Time for US to Grow Up — Part 2

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union …

The Preamble to the US Constitution, 1789


We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …

The Declaration of Independence, 1776


But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way …

Paul, to the Christians of Ephesus, 1st Century CE


It took longer than I anticipated to get back to this.  Maybe I keep hoping this will prove unnecessary, that all the manufactured hand-wringing and pearl-clutching over the imagined horrors that an heretofore obscure legal theory might be taught to unsuspecting little school children and hence inflict on them terrible psychic wounds that will end their childhood innocence and forever cripple them as adults will finally run out of fuel … that we can with good hearts, open minds, and clear sight face the end of a “majority white America” and move into a new future through an honest reckoning with our past.  The continuation of “anti-CRT” legislative proposals in many state legislatures … the intransigence of Republicans at state and national levels when it comes to making it easier for all Americans to vote … the bungling non-apology of a certain senator from Kentucky for phrasing that suggested he does not see African-Americans as full Americans … etc, etc … all suggest otherwise.


What is really threatened by proposed changes to the teaching of American history and social studies is the only truly sacred story in our land today: The myth of American origins that focuses only on the beneficent (at very best) and benign (in the worst cases) intentions of our revered founders to the exclusion of real harms done and wrongs that have yet to be set right.  Acknowledging the full story of the US government and its interactions with the native peoples of the land is one important piece of historical truth-telling. (See the previous post on this blog.) There are more.


Another point, and perhaps more obvious, is the legacy of slavery. Most Americans are aware that large numbers of people were brought to the US as slaves and remained in slavery for generations. The 1619 Project details the history of this legacy of abuse and dehumanization.  Although we moderns would like to pretend that this is all in the past and everyone should be over it by now, there are key themes that continue to haunt us.


Slave labor built much of the early infrastructure of the US, both north and south. The course of development in the north made slavery less of an economic need there by the time of the Revolution. However, where the north could still profit from slavery, it did – even when slavery became illegal in the north. The southern economic dependence on slave labor led to a number of developments that persist even now.


James Madison, primary author of the US Constitution, termed the slave populations in the south a “difficulty … of a serious nature.”

One lingering development is the Electoral College, which was a piece of the Three-Fifths Compromise we learn about in history. Slavery being outlawed in the north meant that all persons residing in those states were counted as citizens for representation. The southern states had much larger populations when the Black slaves were counted; however, slaves were considered property – not persons – under the laws. As a compromise, the slave population of the south was counted as three people for every five slaves to determine representation. The Electoral College functioned to allow the white men (who were the only ones voting) from the South (where they were a smaller part of the overall population) to have an outsized voice in determining presidential elections. (The connection of the Electoral College to the Three-Fifths Compromise may be the best argument for moving to a direct election of the President.)


There is also a through-line from fugitive slave codes to modern policing. The fugitive slave codes gave slave patrols the right to seize Black people wherever they were found and take them back to the South to their owners by any means necessary. Persons who appeared Black were presumed to be slaves and being outside of southern territories was no surety of freedom. The famed Underground Railroad did not just help slaves escape to the North; it led all the way to Canada where slavery was illegal and fugitive slave patrols had no authority.  The presumption of Black threat and guilt that is hard-wired into current police procedures traces back to this era.  Consider also that the “well-regulated militia” of the Second Amendment may have had the primary intent of empowering Southern state governments to put down slave rebellions … much as government troops and private militias were later used to quell labor revolts in the early days of unions.


Hiram Revels – US Senator, MS

As is the case with the historical realities of the native inhabitants of this land, the Reconstruction Era that followed the Civil War is also given dismissive treatment in the teaching of American history. During the years immediately after the Civil War ended the established practice of slavery, freed Blacks used their new power as citizens to elect many of their own to public offices. This era only lasted about eight years. In history books and teaching, it is often glossed over quickly to move on to eras that the dominant narrative considers more important (industrialization, the roaring 20s and the Great War, the Great Depression and World War II). To the extent Reconstruction is discussed, it is often presented as failing largely due to the ineptitude of those who were elected and their failure to actually govern at the state and local levels. What is not said is that many of the Black leaders elected to leadership in that era were well-educated.

Blanche K. Bruce, US Senator, MS

Nearly all of them had at least as much education as President Abraham Lincoln; many were college graduates.  Rather than collapsing due to ineptitude and ignorance, the governing majority was deliberately undermined by the minority White population. The final act of triumph was the compromise that resulted in the Electoral College vote for Rutherford Hayes as president over the popular vote winner Samuel Tilden … which also involved the removal of the federal troops that had been enforcing Reconstruction in the Old South.


