Addressing our Shameful Past to Build a Hopeful Future
On May 25, our country was changed. As video of George Floyd’s murder began to circulate in the days that followed, America’s eyes were finally opened wide to the injustices endured by our Black citizens. George Floyd wasn’t the first Black American to be senselessly murdered by the police who are paid to protect him. But something was different this time. Something sparked a fire. George Floyd’s death was the tipping point, and now this wave, this movement, against racism, cannot be silenced.
A Hate-Filled History
But this didn’t begin with the killing of George Perry Floyd, Jr., or Breonna Taylor, or Tamir Rice, or Trayvon Martin, or even Emmett Till. No, our country’s history of oppression of Black men and women began 400 years ago. Let that sink in – four.hundred.years. For 400 years, Black men and women in this country have been treated as less than human. That’s when, in 1619, a ship carrying enslaved Africans, ripped mercilessly from their homes and their families, arrived in the English colony of Virginia. Over the next 246 years, slavery endured as a legal institution and as the backbone of our national economy. And by 1860, more than 3.9 million Black individuals lived as slaves in the USA. To put that number in perspective, the entire population of the United States in 1860, according to the census taken that year, only numbered 31,443,322, and that number included the enslaved population.
Separate but Unequal
Anyone with a rudimentary understanding of American history knows that southern states formed the Confederate States of America in order to preserve the institution of slavery. The idea of giving up their free slave labor was enough for those 11 states to start a civil war. Fortunately, the uprising was quelled in 1865, and the 13th Amendment was ratified later that year, ending slavery in the United States. However, with the abolition of slavery, no further steps were taken ensure rights for former slaves, and the brutalities of racism persisted.
And for the next 100 years, our federal and state governments continued to treat Black Americans as less than. State laws known as Black Codes and Jim Crow laws prevented Black men and women from voting, serving on juries, and testifying against whites in court. Laws mandating segregation in the public sector, which included transportation, education and even hospitals, were upheld under the legal principle of “separate but equal.”
But things were far from equal. With no wealth or resources to build a new life, freed slaves and the generations that followed them remained subjugated to whites. Freed slaves lacked both education and opportunities, and for many, their only choice to make a living was as a sharecropper for a white farmer. So imagine that you are an adult with no income, no resources, no job opportunities, and no family support system to fall back on, because any family you may still have is in the same position as you. Add in the fact that you have no access to adequate transportation, housing, education or job training. How would you survive? Viewed in this light, it becomes remarkably clear both how and why, over 150 years after the abolition of slavery, Black Americans continue to struggle with a system that never gave them a chance in the first place. While poor and immigrant whites may have faced challenges in this country, they were never met with the same barriers as their Black neighbors. The result is a society with a stark racial gap in upward economic mobility. For those who choose to believe that Blacks and whites stand on equal social and economics footing today, they need look no further than the division of wealth in our country. As of 2016, the median white household has net assets of $147,000. That number is 41 times more wealth than the average Black household, whose median wealth is $3,500. Figures like these prove that we do not live in a post-racial America. Even 56 years after passage of the Civil Rights Act, inequality in wealth, healthcare, education, and housing persists.
Tearing Down the Tower of Racism
Racism is a well-engineered, intimidating tower. To view such an imposing structure and believe that it appeared out of nowhere, or that it could be easily dismantled, is foolish. America has built this towering plague of racism, brick by brick, over 400 years, out of slavery, unjust laws, unfounded prejudices, deep-seeded hate, intimidation and murder.
After the murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement and its allies have begun to chip away at the exterior of that tower. Here in Owensboro, demonstrators lined downtown streets on May 30 to protest the police killings of Black citizens. The following day saw a procession of peaceful protestors marching through Owensboro in support of Black Lives Matter. And on June 5, the Owensboro chapter of the NAACP and the Human Rights Commission organized a rally at Smothers Park. Attended by hundreds, the event provided a stage for local Black leaders and citizens to voice their urgent concerns about racism, and unite the community. Rev. Rhondalyn Randolph, President of the Owensboro NAACP, is hopeful for our city and our country’s future. “It gave me so much hope to see so many people that wanted to stand for peace and reconciliation and justice. It’s about right and wrong. It’s about respecting humanity,” she said.
Randolph continued, “We have a church on every corner here. Racism is a moral issue and a sin that goes against the mandates of God. What I want to see for our community as we move forward is to reconcile the issues of our past so we won’t move forward with baggage. What I want to see as we go forward is for the momentum to maintain and for people to continue with the same vigor in demanding change.”
Because of events like these, change is happening. Racist monuments are coming down. Police reform is being enacted. There is a conversation happening about the realities of racism in our country. There is a heightened awareness of the injustices faced by Black men and women, and there is a loud call to action for reform. But we must not let the discussion, or the momentum, die.
Much more difficult than removing a statute, tearing down the tower of racism will require strenuous, intentional work from all races, and more importantly, from all levels of government. And while protests, rallies and conversations are exposing the ugly structures that support that tower, it will not fall until we make a concerted effort to address its foundations. At the community, city, state and federal levels, there must be institutional change to address our country’s original sin of racism. It’s up to all of us moving forward to make sure that change happens.