On Monday, May 25th, 2020—Memorial Day—I was enjoying a long weekend. It was exceptionally nice because my noisy neighbors spent the weekend away, and everything was peaceful and quiet at my house. Little did I know that on that very day, Derek Chauvin was murdering George Floyd and that an entire new civil rights movement was about to begin. There are a lot of things that I was about to learn, most of which I wish I could unlearn. But instead of taking back what I’ve learned, I have to own up to the ways that my own white privilege has enabled the system of white supremacy, and learn how I can use it to help create equality, justice, and peace for all races and all genders.
So today I just want to tell you some of the things that I have learned about American racial injustice toward black people throughout history. I have a few reasons for doing this: primarily, it’s important that anyone reading this who was unaware of any of these facts is made aware of them. Secondly, for those of you who do already know about these things, especially people of color, I can show you, and myself, the shame I feel at just how privileged I have been to go literally 24 years of life without having any idea that any of these things happened (or are still happening).
I blame myself for not researching, my history classes throughout all my years of schooling for teaching only the victories of white people, and society at large for what feels only like keeping these things under wraps. Not to sound overly conspiratorial, but it’s almost like these facts have been deliberately hidden from me so that I don’t make too big a fuss about racial inequality in my own country. Well, now I know. And now I’m making a fuss.
I have celebrated the Fourth of July since I was born, but I had never heard of Juneteenth until days before it occurred this year. I actually had learned in history class about Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 which declared that slaves were to be freed. Naturally, I trusted that that was when slavery ended. (I now know that it still hasn’t ended, but I’ll get to that in a moment.) Instead, two whole years later, on June 19th, 1865, Union slaves were finally informed of their freedom.
2. Slavery in America was never fully abolished
It’s undeniable that African Americans have been treated better since slavery was (mostly) abolished after the Civil War, even though that doesn’t mean much. To be treated how slaves were treated by whites is an inconceivably low standard. This is why I was shocked, when watching the Netflix documentary The 13th, to learn that the Thirteenth Amendment did not explicitly and unequivocally abolish slavery. Of course, there’s an “except.” Section 1 of the amendment reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” (emphasis mine)
To my horror, I’ve learned just how impossibly easy it is for a black person to get arrested, or even imprisoned for life, for no reason. One in three black men sees prison in his lifetime. In addition to being beaten and possibly being a slave again, those charged with a felony lose their right to vote at least while incarcerated in 48 states. And does life get better once emancipated? Barely. It is exponentially more difficult to get a well-paying job with a criminal record than without, and people of color have been discriminated in hiring even without records. To learn how easy it is to be imprisoned as an innocent black man, I recommend watching the true story-based movie Just Mercy (free on various platforms until June 30th) or the four-part Netflix series When They See Us.
3. The “War on Drugs” is not about drugs
The War on Drugs began before I was born. I always thought it meant to say no to drugs. (Thanks D.A.R.E.) But it was never about drugs. It was about keeping black people off of the streets and in the prisons for nonviolent, or even victimless, crimes. I suppose it is cheaper to criminalize people than to address the systemic and societal racism that keeps their neighborhoods poor. Typically, people who have all their needs met do not sell drugs, they do not join gangs, and they do not steal. But we have been taught that they do those things because they are the immoral ones, and we’ve been taught that they deserve to be punished. In fact, drugs don’t kill people, systemic racism kills people.
4. The first police force was a slave patrol
Yes, I am going to go there. You’ve heard people say “defund the police” and even “abolish the police.” Should we? Well, we should if the police are abhorrently racist in who they pull over and arrest. We should if the police try to end crime by mass incarceration and not by addressing why people commit crimes in the first place. And we should absolutely abolish something that literally began as a way to catch runaway slaves and return them to slavery. Especially since that’s what they still do.
5. Minstrel shows
While not as obvious as incarcerating and beating black people for no reason, minstrel shows are one of the most despicably racist aspects of US history. They began in 1828 when a white performer, Thomas Rice, created the character of Jim Crow and performed in blackface. Minstrel shows were the first “theatrical form that was distinctly American,” and they were wildly popular until they finally died down in 1910. I cannot begin to fathom why my ancestors were so entranced by over-the-top stereotypical caricatures of happy slaves acted by white men. I am so disappointed in them.
