Violence, Racism, and Fundamentally Changing the United States
By Richard Jehn / August 8, 2015
When will it be enough? Another horrible tragedy, self-confessed to be an act of terror and white supremacy has occurred. It isn’t a new phenomenon by any means, but we are seeing a more accurate record of these acts because of the available technology so many people now have in hand. And most observers are appalled to see them, police shooting unarmed black men in the back as they run away, a policeman abusing a young black girl at a junior high school pool party, and nine murders in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, followed by the burning of six more African American churches across the south, three of which have been unmistakably identified as arson.
But the fact is that nothing is new here. This has been happening since the founding of this nation, but events have simply had some different manifestations over time. This country was founded in some of the worst sorts of violence. In the very earliest days, European white settlers made it their business to eliminate, in one way or another, 90% of the resident population of the present-day United States. This took the form of outright slaughter most frequently, but also occurred through quite nefarious means such as burning Native American crops and deliberately passing smallpox infected blankets to Native Americans.1 It should be no surprise that our founding fathers participated in this violence.2
While this “subduing” of the resident population was taking place, the settlers also thought it in their best interest to kidnap a few million Africans to come work for free in the new territory they were opening up. Thousands of those kidnapped never made it to the new world, dying during the voyage of disease, starvation, dehydration, and abject sadness. But those who did survive managed over the next couple of hundred years of mistreatment to create about 60% of present-day wealth in the US.3 Good arguments exist to demonstrate that the revolution that created the United States was a result of British reluctance to sanction continued slave-holding.4
Robert Jensen goes so far as to call these two periods “holocausts,” which they surely were: first, genocide of the Native Americans, followed closely by the genocide of Africans. He also describes the third holocaust as the continuing violence in other nations as the United States “protects” its overseas interests, sometimes in defending the oil industry, sometimes in removing a contrary government, occasionally to “bring democracy” to some needy nation, and for various other reasons in passing.5
Regardless, it is clear that from the earliest days of this nation, white European settlers unequivocally knew that they were superior to both the indigenous population and to the black immigrants who were building their nation. And this white supremacy has become a cultural fact of life for every person who has ever lived in the United States, manifested frequently in outright racist behavior, especially prior to passage of legislation specifically outlawing discrimination and segregation, but more frequently appearing in much more subtle ways, well documented in numerous in-depth studies.6
I have not seen it more appropriately expressed than in this short passage:
In my own lifetime, segregation and antimiscegenation laws were still on the books in many states. During the lifetimes of my parents and grandparents, and for several hundred years before them, laws were used to prevent blacks from learning to read, write, own property, or vote; blacks were, by constitutional mandate, outlawed from the hopeful, loving expectations that come from being treated as a whole, rather than three-fifths of a person. When every resource of a wealthy nation is put to such destructive ends, it will take more than a few generations to mop up the mess.And we continue to live this awful legacy every single day of every single year, in the form of those police murders (I will call them what they are) of black men and women; in the form of the overtly racist murders of nine African Americans in a Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina; in the form of continued economic disadvantage of Native and African Americans, and Hispanics8; in the form of significantly greater incarceration rates for Native and African Americans, and Hispanics9; and in the form of the continued existence of intentionally all-white towns and neighborhoods throughout the United States.
We are all inheritors of that legacy, whether new to this world or new to this country, for it survives as powerful and invisibly reinforcing structures of thought, language, and law. Thus generalized notions of innocence and guilt have little place in the struggle for transcendence; there is no blame among the living for the dimensions of this historic crime, this national tragedy. There is, however, responsibility for never forgetting another’s history, for making real the psychic obliteration that does live on as a factor in shaping relations not just between blacks and whites …., or between blacks and blacks …., but between whites and whites as well.7
Sundown towns require special mention since they are not common knowledge. Between 1890 and 1930, many whites in the US took exception to the outcome of the Civil War, and especially the Reconstruction era, and took upon themselves the continued repression and exclusion of African Americans. These sundown towns were typically characterized by either signage or some other clear signal (such as a whistle that sounded at 6 pm) that blacks were to be out of the town by sundown or face dire (usually violent, including death) consequences. Moreover, these towns were more prevalent in the northern states and included every state in the US. The phenomenon is extensively documented both in James Loewen’s 2005 book on the subject and on his website which contains up-to-date information about these communities.10
To put it bluntly, this is a big-time white people problem and all of the people of color in this nation suffer because of it. And it is time for the white people to act like grown-ups, own this problem, and do something meaningful about it.
Since the event in Charleston, and the more recent incident where Sandra Bland was arrested on a fabricated charge and soon afterward died in jail,11 I have seen some stunningly good suggestions for change. I especially appreciate Aaryn Belfer’s eleven suggestions in her article “How to Be an Interrupter: A White Person’s Guide to Activism,” where she says, “Whatever you do, don’t do nothing. Be an up-stander, not a bystander. Be an interrupter.”
