America, Land of the Free, Home of the Brave, yada, yada, yada. The U.S. of A.— it is a state of mind as much as it is a physical location. People from around the globe look at America (or used to) as a land of opportunity, a land of promise, a land where hopes and dreams were the equal of ways and means. And we came to this existence honestly, sort of. While we have built this image on the backs of enslaved, indentured, and free: First Peoples, African, European, Asian, Hispanic, Arab, Indian, et al., and we have worked towards a more perfect union via pen and sword, we have left out many of our fellow Americans when it came to crafting inclusive policies. In this way, we have created, by design, a culture that today resembles the America of 1780 and 1870 and 1960 — and this is a problem. Culture doesn’t change overnight, and heritage, a central piece that comes from culture (both in theory and practice) tends to hold a more prominent position, at our American table, than the concepts of understanding and empathy — both historically and within current realities. If there is interest in changing that part of our culture that still views some Americans as “greater than” and some Americans as “less than” and many Americans as “other than”, we need to advocate for this change through policies and let our legislators know that current practices are not in keeping with the promises this nation was founded upon — “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” And by all “men”, we mean every American.
Let’s start with the policy piece of the puzzle. Policy — good, bad, or neutral, or all of the above, depending on whether you’re sitting at the table, serving the table, or unaware that a table exists, has dramatic effects on communities, and communities make-up the nation. Policies targeting financial, social, and environmental sectors can solidify the standing of one community while destroying the fabric of another. Whether the policies are created by government entities or private corporations is less important than the long-term effects that the policies will leave. In addition, policies have direct and long lasting impacts on culture and from culture we discover/construct heritage (a rather important concept within any population).
Starting at the beginning, before the 2nd Continental Congress convened, before Samuel Nicholas raised a Battalion of Marines, before Plymouth Rock, all the way back to the first permanent settlement, Jamestown (1607), that’s where we need to go to understand how we ended up “here“. The policies that defined America’s earliest trajectory were mostly concerned with hierarchy and land and “savages”. The policies that gave European emigrants the right to claim lands that were inhabited by Native People started us down a long path we can call the White-Superiority-Complex Highway (WSCH) (not to be confused with the Napoleon Complex). The new settlers believed themselves superior because of technology in the form of weapons, governmental structures, religious practices, dress, living accommodations, you name it. Natives were seen as savages and therefore “less than” the “superior” Europeans.
Just over a decade later, we find the first (as yet) verified instance of Africans being brought to Jamestown (the future America) in 1619. The fact that they wound up in Jamestown is not of little consequence as it presented the English with another lane on the WSCH (the beginnings of a super highway). The Africans were assumed to be savages, similar to the Indigenous peoples of the New World. And, because they were taken as slaves, by other Europeans, it was seen as a natural extension that they should hold a similar position to the other “savages” on the continent (chattel slavery developed over a couple of decades (via practice and policy), it wasn’t yet established at this time). This began the long and disastrous cultural solidifying of imagined superiority over all people with darker skin.
As chattel slavery took hold in the 13 Colonies, those who owned Africans, and other light-skinned Europeans in close geographic vicinity, used religion (a form of policy/doctrine from above) to justify their treatment of the enslaved people. Additionally, policies were created that required the enslaved to carry a pass, if they were traveling away from the plantation/farm where they lived (to mean going somewhere else to work, not vacation). This worked in the favor of those who wished to paint the “savages” as “child-like” and in constant need of adult supervision (mythology always has a backstory). Add to this the policies that made it a crime to teach the enslaved how to read and we can see how the WSCH was being reinforced through all possible avenues (picture Talladega with longer straightaways, that’s bad news). Even in parts of the colonies where slavery had not taken hold (which is not to say slavery was completely missing), the mythology of inferiority and savagery had made its way into most corners of the British holding.
Jump forward a century and look at the words that were placed in the U.S. Constitution for purposes of representation within Congress— Article 1- Section 2- Paragraph 3, it reads:
“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons”
… All other persons being the enslaved Africans. We codified the idea that enslaved individuals, Africans in this case, were really and truly “less than”; they were legally considered 3/5 of a White person (and also, chattel). And this was not some minor State or local law that might be changed in due time; this was the document that would go on to be the beacon for so many other nations who were fighting for their own freedom from tyranny, this is our founding document. At this point, White superiority was well established, the culture of America was very clearly a culture that made skin color the most significant aspect of whether or not an individual had any rights in the society (with gender and language/dialect playing various, if less important, roles as well). And in case anybody wasn’t entirely certain, the Dred Scott Supreme Court case (1857), reinforced this belief.
