Dialoging about Race

Sep 3, 2013

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National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression – Chicago Branch

Certainly it was no accident that slavery was the major moral issue the signers of the Declaration [of Independence] failed to address when they proclaimed liberty, equality, and justice for all, and went home to oversee their slaves.  Just as it is no accident that our public dialogue on race today is more a monologue of frustration and rage.

–    Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 1996, in “Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African-American Achievement”

I will, in the name of humanity, which is outraged, in the name of liberty, which is fettered, in the name of the Constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call into question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery – the great sin and shame of America!”

–    Frederick Douglass, 1852, Speech in Rochester, NY., “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

Most of us came here in chains and most of you came here to escape your chains.  Your freedom was our slavery, and therein lies the bitter difference in the way we look at life.

–    John Oliver Killens, 1964, “Explanation of the Black Psyche.”

African-Americans have answered the country’s every call from its infancy…. Yet, the fame and fortune that were their just due never came.  For their blood spent, lives lost, and battles won, they received nothing.  They went back to slavery, real or economic, consigned there by hate, prejudice, bigotry and intolerance.

–    Colin Powell, 1995, “My American Journey.”

One of the things that has happened in the current election for President of the United States is that there has been opened a national dialog about race.

If there is to truly be a dialogue, however, there is one thing that cannot be avoided, and that is the history of the United States.

In Germany, on January 29, 2008, at a commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the putsch that brought Adolph Hitler to power, Avi Primor, the former Israeli ambassador to Germany asked rhetorically, “Where in the world has one ever seen a nation that erects memorials to immortalize its own shame?  Only the Germans had the bravery and the humility.”1

Such bravery and humility is absent from our own country, but it is needed.  Yet those who demand it are often branded troublemakers and radicals, if they are white.  If they are Black they are called unpatriotic, divisive, anti-white, and even “racist.”  However recent experience has shown that until our country as a whole comes to grips with its terrible past the “dialogue about race” will either be a white-wash, or will simply be a venting of “frustration and rage.”

White supremacy is the elephant in the room.  We can walk around it, but we can’t ignore it and expect to clean our house.

Facts are persistent things.  To mention just a few:

–    Between 1620 and 1830 estimates range from 10 million to 60 million the number of Africans who died in the African slave trade.  This is one of the greatest holocausts and acts of genocide in the history of the world.2

–    In 1860 there were 4 million Black slaves in the U.S., all of whom were descendents of Africans brought here in chains.3

–    The descendents of African slaves in the United States make up 12 per cent of the population, but are over 50 per cent of the more than 2 million people held in prisons and jails.  They and their ancestors have been in the United States longer than almost every European ethnic group, but the median net wealth of African American families lags far, far behind.4

–    The entire American continent, including all of what is now the United States, was conquered by force of arms and stolen from its original inhabitants.  Most of them were killed outright.  The few survivors were herded onto “reservations” that persist to this very day.  Native American Indians are the poorest, most illiterate, and have the shortest life expectancies of any population group within the United States.5

Is there such a thing as “white privilege” in the United States?  This may be the wrong question.  What does it mean to a worker whose family has just lost their home to foreclosure and their job to the export of jobs?

But that there is continuing anti-Black discrimination beyond that faced by “ordinary” white people is without doubt.  Descendents of Europeans in the United States have the privilege of not being Black, or colored.  For in the United States the dominant European culture is what is “normal,” and what is “abnormal” is Black and colored.

To white people white supremacy is invisible.  It is taken for granted.  As Tim Wise once asked, asking a white person about white supremacy is like asking a fish what is water.  He won’t know what you’re talking about.  But African Americans and other people of color can drown in it, and it’s a constant battle to stay afloat.

So the first step toward dialogue about race is for those of us who are of European descent to recognize that maybe we don’t see the issue, and prepare to listen.  It’s not that our ancestors didn’t struggle, and it’s not that they, and we, are not exploited by the powers that be.  It’s that the basic assumptions for white people, the basic starting point, is different.

One’s family does not have to have owned slaves to notice, if one is white, that one does not have to concern him or herself with one’s race.  Only people of color must be aware of their status as such for every waking moment of life, and be on guard against insult and injury.

