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Thoughts on racism and antiracism in today's world

by TIMOTHY BRAATZ/Contributing Writer
| June 3, 2021 1:00 AM

Why do we categorize people according to skin and facial features? Why judge people by superficial characteristics that tell us nothing about personal character? Where did we get this idea of “race?”

Beginning in the 1400s, Europeans kidnapped people from western Africa to sell as slaves. They claimed that “blacks” were inferior to “whites” and needed salvation. In short, Europeans invented racist categories and ideas to justify racist practices and policies.

For 250 years, whites in North America asserted black “inferiority” to justify slavery. After U.S. slavery was abolished, whites claimed “superiority” to justify another century of racist segregation and violence.

Exactly one hundred years ago — May 31 to June 1, 1921 — a white mob murdered approximately 300 blacks and injured 800 more in Greenwood, a prosperous black neighborhood in Tulsa, Okla. The mob also looted and burned black-owned homes, businesses, churches, and public schools, leaving 10,000 survivors homeless and 35 square city blocks in ruins.

Adjusted for inflation, the Greenwood property damage was equivalent to $200 million today. But insurance companies used technicalities to avoid paying claims. City officials hindered distribution of Red Cross financial aid and rezoned the district to prevent blacks from rebuilding.

Among wealthy nations, the USA is last in upward social mobility. Rich families typically stay rich, poor families stay poor. Thus, there is a direct connection between the massacre and present-day poverty in Tulsa. The wealth of “Negro Wall Street,” as middle-class Greenwood was known, didn’t get passed down to succeeding generations.

In 2001, an Oklahoma state commission recommended creation of economic opportunities in Greenwood, a scholarship fund, and direct payments to survivors of the massacre and their descendants. So far, the Oklahoma legislature and federal courts have rejected such reparations. This doesn’t mean the legislators and judges are racial bigots. However, a legal system that perpetuates racial inequality fits the definition of racism.

During the Second World War, the U.S. government imprisoned 120,000 Japanese Americans, causing them to lose houses, businesses, and farms. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, which paid $20,000 each to over 82,000 of the former prisoners. This attempt to repair racist harm fits the definition of antiracism.

To summarize: Europeans invented race categories to justify racist injustices, and our legal system today sometimes perpetuates those injustices (racism), sometimes corrects them (antiracism). Scholars who like fancy terminology call this sort of analysis “critical race theory.” Basically, it means trying to understand the connection between historical racism and current racial disparities.

Recently, Idaho Lt. Governor Janice McGeachin announced that the state must “protect our young people from the scourge of critical race theory,” which she considers “one of the most significant threats facing our society today.” Rep. Heather Scott has said, “We need to protect our teachers from being forced to teach this garbage of social justice, including critical race theory.”

But they appear to misunderstand critical race theory. McGeachin’s ally on this issue, Rep. Priscilla Giddings, described it as meaning “white people are inherently racist and that our young people should be made to feel guilty for actions they have never committed.” The Idaho legislature just passed a law (H.B. 377) which blames “critical race theory” for causing Idaho schools to teach that one group is “inherently superior or inferior” or that current members of a group “are inherently responsible for actions committed in the past by other members.”

This misinterpretation is dangerous because it is potentially divisive. It gives the false impression that white students today are being blamed and denigrated for past injustices. This may undermine support and appreciation for public school teachers and administrators who, in good faith and with great commitment, serve our communities.

If nothing else, the vagueness of the new law will likely discourage teachers from offering lessons on race and racism. Do Idaho parents really want their children unaware of the historical reasons for current racial disparities?

According to federal statistics from 2019, black families had a median wealth of $24,100, while white families had $188,200. If you know the history of racist policies and practices that prevented black families from acquiring wealth, this wide disparity is easy to understand. Two examples among many: Banks systemically denied loans to black applicants. The Social Security Act (1935) excluded farmworkers, maids, and nannies because these were typical jobs for blacks.

But if you don’t know the history — if your teachers aren’t allowed to clue you in — you might wrongly conclude that people with dark skin typically have far less wealth because they are naturally inferior. Historical ignorance perpetuates racism.

The Boundary County Human Rights Task Force reminds you that no one is morally responsible for things they can’t control, especially events from long ago. But we can all help make our society less racist and more equitable in the present.

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Timothy Braatz is a professor of history and nonviolence and the author of "Peace Lessons."