My year as chair of the ABA Civil Rights and Social Justice Section, and also as editor of this issue of Human Rights magazine, is laser focused on what—incredibly, given its centrality in our history—is still an underexamined American sin: the African American experience, and how excruciatingly underestimated and misunderstood remain the daily burdens, struggles, obstacles, and oppression faced by black people in this country.
Standing at this American crossroads, we have to start by looking back in order to move forward. James Baldwin told us: “If you don’t know what happened behind you, you’ve no idea of what is happening around you.” Sankofa, a word from the Akan tribe in Ghana, symbolizes the Akans’ quest for knowledge based on critical examination, and intelligent, patient investigation, and teaches us that we must look back to go forward. What happened in 1619, exactly 400 years ago this year, and what has unfolded since, is key to what is happening around us right now. It is a history we do not tell. We have imparted instead, at best, a sanitized story of our sordid past.
We had slaves in this country only 150 years ago. Think about that. African Americans have been free in America for less time than they were enslaved. Many Americans are only two generations from slavery, a moral abomination that was really, in historical terms, only yesterday.
Slavery in what became our United States started when 20 Africans were stolen from their homes and taken to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. Twelve and a half million more Africans were kidnapped and enslaved in the Americas in the centuries that followed. And 10.7 million survived the Middle Passage. The horrors of American slavery are deep, dark, and legion. Just one example: Almost 30 percent of a slave ship’s cargo were children; the mortality rates of enslaved children were twice that of whites; few mothers were released from work and even during the last week before childbirth picked three-quarters the usual amount of cotton; half of all enslaved infants died in their first year; the average birthweight of those infants was less than 5.5 pounds, severely underweight; common maladies were blindness, abdominal swelling, bowed legs, skin lesions, convulsions, beriberi (caused by a deficiency of thiamine), pellagra (caused by a niacin deficiency), tetany (caused by deficiencies of calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D), rickets (also caused by a deficiency of vitamin D), and kwashiorkor (caused by severe protein deficiency).
Yet, though Congress banned the slave trade in 1808, the domestic slave trade flourished, and the enslaved population in the United States nearly tripled over the next 50 years. We went from being a country that accounted for 6 percent of slaves imported to the New World to one that in 1860 held more than 60 percent of the hemisphere’s slave population.
That is a horrifying history, and one we—like so many we enslaved—cannot escape. The generational manacles slavery left on African Americans are mirrored by the generational entitlements, and institutional wealth, it bestowed on whites.
As Edward Baptist points out in The Half That Has Never Been Told (2014, Basic Books), cotton was the most important raw material of the Industrial Revolution that created our modern world economy, and enslaved African Americans were its most efficient producers—the amount grown in the South increased almost every year from 1800 to 1860. “Cotton . . . drove U.S. expansion, enabling the young country to grow from a narrow coastal belt into a vast, powerful nation with the fastest growing economy in the world.” (Id., at 113)
The economic engine of this country was built, literally, on the backs of our black brethren and sistren. For a century, revisionist racism denying this reality entirely was patent on the pages of every American textbook, not to mention novels, advertising, speeches, and film scripts. But even after the civil rights and Black Power movements banished the stories of benign masters benefiting ignorant savages and of subsequent separate but equal equanimity, we as a country were still selling ourselves a false narrative.
As Baptist observes in The Half That Has Never Been Told, we are still entertaining at least three fundamentally incorrect assumptions about the history of slavery: First, that slavery was somehow economically separate from rather than central to the overall U.S. economy as it grew to global dominance; second, that slavery was “fundamentally in contradiction with the political and economic systems of the liberal republic” and so always certain to sunset; and third, that slavery was a denial of rights rectified by reinstitution of those rights rather than the embodiment of the “massive and cruel engineering required to rip a million people from their homes, brutally drive them to new, disease-ridden places, and make them live in terror and hunger as they continually built and rebuilt a commodity-generating empire. . . .” (Id., at 21)
In fact, slavery was murder, domestic terrorism, and a massive mugging and robbery; and the work of those killed, robbed, and subjugated was integral to the U.S. economic growth that built the vast wealth of America.
Given the truth of this history, it is not surprising that even today—400 years after we dragged the first slaves from their African homes, 8,000 miles across the oceans in chains, 150 years since “emancipation,” 50 years after the civil rights movement and landmark legislation of the 1960s, and after progress we thought was made since Jim Crow—literally everywhere you look in this country, in every aspect of our lives, society, and culture, you still find eruptions of the pervasive underlying cancer of racism that is part and parcel of slavery and its loathsome legacy.
Race matters, everywhere, in everything. One hundred fifty years ago, 90 percent of African Americans were slaves. Today, black wealth in America is still only 5 percent of white wealth. Compared to whites, African Americans are twice as likely to be unemployed, and, when they are employed, earn nearly 25 percent less. Whites get 36 percent more callbacks on job applications than equally qualified black Americans.
