When I was a kid, I watched the Spiderman and Incredible Hulk series re-runs. I’ve never been into the world of Marvel, but I know how both characters became what they are. How could I not know it, they hammered the origin story in at the beginning of every episode. If nothing else, it gave me a greater understanding of why Bruce Banner and Peter Parker were different from everyone else. Similar, my daughter used to watch this show where the characters transformed from their human selves to their monster selves, solved whatever the issue was and then changed back to their human selves. I’d say a cool third of that show was dedicated to that process of explaining who was changing to what. What I draw from this, explaining the origins makes the rest of the story more sensible, no matter how many times you have to do it, or how simple it is.
Thinking of this got me to wondering, why is it that the full story about Black people in America is so easily dismissed by politicians and our media? Why is that origin story less appealing to the masses? Surely, an honest examination of U.S. history would explain WHY a lot of things are as they are. Instead, we are fed statistics to regurgitate while omitting all context. So, we know the radioactive spider is what got us Spiderman. How about the radioactive energy responsible for inner city violence, mass incarceration and generational poverty? Was there a raging racist person in a room with gamma radiation during the formation of this country that infected all those that came near, with lasting effects?
Yeah, depending on your views, this month is going to be a bit uncomfortable. Hopefully informative though.
Starts with S, continues with lavery
We all know, or at very least should know, about the horrors of slavery. The institution of slavery in America technically pre-dates the United States but seeing as George Washington had between 250 and 600 slaves, they weren’t trying to recognize all men as created equal anywhere but on paper. Later in life he toiled over the concept of slavery, but never enough to free his own while he lived and not enough to publicly advocate for the end of this heinous practice. In day-to-day life, Black people were simply considered property in the way people now regard their dog, but with less affection. My ancestors were treated as things to be bred for service. In short, the founders of this nation were unapologetic racists, the policies they instituted perpetuated White supremacy, and there was never a true belief of equality when it came to Black people. Yet, we honor these people on our currency because “that was a long time ago”. I guess inhumane treatment, at the highest degree is insignificant when our “heroes” are the perpetrators. Oddly enough, the first person to die for this country, Crispus Attucks, was a Black man, doing his part to further the cause of “freedom”. Imagine this nonsense, at the defense trial of the British soldiers that killed him, future President John Adams stated, “he was a stout mulatto fellow, whose looks were enough to terrify any person”. So even though Crispus died in an effort to aid the cause John Adams supported, he was still Black, and thereby dangerous.
Honest Abe’s public stance on slavery was slightly better than indifferent though it is said he detested the practice privately. Just in case we were under the illusion the goal of the Civil War was freeing slaves because it was the right thing to do. It was honestly done because of the Northern economy. This was further evidenced when freed Black people made their way north, believing the treatment would be much better and were met with the same “separate, and not equal” treatment, after helping the Union in the Civil War. This wouldn’t be the first nor last time Black people were told we’re good enough to die for this country’s ideals and laws, but not good enough to be considered equal or afforded the same protection of these ideals and laws.
Slavery was abolished in 1865, but it wasn’t made illegal. Not only was there a written loophole in the constitution, which still exists today, holding slaves wasn’t a crime. As such, the last person freed from chattel slavery, was freed nearly 100 years after slavery was abolished on paper. For those not keeping track of time, that’s firmly in the 20th century. Many of the people that read this were either born or have a direct connection to someone born before 1963. That to say, it wasn’t THAT long ago that these horrors were directly impacting people in the United States.
Power of Examples
The 1960’s saw nearly all the most prominent figures of the struggle for civil rights murdered. 1963 Medgar Evers, shot in his driveway, 1965 Malcolm X, shot in front of his family, 1968 Martin Luther King, shot at his hotel, 1969 Fred Hampton, shot while he was sleeping. Emmett Till was lynched for supposedly whistling at a White woman, his killers were found innocent and the lady he supposedly whistled at, came forward years later and said it was a lie. His killers also admitted to doing it too after being found innocent by a jury of their friends. Somehow, we’re told repeatedly to ignore the psychological impact of witnessing our people murdered for simply existing. The message was loud, clear and repeated often, and just in case it wasn’t loud or clear enough during the 60’s and 70’s, Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover made sure any Black person gaining traction in civil rights were surveilled for years to come. That hatred came from yet another President, setting the tone for the country.
War on Melanin
In 1980, Ronald Reagan used the slogan “Make America Great Again” for the first time. Those unfamiliar with dog whistle racism, re-read the previous paragraphs and try to determine when America was objectively great to begin with. Under Reagan, there was a flood of drugs into the country, followed by the drug crack becoming a thing in many poor, minority communities. Dealers and users were targeted as combatants in the “war on drugs”. Never mind the Reagan administration’s role in bringing cocaine to America to fund their dirty dealings in Central America in the first place. It was the perfect win-win for his regime of racism and the rhetoric he supplied was nothing short of an endorsement of hate. Of course, the primary group impacted were Black people, this divided the homes even more, led to deeper levels of poverty in some communities as well as an increase in violence due to the quest for power within the drug trade. The opioid epidemic has been treated totally different, and I can’t help but think it is due to the race of those impacted the most. The opioid problem is treated as a public health crisis, not like a war at all, and neither users nor pharmaceutical companies are criminalized. Go figure.
In the 1990’s good ol’ Bill Clinton ushered in the wave of mass incarceration. Granted, he didn’t do this alone, there was a lot of bipartisan, and racially diverse support for the 1994 crime bill. The intent didn’t match the outcome. That bill was used to incarcerate people for mandatory minimums and add life sentences to victims of recidivism. This is where that loophole in the 13th Amendment rears its ugly head again. Along with locking people up for minor offenses, they were also getting free labor for privately owned companies. IF those people were released, their status as a felon all but ensured they’d never be employable, even with the companies they supported as prisoners. Thus, leaving criminal options as the only means for survival upon release, for those without family with a means of supporting them.
The 2000’s to right now, we are still seeing Black people murdered by those sworn to protect and serve. Oddly, lost in the conversation about race in regard to policing by conservative pundits and run of the mill citizens is the infiltration by White supremacists into law enforcement agencies across the country. We are in the age of hashtags which are a terrible way to get a complex point across. However, if you’ve found yourself incapable of empathizing with Black Lives Matter, understand that this infiltration is part of the rationale behind the hashtag “defund the police”. That and all of the egregious claims of “fearing for ones life” when Black people comply with orders (Philando Castille) or playing with toys in the park (Tamir Rice) or sleeping in ones own home (Breonna Taylor) or selling loose cigarettes (Eric Garner) and I could go on, but I hope you get it by now.
When you see someone as a human being, you begin to understand most people are doing what they believe is right. I ask myself, “what if you were wrong, how would you want someone to engage with you?”Trevor Noah
Now that we have a brief overview of the origin story of America’s tumultuous relationship with Black people knocked out, we can begin to engage in a conversation regarding the current state of affairs. It takes understanding to empathize, and it will take empathy to improve the situation. There are a lot of situations to improve, and it will take everyone to get this right. Racial discrimination does not only impact Black people, or Mexican people or White people, it impacts us all, so it will take a concerted effort to do better. Legislators, voting public, teachers, students, new comers and old timers. I told you this would be uncomfortable, but all progress starts off that way. Let’s get to work!