginia.
In The Federalist 54, Madison took on the sticky problem of how to count slaves in determining congressional representation. In this particular treatise Madison debated whether slaves were people or property and came to the conclusion that a slave constituted a little of both, thus making a black man three-fifths of a person. Wrote Madison, “Let the compromising expedient of the Constitution be mutually adopted, which regards them as inhabitants, but as debased by servitude below the equal level of free inhabitants, which regards the slave as divested of two fifths of the man.” One has to wonder what mathematical formula Madison used to determine how many parts of a man were made up of actual human and how many parts were property.
One of the most venerated men in American history, Thomas Jefferson publicly presented himself as an opponent of slavery, calling it, “a moral depravity,” and a “hideous blot,” yet he was an inveterate, unrepentant slaver and a racist. During the course of his life Jefferson owned, OWNED, 600 human beings with an average of about 100 at any given point.
Despite his protestations over the evils of slavery, Jefferson in fact found humans to be a profitable commodity. In 1792 Jefferson recorded that he was making a 4 percent annual profit simply with the birth of black children. “I allow nothing for losses by death, but, on the contrary, shall presently take credit four per cent. per annum, for their increase over and above keeping up their own numbers.”
In a letter written in the 1790’s Jefferson told of an acquaintance who was having financial difficulties, admonishing that the man “should have been invested in negroes” and if the family had any cash left, “every farthing of it [should be] laid out in land and negroes, which besides a present support bring a silent profit of from 5. to 10. per cent in this country by the increase in their value.”
Jefferson who penned those famous words, “All men are created equal,” had other thoughts in mind when it came to blacks, saying that he found them “inferior to the whites in the endowments of body and mind.”
The stock excuse for Jefferson, Madison and the other slave holding founders is that they were products of their times. It’s a weak excuse as these were men who, if you judged by some of their public pronouncements against slavery, recognized the moral issue but didn’t find it compelling enough to trump the financial and labor advantages of servitude.
It isn’t as if there were no contemporaries who decried slavery. There were plenty of abolitionists who condemned slavery, some who took Jefferson and the other slavers to task. Nineteenth century abolitionist and minister Moncure Conway said of Jefferson, “Never did a man achieve more fame for what he did not do.” To put it in more modern terms, Jefferson talked a good game.
Why bring up Thomas Jefferson while 21st century America is on fire? Because in the traditional ranking of founding fathers, Jefferson is the proverbial moral gold standard. Jefferson is in the top tier of lionized presidents and might be the second most quoted president in history behind Donald Trump, second only because Trump is an idiot with a Twitter account.
History has made Jefferson bigger than life; certainly a forward thinking, astute politician and renaissance man but one whose beliefs about blacks helped to grow the thorny plant of American racism. And it is the latter, his hypocritical failure, that is least remembered and taught.
Slavery is at the root of America’s 400 year race problem and yet the teaching of slavery in schools is sadly deficient. A report released by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project found that the subject of slavery is “mistaught, mischaracterized, sanitized, and sentimentalized.”
Consider that 155 years after the end of the Civil War, we are still fighting it. A century and a half later apologists for the Confederacy still insist that the war was not fought over slavery. In Texas, the schools teach that slavery was ONE of the causes of the Civil War and not necessarily THE cause. A teacher in the Portland, Oregon suburb of Oswego found that many students thought that the war was caused by a quarrel over state’s rights. A survey by the Law Center found that only 8 percent of 12th graders could identify slavery as a cause of the Civil War.
Straight to the heart of the problem the Southern Poverty Law Center’s survey found that only 39% of students had an understanding that slavery “shaped the fundamental beliefs of Americans about race and whiteness.”
The de emphasis of slavery naturally has turned out generations of people who have a weak or nonexistent knowledge of that major aspect of American history. The movie Twelve Years a Slave, based on the true memoirs of Solomon Northup (which I read over 40 years ago for a college assignment) was released seven years ago to critical acclaim. It was also received in some corners with derision and the opinion that slave life in the American South was not as cruel as the film depicted with some critics even denying the existence of slavery. I know people who believe the Gone with the Wind version of slavery which portrays happy go lucky “negroes,” over the Twelve Years a Slave portrayal which they characterize as sensationalized propaganda.
In pointing out the human rights deficiencies in the Constitution, Thurgood Marshall cautioned “that we not overlook the momentous events which followed, and thereby lose our proper sense of perspective.” And yet even with a sober view, with the Rockwell paintings shrouded we still can’t seem to get it right. In his speech Marshall mentions some of those “momentous events” of which there is a long roster, some having come along after he made his remarks.
We’ve had more than a century’s worth of civil rights “momentous events,” each successive one instituted with the promise of closing loopholes and righting the wrongs that all of the previous momentous events failed to correct.
A Civil War
In 1863 Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and there was jubilation.
The ratification of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments.
In 1954, school segregation was declared unconstitutional.
1955 and Rosa Parks.
In 1968 the Civil Rights Act was passed.
