Unraveling the United States’ history of systemic racism and the plague of white supremacy leading up to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Rabat – The Black Lives Matter movement is a prime example of history repeating itself. The protests against systemic racism, police brutality, and injustices faced by Black people in the United States have repeatedly rebranded themselves, only to realign their calls for equality with modern times.
In 2020, the US is once again gripped by protesters advocating for an end to the same discrimination and threats that Black people have been forced to deal with daily throughout history.
Despite more than 400 years of the country’s blatant acts of racism, reinforcing the misconceived notion that Black lives matter less, many have chosen to cling warily to their well-preserved reliance upon the institutions set up to serve and protect the States.
Those unwilling to steep themselves in a more honest approach to understanding the system, have honed in on the civil disobedience or disruptive movements trailing in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death.
After law enforcement officers in Minnesota killed Floyd, a Black man, on May 25 for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill at a convenience store, the city of Minneaopolis went up in flames as pain stricken protesters demanded long overdue justice for the countless lives lost to a racially biased criminal justice system.
The uprising has spread across the country and stretched beyond its borders in hopes that this time might be the last.
While it seems that few people are promoting the looting, destruction, and violence spread across the nation, many have noted that the damage done is hardly comparable to the seemingly endless suffering endured by Black people in the United States.
Although many argue that the overwhelmingly evident examples of racism and inequality that shaped the US are from a past long-ago, the truth is that they are not. Racism remains steeped in the systems and minds of governance and society today.
The United States built itself on the premise of racism and inequality
Racism and inequality have plagued the US since European settlers stepped foot in the Americas in the late 1400s and began colonizing the now-United States. White men passed on life-threatening diseases to Native American communities, robbing them of their land, languages, culture, spirituality, and lives. These men referred to people of a different color than themselves as “savages,” among other dehumanizing identifiers.
Colonizers forcibly removed Native American children from their families and taught them European-Christian beliefs and banned them from speaking their native tongues. The outwardly systematic destruction of culture and language was ongoing until the 1970s. Now, it remains in the more subtle forms of environmental racism and lack of social services, and engrained in the imagination of the oppressor.
Meanwhile, thousands of Africans were kidnapped and brought to the US as slaves. Records indicate that the human trafficking movement into the Americas began as early as the 1500s.
While the US was still considered part of the British colonies, in 1641, it recognized slavery as a legal practice. Historians estimate that six to seven million Africans were enslaved and transported to the US during the 18th century alone, setting the stage for a future devastated by institutionalized racism and segregation. Hundreds of years living under the bonds of slavery rooted and prepetuated hardship.
African Americans have only been freed from slavery for 155 years, just a few generations
From 1861-1865 the US divided itself in a civil war, stemming from the long-standing controversy of enslaving Black people. The US constitutional 13th amendment abolished slavery in 1865, but left a lasting legacy of oppression and intolerance still evident today.
Despite being legally freed from slavery, African Americans remained shackled under laws of segregation. In 1896 the Supreme Court ruled that racially segregated places were legal, as long as they were “equal.” Housing, medical care, transportation, education, employment, bathrooms, and even water fountains were divided along racial lines. Social services, education, and basic freedoms and rights were anything but equal moving forward.
Dangerous white supremicist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) formed, striking fear in non-white people through intimidation, hatred, and violence. At its peak in the 1920s, the KKK counted over four million members. While the group has significantly diminished, membership still remains in the thousands and the government has not recognized it as a terrorist organization.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s annual “Year in Hate and Extremism” report, the KKK is seeing a continuous decrease in membership. However, hate groups throughout the nation have increased at least 7% since 2017, totalling 1,020 in 2019. Some attribute the rise to President Donald Trump’s prejudiced political platform and radical leadership.
One example of the lasting damage done by hateful white people during this time is the Tulsa race massacre. In 1921 mobs of white people rampaged black neighborhoods in Oklahoma. Approximately 10,000 people were left homeless. It was not until 75 years later that efforts were made to break the silence of the sustained damage that was done to the community.
