David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, August 25, 2019
All Americans should quietly read and reflect on the 1619 Project of the New York Times that aims to reframe our understanding of United States history.
To mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first Africans forcefully brought to our shores, the Times plans a series of essays examining the origins and consequences of slavery.
The first set of essays are written by 17 black writers who focus on the role of government in establishing slavery, the extent to which slavery shaped our economic system and its lasting impact on our criminal justice system.
Americans tend to be unaware of the scale, scope and status of legal slavery since 1619. Too often we think “Lincoln freed the slaves, let’s move on.”
Today’s constitutional debates about the Electoral College, the role of a national banking system, representation in Congress and states’ independence in adopting Medicare expansion are all rooted in the history of slavery.
Federalism — our independent but interdependent levels of government — is one of America’s two original contributions to the practice of governance (the other being the “checks and balances” contained in the Constitution). Federalism may have been adopted by our Founders to preserve slavery.
Essays in the 1619 Project review several historical events that were unfamiliar to me. Two of the most important happened quite early. President George Washington signed the first Fugitive Slave Act on Feb. 12, 1793, to require captured slaves to be returned to their owners. In 1664, Maryland’s General Assembly decreed that “all Negroes within the province shall serve hard labor for life.” These are official government decisions to enforce slavery.
Thomas Jefferson’s “All men are created equal” raised many uncomfortable questions for a slave owner, even if a rather benevolent one. It required several American political beliefs had to be reconciled. Consequently, Jefferson authored “Notes on the State of Virginia” in 1785 where he wrote of “racial differences which nature has made” that become an early argument for the natural inferiority of the black race.
That probably made it easier to accept a black person as a three-fifth citizen for purposes of congressional representation.
While I want to keep Jefferson in the history books, we need a fuller understanding of his writings, his life and his political theory.
At a minimum I want to understand how such bold, creative, analytical thinkers had such a big blind spot.
In one of the more practical essays in the 1619 Project, Kevin Kruse asks “What does a traffic jam in Atlanta, and every major city, have to do with segregation?” His answer: “Quite a lot.” He recounts how segregated housing policy was the foundation for the interstate highway system that tore through black neighborhoods rather than along routes that would have resulted in better coordinated, more efficient highways — but would go through white areas.
Bryan Stevenson’s essay argues that “Slavery gave America a fear of black people and a taste for violent punishment” that still define our prison system today.
A visit to the any Missouri county courthouse will demonstrate to an observant citizen that something is wrong. Racial disparities in mass incarceration, the death penalty, policing and the low priority given public defenders are all outgrowths of slavery.
None of us were living in 1619, but slavery shaped and continues to shape our political system and our daily lives. Racial injustices continued well after the Civil War, with the massive failure of Reconstruction due to violent Southern resistance that resulted in a particularly low point in American history.
Well into the 1960s, black land ownership in some Southern states was thwarted by financial misdeeds of the powerful. Residence-based public education is a very stubborn system to update and upgrade because of its foundation on local control, largely to prevent the education of black people.
Private behavior has been shaped by slavery, too. The history of religion in the U.S. is a history of separate black and white churches. Likewise, recreation and educational organizations were often created to avoid racial mixing.
I don’t know how a nation makes peace with its past. Part of the reason white Americans do not understand periodic racial riots and rebellions — and the public policies meant to correct racial injustices — is that we are largely unaware of how racial practices shape our nation’s history.
While that ignorance may be understandable for our isolated grandparents, we now know better. It is our collective responsibility to correct pervasive, widespread racial injustices of our past. Coming to terms with our complete history is a step in the right direction.