Black drivers are 30 percent more likely than whites to be stopped by police. African Americans are incarcerated in prisons across the country at more than five times the rate of whites, and at least 10 times the rate in five states. Black citizens are 13 percent of the population but 40 percent of the prison population. If an African American and a white American each commit the same crime, the black person is far more likely to be arrested, 20 percent more likely to be sentenced to jail time, and will face a sentence 20 percent longer than the white person. About one in three black men spends time behind bars in their lives, devastating their employment prospects on release. Black children in the criminal justice system are 18 times more likely than whites to be sentenced as adults.
Even when children grow up next to each other with parents who earn similar incomes, black boys fare worse than white boys in 99 percent of America. A 2012 study found that a majority of doctors have “unconscious racial biases” against black patients. After 1968 fair housing legislation following the civil rights movement, black home ownership increased for 30 years to nearly 50 percent in 2004. But all those gains have been erased since. Black home ownership is at an all-time low—below 42 percent compared to 72 percent for whites.
Then there are the institutional killings. African Americans make up about 13 percent of the population. But in 2015 they accounted for 26 percent of those killed by police; in 2016, 24 percent; and in 2017, 23 percent. In other words, black Americans were the victims of the lethal use of force by police at nearly twice the rate of the general population. In 2018, black Americans accounted for 38 percent of the unarmed citizens killed by police so far. That’s three times the percentage of black people in the U.S. population. This cannot be the result of random acts by rogue cops. It is a structural pattern of institutional lethal force against a particular race of people. But these are not merely statistics. They are people. Freddie Gray. Samuel DuBose. Philando Castile. Terence Crutcher. Alton Sterling. Jamar Clark. Jeremy McDole. William Chapman II. Walter Scott. Eric Harris. Tamir Rice. Akai Gurley. Michael Brown Jr. Eric Garner. Tony Robinson. Rumain Brisbon. Laquan McDonald. Botham Shem Jean. Corey Jones.
All of this is in stark contrast to the privileges of being white and wealthy. Paul Manafort has just become exhibit A of the leniency wealthy white criminals receive because they have money to defend themselves and many judges find them easy to empathize with. William Nettles, a former U.S. attorney in South Carolina, called Judge Ellis’s Manafort sentencing decision “sentencing disparity on steroids.” “How in the world can we make sense of the sentences that we have been handing down to the poor and to those people of color who didn’t have nearly the opportunities that Paul Manafort had to make an honest living?” asked Nettles. According to Scott Hechinger, a public defender in Brooklyn, “For context on Manafort’s 47 months in prison, my client yesterday was offered 36–72 months in prison for stealing $100 worth of quarters from a residential laundry room.”
In 1968, the Kerner Commission appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson concluded America was moving toward two societies: One white. One black. Separate and unequal.
More than 50 years after the Kerner Commission report, a new analysis by the nonprofit Economic Policy Institute confirmed what is unsurprising to most African Americans: Those two separate and unequal societies perniciously persist.
Black Americans live every day with the historical reality that white on black racism is in America’s DNA. The minute-by-minute struggle of living under the weight of entrenched racial oppression is like breathing polluted air—you don’t like it, but you have to live through it with every breath from dawn to dusk. White Americans who doubt this should try living while black for a week: applying for a job; being stopped by police for a traffic violation; taking a road trip through America’s heartland; walking a downtown street behind a group of white folks at midnight; shopping store aisles; getting a table at a restaurant; sitting in a hotel lobby. Everything is harder, almost everywhere you go, and you have to be twice as good to get half the respect.
CNN recently reported on all the routine activities by African Americans that resulted in the police being called in 2018: operating a lemonade stand; golfing too slowly; waiting for a friend at Starbucks; barbecuing at a park; taking a phone call in a hotel lobby; working out at a gym; campaigning door to door; moving into an apartment; mowing the wrong lawn; shopping for prom clothing; napping in a university common room; asking for directions; not waving while leaving an Airbnb; redeeming a coupon; selling bottled water on a sidewalk; eating lunch on a college campus; riding in a car with a white grandmother; babysitting two white children; wearing a backpack that brushed against a woman; working as a home inspector; working as a firefighter; helping a homeless man; delivering newspapers; swimming in a pool; shopping while pregnant; driving with leaves on a car; trying to cash a paycheck.
In a recent poll, 54 percent of African Americans said that they have felt “others have been suspicious of them based on the color of their skin.” Only 6 percent of white people said the same.
These incidents are disturbing enough indices of enduring disparity and racism, but also reveal the doubly disturbing inclination of white America to use police to control the behavior of African Americans, a practice fraught with danger due the documented propensity of police to employ disparate force against African Americans.
Yet, despite both the real-as-Brussels-sprouts statistics starkly showing these “two Americas” and the intangible burdens of living-while-black every African American knows all too well, most white Americans either remain unware of the issue or deny that it is an issue. Both prominent Republicans and Democrats have denied that the impacts of 400 years of racism and oppression still have lingering effects that require affirmative efforts to redress.
