Tag Archives: anti-immigrant scapegoating

The Durability of Race

5 Oct

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the death of racism. Many believe that as the global demographics change and Generation Y rises, racism will fade in significance. Some even suggest that what we are witnessing in the Obama backlash is just death throes.

That argument ignores history.

Here’s what I mean.

Neither the Emancipation Proclamation nor the abolitionist movement were enough to end slavery. Slavery was defeated in a Civil War that was fought not over race equality nor just for the cuase of freeing slaves, but over federal authority. The cynicism at the root of the “war against slavery” is revealed by the fact that when legal race slavery was finally defeated in 1865, the culture of  white supremacy survived, both in the North and the South.

Southern state governments, determined to maintain white supremacy, pivoted after the war and took advantage of an exception in the 13th Amendment that allowed for the indentured servitude of criminals. They created a set of legal codes that criminalized Black people. Crimes included changing employers without permission,vagrancy, and selling cotton after sunset.

Once imprisoned, African Americans were subjected to neo-slavery in the form of labor camps and chain gangs. But the impact of neo-slavery was not just on those enslaved. The system terrorized Blacks throughout the South keeping them subjugated to white employers who in many cases were their former masters.

The federal government’s unwritten policy through this period was to turn a blind eye, allowing the system to continue unacknowledged for more than 70 years. While many attempted to fight neo-slavery, what finally ended it was World War II. Just days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Francis Biddle, Attorney General under FDR, issued Circular N0. 3591 acknowledging the federal government’s unwritten policy of overlooking complaints of peonage and slavery and directing federal law enforcement officials to enforce the 13th Amendment.

The move was driven by fears that the Japanese and German propaganda machines would use the federal government’s tolerance of neo-slavery to undercut support for the war effort among African Americans. The circular was issued, but it wasn’t until 1948 that federal criminal code was rewritten to explicitly outlaw slavery.

Of course, while neo-slavery was finally abolished, other aspects of Jim Crow survived, as did the culture of white supremacy. Through Jim Crow, white supremacy was exercised by means of legal apartheid, a system that not only held Black people separate and unequal under the law, but that accommodated white terrorism and vigilante violence to suppress resistance.

When Jim Crow fell, it wasn’t just the result of the courageous efforts of civil rights activists. The death of Jim Crow was also brought about by the Cold War, a conflict in which racism in the U.S. could be weaponized by the Soviet propaganda machine.

But even as Jim Crow fell, the culture of white supremacy survived. The federal government, under Richard Nixon, pivoted to maintain white dominance by targeting the War on Drugs at Black communities. Like the Black Codes before it, the War on Drugs and a broader War on Crime would attempt to criminalize Black people, popularizing the idea that the rising crime rates of the 1970s was the result of the alienation of a permanent Black underclass and not, as sociologists suggest, the result of the baby boom.

Whites and Blacks use illegal drugs at approximately the same rate. The sheer numbers of white people puts them in the drivers seat of the illegal drug market. Yet law enforcement efforts target Black and Latino communities with the result that over two-thirds of people in prison for drug offenses are people of color.

Just as neo-slavery affected far more than those who were imprisoned and enslaved, the War on Drugs is having a broad and devastating impact on communities of color. Prisons take wage earners out of families and parents away from children only to return them years later to suffer collateral consequences such as the loss of voting rights, bans against certain types of employment, and banishment from public housing and “drug-free zones” that may follow them for the rest of their lives. And, for some, just for carrying marijuana in their pockets.

That so small an offense could cost one so much also contributes to a climate of fear and a culture of fatalism. A Black woman married to a man in prison on a drug offense once asked me to imagine what it is like to be a parent of a child in a militarized zone. She said, “every day I tell my kids, ‘if you are stopped by the police be still, be polite, and keep your hands out of your pockets.'”

White supremacy is also adapting to a changing world. Today, the criminalization of race affects more than African Americans. Latino immigrants are reduced to a criminal act when we refer to them as “illegals.” We exploit racism to criminalize Muslims to justify a grab for geopolitical control of a resource rich region of the world. And if you doubt that the growing fear and hatred of Muslims is rooted in racism, imagine for a moment the face of the Muslim threat that lives in the mind of Michelle Bachman. I assure you, it doesn’t have white skin and blue eyes.

We can’t just wait for the culture of white supremacy to be swept away by demographic and generational change. History show us that the durability of race will require much more of us than patience.

Where I Stand on the Color Line

23 May Whites Only

Throughout my adult life, I have struggled over the color line. I’ve never doubted it exists. Rather, my struggle has been over which side of that line I’m on.

This struggle has been on my mind since my 20s, when a Japanese American woman many years my senior told me this story:

She recalled being a young college student in the South in the 1950s. She was 12 years from being released from an internment camp where she and her family were detained during WWII.

She went to school determined to make something of herself. She wanted nothing more than to quietly toil to prove herself as a “good” American. Success would be her way of thumbing her nose at white supremacy.

But in the South she was faced with segregation. One day she found herself in a park wanting a drink of water. There were two drinking fountains – one for whites, and one for Blacks.

She intuitively walked toward the “black” drinking fountain. But just as she was about to take a drink, a police officer stopped her and ushered her to the whites only fountain. Confused and scared, she did as she was told and drank at the fountain for whites. She realized with shock that the police officer considered her white.

Years later, her life was profoundly changed by witnessing the Civil Rights Movement. Here were people who weren’t quietly enduring. They were standing up, making demands, marching. And as she learned about the issues at stake, she came to understand that the principle of the color line. Being pushed onto the white side of the line on that day at the fountains was not an endorsement of her. It was an act meant to stigmatize and isolate Black people.

She told me the story as a lesson in not being too cocky. I heard her and try to live the lesson. But what really stuck was the idea of the color line.

Whether intentionally or not, we reinforce the power of race to define us unless we commit to see life through the lens of race – not just my race, but of race writ large.

Through that lens, the disadvantages built into the menu of choices we are given are obvious to some of us, but less so to others. It depends on which side of that line you live on, and whether or not you are allowed to cross over now and then.

In this age of racist drug wars, roll backs in voting rights, Stand Your Ground laws, and legal licenses to racially profile African Americans as criminals, Latinos as “illegal,” and presumed Arabs as “terrorists,” the color line can be hard to discern. Rather than being colorblind, we are blinded by the absolute ubiquity of racism.

But if you look hard enough, there it is, written in the tears of those who wait for the return of the nearly 900,000 Black men in U.S. prisons. It is drawn with the stories of those pushed off the welfare rolls when assistance turned to punishment. And it is plain in the persecution of undocumented immigrants and Muslims, and the resentment and bullying of Asian school children because of the lie of the model minority.

The color line is as vivid as ever if we only have the eyes to see it. Erasing it will require us to first ask the question, on which side do we stand?

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