“Our country has a birth defect: Africans and Europeans came to this country together — but one group was in chains.” — Condoleezza Rice, former U.S. Secretary of State.
Slavery, our 400-year old birth defect, hasn’t troubled the sleep of white Americans for some time. It was abolished in 1865.
We forget — actually, we whites barely were taught — that slavery was replaced by “Jim Crow,” nearly as calamitous as slavery, with its Black Code laws and “debt peonage” that re-enslaved an estimated 40 percent of Southern blacks.
The Jim Crow era (named for a demeaning caricature of a black man in minstrel shows) lasted nearly a century. It gave racism an enduring economic and social clout that enfeebles our democracy to this day.
So, a little history:
Debt peonage, outlawed in 1867, persisted until the 1940s. It was a work-around designed to provide white employers the unpaid black labor denied them by Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
Charged with petty, trumped-up legal violations, Southern blacks were fined unpayable sums, imprisoned, then profitably leased out as convict labor.
Former slaves could be fined and jailed for loitering and vagrancy, put into indentured servitude until their “debt” was paid, and their children seized and indentured until age 21.
The sharecropper system, which kept black farmers penniless and in perpetual debt to white landowners, was not abolished until 1966 by President Lyndon Johnson.
During Jim Crow at least 4,000 blacks were lynched by whites, who occasionally burned black neighborhoods to the ground.
The first bombs dropped from airplanes on American soil were dropped on black Americans in 1921 by rioting white Americans. Burning turpentine balls fell on Greenwood, a successful black business community in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Thirty-five square blocks were obliterated, leaving 8,000 blacks homeless and an estimated 300 blacks dead.
How could such obvious injustice prevail so long? Hello?
Black Americans were made second-class citizens at the behest of sore losers, the defeated Southern Confederates. They seized control of the United States Senate and held it hostage for 100 years, legislatively moribund and utterly opposed to racial equality.
Plus, in 1896 white racists won the endorsement of their racism from the U.S. Supreme Court, which in the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson case, legalized “separate but equal” facilities for blacks. This ruling enshrined racial bias toward blacks as the law of the land.
As late as 1956, journalist William S. White described the intransigent Senate as “the South’s unending revenge upon the North for Gettysburg.”
At that very moment, though, the Southern hold on the Senate began to weaken. A cunning, ruthlessly unprincipled Texas Democrat, Lyndon Baines Johnson, fraudulently elected to Congress in 1949, tricked the Senate’s racist Southern grandees into giving him control of the Senate. They thought LBJ was one of them. He turned out to be a champion of civil rights.
Many whites fought for racial justice in the tumultuous 1960s, when civil rights activism exploded, and LBJ, now president, succeeded in passing landmark civil rights bills.
Then whites nodded off, optimistically assuming that blacks had achieved the same legal protections as everyone else and simply needed to seize the opportunity to succeed.
This naïve assumption underestimated white America’s stubborn capacity for racial animus. It overlooked the likelihood of more malicious workarounds.
The law said yes; racism still said no.
Even so, affirmative action was opening access to higher education and professional employment, helping build a broader black middle class.
More than injustice
Then, on May 25, 2020, whites once again awoke with a start to see the rotten fruit of our misbegotten racial history fall to the ground, this time in Minneapolis.
Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, spent an interminable 8 minutes and 46 seconds casually squeezing the life out of George Floyd, a black man pinned at the neck under Chauvin’s knee. Symbolism doesn’t get more gruesomely apt, nor more powerful, than this.
Floyd was suspected of passing a counterfeit $20 bill.
Chauvin killed Floyd calmly, staring with chilling, impassive entitlement into a young black girl’s video camera, deaf to Floyd’s desperate pleas to be allowed to breathe.
Maybe it’s not just the injustice. Maybe it’s the rank effrontery, the shameless insolence of this cavalier police killing of an American citizen that’s set the country on fire.
Black people have been shouting “Fire!” for decades. This time we all saw the conflagration. If we don’t avert our eyes, those 8 minutes and 46 seconds may yet change the trajectory of American history.
Black critics of the American system of policing say that the problem to be solved isn’t a few “bad apples.” It’s that the whole tree is rotten. That’s because police are used to systemically enforce enduring white racial bias against blacks.
“We’re done dying,” enraged families of black people killed by cops vowed.
Whites need to shout out their own rage at what’s being done in their name with their money. They need to demand a sea change in police behavior and accountability, especially in jurisdictions with wayward police unions. Elected officials need to know they have not only black but white voters at their backs.
Kimberly Latrice Jones, at the end of her riveting, seven-minute YouTube master class deconstruction of the rage blacks feel after 400 years of suffering at white hands, had this to say about white Americans:
“They are lucky that what black people are looking for is equality and not revenge.”
Even now. After all this.
Solveig Torvik lives in Winthrop.