“Why are they so mad? Why don’t they just go to work? Confederate statues are history not hate!”
If you value your sanity, don’t do a deep-dive into comments about the ongoing rallies and protests all around the country (and the world). George Floyd was not an exception — he was the latest, recorded casualty in systemic destruction of the Black community. “They” are furious. “They” are heartbroken and exhausted. So I am. You should be, too.
Racism is baked deep into the bones of this country. In 1676, a group of Black and White indentured servants and slaves fought for their freedom in Bacon’s Rebellion. The rebellion failed, but the power of laborers banding together across races scared the white leaders of the day. After that rebellion, laws started differentiating based on race; fewer indentured servants were brought over and a deeper reliance on slavery began.
The response to Bacon’s Rebellion is the start of something that still plagues our country today — dividing people along racial lines to disrupt organizing for common interests.
The Civil War was an opportunity to address these inequalities. The original promises of reconstruction were deep and systematic. Former slaves were promised 40 acres and a mule so they could build new, independent lives. Instead, the land was given back to the ex-confederate former owners. The Reconstruction Era Amendments gave us the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery or involuntary servitude (except in punishment for a crime), the 14th Amendment which granted citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” and the 15th amendment which promised universal male suffrage. For a brief period, many of those promises were kept. Reconstruction saw 16 Black members of Congress and more than 600 Black leaders in state legislatures. The first state-funded public schools were opened for all.
The backlash was fierce. It took years to see this level of representation again. Former president Ulysses Grant deployed the military to fight the KKK, who was targeting prominent political and community leaders including teachers and pastors. Widespread murders and voter suppression saw racist Whites take back the government and federal troops returned to their barracks. A wave of poll taxes, disenfranchising both Black and poor White voters, was rolled out. “Separate but equal” segregation, Jim Crow and all the things we read about in school were birthed.
This polarization was not accidental; Southern White elites were, and still are, terrified of poor White and Black workers joining hands — because it represents a very real threat to their power.
About 20 years later, the Daughters of the Confederacy was created. They supported the KKK, raised money for confederate statues across the south, and ensured a racist view of history was written into textbooks. If you’ve ever been taught that “the War of Northern Aggression” was about states’ rights and not slavery, you can thank the Daughters of the Confederacy. They still exist today.
After the civil rights movement in the 1960s, another, more subtle backlash occurred. The Southern Strategy was born in the Republican party. It is an approach to win votes, rooted in racism and sexism. It started with Goldwater in 1964 directly running in opposition to the Civil Rights Act.
Former President Richard Nixon was slightly more subtle in his messaging, but as former Senator Strom Thurmond stated, “If Nixon becomes president, he has promised that he won’t enforce either the Civil Rights or the Voting Rights Acts. Stick with him.” Targeting Black communities through a phony war on drugs was an explicit strategy of his campaign. Nixon’s domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman, explicitly admitted it.
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and Black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.”
Former President Ronald Reagan ran on a platform talking about a fictional “welfare queen” and spread the idea that social safety nets weren’t for White people; that they only existed to be exploited by Black layabouts. A story that’s obviously false, as we’ve had to raise the level at which unemployment pays out, and send households $1,200 to help people of all colors keep their houses and pay for groceries during this pandemic.
It’s time to renounce this legacy of racism, especially here, in the heart of the old Confederacy. Fighting for racism and slavery isn’t a heritage to be proud of. Let’s pull down those monuments and instead celebrate people who have worked to help us build a better society — Union Generals for sure, but also labor organizers, inventors and leaders. Let’s push to reform the police force shaped by Nixon’s racist war on drugs.
The first step on this journey, for me, has been education. As Vulture aptly puts it, “The how could this happen meets the I told you so. They rendezvous at the anti-racist reading list.”
From documentaries (I highly recommend ‘13th’ — available on Netflix) to books like “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander and “So You Want to Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo, or researching the numerous anti-racism groups that exist, there are many ways to get started.
Let’s build a society we can be proud of.