It’s almost been a year since Linda Brown’s death and so I’ve been thinking a lot about segregation. It still exists, of course, in very real ways, but it’s just not on the books in the same form anymore. Unfortunately, so much of this is because, as a population we’re still mentally segregated. This can be seen in not only our individual, specific positions on race, but in everything from our views on history to how we frame contemporary social issues.
As a child, I was taught that slavery began with Africans selling each other to white slavers. This story has been retold to me countless times throughout my life. It was taught to my father and mother and their parents and probably to you and yours as well. This story has implications that are in the very DNA of this country. From this story we are to infer that Black people inherently do not care for one another and therefore we are incapable of understanding core tenets of American society, like “Honor” and “Family.” From this story we are also to infer that whatever happened to us as a people was at the same time inevitable and exclusively our own fault.
You can see these beliefs of our moral inferiority and innate undeservedness make their way from slavery all the way through Brown v Board of Education and continuing to right now.
While whiteness continues to change and eventually include every other racial group, it will never include Native Americans or us. This is because every other racial group is allowed an origin story of self-reliance. All of their stories involve leaving a homeland that persecuted them in one way or another. Their stories, and therefore their identities support the identity of this country as a safe harbor for the tired, poor, huddled masses, etc. Native Americans, on the other hand, are thought of as noble savages who were too naïve to know that their time had come, leaches that take advantage of a system designed with only the most benevolent intentions for everyone, all of the above or somewhere in between.
We ignore the fact that many Native Americans actually do have the same origin story as the rest of those groups. Unfortunately, most of them were also murdered en masse because, while having the same story, that story is at odds with this country’s identity.
The same, believe it or not, is true for Black people. While America tells itself the stories of Black people being responsible for our own enslavement, it avoids the true stories at all costs. America never tells the stories of the African leaders who fought against and in some cases defeated attempted enslavers. It never tells the stories of the Africans who fought against being enslaved in every possible way. It never tells the stories of the countless rebellions by the people it enslaved.
America never tells these stories because it cannot simultaneously be its own hero and its own villain. And since it cannot admit to its own villainy, it continues. But please don’t think of villainy, in this case as a reflection of an individual’s intentions. I am speaking specifically of the stories we tell ourselves as Americans about our fellow Americans that limit and destroy us as a country, and perhaps as a globe.
Currently, as a country we are struggling with addiction. The opioid epidemic has forced us to rethink our relationship to drugs entirely. We have begun decriminalizing addiction and treating it as a medical issue. Rightfully so. This change in attitude comes because it fits with our national identity of self-reliance. For white people.
Looking back at the crack epidemic, which affected mostly Black people, you can see the old, familiar story resulting in mass incarceration. White people, being self-reliant and superior find their victims of addiction in hospitals. Black people, as dishonorable things that would sell their own family members deservedly end up in cages or dead.
The same story is told about gun violence. A white person goes on a shooting spree and they are mentally ill and in need of treatment. The reaction to Black gun violence is, again, that Black people are inherently violent and nothing can be done.
Again, it’s not only in the acts of the individual where this can be seen. Currently, the most important issue the country faces is climate change. For white people. Not for people of color, though. Racism is still the most important issue for us because we’ve already been living with the effects of climate change for years and racism is why.
Humanity faces a lot of problems, but addiction and the temperature of the earth don’t care what color you are. They don’t care about your gender, for that matter, either. But if women and people of color were allowed the opportunities of a white man, there would be more doctors. There would be more scientists. Without even getting into the value of different perspectives, there would simply be more people attacking the issues that affect our species.
That’s the story this country and the world need to start telling.
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