Updated: Jun 30, 2020
If we don’t face the past, it becomes the present. As chIldren, we are impressionable and vulnerable to the stories we hear. Unfortunately, there are certain stories that I never heard. My middle school and high school history classes never walked me through the full story of black people in America after slavery. I never learned how historical policies and events led to present-day social problems and structural inequalities that continue to impact black Americans negatively. As it relates to black people in America, here are key historical accounts that get discussed in the mainstream.
In 1863, slavery ended per the Emancipation Proclamation achieved through the Civil War.
In 1963, Dr. King gave the I Have a Dream Speech where 250,000 people came out to hear the soaring rhetoric about a beautiful, multiracial nation where everyone comes together and everyone enjoys the same freedoms.
In 1964 and 1965, segregation ended through the Civil Rights Act and black people got the right to vote through the Voting Rights Act.
The mainstream American narrative that I was taught tells us that great strides were made through these pieces of legislation, and that America now provides equal opportunities for black people to participate in the social, political, and economic order without interruption. The problem is that, when you take time to review America’s com- plicated and imperfect history—specifically the history of black life— you will quickly notice how the dominant culture’s perspective either subtly acknowledges or very conveniently passes over the ugly truths of America’s racist past, including the injustices of:
Jim Crow, convict leasing, and more than 4,000 lynchings of black Americans between 1877 and 1950. See the report Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror by Bryan Stevenson, Director of the Equal Justice Initiative Website: https://lynchinginamerica.eji.org/report/
Predatory housing practices against black Americans when they were kept out of the legitimate home-mortgage market between the 1930s and 1960s. See The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates Website: https://www.theatlantic.com/projects/reparations/
Blatant refusal to desegregate schools, despite legislation. Fourteen Mississippi school districts refused for fifteen years to desegregate schools, even after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Look up Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education in October 1969) Website: https://www.oyez.org/cases/1969/632 (You can read and listen to the case at this site.)
This is a history that black people did not choose, but it’s not a his- tory that is obscure or unavailable. These facts are often deliberately left out of the general discourse, because the victors often have an a la carte relationship with the past. The victors, not the victims, write history, of- ten in their own favor and with an exponential reflection on what favors them or disfavors those oppressed, without acknowledging root causes. The news we choose to tell is just as important as how we tell the story. The dehumanization of black people continues with a refusal to acknowledge/fix the miseducation in American schools and a refusal to address the violence against black citizens in our criminal justice system. As the victims rise to positions of power, the narrative that was once told is re-evaluated. Because of the evolving landscape of America’s ra- cial make-up, the once-vague understandings of racial injustice become clear and subsequently indict a nation that purports to represent liberty and justice for all. As Frederick Douglas alluded, the story of the master doesn’t need more narrators. The story of the slave does. What creates the clarity of the need for black healing is an acute un- derstanding of black pain and the black experience. Unfortunately, many black people are conditioned to believe that speaking the unadulterated truth to white people about what they see and feel is a kamikaze mission. Black people’s reticence to speak freely and honestly in front of white people is a result of the memory of violence against black people. This is where we need healing as a people. Very few people more clearly explained this memory and the link between America’s inception and the condition of black people than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As you listen to Dr. King’s speeches from the year before he passed, he unapologetically presented a well-defined picture explaining the contemporary social, political, and economic realities of black life rooted in America’s racist past. Sadly, his words are still relevant. In 1967, Dr. King gave an interview at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA. I was surprised by some of the things he mentioned that I had never heard discussed in the mainstream. He admitted that the dream he had in 1963 had become a nightmare. He confessed that only a small minority of white Americans were committed to true racial equality for the Negro.