6. The women’s suffrage movement left out black women
While they had both been admirable fights in my eyes for a long time, the American women’s suffrage movement and modern feminism have something in common. They both strive for the equality of women with their male counterparts. That sounds good, right? It did to me, too. But I pictured a white woman gaining equality with a white man, and you probably did as well. The problem is that is exactly what both movements are. And the suffrage movement went so far as to become a race between white women and black men for the vote, and the white women did not hold back their racist vitriol—not to mention that black women weren’t even invited to the Seneca Falls convention. So make sure that when you are fighting for the rights of women, you mean all women. That includes trans women and women of every race. Don’t just be a feminist. Be an intersectional feminist.
I’m going to ask you to do the impossible, especially if you’re white. Imagine you’re a slave. If you’ve seen 12 Years a Slave, then imagine that you’re Solomon Northup or Patsy. What’s the first thing that you think? “I want to be free. I have to get out of here.” Now imagine being told you’re crazy for wanting freedom or even for running away. That’s what Samuel A. Cartwright decided when he thought that the only reason one might run from slavery is if they’re crazy—or more specifically, as Cartwright would say, if you have drapetomania, or a mental illness that afflicts African American slaves and makes them want to escape slavery. But don’t worry, Cartwright and his fellow doctors remedied drapetomania by prescribing slave owners to remove both the slave’s big toes or just “whipping the devil out of them.” After all, Cartwright did justify his beliefs using the bible.
8. The Tuskegee Experiment
As if it wasn’t enough to insult slaves by diagnosing them with a made-up mental illness, white people have also been the cause (or lack of treatment) of real disease among African Americans, even long after slavery ended. The “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” began in 1932 with 600 black men as test subjects, two thirds of which had syphilis already, and one third of which were given it without consent. The men were told that they were being treated for “bad blood,” which was a common phrase to describe various illnesses including syphilis, and that the study would last for six months.
Well, in reality they were not being treated at all and the study lasted for 40 years, even though the treatment, penicillin, started being used to treat syphilis only 15 years into the study. Why? Because the white researchers wanted to see what would happen to a person if they had untreated syphilis. And “by the end of the study in 1972, only 74 of the test subjects were still alive. Of the original 399 men [who had syphilis at the beginning of the study], 28 had died of syphilis, 100 died of related complications, 40 of their wives had been infected, and 19 of their children were born with congenital syphilis.” (source)
9. The Tulsa Race Massacre
The Tulsa Race Massacre was the deadliest massacre in the United States since the Civil War. Tulsa was home to America’s wealthiest black neighborhood at the time, and the massacre began with the allegation that a 19-year-old black man, Dick Rowland, assaulted a white girl in an elevator. The only evidence was that the girl shrieked and appeared distressed afterward and that Rowland ran off. The alleged victim herself did not even press charges, but this was the perfect opportunity for white locals to unleash their hatred onto the black neighborhood that, though segregated, had been financially thriving. Days of tension between the sheriff and a white lynch mob led to a single shot from an instance of a white man trying to take the gun of a black war veteran. From there, all hell broke loose.
White citizens—including the former lynch mob—who outnumbered black citizens by twenty times, opened fire. It was described as a “negro uprising,” and therefore the white men were deputized and encouraged to shoot the black men in the streets. The white villains eventually descended upon the rich black neighborhood of Greenwood and destroyed everything, murdering and arresting hundreds of residents and setting businesses and homes on fire using military planes. Fortunately, the National Guard came in to protect…the white men. Hundreds of black men were then arrested. To this day, the black victims’ descendants have still not been paid for reparations. And after it all, what did the local newspaper report?
Two white men had died.
While not easy to read, I hope that this has been informative. I know that I could add hundreds more facts, and that there are hundreds still that I don’t know. Many of my readers will recognize this feeling of learning a painful truth after spending their lives under the pretense of a comfortable lie. But I prefer the whole truth any day.