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Four Hundred Years a Slave

Callous Indifference towards Blacks is as American As Apple Pie

I'm a Black woman. My husband, Dick, is a white man. Years ago, when we first started dating, we had a bit of a dispute. In a conversation about race in America, I mentioned that African Americans had endured 400 years of slavery. He quickly challenged me. Taken aback by his reaction and more than a little surprised that I'd have to explain, I restated saying,"I didn't mean 400 years of state sponsored slavery, I meant 400 years of slavery and or oppression."

In some circles that exchange is known as an "Explanatory Comma". A term popularized by the show "Code Switch", an explanatory comma can be defined as a break in a conversation used to offer an explanation where one would not have been necessary if all parties in the conversation were the same race.

The significance of that moment, for me, was that the "400 years" mantra was one that barely needed explanation in my family or community of origin. I'd heard it so often that I'd never really given it much thought. But to Dick, this was a patently false statement. His challenge prompted me to explore the notion more critically and to do some research so that I could return to the discussion with more information and hopefully present a more factual argument.

The search -- to establish a stronger basis for my 400 year remark -- led to scores of books, dozens of research papers and hundreds of articles (some of which I'm still reading and some that I'll treasure forever). Because Dick's challenge forced me to examine my own unexplored unresearched assumptions, I came to learn a lot more. My journey deepened my conviction and exposed me to my own family's experience as well as those of thousands of others whose ancestors came through the middle passage.

Today, I'm able to delineate the 400 years into 10 somewhat distinct periods. I'm not an historian but I relied on the work of many in that field who have dedicated their lives to uncovering and documenting our past. What I came to see is an amazing consistency linking the past to the present. Sadly, what struck me most was a common thread that runs throughout the 400 year lived experience of African Americans in North America -- callous disregard for their well being by the broader society.

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Even as social norms on race have shifted, one thing that seems to have remained almost unchanged is that the mistreatment of African Americans is consistently met with indifference by the broader society. Speaking of this, Dr. Martin Luther King once said, "In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends." Throughout my readings and through my own lived experience, I too, have witnessed the "silence of our friends".

As stated, social norms have shifted. No longer is it socially acceptable for a white person to call a black person the "N" word. It's now unlawful to force African Americans to sit at the back of the bus or to beat, maim, or kill them for the transgression of learning to read. Lynchings, particularly in the South, were not uncommon as recently as my mother's generation. But as abhorrent as those actions were, they were accepted and even condoned by the broader society by their silence. It is impossible to imagine that these cruel acts could have persisted without their tacit approval. That tacit approval gives permission to those with anti-black racial animus to act out. (Note: this piece was originally written in 2014, before the lynching of George Floyd and subsequent global mass social protests)

The statement I made to Dick (now, my husband) is born out by statistics -- statistics that suggest that being black in America continues to be a liability. The harms African Americans are more likely to suffer solely because of their race run the gamut -- from discrimination in employment, healthcare, housing, education to the grossly unjust "justice" system to the tragedies of Troy Davis, Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Sandra Bland, and Eric Garner -- today's transgressions ring eerily similar to those of yesteryear. To the Black community, the lack of nationwide outrage continues to be a sustaining force that keeps this pathology alive not unlike the silence of otherwise decent people who for 200 years helped to keep slavery alive by simply not taking action.

In my effort to come up with a way to explain the "400 years" to my husband, I came up with this rudimentary timeline :

Ten Racially Based Systems that Reinforce Oppression and Inequality 

  • 1619 - 1865:Slavery included the legal imprisonment, torture, rape, killing, and forced labor of millions of people on the basis of their African origin. This system economically and socially benefitted whites to the detriment of blacks.
  • 1800 - 1866:Black Codes were laws restricting African Americans' freedom primarily through vagrancy arrests, the penalty of which often included involuntary labor.
  • 1865 - 1944:Convict Leasing – legal system of penal labor practiced primarily in the Southern United States beginning at the end of the American Civil War through WW II. Many historians consider the treatment of blacks in this system “worse than slavery”. Usually included involuntary labor which provided an economic benefit to whites.
  • 1870s - 1950s:Share Cropping – legal practice where landowner allows a tenant to use the land in return for a majority share of the crops the tenant produced. Tenants often were in debt to the landowner oftentimes beaten and forbidden to leave the land - similar to slavery.
  • 1880s - 1940s:Peonage – illegal system of involuntary servitude or neoslavery that was widely practiced in the south after the U.S. Civil War. Although illegal, it was wide spread and the perpetrators were rarely prosecuted. Southern states and private businesses boomed with this free labor. It is estimated that up to 40% of blacks in the South were in bondage due to peonage in the beginning of the 20th century. Owners of businesses used severe deprivation, beatings, whippings, and other abuses to "discipline" their workers. Although illegal, the "authorities" looked the other way. (source: Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name)
  • 1870s - 1960s:Lynching – illegal practice of torturing and killing by extrajudicial mob action. Although illegal, the perpetrators were seldom prosecuted. Congress refused to pass anti-lynching legislation even when thousands of Blacks were being lynched. Although illegal, the "authorities" looked the other way.
  • 1876 - 1965:Jim Crow Laws - laws mandating and enforcing racial segregation often through violent means resulting in loss of life and a lower quality of life
  • 1970s - Present:Mass Incarceration – legal practice of disproportionately stopping, frisking, and arresting African Americans and sentencing them to incarceration for low level offenses. Growing numbers are being incarcerated in for-profit prisons and many for-profit companies benefit from the labor of inmates. Even though Blacks are no more likely to use drugs or sell drugs than any other ethnic group, their overepresentation in the prison system is staggering.
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Recommended Articles