By 1967, he was beginning to fully grasp the alienation between whites and blacks. Integration for black people would be like moving into a burning house. The idea behind integration was equal access to opportunity. But as it turned out, that idea was untrue. Integration only let black people enter the belly of the beast. Dr. King said that civil rights legislation, including the voting rights bill, didn’t do too much to improve the fate of millions of Negroes in crowded ghettos in the Northern part of America. He also acknowledged the way racial dehumanization affects black people’s sense of self and ability to progress in America. That same year, Dr. King gave a speech called “The Other America” that described the existence of two Americas. One America provides nutrition and material provisions for the bodies, education and culture for their intellects, and human dignity and freedom for their souls. In this America, the promises of the Declaration of Independence are honored. But, Dr. King said, there is the other America that turns hope into despair. Unemployment persists on a daily basis. The conditions of the communities are degraded. Poverty persists. Children grow up stripped of their dignity and develop a feeling of inferiority every day. Men are stripped of the hope of finding a job opportunity and fall victim to hopelessness and a psychology of self-defeat. There were those who would ask Dr. King why black people can’t “pick themselves up by the bootstraps” and do for themselves. These critics would use their lives as examples of how one can rise from poverty. But from Dr. King’s perspective, it didn’t help black people when insensitive and unfeeling people said that other groups (Italian, Irish and other European immigrants) had made more progress than black Americans. Dr. King reminded the white immigrant that:
Black people arrived here involuntarily, in chains, while others came of their own volition.
No other immigrant group has been a slave on American soil except black people.
Racial terrorism persisted. Doors of economic opportunity and social engagement in the broader community were closed to black people, just because they were black. Their race remained a stigma after slavery, and it manifested itself in segregation, lynchings, housing discrimination until the 1960s, and police brutality.
As Dr. King said, many people were not willing to go all the way to ensure equality for all. That was in 1967. The following year, he was killed in Memphis while participating in a sanitation workers’ strike. Philosopher and historian Noam Chomsky said that, as long as Dr. King was focused on racist Alabama sheriffs, he was celebrated. But once he started addressing class issues, particularly reparations, he became widely criticized. From Chomsky’s perspective, it is not ironic that Dr. King began to transition from a focus on civil rights to economic equal- ity and that many people hated him for it. Some white people celebrated his assassination. In one of Dr. King’s speeches, his argument for reparations was based on the logic of an innocent person who had been incarcerated for several decades. Upon discovery of the man’s innocence, the man is released from prison with no bus fare, no money to get something to eat or to buy any clothes. He equated this to what happened to black people in America in 1863, when they were granted their freedom after 244 years. The freedom was meaningless because there was no economic floor to start with, based on a broken promise by the government (See article titled “The Truth Behind ’40 Acres and a Mule’
– https://www.pbs.org/wnet/african-americans-many-rivers-to-cross/history/ the-truth-behind-40-acres-and-a-mule/).
In contrast, Congress provided white European immigrants millions of acres land in the west and Midwest. These white immigrants could receive farming education through land grant colleges and the help of county agents who would advise on farming and help them get low- interest loans to mechanize the farms. Ironically, these people and their descendants now tell black people to pick themselves up by their bootstraps. White Europeans (Italians, Irish, etc.) didn’t need bootstraps, because they were given an economic base on which to build. This message of Dr. King rarely, if ever, gets discussed in the main- stream. Here’s the latest reality of American leadership that can help us possibly understand how the “Other America” that Dr. King addressed came to be. Where is America today?
More than 90 percent of the US Congress is white.
More than 90 percent of US Governors are white.
More than 90 percent of music executives are white.
100 percent of highest ranked military advisors are white.
More than 90 percent of studio executives are white.
More than 80 percent of America’s teachers are white.
More than 70 percent of Fortune 500 senior executives are white.
More than 80 percent of full-time college professors are white.
More than 80 percent of book publishing executives are white.
More than 90 percent of elected prosecutors are white.