In the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford, the Supreme Court ruled, by a 7-2 margin, that Africans were not considered the equal of any White person. Chief Justice Taney wrote the following in his opinion for the majority:
“They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.”
Taney also states, in reference to the United States Constitution,
“It then proceeds to say: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among them is life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.’
“The general words above quoted would seem to embrace the whole human family, and if they were used in a similar instrument at this day would be so understood. But it is too clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration; for if the language, as understood in that day, would embrace them, the conduct of the distinguished men who framed the Declaration of Independence would have been utterly and flagrantly inconsistent with the principles they asserted; and instead of the sympathy of mankind, to which they so confidently appealed, they would have deserved and received universal rebuke and reprobation.”
Think about the meaning of that. Think about the arguments that are still used in modern times by those who don’t understand the deranged inanity of such an ignorant statement. Think about what you believe and what you learned from your family and community—how does that compare with what I’m writing about here?
This case was decided just 3 years before South Carolina seceded from the Union. With each new State that joined the ranks of the Confederacy, the presumption of war became more real. Here to, amongst the ranks of the Southern “gentlemen”, we find literature that supports policy measures and practices meant to retain the “superior race” in a position of power (and this is where the heritage piece starts to show up most prominently, never mind that the heritage we’re referring to is tied to the Confederate States of America, not the Good Ole U.S. of A.). By this point, the WSCH had become a super highway from Maine to Florida; and several spurs had now been constructed running to all points (South)West, Midwest, and Northwest, and included not just the Black and Native peoples, but the Chinese and the Mexicans. Our transcontinental WSCH was nearly complete. We would “welcome” new immigrants and refugees in the coming century and provide them with similar treatment (South Asian, Southern European, Middle Eastern, et al.). Our culture was fully ingrained with Whiteness as the baseline against which all else would be measured. But we weren’t done yet.
War commenced between the States (1861) and the North was victorious, and everything was good, right? No, not right. For a period of about a decade, the Federal Govt. did it’s best to impose some semblance of what they thought normalcy should look like in the New South. There were some advances with the election of Black men to both State and Federal positions; but all told, the experiment didn’t work so well. And, and this is a BIG AND, the 13th Amendment, you know, the one that outlawed slavery? Well, it didn’t entirely outlaw the practice. Exceptions were made for those citizens (read: formerly enslaved) who were “running afoul” of the law (here, read: walking while Black, not showing proper deference/respect to a White person, or any actual criminal activity). The 13th amendment is the single most important piece of policy in respect to White America’s improper and unwarranted fear of and disrespect towards, People of Color. This policy catastrophe (“…except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted…”) has resulted in a rapid expansion of America’s biggest shit-show, a.k.a. media exploitation of Black “criminality”; and it’s driven largely by the uber-conservative far-right of the GOP but it affects everyone’s ability to rationally think about “race” in America. Hence, current cultural norms being what they are, in vast sections of the country, don’t really seem so strange. Anyway, exit the Federal Government (1877), enter the State and local Legislators and the Black Codes.
The Black Codes were a new set of laws/policy measures meant to restrict the Freedmen’s ability to fully engage with/participate in the larger society. The former Confederacy had acted quickly to implement these laws but with Reconstruction happening concurrently, most had to be put on hold, to a degree, until Uncle SAM headed North. And then, posthaste, Jim Crow introduced his-self, lynch-law (a de facto policy that made kangaroo courts appear perfectly right and proper) took the place of the faux court proceedings that were used during Reconstruction, and just like that, we had concocted a brand new America that looked an awful lot like the ante-bellum nation of a few decades prior (Make The South Great Again, I guess…). With no means of changing policy (because their voting rights had been removed) and the constant threat of being caught up by a lynch mob (for any number of reasons, to include “that kinda looks like the guy that whistled at my girl” – sound familiar America?), African Americans (and all other Communities of Color) have continued to be perceived more negatively, over time, than what reality warrants.
The final policies to consider (and this is by no means an exhaustive list), which include those enacted between the 1930s and today, are connected to the types of systemic racism that are less easily seen, but are no less destructive in their methods. Redlining (the practice of preventing people from buying homes in particular neighborhoods—White neighborhoods specifically); gerrymandering so as to make some people’s votes (this would be, of course, People of Color, largely) less important in state and local elections; both the intent and the implementation of drug laws; and the policies that have kept more poorly funded schools from receiving the equitable funding that could help diminish the equality and educational achievement gap, on several fronts.
So that’s how the policies of America have worked to create a culture that believes in the mythology of White superiority/supremacy (even while “borrowing” in perpetuity, from Communities of Color to make American culture, on the whole, much more Afro/LatinX/Asian-centric than most White people would like to admit). Think about what all of this means, think about how the combination of these policies, for centuries, have created an atmosphere of animus towards/fear of People of Color while simultaneously working to prevent Communities of Color from building wealth in the same ways that White communities have done. From health outcomes, to finance, and from environmental impacts to social stigmatizing, this norming of White superiority has had detrimental effects on our nation’s social, economic, and environmental spheres. To say that America doesn’t have a White supremacy problem is to ignore all of our history. And while it is not necessary to personally buy-in to the cultural norm in order to benefit from it, to pretend it doesn’t exist does nothing to address the issue.
Finally, the discussion of the heritage piece of this matter. We are… still… dealing with the idea of Southern heritage as American heritage, in relation to statues and flags and White power and all that mess. While it is true that the Confederates who fought against America were Americans prior to and immediately after the Civil War, in theory, if not practice, the hatred for “Yankees” and anyone else who might’ve tried to tell “Johnny Reb” that s/he must treat Black Americans as equals, remained particularly intense for more than 100 years. That feeling remains ingrained in certain individuals and communities in 2017. And before you tell yourself that this small contingent of White supremacists (read: ignoramus maximi) is not fully representative of the larger White community (which I would agree with), consider the number of White folks who were willing to remain silent and those who went so far as to mention the 1st amendment to promote the Nazi’s right to march (in Charlottesville) with those flags, chant those words, and generally make a mockery of everything that the original anti-fascists fought against.
We cannot, I repeat, CAN NOT, expect the election of 1 Black President (2 times) to change hundreds of years of blatant racist policy and misinformation. The spreading of lies, by ill informed (and sometimes just plain stupid) individuals and corporations, will require at least 100 years to counteract. I believe the work has started but not all that long ago. Heritage, being what it is, will remain a barrier to those who fight against Confederate ideology and the symbols/heroes who represent that era. We could have 10,000 Black & Native & Hispanic elected officials, at every level of Local, State, & Federal GOVT, for the next half century, and still find White supremacist/superiority literature and beliefs littering our nation’s Byways. We can change this trajectory but we can’t do it overnight, and we can’t do it without a majority of people raising their voices in unison.
So how do we make this change, you ask? It starts with talking, something too many are still afraid of. Conversations revolving around America’s ugly past must become commonplace and they absolutely have to strike nerves and be uncomfortable. Once we can move past the difficulty of addressing the issue, we can get down to fixing it. Considering we’ve been able to do this, on a smaller, and less vitriolic (consider the context), scale, with the Irish, the Italians, Jews, and other groups who were initially seen as outsiders and “others”. I believe we can do it, it’s only a matter of IF we will do it.
Conversations lead to political action. Political action has the capacity to become policy. Policy is what got us into this mess, policy will get us out. Policies that address the systemic inequalities and inequities that we have allowed to continue since the 1600s can be reversed. Investing, rather than divesting, in inner-city neighborhoods and rural communities of Color, and in affordable housing, is a good place to start. Concurrently, provide incentives for private industry to invest in these same communities which will provide stability in the short term and opportunities to build wealth and roots in the long term. Encourage cross-sector, cross-state, cross-boundary (urban-rural) partnerships. Get creative, that’s the future of our macro economy. Creativity has always played a major role but that role is increasing exponentially with each passing day.
It only takes 1 person to start the cultural, political, social change, that will move us out of the past centuries and into the future. When police are able to choke a man to death, as he gasps for air and hoarsely whispers, “I can’t breathe”, and we don’t hold them accountable; or they drive up on a child who is playing with a toy gun in a park (as millions of other children have done for a century or more), jump out of a squad car and shoot him without bothering to ask what he was doing, and not be held accountable, we have policy issues that need to be addressed. We have a nation that needs to project a voice that is clear and confident and forceful and which tells those in charge, one more minute is 60 seconds too long.
Policies influence culture, culture shapes heritage, heritage is used as a symbol to protect what is being lost. America’s heritage is not built solely on the false narrative of White superiority, but that idea gets far more attention than it deserves. White supremacy and superiority is a fallacy that needs to die. America was not founded as a place for White people to reign supreme, nor was it built by the toil of White labor alone. Without the multitude of diverse voices and colors working together, we do not achieve the status of SuperPower, the status we still hold, if only for a while. Without the contributions of the multitudes, we are Atlantis, a great story that provides fairy tale material but no actual contribution to our global community. Without new and dynamic policies that address our greatest sins, we will most certainly go down in history as the greatest nation to ever fail. Let’s not fail, not here, not now.