We could improve overall health if we would address economic and racial inequality. That is the message of new documentary, “Unnatural Causes,” directed by Larry Adelman, and airing beginning tonight on PBS stations throughout the U.S. This short post is just a programming alert for those interested in viewing, recording or teaching about the series. I’ll be back after it airs with a post or two about individual episodes. You can check your local listings here.
Interestingly, I have already been interviewed twice in the last two days about the Florida House and Senate’s bold move to pass an official apology for black slavery. As described by the Southern Florida Sun-Sentinel:
In a watershed moment in Florida’s race relations, a solemn state Legislature on Wednesday apologized for the Florida’s long history of slavery, expressing “profound regret for the shameful chapter in this state’s history.” Described as a bid for “reconciliation and healing,” the House this afternoon passed a resolution apologizing for state slavery laws dating back to 1822 – decades became Florida even became a state – that “perpetuated African slavery in one of its most brutal and dehumanizing forms.”
Only four southern and border slave states (Maryland, Alabama, North Carolina, Virginia) have so far taken similar action, plus just one northern slave state (New Jersey).
The extreme brutality and life-shortening character of this slavery is hard to exaggerate, naive media commentators like Michael Medved notwithstanding. The Florida newspaper summarizes just some of this extreme oppression:
Slaves could be subject to 39 lashes of a whip, administered to a bare back, for raising a hand or addressing a white person with language deemed to be abusive or offensive. For crimes as common as robbery, slaves could have their ears nailed to wooden posts for an hour or even be sentenced to death.
Some white commentators on slavery forget or intentionally play down how many Americans had lives crucified by slavery:
By 1860, at the onset of the Civil War . . . some 44 percent of Florida’s 140,000 residents were slaves.
We are a relatively young country, just over 400 years old. For the lion’s share of this history we were grounded in the extreme racial oppression of slavery and legal segregation. We are the only “advanced” industrial society for which that is the true. The first English colony was founded at Jamestown in 1607, and just twelve years later in 1619 the first Africans were purchased by English colonists from a Dutch-flagged slave ship. Notice that it was exactly 350 years from that year to 1969, the year that the last major civil rights law went into effect ending legal segregation in the United States. Few Americans realize that for nearly 90 percent of our history we were a country grounded in slavery and legal segregation.
In time and space, we are not far from our slaveholding founders. There have been only three long human lifetimes, about 232 years, since the Declaration of Independence, which was principally authored by the slaveholder Thomas Jefferson. We are just two human lifetimes from the 13th amendment, which ended 246 years of slavery in this country. And we are just one human lifetime from the days when white mobs brutally lynched hundreds of black Americans over every few years and a great many whites, including government officials, were members of Ku Klux Klan, the world’s oldest terrorist group. For just four decades, half one long human lifetime, we have been legally and officially a “free country.” That is certainly not enough time for this country to eradicate the continuing impacts of nearly 360 years of extreme racial oppression. A serious social science analysis of most major aspects of this society quickly reveals the continuing impact and significance of this deep structural foundation of racial oppression.
Recognizing this long history of racial oppression, as in the Florida apology, is but a first step in dealing with the consequences of this oppression. But it is a necessary first step and one that media commentators should well pay attention to and seek out the data to better understand the nation’s racial foundation.
In a very important development, a large group of social scientists and others who research and teach on “race” and racism issues have just written a letter to Senator Barack Obama highlighting the signficance of his recent speech on US racial matters and calling on him to publicly recognize the great significance of systemic racism. That systemic racism has been the target of the important and considered critiques of racism by the distinguished African American minister, Dr. Jeremiah Wright, who has recently been in the news. Here is the letter in its entirety:
The Honorable Barack Obama
713 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510
Dear Senator Obama:
Thanks for jumpstarting a new national dialogue about the consequences of racial oppression. We understand that you must be careful and judicious given the racial quagmire of mainstream electoral politics in the United States . Still, your willingness to be a risk-taker, rather than simply hope the flurry went away, has pushed the conversation even further. By extension, you have started a conversation we hope will redress the problem of racism.
We eagerly anticipated and listened to your historic and eloquent speech about this nation’s serious racial problems. It was, indeed, an important and necessary speech. Acknowledging the recent characterizations of Reverend Wright, and given the proclivity of the media to misconstrue, misinterpret, or simply misrepresent not only the message but also the messenger we who are concerned with examining and counteracting racism and who have been trained to study social structures would stress that the serious problem of racism cannot be reduced to individual level bigotry or racial misunderstandings. Research consistently, both from the past and contemporary events, clearly demonstrates the systemic nature of white racism.
We are very mindful that most people in the United States want to dismiss racism as a relic of the past, while there are others who recognize and experience racism every day through its various forms (such as racial exploitation, marginalization, segregation, obfuscation, and minimalization). We also recognize that it has most recently manifested itself as a political ploy aimed at derailing your campaign. We strongly applaud your forthrightness in confronting rather than skirting the problem of racism. However, we are concerned that your remarks incorrectly reduce racism to mere racial prejudice. You remarked that Reverend Jeremiah Wright “expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic.” We believe that Wright is exactly right, that racism is not only endemic but is at the core of American society as reflected in a large and well established body of social scientific research. Specifically this research documents that racism is a highly institutionalized social condition and practice rather than something that exists solely within the minds of racists. The problem with your equating racism with prejudice and your characterization of “race” as the key issue rather than racism is that it does not account for the fact that racism is not merely a product of intentional (though perhaps sometimes unconscious) interactions between individuals, but rather the result of deeply seated social and institutional practices and habits. The use of language like “the race issue” or, as you put it, “race is an issue” is therefore confusing and evades a more real and serious discussion of racism. Such questions would necessarily include: How does “race” differ from racism? What forms does racism currently take? What types of solutions need to be identified to eradicate racism in our lifetime? And how do Western/US institutionalized racial practices distort the socio-political and economic landscape that continuously reinvigorates racism?
