Slavery ended nearly 150 years ago. It’s over. Nothing left to see here. Except that it’s Black History Month, and those damnable minorities and their liberal allies keep bringing up the past, reminding everyone of that darkest blemish on American history. The only times you hear conservatives talking about it are to revise history as politicians like Ron Paul have been doing by mainstreaming the belief that the Civil War was not primarily fought over slavery. There is no acknowledgement from conservatives that slavery and its aftermath had any consequences that can be observed today. They continue to argue that everyone has an equal chance of success on an equal playing field. While a disproportionately high number of African Americans remain in deep poverty, conservatives bend over backwards to blame them for their circumstances.
With the way that generations overlap, there are living African Americans who have heard their great-grandparents tell stories of their relatives’ firsthand experiences surviving slavery. During the Great Depression, firsthand accounts by slaves were collected for those who are interested to hear them personally. What kinds of stories would be most relevant to the social circumstances of African Americans today? Certainly, there was the commonplace policy of purposely breaking up families for over 240 years. Ever since the Moynihan Report first identified the struggles of the black family, conservatives have been quick to pounce and attribute the high percentage of single parent families to their moral laxity. They are chronically unable to acknowledge that a systemic decimation of families perpetrated by white people plays a significant role in the instability of male-female relationships to this day. We have no precedent for the recovery time required to overcome this type of assault on a fundamental societal institution.
Speaking of recovery time, it’s been approximately seven generations since formal slavery ended. But that’s not the whole story; this month on February 13th, PBS will be airing the documentary, Slavery by Another Name, based on the book by Douglas Blackmon of The Wall Street Journal. This documentary will focus on the period from 1865 to World War II when African Americans experienced neo-slavery, a time of legal discrimination, widespread and brutal violence, and rampant criminalization. For example, “black codes,” or laws that were written to arrest and confine African Americans for crimes such as “vagrancy,” resulted in forced labor camps with conditions indistinguishable from slavery. Of note, a black man could be arrested for vagrancy for not having a job in a community that refused to employ him. As Blackmon states,
“African Americans know this story in their hearts…and so people come up to me and say, ‘Gosh the story that my grandmother used to tell…I never believed it because she would describe that she was still a slave in Georgia after WWII or just before, and it never made sense to me, and now it does’…These are things that connect directly to the lives of people and the shape and pattern and structure of our society today.”
But surely, these Jim Crow practices were only the curse of the South. Things were better for African Americans in the North, right? For historical guidance on the realities of life up north, James Loewen’s book, Sundown Towns, named after the practice of warning African Americans to leave town before the sun went down or face certain violence, is telling. His portrayal of life in the North shows that opportunities for economic or social advancement were extremely limited there as well. (To see if your town used to be a Sundown Town, see his database).
With the addition of two more decades of violence, segregation, legalized discrimination, and disenfranchisement, the systemic oppression of African Americans continued right up to the Civil Rights Act of 1965. Remarkably, right wing politicians like Ron Paul, and his son Rand, have claimed that the legislation was unnecessary. It is only since the Civil Rights Act of 1965 that African Americans have made significant, even extraordinary progress, toward gaining the kinds of freedoms originally stripped from them: an entire race prevented from accumulating resources for centuries only to have mere decades to recover. Yet, it is customary for conservatives to dismiss this reality with a quick reference to how long ago slavery ended. For a group that claims to know the value of family, conservatives have a stunning blind spot when it comes to the value of family wealth and its passage between generations.
The notion that everyone has an equal chance of success assumes that individuals are born into equal circumstances, or failing that, that society has mechanisms to adjust for the inequities that arise from differences in social status. Conservatives assume that a child coming from an upper class background, private schools, and enriched summers of camps and vacations will have no upper-hand on the child from a lower class background receiving an education based on rote testing in public schools whose daily stressors have been shown to even cause brain damage.
It is a daily occurrence to see the media haranguing the poor for their circumstances. Recently, the Washington Post published James Q. Wilson’s essay about how the poor actually have better circumstances than they should, what with having telephones and a TV. He also writes about the high rate of single parenthood in the black community with the typical conservative lack of comprehension about how the issue began or how strained economics discourages marriage. In the past week, David Brooks has dedicated his New York Times column to a new book by eugenics-loving Charles Murray (co-author of The Bell Curve), in which Murray argues that inequality is based on the bad behavior of the lower classes. Murray is careful to say he talking about class within whites, but given his track record it is not hard to interpret who he is targeting. In his adoration of Murray’s book, Brooks goes so far as to call the upper and lower classes, “tribes,” and extols the virtues of the well-behaved upper class while chiding the lower class for their marriage patterns, television viewing habits, and obesity.
All told, the legacy of slavery and discrimination has continued in various forms until today. The right wing’s inability to realistically grapple with this era of American history or its aftermath affects national rhetoric and our social policy on a daily basis. Whether it is opposition to affirmative action or Rick Santorum’s comments on how to make black peoples’ lives better, conservatives will deny that there is anything different in the lives of African Americans when compared to white people. Some will contradict what historians and other experts have repeatedly shown about the causes of the Civil War. All in all, despite being the shortest month of the year, conservatives seem to find Black History Month the longest and the hardest to understand.
Deborah is a former social work professor who taught social policy, mental health policy, and human diversity. Proud to be called liberal, she happily pays her taxes after being raised in a home that needed long-term welfare. Contrary to the opinion of many, she is living proof that government investment in children leads them out of poverty having received services from Head Start to Pell Grants. Deborah works with low-income, first generation, and disabled college students who are at high-risk for dropping out of college in a program designed to help them graduate. She lives with her husband, stepson, and an aging cat.