  • ? - Present: Modern-Day Lynchingsthe killing of unarmed black and brown people by law enforcement and vigilantees who stand behind the shield of laws like "Stand Your Ground". Here is a database that lists some of the more recent cases - Fatal Encounters
Four Hundred Years a Slave

From 1619 to 1954 there was slavery and state enforced segregation. From 1954 to today there is socially enforced segregation.

The United States struggles to reconcile the realities of race with the stories it tells about American exceptionalism. Perhaps the two are irreconcilable. These problems stem from centuries old racial oppression and the contemporary systems of racial oppression that, on their face, seem racially neutral but nevertheless produce racially disparate outcomes. As the barrage of news stories make clear, black people are disproportionately less safe when they encounter law enforcement officers than when other members of our society encounter them. This fact is likely an expression of underlying anti-black sentiment. (Note: Don't leave a comment on so-called "Black-on-Black" crime without first reading this article written by Edward Wycoff Williams)

If we are to ever come to a place in this country where the nation agrees that we have a national racial problem that deserves national attention, we'll first have to learn how to analyze it and get to its source. But we can't do that without learning how to talk to each other.

Author and attorney Bryan Stevenson, one of my personal heroes, is a much sought after speaker. A Harvard trained lawyer, he has dedicated his life to seeking justice for the poor and destitute. In his talks, Mr. Stevenson often discusses how difficult it is for whites and blacks to have discussions around race while at the same time emphasizing the price our society pays for avoiding this discussion. I've embedded a video of Bryan Stevenson at the end of this post. Professor of Africana Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Brown University, Dr. Tricia Rose, often speaks on the difficulties associated with engaging young white students in studying this area of America's ugly past and to some extent its just as ugly present. She found that in order to reach the students she first had to come up with a pledge. I watched one of her talks on YouTube and transcribed as she spoke. The pledge goes something like this:

I am not personally responsible for racism, classism, ableism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia or any other form of group-based discrimination even though I very likely benefit personally from some aspect of them. Therefore, I should not feel guilty. I might feel sadness, empathy, or outrage but guilt won't change anything for the better and besides it focuses only on me and my experiences. I did not choose the body, sexual orientation, race, or class position in which I came into this world. But what I can choose is how I behave and whether I will meaningfully contribute to creating a more just society for all.

So, Dick was right when he challenged me on my initial incorrect statement. But I was right too -- I just needed to do a little more legwork. One thing I learned is that there is a plethora of information out there that most of us, outside of academia, can access but are mostly unaware of. Although this information is indisputably American History, it isn't incorporated into most American History curricula. For those who want more information, here is a list of professors, journalists, authors and others who have helped me to delve deeper and, at times, maintain my sanity. I've only attached videos that are short but you can do your own searches and find lots more. I thank each of them.

  • Bryan Stevenson, an attorney and author, talks about his book "Just Mercy" how we must all be committed to justice here, https://youtu.be/FOjER_cDYmU
  • Law Professor and Civil Rights Attorney Michelle Alexander discusses the parallels between the old Jim Crow and the New Jim Crow 6 minutes long: https://youtu.be/PP_ihAjBB5Y
  • Dr. Joy DeGruy discusses how her sister-in-law uses white privilege to correct wrongs
  • Douglas Blackmon, author of "Slavery by Another Namen" talks to Gwen Ifill about the post-Civil War continued slavery of hundreds of thousands of African Americans up to 1942: https://youtu.be/Yd8YoRp9WEE
  • Jelani Cobb, New Yorker contributing writer, talks to PBS anchor Judy Woodruff about having an overtly racist president.

Sharon Kyle
Publisher, LA Progressive