Maintaining inequality under the system
On the basis of color, Black Americans were, and still are, ruthlessly targeted and faced with embodying concerns over what the power of hate and racism could bestow upon them.
Jim Crow laws further strengthened the separation between Blacks and whites, restricting white and Black people from meeting and barring the Black population from freedom and opportunities. Although these laws were repealed in 1964 and 1965, the systems remained entrenched with racism under legislative masquerades.
“Our understanding of racism is therefore shaped by the most extreme expressions of individual bigotry, not by the way in which it functions naturally, almost invisibly (and sometimes with genuine benign intent), when it’s embedded in the structure of a social system,” writes civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander in her book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”
The New Jim Crow laws reference the stark disparity of Black people and white people under a punitive justice system. According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Black Americans are incarcerated at five times the rate of white Americans. Despite using drugs at similar rates, Black people face drug charges six times that of whites.
While the 15th amendment made it illegal for states to refuse citizens the right to vote on the basis of race, it permitted states to determine qualifications for suffrage. Southern state legislatures enacted poll taxes and took advantage of anti-literacy laws that criminalized a Black person reading and writing between 1740 and 1847.
Voting was not the only challenge endured through anti-literacy laws. When it became legal for Black Americans to own property, many were unable to produce the proper documentation necessary to obtain land and ensure that it was passed down within their family. Property ownership is considered one of the most profitable and promising ways to accumulate immediate and intergenerational wealth.
Over the years, the US has dealt its cards accordingly to address disproportionate rights and restrictions faced by Black people and make legislative attempts to reconcile the States’ wrong-doings. Their strategies, however, are too-often revealed as sleight-of-hand or unequivocal moves that give white people the upper hand.
After all, the capitalist system that the country prides itself on is dependent upon strategically positioning the 99% and maintaining a seriously marginalized lower-class. With Black people already handicapped by America’s history, sustaining the ranks has been the simplest way for the US to uphold its forged democracy.
The civil rights movement: A prequel to today’s uprising
Similar to the protests that are sweeping across the US today, the civil rights movement was a call for justice against the immeasurable violations of human rights that black Americans had been subject to for years.
Starting in the 1940s, civil rights movement leaders organized to demand an end to segregation laws and discrmination permitted under the doctrine “separate but equal.”
In 1954, around the time that many of today’s protesters’ grandparents were in school, the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling effectively ended segregation in schools. Ruby Bridges, 65 years old today and at the frontlines of civil rights activism, was six years old when she became the first African American child to enroll in an all white school in the South.
Violent protests marked Bridges’ first day of school and only one teacher agreed to allow the student in her class. White parents pulled their children out of the teacher’s class and left Bridges to learn alone in the classroom with teacher Barbara Henry for an entire year.
Around this time, the world took notice as a 14-year-old black boy from Chicago, Emmett Till, was brutally murdered for allegedly flirting with a white woman. The judiciary acquitted his murderers.
Months following, Rosa Parks sparked the year-long Montgomery Bus Boycott after refusing to give up her seat to a white man on an Alabama bus. The act of civil disobedience sparked outrage, leading bus companies to collapse and forcing the US government to step in.
It was not until 1957 that President Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act into law and allowed for federal prosecution of those who suppress another’s right to vote, but many states continued to bar those without literacy skills.
Black and white activists began challenging segregated bus terminals, restrooms, and lunch counters in the early 1960s. In 1963, approximately 250,000 took part in the March on Washington and witnessed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. present his momentous “I Have a Dream” speech, declaring that all men are created equal.
Black churches were targeted with bombs and activists worked tirelessly to get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, preventing employment discrimination based on race, sex, religion, or national origin (a law that the country has struggled to uphold to this day).
