We are all familiar with the gaps in access to opportunity that black Americans experience in education, housing, and employment. While these are important issues that need to be addressed, we also need to identify and name the biggest opportunity gap that black Americans face – that is, the opportunity to live and be fully human.
After the Emancipation Proclamation of 1865, black Americans continued to find themselves oppressed and cut out of opportunity in a society that was committed to keeping slavery intact. Things such as the end of the Reconstruction Era, the convict leasing system, Jim Crow, and segregation all ensured that freed blacks would never be able to access the liberties that were afforded to their white Americans. Yet, in spite of the presence of these injustices, there has always been a vanguard charting a new way forward, imagining an American society where blacks were not discriminated because of the color of their skin.
The persistence and advocacy of leaders through the ages has certainly paid off. Indeed, it was the tireless, often life threatening work of abolitionists – both black and white alike – that essentially gave way to the nation ending slavery. Ida B Wells’ campaign to expose and document the horrors of lynching helped to significantly reduce its occurrence. And the advocacy and nonviolent resistence of leaders of the 1960s put many policies in place that secured civil rights for black Americans such as the 1965 Voting RIghts Act which gave black Americans unrestricted access to the voting booth. That same year, President Lyndon Johnson signed executive order 11246 which established non-discriminatory requirements for hiring and employment, meaning it was no longer legal to refuse to hire black Americans based on their race. The 1968 Fair Housing Act ensured that blacks would have greater access to housing opportunity by profiting discrimination concerning the sale, rental, or financing of housing. Just last month, in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. the Inclusive Communities Project, the Supreme Court preserved disparate impact, a tool of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 which ensures that people of color – as well as persons with disabilities, women, and same-sex couples – will not be discriminated against in housing.
All of these policies and more, have significantly contributed to the ability of black Americans to live better lives than before. If you don’t know, just ask a 80 year old woman who remembers the day her life was threatened because she dared to go to the polls. Such threats no longer exist! And yet, racial disparities remain just as intact. In fact, many of the gains that have been made through the Civil Rights legislation of the 60s are under constant attack and some, such as the Voting Rights Act, have been weakened altogether through individual state’s own version of a 21st century poll tax. In addition, in spite of the presence of these more equitable policies, people in power often find ways to ensure that they are not thoroughly implemented.
As a result, on nearly every indicator that is a measurement of success in the United States, black people seem to continuously lag behind. Homeownership in the black community is lower than that of white Americans. Black children, particularly young males, are falling behind in school. The PBS documentary ‘American Promise’ states that young black males are twice as likely as white boys to be held back in elementary school, three times as likely to be suspended from school and half as likely to graduate from college. While more black Americans are employed today than they were five years ago, they are more likely to be underemployed and earn lower wages than their white peers. The health status of black Americans is significantly worse than their white counterparts – indeed, black Americans are 1.5 times as likely to be obese and black women are about 60 percent more likely than white women to deliver babies early; black infants are 230 percent more likely to die before their turning one year old.
The million dollar question is why. Why, in spite of all of the good, hard work, on the part of many in this society, has racial disparities persisted as they have? Over the years foundations, nonprofits, government agencies, faith based leaders, activists, and average Americans have all fought to ensure that the daily reality of blacks in this country changes. And yet, in spite of the long hours, policies and initiatives, reports and think tanks, organizing and advocacy, the beast just stares back at us, unflinched and unchanged.
But maybe, just maybe, we have been attacking the wrong thing or a symptom of a deeper, more entrenched issue. In large part, much of our collective work has been aimed at civil rights and increasing economic opportunities for black Americans which is completely necessary. I shudder at the mere thought of what things would be in our society if these rights were not being in place. However, the underlying problem has never been that black Americans lacked the financial wherewithal to thrive in a capitalistic society. The problem, that has existed since the first African slaves arrived on our nation’s shores, is that black Americans have lacked the opportunity to be recognized as fully and completely human.