Though you rightly recognize “many of the disparities that exist in the African American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from earlier generations that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow”, we would also stress the historical patterns of racism/“race”-based exclusion did not simply disappear because fewer European Americans are overtly bigoted. Long after many Americans cease to consciously and actively discriminate against racialized “others,” there persists racist social patterns dictating where people live, which organizations they belong, what schools they attend and so on – that were created during slavery and de jure segregation. For this reason contemporary social and institutional structures are products of racist foundations. As such, they perpetuate the practices of the nation’s racist past, even though many of the people populating these structures may not be overtly bigoted. In short, racism entails social and economic exclusion and discrimination, not just racial hatred.
Given the economic, cultural, and psychological destruction systemic racism inflicts on all Americans we acknowledge your contribution to this vital dialogue regarding racial exploitation. We further recognize, as implied in your speech, that the questions are not about “race” – whatever that means – but about racism, and that our nation’s future will not be served by racial amnesia but by a commitment to dismantle every plank, nail, and screw of America’s extremely well constructed system of racial oppression.
In times such as these it is rare indeed to find one such as yourself willing to take on the problems of America . We look forward to supporting your efforts to address the problem of racism both during your campaign and presidency. Feel free to call upon us as we freely extend our hands, minds, and efforts to the necessary changes that America must achieve. Together, therefore we eagerly await the release of your comprehensive set of public policy proposals to deal with the enduring problem of systemic racism that keeps the American dream deferred for so many citizens.
Johnny E. Williams, Ph.D Trinity College Hartford , CT
Noel A. Cazenave, Ph.D University of Connecticut Storrs , CT
Corey Dolgon, Ph.D Worcester State College Worcester, MA
Thomas W. Volscho, Ph.D Candidate University of Connecticut Storrs , CT
Walda Katz-Fishman. Ph.D Howard University Washington , DC
Nadia Kim, Ph.D Loyola Marymount University Los Angeles , CA
Warren S. Goldstein, Ph.D Univ. Of Central Florida Orlando , Florida
Robert Pankin, Ph.D Providence College Providence , RI
Angie Beeman Ph.D Candidate University of Connecticut Storrs , CT
Vijay Prashad, Ph.D Trinity College Hartford , CT
Judith Blau, Ph.D Sociologist Without Borders/UNC Chapel Hill , NC
Erma Lawson, Ph.D University of North Texas Denton , TX
Marina Adler, Ph.D UMBC Baltimore, MD
Claire Reinelt, Ph.D Leadership Learning Community Oakland , CA
Mindy Fried, M.S.W., Ph.D Arbor Consulting Partners Boston , MA
Joe Feagin, Ph.D Texas A&M University College Station , TX
Cara Bowman, Ph.D Candidate Boston University Boston , MA
Elaine McDuff, Ph.D Truman State University Kirksville , MO
Levon Chorbajian, Ph.D UMass-Lowell Lowell , MA
Mark Cramer, Ph.D Sciences-Po & Univ. of Paris Paris , France
Jill M. Humphries, Ph.D Columbia University New York, NY
Fred L. Pincus, Ph.D UMBC Baltimore, MD
Marecus Matthews, Ph.D Candiate Univ. of South Carolina Columbia , SC
Lois Benjamin, Ph.D Hampton University Hampton, VA
Ronald H. Evans, Ph.D Bentley College Waltham , MA
Christina Jackson, Ph.D Candidate UC Santa Barbara Santa Barbara, CA
Sharon Elise, Ph.D Cal State Univ. San Marcos San Macros, CA
Eric A. Grollman, Ph.D Candidate Indiana University Bloomington , IN
Charles Pinderhughes, Ph.D Candidate Boston College Chestnut Hill , MA
Augustine J. Kposowa, Ph.D Univ. of California Riverside Riverside , CA
David G. Embrick, Ph.D Loyola University-Chicago Chicago, IL
Jerome Rabow, Ph.D UCLA Los Angeles, CA
Rosalyn Baxandall, Ph.D SUNY at Old Westbury Old Westbury , NY
Doll Kennedy, Ph.D Candidate Union Theological Seminary New York , NY
Jenny Korn, Ph.D Candidate Northwestern University Evanston , IL
Woody Doane, Ph.D University of Hartford West Hartford , CT
Denise A. Narcisse, Ph.D, MPA Youngstown State University Youngstown , OH
Julie M. Thompson, Ph.D Hamline University Saint Paul , MN
Peter Rachleff, Ph.D Macalester College St. Paul, MN
Keith P. Feldman, Ph.D Candidate Univ. of Washington-Seattle Seattle, WA
Christopher Malone, Ph.D. Pace University New York , NY
Kelvin Monroe , Ph.D Candidate Washington State Univ. Pullman , WA
Jennifer Mueller, Ph.D Candidate Texas A&M University College Station , TX
Rita S. Fierro, Ph.D Temple University Philadelphia , PA
Richard Milk, Ph.D Texas Lutheran University Seguin , TX
Gwenn Eylath, Ph.D Marian College Indianapolis , IN
Mieka Brand, PhD University of Virginia Charlottesville , VA
Anthony Monteiro,Ph.D Temple university Philadelphia, PA
Victoria Rankin Marks, Ph.D George Washington Univ. Washington , D.C.
Elizabeth Higginbotham University of Delaware Newark , DE