Recent killings of unarmed black men in Missouri and New York by policemen have exacerbated the racial divide that exists in the nation. This divide is an inevitable condition resulting from the treatment of enslaved Africans in this nation. There has never been any attempt to bring about reconciliation. The refusal to recognize, discuss and atone for the atrocities perpetrated against Africans has created an emotional disease. Without an honest and forthright bid for reconciliation, this blight will continue to tear the nation apart.
There has been an effort to provide some kind of recompense for these wrongs. Immediately following the end of the Civil War, Republican senators understood the need for some kind of consideration for the evils that had been perpetrated against the enslaved Africans. This began The Reconstruction.
Land that was confiscated by the generals during the war was granted to many who had worked on that land before the end of the war. The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were passed, which freed the slaves and gave black males the right to vote and participate in the government of this nation. Many who remained in the Southern states did work in Congress and in state legislatures.
Too soon after that, the federal government restored the land to former slave owners; state’s rights became supreme. Laws of segregation and discrimination were created to restore conditions very similar to those of slavery.
This precedent had already been set long before, in 1640, when two white and one black escaped-indentured servants were recaptured. The captured black indentured servant was punished with slavery for life. “Black skin” became recognizable as inferior and a sign of slavery by law, not only by legal status, but social ranking as well. Not so for the white indentured servants, who were considered Christian and could become free after an extension of their periods of servitude.
This law was the beginning of racism in the colonies and created the phenomenon that scholars, Cheryl Harris and George Lipsitz, within the legal studies field of critical race theory, have defined in this way: “Whiteness has historically been treated more as a form of property than as a racial character. . . . as an object that has intrinsic value that has to be protected by social and legal institutions.”
In 1935, Dr. W.E.B Dubois in Black Reconstruction in America discussed white privilege, not as an illusion, but as a reality, in what he calls, “psychological wages of whiteness.” He explains:
It must be remembered that the white groups of labor, while they received low wages, were compensated by a ‘psychology wage.’ . . . They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks and the best schools. The police were chosen from their ranks; and the courts, dependent upon their votes, treated them with lenience as to encourage lawlessness. Their votes elected public officials, and while this had little effect on their economic situation it had a great effect upon the deference shown them.
The poor white laborers would revolt, sometimes violently, to better their wages and working conditions. Even though they suffered, they maintained an attitude of superiority over blacks, refusing blacks membership in their organizations. That attitude solidified discrimination and segregation in housing and many institutions across the nation. Schools in the ghetto were sometimes twice to as much as 10 times less well-equipped than schools for whites. And such organizations as the Ku Klux Klan were allowed to torture blacks with impunity.
When blacks tried to use the courts for equal justice, the highest court of the land, in two outstanding cases, Dred Scott and Plessey v. Ferguson, erred and maintained the status quo. The “privileged” poor whites, and the separate, unequal blacks, were further pitted against each other.
More recently, another attempt toward compensation was made. July 28, 2018, will mark the 50th anniversary of the 11-member Nation Advisory Commission’s report, informally known as the Kerner Report of 1968. Appointed by President Lyndon Johnson after violent revolts happened in some cities, the commission was asked to answer three questions: What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again?
Its report concluded with a warning that because of racism, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.” It also issued an indictment of “white society” with this statement: “What white Americans have never fully understood – but what the Negro can never forget – is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain, and white society condones it . . . ” The committee suggested: “Legislation to promote racial integration and to enrich slums – primarily through the creation of jobs, job training programs and decent housing . . . to close the gap between promise and performance.”
President Johnson made some gains in providing housing, education and erasing poverty following publication of the Kerner report. Subsequently, however, the report was mostly ignored and no discussion of it was pursued. Every president after President Johnson failed to enhance those policies that were thought to end the unrest. Sometimes they mentioned race, but never the trauma facing the nation.
The Kerner Report should be praised for recognition of the growing unrest and racial divide. But it was calling for a healing of the nation with recompense rather than beginning with reconciliation. The nation was, and is, suffering from what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder. There is damage done to the psyche when one participates, or, even observes, violence against another human being. In every culture, children are taught right from wrong with reward and punishment. When one behaves righteously, he/she is praised and rewarded; when one behaves badly, he/she is scolded, and/or punished. Moral duty is learned.
When humans participate or observe acts of violence and do nothing to prevent them, those with a sense of right or wrong will feel guilty. If that guilt is allowed to remain in a person’s consciousness, it creates fear. If that fear is not remedied, then guilt and fear will fester, causing psychological pain. That kind of pain can make one strike out with disastrous behavior.
This striking out is an anger masking guilt and fear. It is manifested with the nation spending more on weapons than on health, education and welfare; incarcerating more prisoners than any other industrialized nation; being one of only two industrialized nations with capital punishment; having its police “protecting and serving” with military armament and “The Other” becoming the victim of police brutality.
Some may say they had nothing to do with slavery; that they are not racist and not guilty. However, over the many years, they have, at the very least, participated or observed and allowed institutions and other individuals to perpetuate racism in this nation. Even some African Americans suggest we should forget slavery and move on. How can this happen? First, we must be able to have an open and honest discourse on historical, systemic racism that has created the ever-existing racial divide. Before there can be talks of compensation, there must be reconciliation; a discussion that acknowledges a serious wrong to another human being; admission of the transgression of racism and the willingness to change. Only this can lead to forgiveness and bring about harmony.
There is a need for consideration of this Plea for Reconciliation and Healing of the Nation. Action must come from the people to cure this disease. May they stand and prove that we are the government. May they act on the principle that without reconciliation, there can be no remedy for the guilt and fear that divides this nation. Reconciliation will bring harmony, justice and peace for all.