Racial Progress and Regress in Historical Context

I just watched a powerful short video of Bill Moyers interviewing author Khalil Muhammed on the historical social “need” for the criminalization of blacks in America. This is important education for us all. View it with me, and join me in watching the full interview with Muhammed later: http://billmoyers.com/segment/khalil-muhammad-on-facing-our-racial-past/

Khalil Muhammad MM from BillMoyers.com on Vimeo.


What follows below is my own commentary as a companion to the video content:

In the year 1619, the first black man was brought in chains against his will to this land. The year 2019 will mark the 400th anniversary of this event. Of those 400 years, black persons will have only experienced equality under the law for 54 years, or approximately 13% of the time that they have been in this land. In addition, as we all know, equality in practice (de facto) takes much longer than equality in law (de jure). Knowledge of this context makes any argument that we live in a post-racial society, or that we live in a society of equal opportunity, flatly naive.

But it gets more diabolical. A statistic often quoted by white persons in our society to justify black stereotypes about crime is that blacks are more likely to commit crime or violence of some sort. Present-day justice questions aside, historically-speaking, did you know when black inmates as a percentage of the black population surpassed white inmates as a percentage of the white percentage? It happened in the wake of the passage of the 13th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution (1865-1868).

The text of the 13th Amendment that this shift hinges on follows:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

The 13th Amendment is a lesson in an extraordinary idea twisted in an evil way to become something much different than its intention. Slavery or involuntary servitude was abolished, right? In case you missed it, the key phrase here is “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”  Particularly in the American South, with work that needed to be done and money to be made with “involuntary servants,” the criminal “justice” system ramped into high gear to incarcerate enough blacks to keep slavery in operation.  One of the more popular forms of crime that blacks engaged in was vagrancy, aka walking down a country road off your property, walking in the town center after dark, or “unemployed.”  In these blacks faced the combination of invented “crimes” together with disproportionate sentencing and financial penalties for those crimes.  When the black citizen could not pay the debt, their period of incarceration was lengthened to astonishing lengths, as in the infamous Pig Laws, where it was common for a black citizen to be sentenced to 10 years in prison for stealing a pig, while white citizens walked for murder.

When I think about the tearing of the social fabric of black citizens in this country as a result of this mass incarceration, largely without cause but certainly horrifically racist in sentencing, it brings me to tears.  How many children grew up without their father, mother, uncle, cousin, grandfather, or grandmother as a result of these policies?  How many of those persons internalized the pain of that loss, accepting their fate as persons seemingly only fit for incarceration and involuntary servitude?  At what point did families begin to inhabit generational patterns of true crime after having generations of their family locked out of the American dream by virtue of “crime” and sentencing?  Are we willing to accept the truth of this history, and the awful fallout of the results?  Will it change our communal perceptions, policing patterns, and considerations of the challenges our black citizens are facing?  Are we willing to go there?

It’s hard to listen to Khalil’s thoroughgoing case in the video together with this historical knowledge without coming to some discomforting thoughts about race in America.  It behooves us to follow those uncomfortable thoughts, if we’re interested in being a part of truly equal justice system in America.  The truth often cuts closer than we would like it to, and it certainly does in this case.


For further exhaustive research on the themes touched on in this post:

Douglas Blackman’s “Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II” and the excellent PBS Documentary by the same name on the book’s content.

Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”  I’ve never been hooked into a book of such amazing substance so quickly by her confession of her initial skepticism and dismissal of the idea that our criminal-justice system functions much like a racial caste system, which was overwhelmed by the subject matter she researched.  A nice snapshot of that intro to her book can be found here.


An end to racism?


I had a discussion about a week or so ago at Cracker Barrel with some folks who came to eat who are from New Orleans.  Our conversation rambled over several different topics, but we eventually settled on the topic of race.  That phase of the conversation lasted about 15 minutes, and touched on the racial elements of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, on racial progress in America, and what we saw as the future.

The man of a married couple stated at the beginning of the conversation that he believed racism is on the way out in America, and that the distinguishing lines in the America of the future will be social class and not race.  Yet over the course of his talking, he constantly referred to blacks and Hispanics as “them,” as in

“They, like it or not, were the ones doing most of the looting post-Katrina in New Orleans.”

And he finished his contribution by saying, “Well, we’ll see now that they’re in positions of prominence, with a black man as President and a Latina in the Supreme Court.  Now they can’t use excuses anymore.”

My thoughts.  Constantly using the term “them” and “they” over the course of trying to make the argument that racism is dying is kind of like a person claiming to transition to vegetarianism while eating a medium-rare steak.  The supposed goal doesn’t fit the present reality.  And second, how’s this for a suggestion.

Since white men have gotten a shot at the presidency forty-three times before a black man finally attained it, how about we judge “them” after the forty-third black president.  And since there were 110 judges before Sotomayor, with 108 of them being white men, how about we wait until, oh, about 50 Hispanic judges before we judge “them.”  Come to think of it, unless we’re claiming to desire an end to racism while maintaining stereotypes, how about we refuse to judge “them” as exemplars of “their” entire race and judge “them” by the content of their character.  Then maybe racism will fade, as “us” and “them” will be absorbed into a larger “us” that includes us all.

How’s that for a suggestion?

Amen Eric Holder.

Eric Holder, Feb 18, 2009 in a speech to Justice Department employees commemorating Black History Month;

“Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and we, I believe continue to be in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.”

Holder said Americans often “retreat to our race-protected cocoons,” a tendency that inhibits fruitful discussion that might lead to racial progress.

This nation has still not come to grips with its racial past nor has it been willing to contemplate in a truly meaningful way the diverse future it is fated to have,” he said. “To our detriment this is typical of the way in which this nation deals with issues of race.”

Holder said Black History Month itself “is given a separate and unequal treatment by our society” and suggested that February should offer a chance not just for commemoration, but also for frank dialogue between races.

We need a good strong dose of truth that makes us shift in our seats from time to time.  Let’s work together to judge each other “by the content of our character, and not by the color of our skin.”  Strong leadership exhibited here by Attorney General Holder.