From time to time I get into a conversation about racism, and I usually make some remark about the relationship between our current racial problems and slavery. It’s not unusual for people to challenge me on that. The argument is something to the effect that since slavery is over and done with, 150 years in our past, how on earth could it have anything to do with our current problems?
Hard to know where to begin. But think about this. A huge number of Americans are afraid of young black men. Especially young black men who are physically large. Especially large, young black men who appear to be armed. Now ask yourself why that is. Why should a large, armed, young black man be more intimidating than a large, armed, young white man? Why is it that a young black man is so often seen to be threat while a young white man is not? Why is it that an unarmed black man can be shot by police but an armed young white man can walk around in public with impunity? Why? It is because of the legacy of slavery.
History is one of the things that conditions us. It is not the only thing, to be sure, but it is one of the things. Our behavior is learned, after all, and one of our most powerful teachers is history. And consider this: during the time of slavery, white Americans lived in terror of slave rebellions. I would argue that this was because those white Americans know perfectly well that slavery was immoral and that the enslaved could not but be angry. They knew perfectly well that the enslaved were not content with their lot. And they knew perfectly well that there were the occasional uprisings. But be that as it may, the truth is that whites, even those who were not enslavers and merely stood by without protest, lived in terror of slave rebellions.
It is naive to think that this terror simply vanished when chattel slavery was outlawed. It didn’t. It continued. Of course it did! It was part of what created the American Reign of Terror we call Jim Crow, and it was part of what created the ghettos in the cities of the North. “Keep ’em corralled where we can keep an eye on ’em because they are dangerous” was the attitude. And at a certain level, we European Americans knew perfectly well what we were doing to African Americans. We know perfectly well that segregating African Americans was wrong, immoral, anti-democractic. We continued to be afraid of the consequences of what we were doing.
And we still are. We imprison African American men at a far higher rate than European men. An African American man is far more likely than a European American man to be shot by police. State after state to continue to create ways of excluding African Americans from voting. And those ghettos? They still exist, but we don’t call them that any more. We call them neighborhoods. But the dynamic of racial segregation still within our “neighborhoods”.
And it all goes back to our history of slavery. It is the legacy of slavery. Until we are able to face that legacy and that history honestly and with integrity, it will continue to haunt us.