Racism Is the Ongoing American Plague 2/2

“His entourage had checked in to the only hotel that would accept blacks…”–The Mirror

Discrimination Even in Hell

California writer and activist, Aron “Moe” Macarow, re-states the case of young black men who are discriminated against even in hell in his article “Our Prison System Is Even More Racist Than You Think” on ATTN.com (follow link to see his bullet points elaborated):

1. Race is likely to affect who receives the death penalty.
2. All states have disproportionately black prison populations, but states with the largest white majorities are also the worst.
3. Even before sentencing, people of color are at a disadvantage. They are are less likely to make bail than their white counterparts, spending more time in jail before they are even convicted of a crime.
4. Black offenders are more likely to receive harsher sentences for the same crimes as white convicts.
5. Key decision makers in death penalty cases are almost exclusively white.
6. Once in jail, black inmates are more likely to be in solitary confinement, and are less likely to receive the same mental healthcare as whites.
7. Black people are also more likely to die while in custody, and are more likely to experience violence at the hands of prison staff.
8. Even for those who are released, people of color still get the raw end of the deal.

Aron Macarow in ATTN.com

According to a recent Pew Research report, though black Americans’ imprisonment rate is at its lowest level in more than two decades, having decreased 34% since 2006, they are far more likely than their Hispanic and white counterparts to be in prison. The black imprisonment rate at the end of 2018 was nearly twice the rate among Hispanics (797 per 100,000) and more than five times the rate among whites (268 per 100,000). (PewResearch.org)

Death penalty statistics for African American men are equally distressing:

Add to all of this the burning reality of black Americans being regularly assassinated with impunity on the streets and in their homes by racist police officers, and you’ve got a world-class problem.

The Facile Justifications

The genteel mint-julep-sipping folks of the Old South justified their inhuman treatment of fellow human beings with passages from the Bible and a fabric of specious racial folklore. This rickety ideological underpinning permitted them to buy and sell black slaves, to flail and kill them, and to separate their families, something that many Americans considered unthinkable in those days, if not so much today. In the intervening centuries the Old South has exported its racist values along with its old-time religion to a large part of the rest of the country. Interestingly, miracle-based religion and racial inequality go hand in hand, perhaps because both are “faith based,” requiring no logical explanations and lacking validity in the fact-based world.

Today’s American racist and white-superiority denial sees “fine people on both sides,” anti-fascist and anti-racist demonstrators on one, Nazis and white supremacists on the other. That sort of value twisting is not surprising to impartial observers from around the world. What shocks them are the American government’s efforts to have anti-fascism deemed terrorism, while posing no objections to fascism itself. This inverted ideology belongs to Alice’s Wonderland, not the real world. It might well be considered the definitive gauge of 21st-century American intellectual and moral degradation. Does anyone really believe that if the illegal immigrants were white people their children would be ripped from their arms and locked in wire cages to become victims of sexual abuse by white jailers? Meanwhile, United States government officials–from top to bottom–turn a blind eye. These bare facts are not lost on the rest of the world, most of which has lost all respect for the US.

Chronicle of One Country That Conquered Racism

Susan Neiman is an American philosopher, academic, cultural commentator, essayist and author of the 2019 book, Learning from the Germans, Confronting Race and the Memory of Evil. Born in the American south, she has taught philosophy at Yale and the Tel Aviv University and lived in the US, Israel and Germany. Neiman made extended visits to the southern US while preparing this book, spending time at unexpectedly enriching places like the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation in Jackson, Mississippi.

For the past 19 years she has been director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, Germany, a foundation created to “build intellectual and cultural institutions in the former East Germany, whose own institutions had been gutted through the removal of anyone considered close to the fallen communist regime.” (Learning from the Germans, p. 11) Neiman has some suggestions she thinks might be helpful to Americans struggling with their legacy of inequality and race hate.

What Might Be Done?

According to Neiman, the Germans have come to grips with their terrible history of a racism so virulent that it terminated in genocide. They have faced it squarely and honestly, both individually and as a society; sincerely repented, repaired and paid reparations.

Here’s what she says about the critical first step in the process:

What readmitted Germany to the family of civilized nations only decades after the Holocaust and allowed it to become the leading power in Europe was the recognition of its crimes. Having the will to face your shameful history can become a show of strength.

Susan Neiman in “Learning from the Germans

What might be done to atone for one of the gravest and longest-lasting human rights abuses in recorded history: American racism? What has to happen in order even to make it possible to try to rectify the hearts and minds of Americans, achieve authentic racial equality and fairly compensate black and brown people for their suffering and loss. We must begin from the ineffable fact that no compensation, however opulent, can ever be enough.