Two years later, 600 civil rights protesters marched peacefully for an end to voter suppression when police blocked and brutally attacked them. Later that year, after continuous protesting, their efforts paid off when President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Act prevented the use of a literacy test as a voting requirement.
Despite the years of admirable leadership, Martin Luther King Jr. and other critical leaders, role modeling a peaceful fight for justice were assassinated, and systematic forms of discrimination continued to plague the nation. Had they not been killed, they might still be alive today.
The movements continued on…
In response to the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., who was killed outside of his hotel room in 1968, American cities rose up in riots, causing nearly $50 million in damage — much like the riots triggered by Floyd’s death. On the sixth day of the riots, congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968.
Also known as the Fair Housing Act of 1968, the legislation prohibited discrimination on the sale or rental of property based on race, religion, national origin, or sex. However, to this day, Black American home ownership significantly lags behind white Americans. Since 2004, home ownership levels for Black people have dropped nearly every year, falling 43% in 2017.
The Black Power movement in the late 1960s into the 70s was a time for self-definition and self-defense. It was a time when Black women were also making a name for themselves after decades of struggling to be heard.
“All our silences in the face of racist assault are acts of complicity,” wrote Gloria Jean Watkins, otherwise known as Bell Hooks, a Black American scholar who published multiple books on the perspectives and development of Black feminist identities. White allies seeking to acknowledge the volume and violence of their silence are echoing her words loudly today.
Blatant forms of oppression ruled by white supremacists and engrained in the psyches of society, added to years of fighting for justice were anything but conducive to Black Americans’ outlook and upward mobility on the socioeconomic ladder.
As the Black population made strenuous efforts to run America’s race in capitalism, an economic and political system that reeks of institutionalized biases, they faced unfair barriers in making their voices heard.
During this time, the Black Panthers formed as a revolutionary organization with Marxist ideologies that among other civil liberties, calling for an immediate end to police brutality.
White resistance against Black persistence
From the 1950s into the 1970s, COINTELPRO (the US Counterintelligence Program conducted by the FBI), used covert and extralegal means to discredit, criminalize, and derail political movements such as the Black Panthers and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Police harassment, intense surveillance, and organizational infiltration were among the many tactics used to carefully craft an image of the Black Power that was allegedly violent and threatening to law and order.
It was not until 1971 when a group of activists burglarized an FBI field office in Pennsylvania, stole confidential files, and released them to the press, that the government-led programs were exposed. Scores of documents remain unreleased and heavily censored.
In the 1990s, film began to capture police shootings and violence, sparking the 1992 4-day riots.
By this time, there was a growing confidence in the deliberate nature of disproportionate cases of Blacks being locked up in prisons for petty crimes and drugs-related charges. Despite ongoing trust in the judicial system, it is difficult not to question the ways in which Black Americans have received longer, harsher sentences for the same crimes as white Americans.
Incarceration rates are not the only statistics to sound alarm. To this day, there are appalling disparities between the number of white students enrolled in college and the number of Black students, a disparity reversed in enrollment at for-profit institutions. Even high school graduation numbers are far from centered. In Chicago, nearly one-third of all Black high school students enrolled in the city’s public school system drop out.
The Black Lives Matter movement
The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter first appeared on social media in 2013. The term was coined by organizer Alicia Garza in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s (a 17-year-old Black teenager) murderer, George Zimmerman (a 28-year-old man of mixed race).
Non-Black people have frequently retorted “All Lives Matter,” seeking to “equalize” their worth of living. Unfortunately, their perhaps well-meaning rhetoric has mistaken the cause. Pleas for understanding are continuing to form over social media and through creative art works.
“All lives DO matter” has been stressed and validated by activists and allies. Many are making an attempt to break down the need for particular attention to be brought to the dangers faced by Black people, who are continuing to add names to the list of Black lives taken by police officers without reason.
While legislation may no longer directly deny Black people of their rights, the systems of injustice and prejudices remain and law enforcement officials have continued crafting ways to steal away their freedoms.
