As we reflect on the week’s Indigenous Peoples gatherings, we should take a moment to consider what happened in the 400 years after enslaved Africans were brought to England’s first permanent colony in Jamestown, Va., in 1619, and how these experiences relate to human rights.
It is no secret that black and indigenous people endured brutal treatment in America. Indigenous peoples—whose land was appropriated throughout an endless succession of Indian Wars—were slaughtered and their remaining communities driven into a fragmented system of reservations. Enslaved Africans were forcibly removed from their homes, transported to new territories, and made to labor in cities, farms, and plantations under constant threat of violence.
The experiences of indigenous and Black people offer a lesson in the construction of institutional racism in the United States, a structure that makes non-White persons “visible” and exposed to violence, yet, if you are Black and Brown, limits access to what is needed to fully participate in society – including affordable housing, healthcare, participation in the democratic process, meaningful opportunities for education and employment, and protection of the law.
How has that structure functioned over time? Here are some important historical markers.
Removal. In the early 1800s, an increasing number of enslaved Africans in the United States made the threat of revolt a possibility. After the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804, many Whites began to seriously consider how to address “the Negro problem.” One alternative was colonization, President Lincoln’s favored approach, which would relocate America’s black population – then over 4 million — to another country. While popular in some sectors, the project was not fiscally or operationally feasible, the way rounding up and deporting America’s undocumented community is not possible today.
Redistribution and Exclusion. In the late 1840s-1850s, a growing White settler population sought greater access to land. The Free Soil political party demanded the free distribution of land taken from indigenous communities to White people; an end to slavery, not on account of empathy for enslaved Blacks, but primarily to bar Black persons from the labor market; and laws that would prevent Blacks from entering certain states, like one passed in Illinois in 1854. During this period, the Fugitive Slave Act, part of the Compromise of 1850 and arguably one of the country’s cruelest laws, compelled law enforcement officials throughout the country to help slaveowners recover their runaway human property and fined persons who helped former slaves escape. This terrifying law prompted 20,000 resettling “free” Black people to flee to Canada.
Violence, Destruction and Displacement. Before, during and In the aftermath of emancipation and reconstruction, Black people were routinely exposed to violence, whether committed in the shadows by lynch mobs or in the open torching of independent black communities like Tulsa, Okla., in 1921, or the massacre in Rosewood, Fla. in 1923. Incidents of assault spiraled during the Great Migration (1915-1970), as blacks tried to leave the South to find work in the North. And when blacks arrived in the North, they encountered restrictive covenants that barred their settlement in White areas, or were often attacked in the streets.
The Law.The best evidence of a structure that disadvantages, criminalizes and excludes Black people is the law itself. The Naturalization Act of 1790 made being “White” the decisive factor in naturalizing as an American citizen until 1952. In the post-Civil War South, various Black Codes targeted Blacks for “crimes” that would otherwise be legal if engaged in by a White person – like withholding one’s labor (criminalized as “vagrancy”) — and swept people into the convict lease system and successor chain gang labor extraction system in states like Georgia and Alabama, which provided cheap labor to farmers and later corporations.
Social and Economic Injustice.Jim Crow segregation created unlivable conditions in Black communities through malign government neglect that, among other things, led to non-existent roads, sewage lines and hospitals, under-developed housing, and education that took place in shack-like conditions. The contours of the modern U.S. welfare state transformed during the Great Depression. The Social Security Act of 1935, which, among other things, provided a modest pension to elders, was a lifeline to aging persons living in poverty. Later the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 set the minimum wage floor and work hour ceiling. However, powerful Southern Democrats in Congress forced a deal to exclude farm and domestic workers—primarily Black occupations—from coverage under these laws, leaving many destitute.
Race-based exclusions, including redlining and denial of credit to Black persons looking to purchase a home or start a business, forced them into buying homes under predatory conditions. Many struggled to make payments but lost their homes. In the same way, Black borrowers were steered into purchasing subprime mortgages before the Recession of 2008.
Why should we study this history? To better understand how our country operates. America’s post-colonial legacy has imposed heavy costs, not just for black people struggling to find a place in this society, but for society as a whole. The fear of racial invasion has been imprinted onto a culture that supports armed patrol by persons of all stripes – police, security guards, soldiers – who use violence with impunity, not to mention a population with access to AR-15 rifles. These conditions have contributed to mass shootings dating from Columbine, Colo., to Odessa, Tex. American culture first normalized violence directed at indigenous and formerly enslaved people, then migrants, now everyone. At the same time, we criminalize, incarcerate, and continue to exclude Black and Brown people from our community. This must change.
We are in a crisis—one requiring commitment to the exchange of information and ideas and affirming the human right of all persons to fully participate in the life of the community.
In service of that goal, The Community Service Society is hosting its second annual three-day conference and arts festival, “Full Participation is a Human Right—Moving Beyond Punishment,” in collaboration with ASALH’s “400 Years of Perseverance,” taking place at the Community Church of New York, located on 40 E. 35thStreet, on October 17-19. We hope you will join us for these important conversations and activities. For more information please go to www.cssny.org
Kimberly Westcott is Associate Counsel at the Community Service Society of New York.