Sunday, February 18, 2018


Just Open your Eyes



In his latest book, We Were Eight Years in Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that the Obama presidency did not substantially alter the condition of African-Americans in America. Yes, the White House was occupied by a Black family and a Black man was in charge of the government and was the Commander-In-Chief of the American military. But the deep misery of the majority of African-Americans in this country remains unchanged. Whites continue to have more power and to have all kinds of privileges compared to their African Americans fellow citizens.
Coates makes a strong case for this pessimistic view of American society today. What he does not give sufficient weight to is one important change. Not too long ago the plight of African Americans was not easily accessible to Whites. Today one must be deliberately blinding oneself to the information readily available if one is not going to see how Whites continue to dominate and deliberately disadvantage African-Americans.
When I was in college, soon after leaving Europe, having survived Nazi persecution, I made friends with one of the few African-American students in my class. He would come over occasionally to have dinner and would tell us what it was like to be Black in the US at the end of World War II. Having escaped the Nazi oppression and feeling free for the first time in many years, we did not believe that the America in which we felt liberated could treat its citizens of color so brutally. We did not believe his stories. The friendship withered.
In the 1960s I spent a summer teaching at a Black college outside Birmingham, Alabama. I am not sure the students profited substantially from listening to me talk about Plato’s Republic, but my understanding of what it meant to be Black in America was turned upside-down. A few years later, the world would learn of four young girls killed by racist bombs in church in Birmingham and could see with their own eyes the television reports of high-pressure hoses and attack dogs turned on peaceful demonstrators. Having lived there, in a Black community, I was not surprised. But you had to travel and expose yourself to Black lives in order to have even a very fragmentary understanding of the regime of terror to which Black Americans were exposed daily.
Not so today.
To be sure, it is general knowledge that the idea of separate races has no support in science. As far as their inherited genetic makeup goes, Blacks and Whites, Asians and different indigenous peoples differ minimally. Differences between black and white, for instance, are social creations that have a clear history. That history is now well known and open to anyone who is interested to understand how we have come to the current impasse in the relations between so-called racial groups.
In Virginia in the early 1600s, workers were imported from Europe. Some of them were white; they were so-called indentured servants, bound to work for their employer for seven or more years to pay off the cost of their voyage to the new world. Others were black. For some, their indenture never ended; others were freed to farm or follow a trade. Black and white workers lived and worked side by side, sometimes they married and had children. Around 1670 the State of Maryland passed laws that extended the indenture of white women, who had married Blacks, to their full lifetime. It was an easy way of making more labor power available.
At the end of that century small farmers and workers rose up in an armed rebellion. Black and White fought together against the ruling powers of the colony for greater opportunities to better their condition. The ruling groups responded with a series of laws, sharply differentiating the social and political rights of Blacks and Whites. These laws isolated Blacks. They deprived them of political rights they had had befores. Blacks were no longer allowed to raise their own cattle; they were forbidden to run for public office, to testify against a white persons, they could not be members of the militia or own weapons. A complex set of laws was passed in order to instill contempt for Blacks in the white workers. Racist sentiments were deliberately fostered by legislatures.
The very beginning of white anti-black racism was promoted by state governments in Maryland and Virginia. Ever since white racism has not just been a matter of the feelings of individuals. It has been promoted deliberately by states and the federal government. When slaves were freed during the Civil War, whites resorted to lynchings to keep African Americans intimidated. State governments, legislatures, sheriff's did nothing to stop these murders. They accepted them as legitimate. In the 1930s, the Social Security legislation deliberately excluded farm and domestic workers. In the southern states they were mostly black. Excluding black workers from Social Security was a condition laid down by southern senators.
After World War II, the US government offered low cost housing-- loans to returning soldiers. Black GIs however could not buy houses except in carefully outlined black neighborhoods—usually in decaying neighborhoods in the cities. With the aid of government loans, white veterans flocked to Levittowns. Not so black veterans. However bravely they fought, on their return they were second-class citizens once again. The government did not support or defend them. In many situations government lending agencies collaborated with racist exclusions practiced by the real estate industry.
Today all this is well known. It is easily accessible in many books. White people who are ignorant of these facts and continue to blame Black character flaws or the Black family for their difficulties only display their ignorance. Since the information is easily accessible, we need to recognize that this ignorance is willful and intentional.
Good books to read: the book by Ta-Nehisi Coates mentioned at the beginning of this blog. There are two very informative books by two white women, Debbie Irving, Waking up White and Shelly Tolchuk, Witnessing Whiteness. If you want to know what it is like to be Black in America today, read Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele, If They Call you a Terrorist. A powerful novel depicting Black experience is Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing.
