The shadows of racism

If you had to pick one word almost guaranteed to raise people’s dander here in the United States, I would pick “reparations”. Almost everyone acknowledges that bad and misguided policies in our past caused the oppression, enslavement, relocation if not deaths of millions of Native and African Americans. However, almost every white person today feels that while these things happened long ago, they didn’t cause them so they should be held harmless. In addition, since discrimination by race is now illegal, the problem of racism is solved! Discussion over!

Arizona is attempting to deal with illegal immigration through essentially legislating ethnic profiling, which of course is just legislated racism. Just imagine the ruckus if roles were reversed and whites were judged likely of not being a citizen because they were white. That this is happening in Arizona of all places is more than a little ironic. Whites settled states like Arizona largely by pushing Native Americans and Hispanics off the land where they were the natives. Moreover, the vast majority of Hispanics living in Arizona are legal residents, and native born. But since Hispanics coming from Mexico illegally are considered a pervasive problem, sure, just write a law saying it’s okay to ethnically profile all Hispanics in Arizona!

They say the victors write the history books, and this is true particularly here in the United States. Here our history books give short shrift to issues like the forced relocation of Native Americans but plenty of puffing up how special and blessed our republic is. While Americans certainly enjoy an extraordinary amount of freedom compared with most countries, our history books and our history teachers have omitted a whole lot of pertinent facts that would present a more balanced picture of our history. While I was aware of the general problem, I did not understand the full extent of the problem until I started reading Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen, a historian, sociologist, professor and scholar.

Loewen’s in depth research is both fascinating and depressing. Most students studying history have little idea of our real history because, like in the old Soviet Union, so much of it has been airbrushed away. For example, few know that Christopher Columbus and the policies of the colonial Spanish government exterminated the natives of Haiti. Most of us have no idea that more than ninety five percent of the Native Americans living in what is now the United States died from diseases we brought over from Europe.

It’s all there and more, and it’s a sad, sorry but interesting story. For the most part, we know that Patrick Henry would accept only liberty or death, but don’t know that Patrick Henry was also a slaveholder and believed that negroes were intellectually inferior, a common view among whites at the time. We may have heard that Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder as well. Yet, the handfuls of slaves that he freed upon death were related to him by blood. He actually increased the number of slaves in his household as he aged. His father owned slaves too, which accounted for his relative wealth, but Jefferson’s wealth, his fabulous Monticello estate (which I visited recently), not to mention his huge collection of books, most of which went to the University of Virginia that he founded came from wealth generated by human beings that he enslaved.

Nor are we aware that the first settled colony in what is now the United States was not Jamestown, but one populated by rebellious slaves in what is now South Carolina, slaves who were aided and assisted by inclusive Native Americans. I had no idea that many whites that came to this country joined Native American tribes, finding with them a much freer and inclusive life than was available in their colonies, where they were often oppressed or indentured. I had no idea that in 1864 at Democratic Party rallies people gleefully sang (to the tune of “Yankee Doodle Dandy”) the “Nigger Doodle Dandy” with lyrics like:

Yankee Doodle is no more,
Sunk his name and station;
Nigger Doodle takes his place,
And favors amalgamation.

The sad truth is that we were a largely segregated society because the whites would have it no other way. For much of our history, the United States emulated South Africa under Apartheid. The Civil War solved the issue of slavery, but it did not change that many hearts. Hearts change slowly, over many generations, and racism never seems to die out completely.

In my last post, I mentioned my recent trip to Richmond, Virginia and the proud, almost obnoxious way it clings to its Confederate past. Our governor Bob McDonnell made the national news recently by proclaiming Confederate History Month in Virginia. In his proclamation he left out any reference to the evils of slavery, an omission, he says that was entirely accidental. Umm, right. If it weren’t for the discord between North and South on slavery, there would have been no Civil War. Curiously, only recent Republican governors bother to proclaim Confederate History Month. Democratic governors seem to realize that the Confederacy was a terrible mistake and slavery, the animus that started the Civil War, was a great wrong.

The truth is that even in the 21st century we are still at best only beginning to emerge into a post racial society. Professor Loewen though does an exquisitely professional job of documenting just how pervasive the racism was, why and how it still exists today. It exists due in part to the victors writing the history books. Moreover, selective rewriting our textbooks to fit our current political state of mind is still going on. Perhaps you read about misguided efforts by the Texas Education Board to rewrite history by discounting the role of Thomas Jefferson in the founding of our Republic. Perhaps Texas could start by telling the truth about its own history. White ranchers who craved the land held for generations by Hispanics who inconveniently lived there already formed the short lived Republic of Texas. Not surprisingly, they also considered the Hispanics to be intellectually inferior. The Battle of the Alamo in what is now San Antonio (and which I expect to visit in a few weeks) was a pivotal event in this lost cause. It was one of the reasons Texas decided to join the United States. There was strength in numbers and the United States was acknowledged as a white people’s country.

Much of the animus behind The Tea Party comes from largely unacknowledged racism. The party is overwhelmingly white, Republican and a majority believes crazy things like President Obama was born in Kenya.

What would real reparations look like? It is hard for me to really envision, but it would be justice if all profits earned at the Monticello estates went to scholarships for African Americans. That might make some small amends for Jefferson’s racism and enslavement of over two hundred human beings. It would be a start. In truth, we’ve got a long road ahead of us if we want to be post racial in fact, as well as in law.

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