I do not believe anyone has yet proposed a solution to the white supremacy problem in this country that will result in the changes we need to reach a meaningful state of non-racist equilibrium and true social justice. I view what I have read to date as band-aid fixes for what ails us, although absolutely everything helps. I also believe that legislation passed during and after the era of the civil rights movement has turned out in retrospect to be band-aid measures through which those desiring continuation of the racial imbalance always find loopholes. We have reached a moment where we need much more and we have a meaningful precedent to guide us.
John Toland has suggested that Adolf Hitler used the United States model for his treatment of gypsies, Jews, and other non-Aryan undesirables.12
Hitler's concept of concentration camps as well as the practicality of genocide owed much, so he claimed, to his studies of English and United States history. He admired the camps for Boer prisoners in South Africa and for the Indians in the wild west; and often praised to his inner circle the efficiency of America's extermination—by starvation and uneven combat—of the red savages who could not be tamed by captivity.Assuming that Hitler used the violence and aggression visited by the United States on the Indigenous population as the model for the Nazis’ violence against non-Aryan populations in Europe and other conquered lands, would it be worth considering what the German people decided to do in post-World War II Germany to cleanse themselves of the Nazi atrocities?
He was very interested in the way the Indian population had rapidly declined due to epidemics and starvation when the United States government forced them to live on the reservations. He thought the American government's forced migrations of the Indians over great distances to barren reservation land was a deliberate policy of extermination. Just how much Hitler took from the American example of the destruction of the Indian nations is hard to say; however, frightening parallels can be drawn. For some time Hitler considered deporting the Jews to a large 'reservation' in the Lubin area where their numbers would be reduced through starvation and disease.
Others have made such a suggestion, but not in as explicit terms as I do. Brian Stevenson, founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, said in a recent interview:
So yes, the Confederate flag should come down but more than that, we need to engage with this in a very different way. You can’t go to Germany, to Berlin, and walk 100 meters without seeing a marker or a stone or a monument to mark the places where Jewish families were abducted from their homes and taken to the concentration camps. Germans want you to go to the concentration camps and reflect soberly on the legacy of the Holocaust. We do the opposite here. We don’t want anybody talking about slavery, we don’t want anybody talking about lynching, we don’t want anybody talking about segregation. You say the word “race” and people immediately get nervous. You say the words “racial justice” and they're looking for the exits. If we're going to change the attitudes of the judges who are making sentencing decisions, and police officers who are unfairly suspecting young men of color, and employers and educators who are suspending and expelling kids of color at disproportionately high rates, if we're going to make a difference in overcoming the implicit bias that we all have, we're going to have to deal honestly with this history and have to consciously work on freeing ourselves from this history.Following World War II, German society implemented a curriculum in all German schools teaching the Holocaust, its results, and how it transpired in gory detail to all German children as they went through school. This curriculum frequently includes trips to concentration camps so students can see for themselves the ovens, the gas chambers, and the horrible living conditions. In the words of a staff member of the German Information Center:
For Germans, the Holocaust is not an event that happened in a faraway place in some distant past, but is part and parcel of their recent history. The memory of the Nazi dictatorship -- of which the Holocaust is an integral part -- and its traumatic legacies have been shaping German policies since the end of World War II. The rebuilding of political institutions in western Germany and postwar political education were largely determined by a serious effort to try to understand the horrors of the Nazi dictatorship and by searching for safeguards in order to prevent history from repeating itself. Consequently, teaching about Nazi dictatorship and the Holocaust at schools is not limited to a niche in the history syllabus like the "French and the Indian Wars." Instead, it is discussed again and again in different ways, in a number of subjects, and at different points in time.It is not far-fetched in the least to compare the treatment of Native Americans to the Nazi Holocaust, nor is it inappropriate to consider slavery and its seemingly endless aftermath of racism and discrimination comparable to the treatment of Jewish and other non-Aryan Germans in the 1930s and early 1940s.14 Thus, to seek a similar solution to this US problem seems obvious.
The treatment of the Nazi period in all its aspects -- Hitler's rise to power; his establishment of a dictatorship in Germany; the abolition of the rule of law; the persecution of all kinds of political opponents; the racially motivated persecution of the Jews, culminating in the Holocaust; the reticence and opposition of German citizens; and, Germany's instigation of World War II -- is compulsory teaching matter at all types of schools in Germany and at all levels of education. The Holocaust is treated as the most important aspect of the period of Nazi rule.13
So the specific proposal for the United States is to include explicit curriculum in our schools to teach the truth of our past, to include all the gory details of the slaughter of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans, including the aftermath of the Civil War that resulted in covert methods of discrimination and segregation that persist to the present day. Let’s bring this information out into the light of day for detailed examination and include with it the teaching of empathy in our classrooms. Let’s change what our children are learning to instill in them the horror of our past so our culture can learn not to repeat that repulsive past.
Clear precedents and active programs are in place to seed the effort to change the United States curriculum. In particular, Rethinking Schools has been making a significant impact on teaching and curriculum in the past 25 years. Moreover, it is well past time to take meaningful action when we hear Barack Obama say, “… this kind of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn't happen in other places with this kind of frequency. It is in our power to do something about it.” If we mean what we are saying in all of the eulogies, tirades, rants, and other assorted missives I’ve read and heard since the tragedy in Charleston on June 17, 2015 and the Sandra Bland incident in Waller County, Texas in mid-July, then now is the time to begin the work to change our US society.