There’s another undeniable fact that complicates matters. One of the factors that permitted the Germans to address the problem of racism in their society was the cataclysmic humiliation they underwent at the hands of the Allies in World War II. From that they derived the humility that permitted them to turn their backs on past sins and start afresh from scratch. Had their country not been utterly leveled it is unlikely that they could have made such progress in so little time. Can the German experience be repeated elsewhere without that constructive devastation? It may be possible, but it’s not likely.

What is to be done in one of the world’s most sanctimoniously Christian country to neutralize its race hate and all the dystopia it engenders, especially in view of the fact that one of the greatest repositories of that hate is precisely the country’s largest Protestant denomination? If we follow the migration of the Southern Baptist Convention towards America’s north and west, we find that its racist ideology finds fertile ground there. Susan Neiman has an apt observation on the subjejct of Christianity and violence:

Christianity created Hell, where violence was eternal.

Learning from the Germans

No progress can be made in racial reconciliation without humility on the part of the oppressors. Could that kind of humility occur in the United States on a large-enough scale to produce systemic change? It wouldn’t be easy considering that in 1964, 96% of Mississippi voters opposed the Civil Rights Act, and old beliefs die hard. Neiman cites this observation from Bryan Stevenson, the African American lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative and wrote Just Mercy, a true story about a murder case re-opened–and won–by the Equal Justice Initiative, later adapted into a feature film:

The difference between the United States and Germany is leadership. In Germany there were people who said, “We can choose to be a Germany of the past or a Germany of the future. We cannot do it by trying to reconcile the Nazi era with what we want to be. Either we’re going to reject that and claim something better, or we’re going to be condemned by that for the rest of our existence. That was something that never happened in the United States.

Bryan Stevenson, cited by Susan Neiman in “Learning from the Germans

Michelle Alexander, civil rights advocate, academic and NY Times collaborator and author of the 2010 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, said this on the subject:

“In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”

Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow

The No Hope Option

Looked at with some perspective, without the Americans’ penchant for exceptionalism and feckless optimism, it is entirely possible that nothing short of country-wide cataclysmic change can ever happen to render racism null and void. In the end, perhaps it’s America’s own wacky Evangelicals and Pentecostals (those who “speak in tongues”) who have the only answer: the Apocalypse. And I would add, a thousand years afterwards, a repopulation by Norwegians and New Zealanders.

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Racism Is the Ongoing American Plague 1/2

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is lynching-1.png
They’re proud of themselves. Not much has changed.

It’s the Underlying Plot of the American Story

If there’s a plot line that runs through the American story from its earliest history to our own day it’s inhuman, homicidal racism. That issue, which has been solved or significantly improved in most of the world, remains a tragic ballast in the progress of the United States of America. It’s there that governments and citizens have been pussyfooting around murderous racial injustice for the past 400 years and the end is not in sight. Lynching, in one form or another, remains as American as apple pie.

The origin of European race-based slavery in the New World are not to be found on the American mainland, however. It occurred on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, site of today’s Haiti and El Salvador, and the perpetrators were Christopher Columbus (yes the same man celebrated so lavishly every year on October 12 in all but seven of the United States), his brothers and their followers. Their brutality and rapine set the benchmark from the outset for genocidal practices in the Americas. In just a few decades they eliminated 100% of the native Taino Indian population on the island, either through contagious diseases or plain murder.

A favorite mode was coursing the Indians with horses and hunting hounds, killing them and feeding their bodies to the dogs. Today not a drop of Taino blood remains in either Haiti nor El Salvador. How did the Spanish justify this enslavement, murder and mayhem in the West Indies? It was easy. Insofar as the red-skinned primitive people of the islands did not know God, did not fear him and were not even baptized, they were considered commodities, not human beings. Besides, they were needed as slaves to dig their coveted gold out of the ground for the Spaniards. (Source: A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, Fray Bartolomé de las Casas)

Black Slavery from Africa

The divine approval of this sort of barbarous practices arrived as early as 1455 when Pope Nicholas V issued the Romanus Pontifex, affirming Portugal’s exclusive rights along the West African coast to territories it claimed there and the trade from those areas, as well as the right to invade, plunder and “reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.” (NY Times.com) The Holy Father’s timing was uncanny, as Columbus “discovered” America less than four decades later and Queen Isabella of Spain promptly authorized the enslavement of the native people of the West Indies.