More than 60 percent of the federal prison staff is white. If these figures showing racial disparities are surprising, it’s because of ignorance of the racial legacy of America. Before any change can happen, there must be awareness. If you’re white, you can afford to live in a bubble. You can afford to be “colorblind.” The American social order caters to your understanding of the world. If you’re white, you’re generally a result of a history your forefathers chose. But if you’re black, you’re generally a result of a history that your forefathers did not choose. History is not “accidental.” It cannot be undone accidentally. You cannot undo something that was purposely done organically. In order to escape the legacy of racial dehumanization, we have to understand this concept. I’ve been in enough failed, destructive conversations on race to know that the first mistake made in the dialogue is the failure to define terms. If you don’t read anything else in this book, be sure to understand these three popular terms and their definitions: Racism, racial prejudice, and white privilege.
1. Racism: The use of structures of power to perpetuate unjust or unequal treatment or disadvantage against certain races or ethnicities. Note: Given the statistics above, can black people be racist? Simple answer: No. This is usually where people get stuck and degenerate into unhealthy, destructive conversations. It’s better to debate the definitions than to move forward with different definitions.
Racial prejudice: The feeling of dominance, condescension, or superiority based on race or ethnicity.
White Privilege: The state of being free from the burden of being a racial minority and being part of the majority culture; not having to think about your ethnic identity constantly. Note: One of the mistakes made in dialogues about race is equating socioeconomics with race. For example, there are white communities that do not have socioeconomic privilege. White coal miners in the Appalachian and whites in the Rust belt in Ohio and Michigan have not experienced socioeconomic privilege. Conversely, there are black people who do have socioeconomic status and enjoy the accompanying privileges and opportunities. Equating race and socioeconomics is misleading and insulting to black people who have overcome the barriers to achieve material success. White privilege just means the weight on your shoulders is generally lighter than it is for black people.
How does our disproportionate representation among decision-makers affect black people in this country? Black people are often forced to exist in environments that are culturally violent or remain on the margins of dominant culture. When power and discretion fall into the hands of one demographic, their ways of seeing the world are often superimposed on others. America was built on the privileged treatment of white people. That legacy cannot change unless white people choose to step out of their comfort zones to create culturally safe and honest environments.
In America, we are being culturally formed into a white way of seeing life—a way that is generally unfamiliar with being on the wrong side of dehumanization, callous exploitation, internal division, abuse, and its accompanying legacy of pathology. Legislation, policies, and interpretations of the world in mass media are determined mainly by people who were raised in a culture that showed their dominant experience and did not reflect those who have experienced the discrimination I’ve mentioned. Cultural norms have been established and reinforced by people who have a limited ability to understand the hopes, fears, joys, sadness, healing, and trauma of black people. Black American singer, actor, activist, and close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Harry Belafonte, was asked in a 2018 interview what he believes it will take to make Dr. King’s dream of a beloved community a reality. Belafonte said that, from his perspective, until white America regains or identities a moral course of history and changes their course of conduct, nothing will happen. America will implode. Belafonte said he’d never seen America more racially divisive, and that includes the time of segregation and the KKK terrorist attacks. It’s important to understand the nuances of white supremacy perpetuated by white society. I’ve observed three categories: blatant racism, insensitivity towards anti-black racism, and a lack of awareness of the legacy of anti-black racism. Without a nuanced understanding, a uniform approach will likely be misapplied, and further racial tensions and factions will form. Sadly, in the year 2020, the sentiments and statements of another amazing thinker, James Baldwin, still hold true. In a conversation with Yale philosophy professor Paul Weiss on the Dick Cavett show on June 13, 1968, Baldwin contrasted the supposed well-meaning sentiments of white people and unequal outcomes for black people. It can be hard to reconcile the supposed goodness of white people with the state of the institutions they govern. His conclusions about white people’s feeling about him came from the conditions of their institutions. Here’s the updated version of Baldwin’s monologue.
