Racism: The Legacy of Slavery
Alice Walker wrote, “The word is never healed in the abstract. Healing begins where the wound was made.” Consider American slavery: brutish, inhumane, and very profitable. How profitable? Consider: almost every economic institution created between independence and the Civil War was designed either explicitly or implicitly to encourage and even extend slavery. Consider: at the outbreak of the Civil War, America enjoyed a virtual monopoly in the world cotton trade, controlling over 60% of that trade.
When I speak or write about slavery, people often tell me that I should just get over my guilt trip, or that I am not responsible for my ancestors’ sins, or that since their ancestors had no involvement in slavery, it doesn’t apply to them. There are hundreds of versions of this. But it is never that simple. Consider: no African American has ever said anything like that to me; it is only European Americans who say things like that.
It is true that I am not responsible for the misdeeds of my ancestors, but there is more to responsibility than that. We are also responsible to one another. We are responsible to the culture we live in and hand on to our descendants, to make this world a better place than we found it, and to our children to raise them to be humane, loving, and generous adults.
It is in this sense that I feel a responsibility. I am responsible to the future that I help to create to pass on to it a reality that is less hate-filled and violent than the one I inherited from my parents. The world that every one in America has inherited is one that is filled with racism and racial violence. It doesn’t matter when your ancestors came to America or how. It doesn’t even matter that you, yourself, may be the immigrant. The reality is that we all live in a nation that is rife with racism, a racism that is the direct descendent of American slavery.
Does anyone really think that ours is a “post-racial” society? Does anyone really think that the treatment given President Obama by the Republican Party has nothing to do with his being Black? Does anyone really think that the recent explosion of police violence against African Americans is merely an accident of statistics and has nothing to do with racism?
Consider racial stereotyping: the dangerous, large, strong, lascivious, and angry young Black Man. This stereotype fed the lynching of every African American who was ever killed by a mob. And where did it come from? We Euro-Americans created it. It goes way back into American slavery. It was alive and well in the 1950s and 1960s, as it witnessed to by the murder of the leaders of the Black Panther Party. And it is alive and well in 2015. Why else is it that a young Euro-American can walk around carrying an assault rifle and no one even thinks of calling the police, yet a twelve-year old African American child playing by himself with a toy gun is accosted and shot to death by Euro-American police? The stereotype killed that child, and we Euro-Americans created it.
Do black lives matter? Do black lives really matter, matter as much as white lives matter? There are two memes going around. The first is: “Nothing is more indicative of white supremacy than the fact that the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ is controversial.” The second is: “Black people are literally saying ‘Please stop killing us!’ and you are saying ‘But…’?”
People are saying everything from “Right on!” to “’Black Lives Matter’ is racist”. Many think the slogan, and therefore also the movement, is restrictive and it should be replaced by “All Lives Matter”, because, of course, all lives do matter.
All Lives Matter is fine as an ideal, as something to strive for, something to work toward and embrace as something to guide our moving into the future. But as a description of the world in which we live, it is simply false. All lives do not matter in this country because far too often the lives of people of color do not matter to far too many Euro-Americans. The truth is that the overwhelming majority of cases of police violence are against African Americans and other people of color, and this has been true ever since there has been an America. It seems to me that “All Lives Matter” is a way of hiding from the truth while appearing to be an ally, or at least appearing to oneself to be an ally.
Until we embrace fully the truth that African American lives are constantly in peril through police violence, through educational violence, through governmental violence, through cultural violence, and through other forms of violence, all lives will not matter. Until we recognize the rage the burns in the souls of Americans of color and accept our responsibility and accountability for it, all lives will not matter. And until we are able put aside our own privileged place in the world and open our hearts to what our neighbors of color are telling us, all lives will not matter. And so, it is important to say over and over that Black Lives Matter.
I want to close this meditation with a poem I wrote several years ago. It was inspired by Jesus’ insistence that the Torah’s instruction to love our neighbor as ourselves is the essence of genuine love for God and thus is the core of Torah.
The sky opened. Fire fell in torrents
And burned everything. The Big House.
The shacks. Everything. Shriveled
Like forbidden graven images.
“Thou shalt have no other gods before me!”
“It was not us!” they will say.
“It was long ago! It was someone else!”
And who shall say, “Thy people shall be my people,
And those who are unloved shall be beloved”?