In his latest book, We Were Eight Years in Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that the Obama presidency did not substantially alter the condition of African-Americans in America. Yes, the White House was occupied by a Black family and a Black man was in charge of the government and was the Commander-In-Chief of the American military. But the deep misery of the majority of African-Americans in this country remains unchanged. Whites continue to have more power and to have all kinds of privileges compared to their African Americans fellow citizens.
Coates makes a strong case for this pessimistic view of American society today. What he does not give sufficient weight to is one important change. Not too long ago the plight of African Americans was not easily accessible to Whites. Today one must be deliberately blinding oneself to the information readily available if one is not going to see how Whites continue to dominate and deliberately disadvantage African-Americans.
When I was in college, soon after leaving Europe, having survived Nazi persecution, I made friends with one of the few African-American students in my class. He would come over occasionally to have dinner and would tell us what it was like to be Black in the US at the end of World War II. Having escaped the Nazi oppression and feeling free for the first time in many years, we did not believe that the America in which we felt liberated could treat its citizens of color so brutally. We did not believe his stories. The friendship withered.
In the 1960s I spent a summer teaching at a Black college outside Birmingham, Alabama. I am not sure the students profited substantially from listening to me talk about Plato’s Republic, but my understanding of what it meant to be Black in America was turned upside-down. A few years later, the world would learn of four young girls killed by racist bombs in church in Birmingham and could see with their own eyes the television reports of high-pressure hoses and attack dogs turned on peaceful demonstrators. Having lived there, in a Black community, I was not surprised. But you had to travel and expose yourself to Black lives in order to have even a very fragmentary understanding of the regime of terror to which Black Americans were exposed daily.
Not so today.
To be sure, it is general knowledge that the idea of separate races has no support in science. As far as their inherited genetic makeup goes, Blacks and Whites, Asians and different indigenous peoples differ minimally. Differences between black and white, for instance, are social creations that have a clear history. That history is now well known and open to anyone who is interested to understand how we have come to the current impasse in the relations between so-called racial groups.
In Virginia in the early 1600s, workers were imported from Europe. Some of them were white; they were so-called indentured servants, bound to work for their employer for seven or more years to pay off the cost of their voyage to the new world. Others were black. For some, their indenture never ended; others were freed to farm or follow a trade. Black and white workers lived and worked side by side, sometimes they married and had children. Around 1670 the State of Maryland passed laws that extended the indenture of white women, who had married Blacks, to their full lifetime. It was an easy way of making more labor power available.
At the end of that century small farmers and workers rose up in an armed rebellion. Black and White fought together against the ruling powers of the colony for greater opportunities to better their condition. The ruling groups responded with a series of laws, sharply differentiating the social and political rights of Blacks and Whites. These laws isolated Blacks. They deprived them of political rights they had had befores. Blacks were no longer allowed to raise their own cattle; they were forbidden to run for public office, to testify against a white persons, they could not be members of the militia or own weapons. A complex set of laws was passed in order to instill contempt for Blacks in the white workers. Racist sentiments were deliberately fostered by legislatures.
The very beginning of white anti-black racism was promoted by state governments in Maryland and Virginia. Ever since white racism has not just been a matter of the feelings of individuals. It has been promoted deliberately by states and the federal government. When slaves were freed during the Civil War, whites resorted to lynchings to keep African Americans intimidated. State governments, legislatures, sheriff's did nothing to stop these murders. They accepted them as legitimate. In the 1930s, the Social Security legislation deliberately excluded farm and domestic workers. In the southern states they were mostly black. Excluding black workers from Social Security was a condition laid down by southern senators.
After World War II, the US government offered low cost housing-- loans to returning soldiers. Black GIs however could not buy houses except in carefully outlined black neighborhoods—usually in decaying neighborhoods in the cities. With the aid of government loans, white veterans flocked to Levittowns. Not so black veterans. However bravely they fought, on their return they were second-class citizens once again. The government did not support or defend them. In many situations government lending agencies collaborated with racist exclusions practiced by the real estate industry.
Today all this is well known. It is easily accessible in many books. White people who are ignorant of these facts and continue to blame Black character flaws or the Black family for their difficulties only display their ignorance. Since the information is easily accessible, we need to recognize that this ignorance is willful and intentional.
Good books to read: the book by Ta-Nehisi Coates mentioned at the beginning of this blog. There are two very informative books by two white women, Debbie Irving, Waking up White and Shelly Tolchuk, Witnessing Whiteness. If you want to know what it is like to be Black in America today, read Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele, If They Call you a Terrorist. A powerful novel depicting Black experience is Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing.