The American project was founded on rank hypocrisies. On the one hand, President Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the stirring words in the Declaration of Independence that upheld “these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal”, did not free his own slaves (not even Sally Hemings, who bore him six children).
Similarly, the Constitution of the US, celebrated as one of the finest examples of a self-conscious construction of a liberal democratic order, defined Blacks as only three-fifths of a person, not a full human being. Though “slave trade” was abolished by Congress in 1808, a brisk market in slaves continued since it was considered essential to the “Southern life-style” and the mode of production in a plantation economy. Even in 1857, the Supreme Court ruled (Dred Scott v Sanford) that Black people were to be deemed “property”, not “citizens”.
It took a Civil War and three momentous amendments to the constitution (the 13th in 1865, the 14th in 1868, and the 15th in 1870) for slavery to be abolished, for Blacks to be accorded the “due process” protections of citizenship, and for them to receive the right to vote. (Women did not receive that right till the 19th amendment in 1920).
While the abject inhumanity of slavery may have been legally mitigated to some extent, the institutions, practices and values of exclusion, exploitation and devaluation were not. Constitutional guarantees, and Supreme Court decisions, could be cleverly subverted by the states. For example, Black people were denied the right to vote through poll taxes, arbitrary registration requirements, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, white primaries and so on. In 1940, 70 years after they had received the right to vote, only 3 percent of Blacks in the South were registered as voters. Less overt voter suppression efforts continue to this day.
Similarly, discriminatory laws in many Southern states also imposed second-class citizenship on them. There were restrictions on residence, employment, bank loans, travel (they had to sit in the back of the bus) and, till the Court’s decision in Brown (1954), the schools they could attend. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 removed many of these ostensible barriers, but the shadows remained long, corrosive and cruel.
While slavery may have been “the original sin” through which America came into being, its treatment of other minorities was not very tender. The ones who suffered the most immediately and most grievously were the Native Americans. This land which was theirs was taken away from them. Today, most live in reservations which constitute only 4 percent of US land area.
They were also physically decimated. They became collateral damage in the relentless westward expansion of the Europeans based on notions of “manifest destiny”. They were killed through forced marches—e.g. the “trail of tears” between 1830-1850, when almost 60,000 of them were uprooted from their habitats and relocated elsewhere, with almost one-fourth dying on the way. There were massacres—e.g. in Bear River, Idaho, 1863, Oak Run, California, 1864, Sand Creek, Colorado, 1864, Marias, Montana, 1870, Wounded Knee, South Dakota, 1890, and many others. And there were summary executions—e.g. the largest execution in US history was that of Dakota men in Mankato after the Sioux Wars in 1862.
When Columbus “discovered” America, the Native population was between 10-15 million. By the end of the 19th century, thanks to the efforts to civilise and Christianize those “red savages”, it had been reduced to 238,000. Today, it is less than 7m, or about 2 percent of the population.
Smaller minority groups in the US faced similar discrimination. Jews were saddled with the long-standing accusation of being “Christ-killers” and their intellectual and financial skills generated envy and anxiety. They were also considered to be consummate conspirators intent on taking over the world, ironically as bankers and financiers (Henry Ford’s argument), or as Bolshevik revolutionaries (Hitler’s conviction, also echoed in the US).
The Chinese were the only people to be formally denied immigration into the country through the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Many Chinese, welcomed earlier as “coolie” labourers to lay the railroad tracks, faced harsh treatment and even violence. The Japanese, restricted through a “gentleman’s agreement” in 1907 from coming into the country any more, were herded into internment camps after Pearl Harbor even though there was not a shred of evidence that anyone had done anything wrong. “Indians”, i.e. those from South Asia, were not considered to be “free Whites” and thus not eligible for citizenship (US v Bhagat Singh Thind, 1923). Asian immigration was completely banned in 1924 and, when the door was slightly opened in 1946, limited by strict quotas of about 100 annually from these three countries.
Thus racism was sown right into the fabric of American history, practices and values. The question that is frequently asked is why, while other minority groups subjected to discrimination were able to prosper later, Blacks did not. There is usually a racist subtext to that question to underscore White assumptions about Black laziness, intellectual inferiority, moral weakness, and collective inability to cooperate, organise and develop social capital. That conclusion is both self-serving and untrue.
First, no other group endured the sheer ferocity and persistence of bigotry in the same way that Blacks did. All others (except Native Americans, whose conditions have not improved) had voluntarily come to the country. The Blacks were captured, enslaved and commodified. They were not scrappy immigrants who came to the land of opportunity to pursue the American dream; they were forcibly brought here and left to contend with their American nightmare.
Second, while others also faced stereotypes and prejudice, none encountered the uncouth mockery and the sheer physical violence that were inflicted on the Blacks. Minstrel shows, which caricatured Black people as sub-human beings (played by White folks in blackface), were wildly popular.
But it was the slaps and kicks, the lashes and chains, the nigger hunting licenses and tar-and-featherings, the burning of crosses and the lynchings that were emblematic of the dehumanisation of Black people. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, between 1877 and 1950, more than 4,400 Blacks were lynched. Many of these lynchings became public events which communities enjoyed as spectacle and the celebration of White power.
It is certainly not that Blacks only understood the language of violence. But this was certainly the only language preferred by Whites to speak to them. Those attitudes and tropes remained, manifested in new forms, sometimes hiding behind police badges. This is vigilante justice dispensed and protected by the instruments of the state, and sanctioned by historical practice. Hence we hear about teaching them a lesson, demonstrating overwhelming force, putting them in their place, to “dominate” as President Trump advised the other day, threatening to use the military if needed. It is for this reason too that Philonise Floyd poignantly pointed out, in his testimony to the US Congress, that his brother had been subjected to a modern-day lynching.
Third, there was a psycho-sexual dimension to this relationship that complicated matters even further. While White men had always been fiercely protective of “their women”, their concern and insecurity regarding Black men were particularly pronounced. Even a hint, a look, a word, the slightest of moves that could be construed as expressing Black lust for a White woman, would provoke savage reprisal. This lasted well into the 20th century.
In 1921, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a Black teenager was accused of molesting a white woman, even though she never pressed charges. In the resulting carnage, there were 10-15 White casualties and, by some estimates, up to 300 Black. The entire Black neighbourhood of Greenwood was set on fire, and more than a thousand homes and businesses were destroyed. Not a single person was convicted.
Similarly, in 1955, Emmet Till, a 14-year-old boy from Chicago visiting his aunt in Mississippi, was accused of making a pass at a White woman by whistling at her. The boy was tortured to death, so badly brutalised that his mother could not even recognise her own son. The perpetrators were acquitted by an all-White jury.
Ahrar Ahmad is Director General, Gyantapas Abdur Razzaq Foundation, Dhaka
(The second part of this article will be published next week – A Rahman)