This post was written on Emlyn Pearce’s Facebook page. It deals with slavery in America and the after effects thereof, particularly given the execution style shootings in the last couple of days of two Black men by the Police Force.
ATTENTION WHITE PEOPLE: WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT SLAVERY
#AltonSterling and #PhilandoCastile: two more names, two more hashtags, two more markers for lives ended by the very police officers who were employed to protect them. The only new thing about these murders is the way that we found out about them, but these sort of lynchings were going on long before Facebook Live, and long before every American adult had a video camera in their pocket.
America’s slow-burning civil war – now including the brutal murders of five more human beings in Dallas – will continue until something fundamental shifts in American culture, because racism is not something that can be rooted out by laws or placards. It must be dug out at its root, in our minds and our earliest experiences.
And that’s why we, as white people, need to confront a disease that still ravages our society: the mentality of the slave owner.
In 2014 the podcast ‘This American Life’ produced a piece on school discipline in America (‘Is This Working?’ http://m.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archi…/…/is-this-working ). The episode features the immensely detailed data collected by the state of Texas on over a million school children: everything from whether they had switched schools, to whether they had been suspended, and if so, why. Crucially, the data includes information on race.
If I had been asked to guess what this data would show about the relationship between race and being suspended from school, I would have guessed that, due to greater levels of poverty and stress, African American children would be more likely to bring weapons to school, or get into fights, or hit a teacher, and would be more likely to be suspended as a result. That is my own racism showing through: the assumption that black kids will be more badly behaved because of all the added burdens that come with being black.
But what the data shows is even more horrifying than that: black kids were getting suspended for entirely different misdemeanours from their white peers. While white kids were being suspended for serious acts like violence, black kids were more likely to be suspended for infractions like insubordination, disrespect and wilful defiance.
In other words, unlike white kids, BLACK KIDS WERE BEING SUSPENDED FOR NOT DOING WHAT THEY WERE TOLD. If that doesn’t make a nasty cold chill run down your spine, it really, really should.
All in all, black kids were more than twice as likely to be suspended for a first offence, and 83% of black males were suspended at least once before high school graduation. From there, the domino effect gains momentum: black kids are more likely to underachieve, less likely to graduate, more likely to end up in prison. The data from Texas provides rare statistical proof for a trend that has long been anecdotally reported: the system and standards set out for African Americans are stacked against them virtually from birth. While white children are allowed to be independent and rebellious, to push boundaries and challenge authority, black children are expected to be pliable and submissive from their first day at kindergarten. The more they react against white authority, the more harshly they are punished.
The data from Texas casts a very worrying light on the murders of men like Walter Scott, shot in the back by a white police officer, and Eric Garner, choked to death by police officers in New York. These murders are not about officers fearing for their lives, they are about white police officers losing their tempers with disobedient black men. They are examples of a deeply-instilled assumption that a black person should do what a white person tells them to do, and that a black person’s body belongs not to him or herself, but to any white person who happens to be passing by. These murders are evidence that while the law books might have banned slavery, the slaveowner mentality that created and facilitated it for 250 years still echoes through our society, and it still destroys lives on a daily basis. And we, as white people, have done almost nothing to tackle it.
The best analogy for examining cultural change is language. Language is the part of culture that we use most conspicuously and most frequently: day after day, over years and decades, our language changes almost imperceptibly. New words arrive and old words leave without leaving a trace; language, like other aspects of culture, seems to have an impetus and an energy all of its own. Without determined efforts, like those enacted to promote French by the Académie française, language will move in an organic and uncontrolled way.
Pick up a book from 1865, the year that slavery was abolished in America, and you will notice that the language has changed markedly: the vocabulary is different, some elements of syntax have simplified, the cadences might be longer, the tone perhaps stiffer and more formal. And yet, in the 21st century we still unmistakably speak the same English language as they did in the 19th century: written from left to write, in the same alphabet, with grammatical rules that are broadly the same.
Like language, our attitude to race has changed since 1865 – but it is still recognisably the same at its core. The slaveowner mentality is there every time we dehumanise black people by saying that a European city is ‘bustling’ but an African one is ‘teeming’ (an actual example from BBC news a few months ago); every time people of colour ‘swarm’; every time a black person is described as ‘dignified’, as if dignity is not the default state for black people.
Part of the slavery mentality dictates that labour should be performed by black people. But the work of ending racism is white people’s work: racism is a problem FOR black people but a problem OF white people. Its solution lies in the way that we teach our children, the action we take in confronting racism when we see it, and in tirelessly questioning and examining our own attitudes and behaviour.
We all come from a racist past, and there is much work to be done to ensure we don’t build a racist future. We owe it to the decent black men who have died of the sickness of slave-owner mentality that white society still carries. People of African descent are deeply hurt by these murders; until those of us who constitute white society can recognise the full humanity of our black brothers and sisters, we have no claim on being fully human ourselves.
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