Saturday, June 06, 2009
Earl Ofari Hutchinson
President Obama spoke forcefully, passionately and correctly at the Buchenwald death camp on the evil of the Holocaust. He implored nations to confront those who would deny its horror. Obama should do the same about the evil of slavery. There are two arguments against him doing that though. Then Presidential candidate Obama raised one on the couple of occasions when he was asked about reparations. He tersely said that the best way to address racial disparities is to provide more resources and programs for education, employment and health care. Blacks would be the greatest beneficiaries.
The other argument is that slavery ended nearly a century and a half ago. The obliteration of legal segregation, oceans of civil rights laws, voting rights, affirmative action programs, Oprah, Colin Powell, Eric Holder, Tiger Woods, and of course, Obama, and a big, prosperous black middle class, have erased the stain of slavery. Neither argument will wash.
Two years ago Virginia apologized for slavery. The apology was not just a matter of doing the morally right thing. The U.S. government, not just a handful of evil Southern planters encoded slavery in the Constitution, and protected and nourished it for a century. Traders, insurance companies, bankers, shippers, and landowners, made billions off of it. Their ill-gotten profits fueled America's industrial and agricultural might. For decades after slavery's end, white trade unions excluded blacks and confined them to the dirtiest, poorest paying jobs.
Though many white and non-white immigrants came to America after the Civil War, they were not subjected to the decades of relentless racial terror and legal segregation as were blacks. Through the decades of slavery and Jim Crow segregation, African-Americans were transformed into the poster group for racial deviancy. The image of blacks as lazy, crime and violence prone, irresponsible, and sexual predators has stoked white fears and hostility and served as the standard rationale for more than 4,000 documented lynchings, as well as the countless racial assaults, and acts of hate crime violence.
Many blacks earn more and live better than ever today, and have gotten boosts from welfare, social and education programs, civil rights legislation, and affirmative action programs. But that does not mean that America has shaken the hideous legacy of slavery. The Urban League in its annual State of Black America reports finds that young blacks are far likelier than whites to be imprisoned, serve longer terms, and are more likely to receive the death penalty even when their crimes are similar.
Blacks continue to have the highest rates of poverty, infant mortality, violence victimization rates, and health care disparities than any other group in America. They are still more likely to live in segregated neighborhoods, be refused business and home loans, their children attend failed public schools than any other group, and are more likely to be racially profiled on America's urban streets.
There is nothing new about state and federal governments issuing apologies and even payments for past wrongs committed against African-Americans. The U.S. government admitted it was legally liable in 1997 to pay the black survivors and family members of the two-decade long syphilis experiment begun in the 1930's by the U.S. Public Health Service that turned black patients into human guinea pigs. The survivors got $10 million from the government and an apology from President Clinton They were the victims of a blatant medical atrocity conducted with the full knowledge and approval of the U.S. government.
The state legislature in Florida in 1994 agreed to make payments to the survivors and relatives of those who lost their lives and property when a white mob destroyed the all-black town of Rosewood in 1923. This was a specific act of mob carnage that was tacitly condoned by some public officials and law enforcement officers. Florida was liable for the violence and was duty bound to apologize and pay. The Oklahoma state legislature has agreed at least in principle that reparations and apology should be made to the survivors of the dozens of blacks killed, and the hundreds more that had their homes and businesses destroyed by white mobs with the complicity of law enforcement in the Tulsa massacre of 1921. A bill by Michigan Congressman John Conyers has has kicked around Congress since 1989 would establish a commission to study the impact of slavery and the feasibility of paying reparations to blacks.
The brutal truth is that the mainstay of America's continuing racial divide is its harsh and continuing mistreatment of poor blacks. This can be directly traced to the persistent and pernicious legacy of slavery. Nearly a century and a half later, that legacy is still very much alive and well.
President Obama condemned the monstrosity of the Holocaust six decades after it ended. In doing that he recognized that there’s no time frame or statue of limitations on evil. It can still affect generations that were born years after the horror officially ended. There’s nothing wrong with recognizing the same about slavery.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His weekly radio show, “The Hutchinson Report” can be heard on weekly in Los Angeles Fridays on KTYM Radio 1460 AM and live streamed nationally on ktym.com