I recognize the challenge this poses where some states in control of school curriculum tend toward regression in the teaching of science and history. And even before this conservative regression, history curriculum in the US has been sorely deficient.15 But clear precedents do exist to proceed with development of meaningful curriculum to change our society. More than ten years ago, the Montana Supreme Court ruled that the state had ignored its constitutional responsibility to teach indigenous history and culture. That was the beginning of what has turned into a cascade of states implementing curriculum to teach Native American tribal history and culture, now including Idaho, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and most recently Washington.16
Although this is only anecdotal, the letter that appeared in the Bellingham Cascadia Weekly (on page 5) in June 2015 is indicative of the impact such curriculum can have:
I am in seventh grade at Fairhaven Middle School. In my social studies class, we have been learning about the past 200 years of Washington’s history. This includes the genocide of Native Americans, and also the cultural genocide through putting the natives in small reservations and sending the children far off to schools where their culture was belittled and they were transformed into the ways of the white culture. These things have now been found to be directly linked to problems many reservations face today.Any curriculum developed for meaningful portrayal of United States history must depend critically on the participation of the African American and the Native American communities, as well as all minority communities that suffer from the effects of white supremacy. I also believe that such a curriculum must be taught throughout the school years, starting at the earliest ages to ensure the lessons are deeply embedded.
Though there have been some apologies made, I feel that there has been little done in acknowledging our society’s actions in the past. The natives were living here first for thousands of years, yet they seem to get little respect. I noticed that in Fairhaven, there is a plaque that apologizes to the Chinese community for the Chinese deadline which was in place in 1898 to 1903. You probably know of this plaque. Former Mayor Dan Pike put it in, in 2011, as a formal apology to the Chinese community.
This made me think, why is there no such thing for the native community?
I believe what was done to them was worse than the Chinese deadline, the native people’s culture was absolutely destroyed! I think they deserve an apology from Whatcom County. It doesn’t have to be big or grand, but something like a plaque would remind our society of what has been done and it will show that we acknowledge previous actions and are sorry for them. It is just a thought, but I believe that it is the right thing to do. —Klara M. Schwarz, Bellingham
Another component of US curriculum must be a program such as Roots of Empathy. This Canadian-born program has now been adopted for pilot study in four US states (California, Washington, New Mexico, New York, and Washington, D.C.), and is used in many nations around the globe. The original purpose of the program was to reduce the incidence of bullying and aggression in schools:
The focus of Roots of Empathy in the long term is to build capacity of the next generation for responsible citizenship and responsive parenting. In the short term, Roots of Empathy focuses on raising levels of empathy, resulting in more respectful and caring relationships and reduced levels of bullying and aggression. Part of our success is the universal nature of the program; all students are positively engaged instead of targeting bullies or aggressive children.17But with little doubt, such a program would have more far-reaching effects. If it were combined with the teaching of US history, including the gross mistreatment of Native and African Americans, perhaps the impact would be even greater.
We can no longer continue living the lie of United States history as it is currently understood in this nation. We must take the next steps in our growth and evolution in order to eliminate the scourge of white supremacy and its racist manifestations from our culture. As Barack Obama says, “It is in our power to do something about it.” Let’s make sure what we do is meaningful.
1. "An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (ReVisioning American History)," Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. Sept. 2014. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press.
2. See also Dunbar-Ortiz, pp. 77-82.
3. "The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism," Edward E. Baptist. 2014. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Basic Books.
4. "The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America," Gerald Horne. 2014. New York and London: New York University Press.
5. “The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism, and White Privilege,” Robert Jensen. 2005. San Francisco: City Light Books. And for a listing of US incursions at home and abroad since 1890, see Zoltan Grossman’s website.
6. See, for example, “Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class,” Ian Haney Lόpez. 2014. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, and “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” Michelle Alexander. 2012. New York, New York: The New Press.
7. “The Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor,” Patricia J. Williams (1991). Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press. Pp. 60-61.
8. “People’s History of the United States,” Howard Zinn. 2001. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
9. “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” Michelle Alexander. 2012. New York, New York: The New Press.
10. “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism,” James Loewen. 2005. New York: Touchstone. See also his website.
11. And see full video of arrest here, which, I believe, corroborates my claim that it is a fabricated charge.
12. “Adolf Hitler: The Definitive Biography,” John Toland. 1991. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. P. 202. Cited in “Hitler’s Inspiration and Guide: The Native American Holocaust” by Lia Mandelbaum. Jewish Journal, June 18, 2013.
13. “Holocaust Education in Germany,” German Information Center. 1998.
14. And Robert Jensen agrees with that analysis. See “The Heart of Whiteness,” pp. 27-44.
15. “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong,” James M. Loewen. 2007. New York: Touchstone.
16. “Since Time Immemorial,” http://www.indian-ed.org/.
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