Cities in the US are distinctly mapped by race, leaving minority groups to shoulder the weight of housing disparities and unequal access to transportation, jobs, or even to basic resources such as food and water.
Since the 1930s, years before desegregation laws took effect and a time when gaining economic advantage as a Black person was as trying as ever, poor people were strategically placed in public housing units, a social service that remains widespread today.
Although public housing helps families to afford modest living and avoid homelessness, the neighborhoods that hosted these developments cast stigmas around the communities and deemed them to be “dysfunctional” and “damaging to local businesses and neighborhood property values.”
As a result, numerous housing units have been razed, displacing these communities and often challenging their ability to sustain jobs and receive social services. Gentrification is rampant across the country and rent control is rarely addressed in the places where it is needed the most.
In neighborhoods where poverty is prevalent and the majority of residents are non-white, authorities and media have largely swept excessive and manipulative police force under the rug.
In 2018, two police districts collaborated to stage bait trucks in Chicago’s Southside Englewood neighborhood. Authorities planted an open truck full of Nike shoes, unattended, in hopes of “attracting criminals.” According to the census, Englewood is made up of 95% Black residents and at least half are living below the poverty line.
The set-up is nothing new. In recent years, police have been caught on film planting drugs in Black people’s cars or explicitly training young officers to find or fabricate a reason to harass Black people in the streets.
Not unlike the Native Americans, Black people have been stripped of their vernacular languages and made to believe that their ways of communicating, culture, and even hairstyles fall under the categories uneducated, unprofessional, or inappropriate. White people have successfully maintained a status quo by powerfully obstructing a way of life and exhibiting ethnocentric ideals that flood the compounds of the country’s institutions, from early childhood education to the entertainment industry and everything in between.
When convenient, white Americans and non-Black people of color have appropriated aspects of Black culture, deeming them acceptable and honoring them. Music, dance, athletics, and foods popularized by Black communities have served as broken bridges, allowing Black people and Black culture to be exceptionalized rather than included.
Black individuals who have excelled in school, sports, or any other area in society are often subject to microaggressions, or subtle but prevalent forms of discrimination.
In a recent newsletter, Caitlyn Gibson, a white writer from the Midwest, responded to the Black Lives Matter movement by sharing a confession: “I grew up in white suburbia where the few black classmates I had were deemed “not actually black.” My white peers and I subjected them to this language in order to reconcile our experience of them with what we thought of as blackness in America. Instead of admitting the error in our thinking, we just retrofitted our classmates so that they wouldn’t disturb our comfortable worldview.”
The need for co-conspirator support in abolishing systemic injustice
Today’s uprisings are a call for reconciliation and equality in a country that has dismissed the desperate need for longer, deeper, and tougher conversations required to move beyond the damage done by generations of prejudiced and hateful biases.
For years, we have seen movements demanding justice on similar issues to what we see today. Media and observers have time and time again played Black and allied voices on repeat. This messaging has both marked important moments throughout the United States’ history and at the same time whitewashed the embeddedness of unconscious racism, normalizing the everyday systems and injustices that perpetuate it.
Advocates for justice are asking for accountability and reform, citing the problems of injecting hefty budgets into law enforcement while regularly defunding education, art, and social services programming that are proven to be more effective than patrolling communities with guns and excessive force as a need for bold structural change.
The Black Lives Matter movement has evolved to demand more than an end to the horrors of police brutality and apparent racism. It has triggered many to acknowledge their inherited prejudices and identify this problem as one that non-Black people need to address. The massive movement is saying that it is time to move beyond allyship and actively co-conspire to abolish the systems that have been wrongly trusted for so long, in search of absolute equality and a shift in the imaginations and thought processes of people around the world.
Dwayne Reed, a high school teacher in Chicago explained this well when he said, “White supremacy won’t die until White people see it as a White issue they need to solve rather than a Black issue they need to empathize with.”