The conditions imposed in the shipping of black slaves from Africa were unthinkable, which may be why white Americans have done their best not to think about them ever since. This trans-Atlantic slave trade represented a new form of race-based slavery. Endorsed by the Europeans, it resulted in the largest forced migration in history with some 12.5 million Africans shipped to the New World like livestock until the early part of the 19th century. The conditions on the slave ships were severe and unhygienic in the extreme. The victims, who were chained to plank racks, suffered dehydration, dysentery and scurvywhich bred mortality rates as high as 30% among men, women and especially children. (Source: Wikipedia)

It is not an exaggeration to affirm that the product of black-slave labor laid the principal foundations for America’s prosperity up until the Civil War, and continued after Emancipation and Reconstruction in other, locally cooked-up guises. Seven of the eight wealthiest states in the union in 1860 were slave states. This is not to say the north didn’t benefit, as well. Southern-grown tobacco and cotton travelled north to be processed and sold, producing large profits for the Yankees.

Racial Progress or Business as Usual?

In 1808, the last year of Thomas Jefferson’s presidency, the US banned the importation of slaves from Africa and the West Indies. This sounds like a noble gesture, but it was just business as usual. At the time the increase of the black slave population in America was due to what history books call “natural increase.” What they don’t tell you is that this increase was anything but natural. It was the mass production from slave-breeding farms scattered around the south. These highly lucrative businesses were akin to livestock breeding operations. In its heyday the port of Richmond alone shipped some 10-20,000 slaves a month into the southern slave market.  Slaves delivered on ships arrived in better condition and drew better prices. This profitable local production of slaves motivated many of the proponents of the importation prohibition, including Thomas Jefferson, to back a move intended to eliminate foreign competition, thus shoring up slave prices.

Slavery was more than man’s inhumanity towards man. It was always about economics. Cheap labor that allowed America to compete with other nations. Much of America was literally built on slavery. Texas schoolbooks are now trying to make it sound not quite so bad. The breeding farms receive no mention at all.William Spivey on Medium, Mar 21, 2019, America’s Breeding Farms: What History Books Never Told You

Fast Forward Two Centuries

Let’s fast forward two centuries–skipping over a period that includes the Civil War and Emancipation, Reconstruction, the Black Codes, Separate but Equal, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Act, and the Obama presidency; all of which brought with them varying degrees of point and counterpoint and deserve treating in detail on other occasions. Today we have the privilege of reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ monumental 19,000-word article, The Black Family In The Age Of Mass Incarceration, published in The Atlantic in October, 2015, which sums up the present-day outcome of those centuries of inequality and oppression.

In this definitive elaboration of America’s latest catalog of racial injustice, Coates’ cites sociologist, advisor to President Lydon Johnson and later US senator, Daniel Moynihan’s book, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” (known as the Moynihan Report and distributed inside the government without the author’s name), which argued in 1965 that the federal government was underestimating the damage done to black families by “three centuries of sometimes unimaginable mistreatment” as well as a “racist virus in the American blood stream,” which would continue to plague blacks in his future, which is our present.

Moynihan’s proposed solution, that included provisions to rewrite the child protection laws to put fathers back into black homes (as having a man in the house exempted a family from government assistance) and to provide families with guaranteed minimum incomes, was too radical to be accepted by the legislators of mid-60s America–and today’s America, for that matter– but the report remains as a reminder of what might have been–and might still be possible someday.

Coates reminds us that America’s debt to African Americans remains unpaid:

That the Negro American has survived at all is extraordinary—a lesser people might simply have died out, as indeed others have … But it may not be supposed that the Negro American community has not paid a fearful price for the incredible mistreatment to which it has been subjected over the past three centuries.

(Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Black Family In The Age Of Mass Incarceration)

Mass Incarceration Is the New Slavery

Not only does the US boast alarming incarceration statistics–the highest in the world–but the way in which they’re racially skewed is even more absurd. Here’s the incredible prison infrastructure that permits the United States to process almost 2.3 million alleged wrongdoers–“alleged” because nearly half of them have not been convicted of the charges they’re accused of: 1,833 state prisons, 110 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,134 local jails, 218 immigration detention facilities, and 80 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, civil commitment centers and psychiatric facilities.

More than a third of people executed under the death penalty within the last 40 years have been Black, even though African Americans represent only 13% of the general population. African Americans are pursued, convicted, and sent to death at a disproportionally higher rate than any other race.

In early 2000, the percentage of Black people on death row were as follows for the states below:

  • Maryland 72%
  • Pennsylvania 63%
  • Illinois 63%
  • Alabama 46%
  • Texas 41%
  • Virginia 39%
  • California 36%
  • Florida 36%

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