I am not black, and I don’t claim to fully understand the reactions of black Americans to American history. I do understand racism and the long-term effects of discrimination and violence of the majority against a minority.
My recent conversations with African-Americans from Jacksonville, Illinois, have helped me understand that racism was not simply segregated schools or being forced to sit at the back of the bus. Segregation was one part of an entire system of discrimination and abuse created by white Americans for black Americans. Racism was daily life; every minute of every day, African-Americans were insulted, diminished and boxed in by white rules and practices.
Blacks lived in inferior homes. In every state, black Americans were forced into the noisiest, most crowded, most polluted locations. Entire towns and even counties maintained their whiteness through sundown rules, as the historian James Loewen has shown for hundreds of American communities. In towns like Jacksonville, where blacks could live, racist neighborhood covenants kept blacks separate and unequal. When such obviously discriminatory practices were outlawed, and cross-burning on the lawns of homes in white neighborhoods purchased by blacks was no longer tolerated, red-lining by banks and realtors kept black families geographically confined.
Media reinforced the belief in black inferiority. From the first motion picture, “Birth of a Nation” about the heroic KKK, through subsequent decades of films portraying blacks in roles of subservience and mockery, to their absence from important television roles well into the 1960s, everyone learned daily messages of white dominance. Blacks were visually represented by exaggerated and derogatory caricatures, from Aunt Jemima to Sambo.
Schools were not only segregated, they taught generations of students lessons of black inferiority. When the history of African Americans was not entirely ignored, it white-washed slavery and skipped over Jim Crow. In Jacksonville, those lessons were taught by white teachers – there still are no black classroom teachers at Jacksonville High School. College education continued the narrative of inferiority and subordination. Here in Jacksonville, Illinois College admitted a few young black men, but did not let them live in the dormitories. Black females were excluded entirely. The first black student was admitted to MacMurray College in 1950. Black professors didn’t exist before 1970 and have been rare since then.
In every aspect of life, from business to sports to politics to the armed services, African Americans were prevented by a rigid ceiling from realizing their potential. When they protested unfair treatment, they were punished for insubordination. This system was so pervasive that it remained nearly unquestioned by white America until the 1960s. Removing the most obvious discriminatory practices then took decades.
The American system of racism was enforced with constant violence. Whippings were a normal practice on slave plantations. After the Civil War, white violence against blacks shifted into less frequent but more deadly actions in public spaces. Until about 1920, lynchings averaged once a week, mostly across the South. Much more deadly white mob attacks on black communities occurred every few years: Atlanta in 1906, Springfield, IL, in 1908, East St. Louis in 1917, culminating in an incredible wave of 38 separate white race riots in 1919, from New York to Arizona, Chicago to Texas, South Carolina to Nebraska. Two prosperous black communities were entirely destroyed by white mobs in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921, and Rosewood, Florida, in 1923.
Instead of protecting black communities, the law enforcement system re-enslaved thousands of African Americans by selling them as convict labor, well into the 20th century. Racial profiling and the disproportionate incarceration of black Americans in our own times is a continuation of a racist law enforcement system that had existed for centuries.
Is this all ancient history in a now color-blind nation? Look around our town for a black doctor, a black lawyer, a black store owner, a black high school teacher, a black city administrator.
I believe that much has changed over the past 50 years. The most visible public marks of racism, like the signs at the borders of sundown towns, are no longer socially acceptable. Some African Americans are present at every level and in every field of American society. But the remnants of our racist system are still significant. Google just announced that 2% of its tens of thousands of well paid US employees are black. The total of all minorities employed by US newspapers is estimated at 12%, essentially stable since 1998. That’s up from 4% in 1977, but far away from equality. Racist attitudes persist in every corner of American thinking, diminished but not eradicated.
We remember a bee sting for a long time. A dozen bee stings change how a person thinks about insects. The daily stings of racism over a lifetime, a generation, several centuries have determined the painful relations between black and white in America.
Many Americans argue that the words of the founding fathers or the contentions and symbols of the Civil War are still relevant to contemporary life. The claim from too many white Americans that the pain of much more recent racism should simply be forgotten adds to that pain and delays that future moment when color will just be colorful.
We still have a long way to go before America can redeem the promise that “all men are created equal.”
Taking Back Our Lives