Can America ever overcome its terrible history of conquest, genocide and enslavement? Those horrors are deeply embedded in the American psyche and legal system, and allow for repeated aggressions at home and abroad. This columnist was reminded of the roots of this never ending terror during a recent trip to Alabama.
Every region of the United States shares in the history of displacement and murder of indigenous peoples. Alabama differs from New England only in that Indians there were brutally attacked and forcibly removed 200 years after the interlopers called pilgrims committed their crimes. In the early 1800s white settlers from the Carolinas and Georgia happily suffered from what was called “Alabama fever.” They knew that the lands recently wrested from the Creek, Choctaw and Cherokee would be theirs for the taking.
Alabama was called the Cotton State with good reason. It owes its very existence to the global demand for cotton, the theft of Indian land and the domestic trade in enslaved people. At the start of the Civil War nearly half of the population was comprised of enslaved people. The wealth generated by king cotton made Montgomery one of the largest slave trading cities in the South, as rivers and rails were used to bring the product and the people who produced it to pens and auction blocks on Market Street, later re-named Dexter Avenue.
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The damage done didn’t stay in South and it wasn’t frozen in time. The legacy can only be left behind if white Americans commit themselves to deep introspection and a pledge to leave supremacy behind. That is a tall order for a country which claims to be exceptionally virtuous yet also makes every effort to maintain the racial status quo.
The slave patrols that prevented escape and freedom are still present in the 21st century. The extra judicial killings of Eric Garner in New York City, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and John Crawford in Beavercreek, Ohio, are but three of the most recent. The brutal beating of Marlene Pinnock by a California highway patrol officer wreaked of this awful legacy, when a white policeman had complete confidence that he could punch a black woman in the face at least ten times and rip off her clothes in broad daylight while hundreds of potential witnesses drove by. If that isn’t a legacy of the slave system, nothing else is.
The open carry of firearms and stand your ground legislation are but the latest symptoms of an old illness. The disease is called white supremacy and there has never been a serious desire by the controlling race to be free of it. It is frankly ridiculousness to ask why black people are victimized by extra judicial killings, high rates of incarceration and anything else which keeps them at the bottom of the social, political and economic totem pole.
In the absence of any desire to leave the past behind, police brutality is inevitable. The history of black people in America is like a horror movie with many sequels. Enslavement ended only to be replaced by a convict labor system and lynch law terrorism. The brief American spring of the civil rights mass movement was quickly followed by mass incarceration which is fed by the extreme police surveillance of black communities. Eric Garner broke up a fight on a New York City street and ended up dead in a police choke hold. John Crawford was holding a toy gun in a Walmart when he was shot down. Michael Brown was stopped by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, because he walked in the street instead of on the sidewalk. Their deaths should go under the category “things that happen only to black people.”
While Americans ponder whether or not Germans feel guilt because of Adolf Hitler’s atrocities they ought to ask the same of themselves. How do white people in the 21st century benefit from the crimes of the past and what will they do as individuals to give up the entitlements they have long held? There are too few people willing to contemplate these questions. Instead they see the protest unfold in Ferguson, Missouri, and conclude that it has nothing to do with them. All the while they support stop and frisk and any other avenue which allows for the literal and very physical control of black people.
Wearing hoodies for Trayvon Martin or shouting, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” in memory of Michael Brown may galvanize popular anger but they aren’t substitutes for revolutionary change. That is the only way to undo centuries of injustice. Anything else is piecemeal and doomed to fail. The continuing protest in Ferguson, Missouri, shows that thousands of people are prepared to do something radically different. The question is whether they will again be disappointed or whether they will be joined by others in a much larger struggle.