By Brian Wojtalewicz.
Originally published in The Appleton Press on March 11, 2014.
Anyone who has thought: “Why don’t those black people get over it?” really needs to see 12 Years A Slave, the excellent movie that just won the Academy Award for Best Picture. What the film cannot convey is the incredible number of human beings who endured such misery and murder over the hundreds of years of European occupation of this continent. Slavery was a key institution, used to build this country, for 240 years, from 1619 to 1865. A majority of the European occupation of the continent has been hallmarked by slavery, because it was outlawed only in 1865, about 150 years ago.
Lest you think that slavery was abolished in 1865 at the end of our Civil War, read the book Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of [Black] Americans from the Civil War to WWII, which describes the convict lease system established by white governments and corporations after the Civil War. Black people were routinely grabbed by police and deputies off the streets, roads and fields, charged with vagrancy, and sentenced to “work” not just in ditches and public grounds, but private farms and factories. Physical resistance was met with beatings, murder or ridiculously heavy sentences to prisons, where they were also forced to work for zero wages in nearby farm fields.
The convict form of slavery finally broke down with WWII. Yet racism is alive and well in the minds of millions of white Americans. Code phrases like “Welfare queens” and “food stamp president” and “lazy ______ laying around collecting my tax money” come with visualization, in the brains of millions of white Americans, of black or brown men. Recent manifestations are the racist diatribes on Facebook in western Minnesota against African immigrants.
I know the reaction of many will be “Oh, how can you say we or he is racist? He’s one of the kindest, most wonderful parents. He’d go out of his way to help even a stranger. I’ve seen it.” The problem is that all of this can be true, but it doesn’t mean grandpa, dad, mom or your brother isn’t racist. Racism lies in the belief that a whole set of people are lesser human beings, not as good as you, or “us” because of their skin color.
The ironic reality of our America is that Right Wing politicians have used racism and its fears to win elections, and then economically exploit 99% of those white people who voted for them. As explained in another good, recent book, The Dog Whistle Politics of Race, by Ian Haney Lopez, it hasn’t been just politicians like George Wallace in the deep south, but Ronald Reagan through Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul who have trumpeted the racist code phrases, gotten elected, and then pushed laws that have caused a gigantic transfer of wealth from 99% of Americans to 1%. I feel that millions of racist fools will never wake up to this reality.