Indeed, we see in today’s discourse that politicians and people generally seem to indignantly assert, sometimes to the point of farce, that the real racial indignity in our country now is tarring white people with an unfair accusation of racism. Too often their corollary comment is trotting out a black friend, coworker, or relative in order to establish their unbiased bona fides. The common notion that one cannot be racist if one has a black friend only affirms our national bias blindness—our inability or unwillingness to see that we do not all beatifically coexist in a land of equality.
Facing racial reality in America is so long overdue. We have only done it, historically, in fits and starts, moments and movements of progression, followed by retrenchments. The Civil War and Reconstruction. The civil rights movement and white backlash. President Barack Obama’s election and the subsequent administration. African Americans know all too well that race is the subtext for virtually everything in the United States. There is an abiding, urgent need for all of us in this country to empathetically engage with our national racial reality—to both understand intellectually and feel viscerally how elemental race has been historically, and how tangibly race continues to matter every day, in every way.
If we do not, we are indefensibly perpetuating institutional and social discrimination against an entire race of people who have already suffered far too much and too long in America—directly contrary to the promise of our founding creed and Charters of Freedom (the Declaration of Independence; Constitution; and Bill of Rights). We are also, white people take note, inviting what Malcolm X called the chickens coming home to roost. In 2010, whites were about 70 percent of the population. In 2045, whites will be in the minority.
Certainly, there are hopeful signs, indications that our system is working toward fairness as our Charters of Freedom contemplated. A second judge, who has previously made clear that being well-connected earns no favors before her, imposed a harsher sentence on Paul Manafort, nearly doubling his prison time. A Florida jury in March found a former police officer guilty of manslaughter in the fatal shooting of Corey Jones, a black stranded motorist with no criminal record who had been waiting for help on a highway after his car broke down. New York City’s Commission on Human Rights banned discrimination based on hairstyle, so the city is now one of the rare ones in the country where employers, landlords, schools, gyms, and other institutions that enact effectively racist rules about how African Americans can wear their hair will be subject to penalties and civil damages if they harass, threaten, fire, or deny admission to anyone based on grooming choices.
But what makes these instances most notable is they are in the minority. Too often, the news is either otherwise or not news at all. For example, also in March, the California attorney general announced his office would not bring criminal charges against two police officers who shot 20 times and killed Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man, in Sacramento last year; the Sacramento district attorney also declined to bring charges. Clark joins a long and ignoble list of deaths unredressed.
The ugly retches of racism we see today show that blatant racial hate remains resolute. It is our responsibility to seize upon these as windows into the ongoing suffering, and the souls, of African Americans; to apply to the twenty-first century what W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about the last century in the opening line of The Souls of Black Folk: “Herein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being Black here at the dawning of the Twentieth Century.”
The opportunity—for us all to divine the meaning of being black here at the dawn of the twenty-first century, and to recognize just how far we still are from the land of equal opportunity promised by our founding documents—is before us. For far too long, we have been telling ourselves a bucolic bedtime story about slavery and its supposed sunset. We have to wake up and bear witness to our national truth. One of the through lines of James Baldwin’s writing is bearing witness—distinguishing between falsehood and fact and testifying about the past in a way that can transform the future. America has never had a period or process of reconciling what we have done to African Americans. As a country, we have reaped vast rewards from their gifts and sweat many times over. It is long past time we both share in their suffering so it can cease, and share fully with them—Americans so integral to our national identity and success—the rich rewards of that success.
Where do we start? Everywhere we can. Read all of the articles in this magazine. Read The Half That Has Never Been Told, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning, Carol Anderson’s White Rage, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me and The Case for Reparations, Du Bois᾿ The Souls of Black Folks, Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, and all the books listed on the reading list in our Civil Rights and Social Justice Section’s current newsletter.
Prospect deeply for our real American history. Engage with truth in the present. Speak that truth to power. Work daily to right the right’s imbalance. The array of opportunities for awareness and activism ranges across the spectrum from reading to reparations, and beyond. Consider that even conservative columnist David Brooks has come around to making a case for reparations: “while there have been many types of discrimination in our history, the African American (and the Native American) experiences are unique. . . . Theirs are not immigrant experiences but involve a moral injury that simply isn’t there for other groups.”
And then consider Gabrielle Bruney’s thoughtful response that we should all be skeptical about what a centrist vision of restitution for slavery and structural racism might look like.
Centrist reparations would be worse than no reparations at all. They would be full of self-congratulatory praise for the power of gestures and discussion, and promises of gradual change. Worst of all, the benefits of a piecemeal or milquetoast model of reparations would be in danger of being washed away by the tides of racism that continue to buffet black America, and after its implementation, the right would be unwilling to tackle any racial disparities for at least a generation.
“When conservatives start advocating for reparations,” wrote novelist Kaitlyn Greenidge on Twitter, “it’s gonna end up with all of us getting 1 check, 6 yrs from now, for 39.95, only redeemable at certain gov’t sites that take 15 percent off to cash it, and conservatives get a ‘WE PAID YOU WHY YOU STILL F#*%*ING UP’ card for life.” (Source)
So, wherever you start, start now and start strong. Don’t wait until tomorrow. Our country has already seen 400 too many years of tomorrows.