Major acts of racial violence during Reconstruction

After that compromise, a series of tactics were employed by the White population to continue and preserve the dominance it had maintained through the generations of slavery. Sharecropping, the Ku Klux Klan , lynchings, Jim Crow laws, various extra requirements for voting applied to Blacks were all used by the White population to keep the Black population from full equality under the law. These activities didn’t only occur in the Old South; plenty of sympathizers in the north took similar actions where they lived.  The northern migration of Blacks from Southern states to northern locations was not warmly welcomed by political leadership in the North.


Map with dates for Tulsa Massacre and similar events

A century later, much attention is finally being paid to the Tulsa Massacre.  The only truly unique aspects to that event were the scale and the success of the efforts to cover over what happened.  Similar large-scale violent actions against Black populations occurred in many large cities in the southeastern US within a decade or two of Tulsa (before or after).  Tulsa was just one piece in a much larger pattern.


Even during the New Deal Era, when a large number of programs were created to remedy the impacts of the Great Depression and ensure Americans had access to food, employment, and income, these programs were exclusively for the White populations.  Blacks were categorically excluded.  Only Whites could qualify for FHA funds to purchase homes.  Although Black veterans as well as White ones could qualify for housing assistance under the VHA, neither could buy a home in a racially mixed area.  Home ownership and the appreciation of property has been the way most White American families have built their wealth.  Modest as that wealth may seem next to the ultra-wealthy (multi-millionaires and billionaires), the wealth of the average White household is still nearly ten times that of the average Black household.


The Civil Rights Era did much to call attention to the suffering of Black communities and the ways in which whole groups of people were being excluded from the general society at any and every aspect.  However, those gains did not erase the setbacks accrued through generations of exclusion.  Furthermore, other avenues for excluding or removing primarily Black Americans (and other people of color) from society developed.  President Richard Nixon strategically used laws for illegal drugs to target Black populations, setting in motion what has been called the school-to-prison pipeline … removing primarily young Black men from society before they might become contributing members and ensuring they never will become that.

Another way young men are removed is through death; recall the way Trayvon Martin was described to make killing him seem to be a good thing

Black mothers have been stereotyped as “welfare queens” through the extrapolation of one aberrant case to an entire group of people so that stereotype can be used to justify denying support to families left in need because so many of the men are in prison, can’t find good paying work because of their conviction records, were unprepared and unsupported after release, so that they would re-offend and be imprisoned again.


Hundreds of people wait in line for early voting on Monday, Oct. 12, 2020, in Marietta, Georgia. Eager voters have waited six hours or more in the former Republican stronghold of Cobb County, and lines have wrapped around buildings in solidly Democratic DeKalb County. (AP Photo/Ron Harris)

Instead of working to remove barriers and improve social inclusion, further efforts are being made to silence the voices of people of color and culture through Voter ID laws, which target poor people who tend to be more persons of color than those who identify as White.  Many of the proposed changes to voting laws debated and enacted this year and last have been aimed at restricting voting options that are favored by communities of color and culture (early voting, voting by mail, “Souls to Polls” events organized by the Black churches) as well as access – limited sites to vote or return an absentee ballot … which will lead to longer lines … longer wait times to vote … and people who work multiple jobs to make ends meet do not have all day to be in line to vote.  This is not really about protecting the security of the vote against voter impersonation fraud (so rare that it has zero impact on election outcomes).  This is about preventing non-White populations from voting.


These are ugly chapters in the history of this land to be sure.  It is always the tendency of the dominate culture to narrate the facts, tell the story, develop a history that makes the success of the dominant group optimal, good, well-intended and largely successful, or at least inevitable.  However, glossing over these stories does not make them go away or disappear … no more than ignoring the symptoms of an infection or major disease stops the process and makes the illness vanish from the body. The failure by the dominant culture to be honest about the past, the failures as well as the successes, continues to haunt us and will keep undermining our society until we finally deal with the full truth of our history.


We are at a crossroads and we must make a choice: Are we going to keep protecting a cherished, albeit highly selective, telling of our history from any and all critique … OR … Do we honor the ideals of our founding – that all are equal, that all have the same rights, that democracy means all of us have a say in what we want through voting – by honestly acknowledging our failures to live up to and out of these ideals, to seek to repair the harms and move further along the road to those ideals?  This is the root of the deep divide so many lament these days: the differences between those who want to maintain the fiction of a past that never really was and those who want to acknowledge the mistakes of the past, learn from them and correct them so as to move closer to what we dream America can be.


We will never resolve these problems that continually beset us until we face the full reality of our current situation, accurately identify, and openly acknowledge the true facts and actual events of our collective story.  It’s well past time for us to grow up, get real about the full story of our past, start repairing the long-standing damage, and do the hard work of creating a more perfect union.