A Synoptic History of America’s Structural Racism, Part One

One of the things I find most frustrating when trying to discuss the events in Ferguson, the mass incarceration of African Americans, the murder-by-cop of young, black teens and the ongoing and virulent racism that continues to shape this country is people’s ignorance about or unwillingness to recognize the extent to which we are and have long been a country ruled by racist principles.

So if you will, please indulge me in some oversimplified yet illustrative history. I am going to skip over decades of complicated and important history and political maneuverings here, and I promise I will try to present those in my next post.

So let’s begin with the three compromises extracted by the Southern states before they would support the US Constitution, compromises that inscribed slavery in our country’s foundational document: 1) that slavery remain legal while a limit was placed on the importation of additional slaves after 1808; 2) that any slaves who escaped to the north must be returned; and 3) that slaves must be included in the census as three-fifths of a free person for the purposes of taxation and representation.


These compromises had and continue to have serious effects on our nation. The fugitive slave act (enforced through legislation passed in 1793 and 1850) allowed individuals to chase escaped slaves to  into the North and to capture and return them to the south. It also resulted in the illegal kidnapping and return to slavery of thousands of free blacks.

The three-fifths compromise increased the South’s representation in Congress and the Electoral College. In 12 of the first 16 presidential elections, a Southern slave owner won, and extending the slave trade past 1800 likely brought 100,000 more slaves to America. South Carolina alone imported 40,000 slaves between 1803 and 1808 (when Congress voted to end the slave trade). So many slaves entered the country that slavery spilled into the Louisiana territory and took hold; the increased number of slaves also further cemented the political powers of the southern states.

After the end of the Civil War, the rebels of the Southern states, who never truly surrendered, joined together under the banner of the terrorist organization, the Ku Klux Klan, to enforce white supremacy and prevent free African Americans and their white allies from voting or otherwise participating in the democratic process. Add to this the fact that when Lincoln’s running mate, Tennessee Democrat Andrew Johnson whom Lincoln added to the ticket to keep war-weary Democrats from voting for George McClellan, took office following Lincoln’s assassination, he granted amnesty to the same people who had dominated Southern politics before the war and so they did so again, many as members of the KKK.

President Ulysses S Grant loathed the Klan for its murderous tactics and its revival of the secessionist spirit. The Klan seemed bent on provoking a new civil war, yet were nearly impossible to prosecute under existing laws. Grant implored Congress to help him bring the Klan under control, and in April 1871 they approved what was formally referred to as the “Enforcement Act”  but informally dubbed the Ku Klux Klan Act. The act enabled Grant to send federal troops to quash Klan activity in southern states. While many were arrested and Klan terrorist attacks were disrupted, as history shows us, they were not defeated. Not until Lyndon Johnson occupied the White House in the 1960s would another U.S. president seek to protect or push for laws in support of the rights of African Americans.

attacked-by-dogsMany point to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act as the end of Jim Crow era. Certainly, the signs came down from over drinking fountains and restrooms, restaurants and schools are no longer legally segregated, and oh, right, we elected an African American president. But the problems of institutional racism that marked the founding of this country endure, and the murder of Mike Brown, the actions and testimony of officer Darren Wilson, the reactions of law enforcement officers to protesters in Ferguson, and the statements and negligence of St. Louis County District Attorney McCulloch all expose this country’s continuing legacy of racism. In other words, Ferguson is a microcosm of American racism and the inherit privileges of white supremacy.

Oh, you disagree?

Well, first, let’s look at some demographics: two-thirds of Ferguson’s residents are black. Yet, the Mayor is white as are five of the six city council members.  Only 3 of the 53 police officers on the local force are black. A white City Hall produced a white police force in a southern state. If this isn’t disproportionate representation ala the 1860s, what is?

Second, while we don’t knowand will likely never knowexactly what happened in the altercation between Wilson and Brown, what we do know is this:  a white policeman who shot an unarmed black man was exonerated by a St. Louis County grand jury of 9 whites and 3 African Americans; then he went on national television and said he would do the same thing again.

Wilson’s lack of  remorse is not only infuriating, but it also points to a problem that is much bigger than Ferguson: how local police are trained, equipped and expected to shoot if they think of a moment they may lose control of a situation, and to see black men as a threat. Wilson fired 12 shots at an unarmed teenager, a young man only a few feet inches taller the same height as but perhaps some 60 pounds heavier. Yet Wilson told the grand jury that when he tried to grab Brown, “the only way to describe it is that I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.” At one point, he said Brown looked like a “demon.” He also expressed concern that Brown could have possibly killed him with a punch to the face.

fergusonWilson also said that in the last moments before he fired the fatal shot, Brown made “a grunting, like aggravated sound” and charged toward him, through Wilson’s gunfire. He didn’t even slow down, Wilson said, after one of the bullets apparently hit him.

“I’ve never seen anybody look that, for lack of a better word, crazy,” he told detectives. “I’ve never seen that. I mean, it was very aggravated, … aggressive, hostile… You could tell he was looking through you. There was nothing he was seeing.”

That these descriptions echo those of the outraged, out-of-control, menacing, huge, ape-like, dangerous, killer slave, and “giant negro” trope so familiar in the 18th, 19th, 20th and now 21st century America cannot be ignored because across America, victims of police killings disproportionately look like Michael Brown and not like Darren Wilson. In fact, as Mother Jones reported, after examining piles of federal crime data: “Black people were about four times as likely to die in custody or while being arrested than whites.”

Third, the murder of Michael Brown and the Ferguson protests haven’t occurred in a vacuum. Raw Story cited a long list of disparities that factor into the simmering rage that boiled over in Ferguson and now does so across the country:

The black-white disparity in infant mortality has grown since 1950. Whereas 72.9 percent of whites are homeowners, only 43.5 percent of blacks are. Blacks constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million people incarcerated. According to Pew, white median household wealth is $91,405; black median household wealth is $6,446— the gap has tripled over the past 25 years. Since 2007, the black median income has declined 15.8 percent. In contrast, Hispanics’ median income declined 11.8 percent, Asians’ 7.7 percent and whites’ 6.3 percent.

These numbers speak volumes.

Fourth, too many in white America just don’t get it. While most Americans understand that racism is wrong, too many white people fail to see the more subtle forms of racial prejudice that are more readily apparent to blacks and other non-whites. They don’t get that when Stephen Colbert says he “doesn’t see color,” he’s pointing out the absurdity of those claims. That we don’t get the joke is evidence of the insidious nature of racism; it is so embedded in American society that few who are not subject to its profound alienation and discrimination can even acknowledge it exists.

I’ve barely touched the surface, but a serious reading of this country’s history demonstrates that black lives have long been treated as less valuable than white lives, and when we fail to acknowledge the disparities in health, wealth, education, incarceration – or to see them as a problem — we’re exacerbating the problem.

The murder of Michael Brown by a white police officer in a southern state has exposed a number of ugly truths about how American society treats and has long treated people of color. Sure, some things have changed, but many more haven’t; we must continue to acknowledge and name white supremacy if we hope to further address the burdens it places on us all.

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2 Responses to A Synoptic History of America’s Structural Racism, Part One

  1. Doc says:

    Huzzah! I look forward to future installments.

  2. Katherine H says:

    I know I’m not saying anything you don’t already know, Doc. But I find putting all together helps me think through a number of things.

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