The Dream and the Election

Art Gallery window, GeorgetownToday, Barack Obama will be sworn in as the first black president of the United States (Creative Commons License photo credit: runneralan2004 ). The inauguration ceremony will take place the day after the nation commemorates the birth of our greatest civil rights leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  As Jessie noted in her post yesterday, many of us are contemplating this confluence of events.   What would Dr. King say about the nation now that it has elected a black man as its forty-fourth president?  Would he say that “the Dream” has been fulfilled, that America has finally become a post-racial society? Would he advise little black boys and girls that they no longer have to deal with the unspoken or spoken belief that opportunities are limited by race?

If Dr. King were alive today, he certainly would have a front row seat at the inauguration ceremony. His mind would probably race through the defining moments in African American history.  He would see generations after generations of blacks in the prime of their lives being hunted down like animals, separated from their families and villages, and loaded onto ships anchored off the coast of West African. We would feel the pain of his ancestors who were packed like sardines into the belly of these ships for the long voyage to America and then forced to work from dawn to dusk for over two centuries just to provide economic and social comfort for white Americans. Going through the mind of the very old Dr. King would be the words of the nation’s highest court written with such unabashed racism in the Dred Scott decision (1856):

“the negro had  for more than a century been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and so the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.”

Dr. King might remind himself that Chief Justice Taney’s words were merely reflective of the attitudes of the vast majority of white Americans toward blacks at the time. He might quiver as he thought about the magnitude of the hatred whites had for blacks and the incredible amount of social disadvantage that racism placed in the lives of blacks both enslaved and free blacks alike.

Sitting in the January cold, the elderly Dr. King would also reflect upon post-slavery America.  Especially now, it is difficult to fathom that, but for a brief period of reconstruction, slavery was not replaced by a system of equal rights. The system of racial savery folded into a regime of racially repressive laws in the South and racially repressive social norms in the North. These Jim Crow laws and customs were constitutionalized by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).  Jim Crow forced blacks into the worst jobs, the worst housing, the worst educational systems, and the worst social position.

Dr. King must feel a warm sensation as he thinks about mid-twentieth century America. After the Second World War (the war to save free societies), most intelligent Americans knew that Jim Crow’s days were numbered. Dr. King played a central role in the eventual death of Jim Crow. But the Supreme Court struck the first significant blow against this regime of racial oppression when in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) the Court overturned school segregation laws in every state of the Union. With the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s and early 1970s, Congress struck the final blow, killing de jure segregation and outlawing racial discrimination in most segments of American life.

The death of Jim Crow has brought unprecedented racial opportunities for blacks. There are many wealthy and influential black Americans (such as the oft-cited Oprah Winfrey, Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, and the black captains of industry) as well as many political successes, including black congresspersons, governors, presidential appointees, and now, of course, the presidency itself with the election of Barack Obama.

Dr. King would certainly acknowledge African-American racial progress. But he would probably be more concerned about the great racial challenges still facing the nation. He would be troubled by the fact that, even as the first black president of the United States is being sworn in: about 21% of black families (compared to only 6% of white families) live below the poverty line, the median annual family income for whites is $26,000 higher than that for blacks; white males with bachelor or advanced degrees earn about $20,000 a year more than their black male counterparts; young black men are seven times more likely to go to prison than young white men, and less than half as likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than young white men; and the median net worth (bank accounts, stocks, bonds,  real estate, and other assets) of white families is ten time more than that of black families.

As the very old and very wise Dr. King takes in the events of this historic day, he can only conclude that America is far from being a post-racial society.  The election does not complete “the Dream,” it only keeps it alive.

~ Roy L. Brooks
Warren Distinguished Professor of Law
University of San Diego – School of Law

The House Apologizes for Slavery and Segregation

This commentary was prepared for this site by Roy L. Brooks, Warren Distinguished Professor of Law, University of San Diego School of Law

On July 29th, the House of Representatives passed a resolution apologizing for centuries of American slavery and another 100 years of racial segregation mandated and sanctioned by the federal government’s Jim Crow laws. This first-time-ever resolution holds forth the promise of a post-atonement America; a society marked by racial healing and reconciliation.

But envisioning a post-atonement American is not easy. The difficulty does not lie in visualizing the acts of atonement themselves. Other governments have atoned for their past atrocities, including Germany (for its persecution of Jewish and other the victims of the Holocaust) and South Africa (for its subordination and murder of blacks under Apartheid). The U. S. government has itself atoned for a least one of its past atrocities. Congress and the President passed legislation in 1988 apologizing for the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. Congress and the President made the government’s official apology believable by including in the legislation a $20,0000 reparation to the 60,000 detainees who were alive in 1988.
The problem in envisioning a post-atonement America lies in the more abstract and elusive aspect of understanding the true shift in perception that comes when a person, or in this case a government, feels genuine remorse for the atrocities it has committed.

Like all atrocities, slavery and Jim Crow were not historical accidents or mishaps. Founded upon the principle of liberty, the government of Washington and Jefferson—the government formed under our extant Constitution—denied liberty in a most blatant way. More than that, the U.S. government perpetuated a practice that was clearly in decline. The founding fathers breathed new life into the morally moribund institution of human bondage. Adding insult to injury, slavery was soon followed by a calculated attempt to impose the badges of slavery on 4 million manumitted blacks. Slavery and Jim Crow, in short, were committed knowingly and purposely. The U.S. government was not simply a passive receiver of illicit traditions

The volition with which atrocities of the magnitude of slavery and Jim Crow were conceived and executed raises doubts about the willingness of our government to pursue atonement. Will the government make only a perfunctory effort? Judging by the House Resolution, the early indications are that the government’s atonement might indeed be half-hearted.

Perusing the Resolution, one must come to the sad conclusion that the U.S. government has yet to tender a meaningful apology, let alone propose a single reparation, for slavery or Jim Crow. While Congress and the President have issued a formal, binding legislative apology for the internment of Japanese Americans, the House Resolution offers but a feeble apology. The apology is “nonbinding” and no other organ of government is considering a similar resolution. In addition, while the government’s internment apology was prologue to its internment reparations, the House’s apology is a preface to nothing—it is not followed by a single reparation. Without being backed by reparations, apologies are meaningless. They lack concreteness. Reparations, in other words, turn the rhetoric of apology into a material reality. They make apologies believable, more than mere words.

Curiously, the House Resolution itself makes the case for reparations. It expressly acknowledges not only the “injustice, cruelty, brutality and inhumanity” of slavery, but also that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow are still present today. The victims of Jim Crow are as alive today as were the victims of internment in 1988.

By failing to atone for slavery and Jim Crow, our government reinforces white ignorance and complacency about the racial hierarchies we see in our society today. By failing to atone, the government makes it clear that, despite its words of apology, if fails to see slavery and Jim Crow “as the basic reality, the grim and irrepressible theme governing both the settlement of the Western hemisphere and the emergence of a government and society in the United States that white people regard as ‘free.’”
It is the government’s steadfast resistance to undergoing this mental transformation that creates conceptual difficulty in envisioning a post-atonement America. What does this shift in the understanding of the significance of slavery and Jim Crow mean for our citizens? What does it means in terms of the organizing principles–mainly law and politics—-that shape our society?

Judging by the House Resolution, it means very little. Continue reading…