Being African-American in America means knowing the country was not made for you. I mean this literally, not figuratively: The country was founded with the explicit legal mandate that in America, black people count as three fifths of one person. You learn that countrymen, brothers, and fathers of slaves fought and died to keep black people in chains. When legal slavery ended, a system of “justice,” which was often barbaric, was instituted to reinforce an order that had created extraordinary wealth (via free labor and exploitation), comfort, and prosperity, all of which benefited the nation as a whole.
You learn that for another 100 years black people were, according to law, second-class citizens in an apartheid state. Other highlights of those decades include the addition of most of the western United States, two world wars (which black Americans fought in), skyscrapers, the Great Depression, the eradication of polio in the U.S., and a Moon landing. Meanwhile, in other American communities little girls were escorted by police into schools while grown men lobbed objects at their heads, and churches were bombed, and four little girls died, and their mothers were told to remain calm and peaceful, and their communities were encouraged to do the same.
The psychological impact of those actions on the white “community” has never been discussed in popular American discourse, and the history of racism in America is now considered a “black” issue. In other countries where a government and/or its citizens are guilty of atrocities, there are often explicit exercises meant to confront the behaviors of all parties. The U.S. has never done that.
You are taught that nonviolent protests were the correct weapon in the fight for civil rights. You are told that it is the people who stood still while police released dogs who are the reason laws exist that acknowledge your humanity. You are taught that things got better after 1964 because the Civil Rights Act was signed in Washington, D.C. Black people were discouraged from complaining, from protesting, from asking questions after that, because now there was a law that said racism under the law was finished, and that was a huge win.
The economics of centuries of legal oppression, specifically in the area of property ownership, has had a dramatic impact on poor people in America generally, and on African Americans even more disproportionately. There is not 300, 200, or even 25 years of solid economic foundation for African Americans to stand on. While new immigrants to the U.S. were met with hostility, many would eventually gain access to property that black people often didn’t have access to until and even after the 1968 Fair Housing Act.
In America property means prosperity, which is why the U.S. Constitution so explicitly protects it (and why the housing bubble and the Great Recession are mostly synonymous). One of the most dehumanizing things you can do to a person is deny them access to the fruits of their labor, which is what America did by law up until 1964. The interpretation of the laws was left up to the same people in the states who were raised on the belief of white supremacy (justifiably, and in accordance with American law). So in today’s post-civil-rights-movement America you learn to fear the police because only white Americans get the benefit of the doubt; without that you are left with police who can act as judge, jury, and executioner.
This is what goes on in America. A cycle of rhetoric, bureaucracy, and legislation most citizens never read continues while deep-rooted fears, stereotypes, and biases keep people oppressed and the country chronically unstable.
I don’t know how America will handle this. Our history says that when there is agitation, we sometimes get new legislation, but it’s always for the sake of calming things down, never for addressing the heart of the issue. That is why #BlackLivesMatter works as a slogan. It is simple, obvious, and a slap in the face all at the same time, because in America those three words are political rather than simply true.
The best way I can explain my own sense of responsibility for what is happening now and the relationship to the ghosts of our past is with these words from James Baldwin:
“I know you didn’t do it, and I didn’t do it either, but I am responsible for it because I am a man and a citizen of this country and you are responsible for it, too, for the very same reason….”
Or, in the words of my mother, “I’m not worried about what they did. I’m worried about what you will do.”