I don’t know if most white people hate me, but black people are five times more likely to be incarcerated for drug possession than white people and are twelve times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of drug crimes, though whites and blacks use drugs at similar rates, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. I don’t know if most white people hate me, but black youth are treated worse in the school system than white children who engage in the same disrup- tive behavior, according to the Department of Education. I don’t know if white people hate me, but black mothers die at three to four times the rate of white mothers, according the Center for Disease Control (CDC). I don’t know ifwhite people hate me, but a young black man is twenty-one times more likely to be killed by police than a young white man, accord- ing to the Equal Justice Initiative. I don’t know if white people hate me, but in NJ, the average net worth of a black family is roughly $6,000 while the average net worth of a white family is roughly $300,000, rooted in a history of unequal access to mort- gages. Though Congress granted every soldier the same benefits, many institutions were run with segregationist principles that resulted in racial injustice. (See article titled: “How the GI Bill’s Promise Was Denied to a Million Black WWII Veterans”—Website: https://www.history.com/news/ gi-bill-black-wwii-veterans-benefits.) I don’t know if white people hate me, but black youth are more likely to be prosecuted harshly, resulting in one in three black boys going to jail or prison, versus one in seventeen white boys. New Jersey, the state where I was born and raised, leads the nation in racial disparity in prison. For every one white person incarcerated, there are twelve black people incarcerated, partly due to “race-neutral” policies and practices that disproportionately impact black people.
I don’t know if white people hate me, but white police officers use gun force twice as often when called on emergency operations and are five times more likely to use gun force in predominantly black neighborhoods, according to Mark Hoekstra, economics Professor, and CarlyWill Sloan, doctoral candidate from Texas A&M University. Regardless of any singular person’s experience, the numbers tell a story. Random, individual examples of equitable treatment, while great to see, cannot be used to exonerate a system that historically and con- temporarily treats black people inequitably, as shown above. Jim Crow might be dead, but he had children that are alive and well. Most Americans might have a general sense that these disparities ex- ist, but they often don’t sense a strong, cultural push to comprehensively address these issues. Why? Because in a society where white supremacy is not overtly addressed, integration leads to disregard, constant suspicion, subjugation, and unfair, severe treatment of black people. The goal is not to demonize all white people, but to uplift black people by refusing to deny and invalidate our grievances. Such denial is the legacy of white supremacy. Until these issues are addressed, America will not be “post-racial.” These figures actually make perfect sense, given the length of time that this nation had racial dehumanization on the books. America is 243 years old. American chattel slavery and Jim Crow segregation existed for 189 years. Anti-black racial dehumanization has been on the books for about 80 percent of America’s life. Racial dehumanization won’t come to a screeching halt because some laws were changed. The legislative leaps made it possible for significant strides to be made, and there are now many black Americans doing amazing things in academia, athletics, entertainment, and in business. But there’s still a gap. The forces and effects of black dehumanization still need to be healed. In addition, polices, laws, systems, and attitudes that promote black dehumanization need to be acknowledged, reviewed, and dismantled.
We have a long way to go to achieve equality from soup to nuts on the socioeconomic and justice fronts. As a mentor, the great tragedy is that many black people in America allowed themselves to feel ashamed of their color. White supremacy is an evil ideology for some. For others, it’s a psychological condition and sickness, and the first step to healing is truth. It’s important to note that white supremacy is not solely possessed by loud racists, Nazis, and those with swastikas tattooed on their bodies. It’s possessed by all of us raised in a culture that reflects white supremacy while denying its existence. As American politician and sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan discussed in his 1965 report The Negro Family: The Case for National Action— specifically in the second section, called The Negro American Family—it’s hard for white people to recognize the effects of 300 years of exploita- tion on the fabric of black America because the consequences of historic injustice are hidden from view and silent. In 1965, Moynihan predicted that equal opportunities would not produce equal results, unless a novel and special effort was created. Sadly, his prediction was correct. He made this prediction for two reasons: the racist disease in white America leading to severe personal prejudice, and the unhealed trauma that black people in America suffered for three centuries. My work as a coach is to give voice to these consequences, as part of this effort, and help us do exactly what Dr. King alluded to in his talk: the development of self-respect, dignity, personhood, and sense of pride in our color. That is something that only we can do, and we must do. What happened to black people in America is not our fault, but much of our healing is our responsibility. Let’s start.