The next step is to understand that it is not personal.  White people are not being asked personally to give back something to make things right.  The ones who have made out like bandits in this country are those who have inherited the fortunes built on through the left of the nation and the enslavement of Africans.  The terrible burden of genocide and slavery and Jim Crow is a social burden born by our whole society.  The “builders of America,” who have been so idolized in our culture, engineered the destruction of this continent’s indigenous people, the conquest and theft of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, the enslavement of Africans, and the ongoing theft of the labor and lives of Black people through lower wages and lower public services.  The only way to address the terrible legacy of these crimes against humanity is for our whole country to pull together to overcome their lingering effects.  The means to do this can be drawn from the collective wealth of our country as gathered by the government through taxation.

The United States government recently gave a half billion dollar tax break to the richest 1 per cent of the people in the country.  This is affirmative action to enrich the already rich.  Surely, a country that can afford this, and can find $3 trillion in 5 years to invade and occupy a sovereign nation that did nothing to provoke such an attack, can find an amount equal to pay for social reparations to the descendents of the peoples whose ancestors the were killed, enslaved, or conquered on this soil.  And there will be enough to ensure that everyone can be guaranteed the right to health care, education, and adequate housing.

The goal of dialogue is unity in struggle

The goal in this dialogue, as we see it, is not to score points or to prove who’s right and who’s wrong.  Let’s accept the historical facts that the system is what allowed all this to happen, and the system is what has to be straightened out.  The only way that can happen is when millions of  people of all races and ethnic groups are united to make our voices heard.

A cornerstone of the unity is the strength of unity among the oppressed – African Americans in the first place.  Arguments over strategy need to have as their goal unity.

Recently, differences in strategy have emerged.  When they lead to splits and demoralization, they hand victory to those who would exploit and oppress us all.  The differences are not about the facts of history, but about how to discuss those facts strategically, about how to conduct the dialogue.

An activist asks, “How many times have Blacks been asked to keep quiet to keep the peace (remember Letters From a Birmingham Jail)?  The question that Black people have to deal with (and this ain’t the first time) is knowing that whites who can’t get ready for supporting real equality are looking for something to justify their position.  They find it when Black people speak out.  This is the ‘don’t confuse me with the facts’ problem.

“For Blacks, the question is where do you draw the line between what you need to do to get by with whites, and who you really are. ”

Another young activist responds, “I resent the sentiment that Black people must choose between exemplifying who we really are versus doing what we need to do to bypass the ignorance and darkness of individuals who are not ready to receive reality.  … Black people are not required to explain ourselves, to reveal ourselves, or exemplify ourselves or every feeling or thought on racism before we do anything!  Mainly, because first of all, we owe no one an explanation but God. ”

We would like to suggest that the ideas expressed in this divergent view will come together, because it will be through unity that the progressive movement as a whole will be built, and that unity starts with the unity of the oppressed.

1 Kulish, Nicholas, “Germany Confronts Holocaust Legacy Anew,”  New York Times, January 29, 2008

2 See Matthew White, “Historical Atlas of the Twentieth Century, Selected Death Tolls for Wars, Massacres and Atrocities Before the 20th Century – African American Slavery,” http://users.erols.com/mwhite28/warstatv.htm

3 James G. Randall revised by David Donald, “Civil War and Reconstruction,” cites the 1860 United States Censushttp://www.civilwarhome.com/population1860.htm

4  “[W]hile African-Americans do earn less than whites, asset gaps remain large even when we compare black and white families at the same income levels. For instance, at the lower end of the economic spectrum (incomes less than $15,000 per year), the median African-American family has a net worth of zero, while the equivalent white family’s net worth is $10,000. Likewise, among the often-heralded new black middle class, the typical white family earning $40,000 per year enjoys a nest egg of around $80,000; its African-American counterpart has less than half that amount.” Dalton Conley, “The Black-White Wealth Gap,” The Nation, March 26, 2001, http://www.thenation.com/doc/20010326/conley

5 See for example, Rodney L. Brod and John M. McQuiston, “American Indian Adult Education and Literacy: the First National Survey,” Journal of American Indian Education, Vol. 22, No. 2, January, 1983.