It is surprisingly difficult to write about the protests sweeping the United States and the world following the wanton murder of George Floyd. There is so much to say and yet it seems like the best thing we can do is post up the number 8:46 with a black square and just leave it at that. However, we also must inform you, our readers, about the world around us and try to keep it interesting.
Since the end of slavery in 1865, those of African-American descent have existed in a country wholly separate from the America that white Americans are familiar with in their lives. The first part is obvious, slaves’ genealogy was not kept track of and the census of 1870 is the first time the formerly enslaved appear in the recorded history of the country. Journals and other records exist but now these people were able to be legal family units and put down themselves on government paperwork as such.
Genealogy wasn’t the only way in which the formerly enslaved and their descendants were treated differently and lived different lives. Southern states wasted no time in reminding people once held as property that they were different and always would be different. The first instance of segregation started in Louisiana in 1871, in regards to train cars and that “negroes” (the term of the day) should be seated separately from whites. These segregationist laws would sweep through the South, especially once the withdrawal of federal troops ended reconstruction in 1876. These laws would go on to be called “Jim Crow” laws, a racist term in itself to describe the laws that regulated the behavior of American citizens based on skin color. These ideas of separateness would spread much farther than the South. Hotels and other public establishments throughout the country often would not serve black people. Whenever a black person left their home, they were forced to thrive in a country hostile to their existence.
This created a unique American Apartheid where black people were often not present in media (when mass media arrived) and it took decades of fighting prejudice to achieve only modest gains in that arena. Often black people were only allowed to be maids (award winning maids in the case of Hattie McDaniels) and other servant roles. This continued the visual that Americans who were not white were something else and different deserved to be treated as such. That is a fight that is still being fought today.
Unlike Apartheid in South Africa, which included identity cards and legal methods of keeping non-whites out of certain professions, American Apartheid was much more subtle. It is still that way. Most people of color have a story about going to a job interview and knowing that once the interviewer found out the color of your skin, there was no chance. Studies have shown that “ethnic” sounding names get hired less than “white” sounding names. Although the formerly enslaved and their descendants were not required to register and keep paperwork on them, they still had to live in fear of the police and constant fear of terrorism. Sun down towns were a prime example of this. Black people were supposed to clear out by sundow,n and if they didn’t, the consequences could be fatal. Today, black people still live in fear of the police, and thanks to the modern smartphone, the suffering is now on constant display. The subtlety of American racism is simply the way people are treated, the opportunities not awarded, and the chances denied based on nothing more than skin color.
A Change is Going to Come?
It seems like with the global protests for Black Lives Matter and all the small things happening, it seems like finally, we might get some real change. For example, the City of Minneapolis decided to disband its police department and start over. San Francisco is following suit by hiring more social workers and others to handle different kinds of police calls. Major brands are moving too. Pepsico is rebranding Aunt Jemima pancake syrup to remove racist imagery. Other companies are relooking at their entire family of brands for racism. The casual racism that is visible on the grocery store shelf may soon be a thing of the past. Statues to confederate heroes have been torn down throughout the nation. In California, John Wayne International Airport may soon be getting a new name due to the racist comments made by the popular film star. On June 29, the state of Mississippi decided to remove the confederate battle flag from its state flag. This change is nice, but it is only superficial at best, and it is no guarantee that American society is going to be any friendlier to people of color regardless of their background. It is nice to see change, even if it is superficial, but there are major changes that need to happen across society.
Time for Real Change
Racial injustice is not just how the police treat people of color; it also is deeply economic. The pay gap, wealth gap, and lack of homeownership rob black people and other people of color of the economic advantages that other groups enjoy in this country. Even basic social services like housing (or any description), healthcare, and education are often denied to people of color because of where they live. Waitlists for housing vouchers can take years, the US lacks any form of universal healthcare leaving millions uninsured, and due to local funding of education, educational opportunities can be hard to come by. These are changes that would benefit everyone but would most benefit black people. Making sure that everyone has a safe place to sleep, a decent job with some dignity, and educational opportunities for themselves and their children is vitally important to improving the systemic problems that created Black Lives Matter. This is not to say that the police department nationwide doesn’t need reform, they certainly need reform but, we need to make sure that the fruits of the country reach the people who can make the best use of them. This requires a radical reimagining of our economy.
Equality of All Citizens
Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness is one of the few promises that this country offers. It is not the same as Equality, Liberty, and Fraternity of the French, but it is something that the Founders envisioned this country could grant to the people who lived here. For too long, that promise has only been available to citizens who owned land and later to only those who were white and later still to those who were male. At this critical moment in our history, we have an opportunity to extend that promise over hill and dale to every citizen of this country, no matter what. This is something that all Americans can and should demand of their government. If Black Lives Matters achieves nothing else, it should achieve that promise to everyone within the United States. It is time. This country has had many opportunities to get it right, and we have missed them. Let this not be another missed opportunity.