From the moment that America erected chattel slavery, white Americans needed a reason to justify its existence. Conflicted between their Christian beliefs which condemned the practice and the vast wealth they were gaining through stolen labor, on stolen land, they needed to come up with a rationale that not only permitted but encouraged slavery to exist. Gradually, certain laws and thinking began to give proponents of slavery the justification they were looking for, such as the Three Fifths Compromise of 1787. As the nation was establishing the constitution, southerners wanted to count slaves as part of their populace in order to get greater state representation in Congress. Northerners, however, did not think that slaves should be recognized as part of the population since they were property. The conflict gave way to counting only three fifths of every black person. While the resolution did not categorically state that blacks were not fully human, their perpetual designation as property instead of living souls, suggests that they were not regarded as such.
Building off of the classification of blacks as property in the constitution, the Dred Scott decision further solidified this perpetual state. Of the decision, Andrea Smith explains, “…Black peoples have the ontological status of property that derives from their origins in Africa, the property of Europe. Consequently, this ontological status does not change simply because one’s owner relinquishes his property rights. Black peoples remain property whether or not an individual owns them.” As property, black Americans had no rights to the legal system. More than 150 years later and this still holds true!
The work of Carl Von Linneaus also had a hand in minimizing the humanity of black Americans. Linneaus, a Swedish botanist and the father of taxonomy, developed a system for categorizing different organisms such as plants and animals. However, Linneaus also classified humans into four different categories – Americanus, Asiaticus, Africanus, and Europeanus – all which were based upon where they were geographically situated at first. However, later he interpreted these distinctions based on skin color, or race. Says the New World Encyclopedia of Linneaus’ methodology:
“Among the numerous attributes he recognized, Native Americans were considered to be reddish, stubborn, merry, and angered easily; Africans were black, relaxed, crafty, and negligent; Asians were sallow, avaricious, and easily distracted; and Europeans were white, gentle, and inventive…He also divided them by how he thought they were governed: by customs, caprice, opinions, and laws. Linnaeus’s races were clearly skewed in favor of Europeans. Linnaeus considered these varieties of people within the same species.”
Laws, science and religion all worked in tandem to exclude black Americans from the human family. And while these are ancient laws and practices, the sentiment continues today. From Mike Brown being described as Hulk Hogan, to Serena William’s raging biceps being credited as the reason for a recent victory, the underlying message is that blacks are not fully human, only property and expendable, culpable enough to be guilty of the crimes committed against them but not human enough to stop the occurrence of those crimes. Yet and still, we are consistently told that the answer to these crimes is access to greater economic opportunity.
However, it was not the lack of economic opportunity that took the lives of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Susie Jackson, Daniel L. Simmons, and Depayne Middleton Doctor just last month.
And it was not the lack of economic opportunity that killed Sandra Bland and Kindra Darnell Chapman in the last few days. Or for which a police officer wrestled teenage Dajerria Becton to the ground as he drew his gun on others.
It was not the lack of economic opportunity that took Tamir Rice’s life or that made Trayvon Martin’s end too soon. Or that makes black men, women, and children fall victim to police brutality every 28 hours in this country’s 21st version of lynching and Jim Crow. It is not for lack of economic opportunity that nearly 1.5 million men are missing in the United States, either locked behind bars or 6 feet under. In fact, history shows us that when blacks possessed economic opportunity, their businesses were often destroyed and in the most heinous cases, they were killed.
These things are happening because black Americans lack the opportunity to be fully and completely human. And that lack of recognition consistently denies us the opportunity to live and be free. The lack of economic opportunity is only a symptom of this but it is not the main problem. As such, fighting for civil rights only addresses that symptom and not the actual cause of the problem. Therefore, as we continue to demand economic opportunities – because yes, this is necessary – we need to fight even more for human rights and the ability to live, raise our children, grow old and die in dignity. We have to break the centuries-long demonic force in this nation that has persistently seen black Americans as property, possessing only a fraction of the humanity that whites possess. Without doing this, we will find ourselves right back here in another generation, fighting a newer version of Jim Crow.
Through effective policy, we could actually get to a point where black Americans are able to attain the economic opportunity that this society affords. It will be hard but it is not difficult to imagine. However, until we can live and are treated as brothers and sisters in the human fabric, we will not be free! This is the challenge before us in 2015. In my next post, I will share thoughts on how we can collectively address this challenge. Stay tuned!