It seems that every step requires yet another to come behind it in order to address something that was missed in all the previous “momentous events.” Logic would dictate that the Voting Rights Act might have finally solved the issue of voting rights but since it was passed, sections of the act have been dismantled and states, particularly red states, have found new ways to make voting difficult for people of color and the marginalized.
The list of momentous events continues to grow and now after the death of George Floyd even more momentous events will have to occur to correct what was missed. As my daughter once said on an unrelated matter, “Why is this so fucking hard?”
In 2008 with the election of Barack Obama I naively declared that racism was on its last legs. And then eight years later American history repeated itself, this time with a different outcome and as a result America is in the midst of a downward spiral.
In 1968 staunch segregationist George Wallace, a presidential candidate for The American Independent Party issued the ominous warning to would-be protesters, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” In 1968, it was seen as preposterous that Wallace could actually win the election and in the end, he was defeated by Richard Nixon. Was it an omen that Wallace actually carried 5 states?
In 2016, it was seen as preposterous that a cruel, brutish, incompetent, racist would win the presidential election. Three and a half years into Donald Trump’s presidency he repeats Wallace’s threat, “When looting starts the shooting starts.” And here we are. At this moment it’s hard not to feel despair. America is burning and we have no fire chief. The president is in far over his head, he has no sense of empathy and one of his chief advisors Stephen Miller is a virulent white nationalist.
I couldn’t count the number of times over the past week that I’ve heard the sentiment that “We’re better than this,” as if the racism, sexism, bigotry, gun violence and anger are just occasional fits of pique, outliers. The sad fact is that we are not better than this. America elected a lying, blustering bully, this is who we are. Despite damning evidence America impeached yet failed to convict Donald Trump, this is who we are. The president is driving the national bus into a ditch and his party continues to cloak him, using excuses or silence, this is who we are. The president calls white nationalists chanting a Nazi slogan, “fine people,” and members of his party issue a tsk tsk and we move on to the next outrage, this is who we are. The president makes inflammatory remarks, dog whistles if you will, that are downplayed by his handlers and all is forgotten until the next tweet. From the slave trade to the evils of the men we’ve put on pedestals to the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow, Rodney King and on to George Floyd how can we possibly say with a national straight face that “We are better than this?” No we are not better than this. This is who we are.
Have we reached the tipping point? I would like to say that we have but I never can get Sandy Hook out of my mind. I thought that the slaughter of innocent little children would surely be the final straw and the nation would adopt some good sense gun legislation. And what happened? Thoughts, prayers and some mythological nonsense about how the shooting was a hoax. As should have been expected, nothing came of it all.
Yes I know, we can’t give up. What do we do and how can we “be better than this?”
We have to talk openly. Talk about racism. It’s a topic that, when introduced is often met with lowered eyes, some awkward shuffling in place and a “Let’s change the subject.” And it’s mostly white folks lowering the eyes and shuffling the feet. I know that because I’m one of those white folks. We can’t do that anymore. Right now race is the topic of the day. It’s gotten so serious that it’s pushed a deadly pandemic off the front page. But it can’t be the topic of the day and then go away. It has to be the topic every day – forever.
Teaching is part of the communication problem. Americans have been loath to have an honest discussion about racism in many forums and that includes the schools. We have to admit to a perception problem of what America is now and has been. We can’t move forward without looking back with some honest self-examination. Americans can’t continue to be taught through Ronald Reagan’s myopic vision. Sowing ignorance will only harvest ignorance.
Schools have to do better and we as adults can do better to improve our own understanding. There is a wealth of knowledge to be found in books. We need to learn about the black experience. Pick up a book. There are hundreds. If you’re still sheltering, what the hell else do you have to do?
Evicted – Matthew Desmond
Nobody – Marc Lamont Hill
Lies My Teacher Told Me – James W Loewen
Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria – Berver Doniel Tatum, PhD
The Color of Law – Richard Rothstein
Blackballed – Darryl Pinkney
Lies My Teacher Told Me – James W. Loewen
The Warmth of Other Sons – Isabel Wilkerson
The Fire Next time – James Baldwin
Malcolm X – Alex Haley
Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates
Killing Rage Ending Racism – Bell Hooks
Becoming – Michelle Obama
An American By Marriage – Tayari Jones
The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother – James McBride
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption – Bryan Stevenson
The Myth Of Race – Robert Sussman
Twelve Years a Slave – Solomon Northup
Walking with the Wind : A Memoir of the Movement – John Lewis
There is much that we can do as individuals, as members of our communities and as Americans. My answer here is only a partial one based on the historical and political premises of this piece.
“We cannot play ostrich. Democracy just cannot flourish amid fear. Liberty cannot bloom amid hate. Justice cannot take root amid rage. America must get to work. In the chill climate in which we live, we must go against the prevailing wind. We must dissent from the indifference. We must dissent from the apathy. We must dissent from the fear, the hatred and the mistrust.” ~ Thurgood Marshall