By Thomas Sherman
Sherman is a retired professor and frequent volunteer living in Blacksburg.
Virginia’s history has included slavery longer than it has been without slavery. 1619 is the generally accepted date when the first African people were enslaved in Virginia. Slavery increased in Virginia and the U.S. (about 4 million enslaved people in the U.S. in 1863) until the Emancipation Proclamation in January of 1863: a total of 244 years of constitutional, legally enforced, court authorized slavery in Virginia. Doing the math, Virginia has been free of slavery for only 157 years. The point is that this terrible “peculiar institution” has a long and shameful history that has left an indelible stain of racism on our country.
Some people misread the history of slavery as generally benign Uncle Remus and Aunt Jemima joyfully singing while engaged in delightful work. The slave narratives conclusively refute this fiction. Slavery was awful at best and more often worse. The most famous of these slave narratives was written by Frederick Douglass. In elegant prose, Douglass told his experiences of racism as a slave and a freed man. The tribulations included regular unthinkable physical abuse as well as mental and spiritual debasement. Throughout his life, he was relegated to inferior accommodations on trains, ships, and hotels. He was regularly attacked for speaking against slavery and the hypocrisy of “devout” church people who prayed on Sunday but preyed mercilessly on their slaves the rest of the week.
Institutionalized racism did not end with emancipation or reconstruction. Organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan ensured that African-Americans did not get “uppity” through intimidation and lynching. By the end of the 19th Century, Jim Crow traditions and legislation guaranteed that all sectors of society were segregated strongly in the south but really nation-wide. Jim Crow reduced or eliminated education, occupations, and social opportunities effectively making Black people a permanent underclass. Generally, the thinking goes that inferior people need to stay in their place.
The Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s and 1970s as well as programs promoting equal opportunity did impact the perception and range of opportunities for Black people. However, overall, the traditions and social structures so firmly established over more than 300 years perniciously continued to limit employment, health care, education, and living conditions for African-Americans.
When traditions and structures are established over hundreds of years, they become invisible often making people also invisible. Ralph Ellison masterfully described how black people became invisible because others failed to notice. Despite being invisible, the effects of the traditions and structures of racism are still impactful and destructive physically, morally, and spiritually.
George Floyd and all the others have died in vain if we do not recognize that their deaths are a symptom and not THE problem. The problem is that in the United States we have a long and detestable history of treating people as inferiors because of the color of their skin. It would be wonderful to eliminate the fear of police and all racial violence. But, even if we achieved this, as a country we would only be marginally better off and could expect similar demonstrations regularly into the future until we recognize and eliminate the long standing yet invisible real problem: racism.
We do not provide health care to all because of the fear that some of these inferior people will get something they don’t deserve. We do not provide housing assistance to all because some of these inferior people could get something they don’t deserve. And, so on. Regardless of skin color and economic status, people who don’t have access to basic, safe, affordable shelter, food, medicine, work, education, and neighborhoods will not value the life or liberty or others. These living essentials don’t matter to those who do not have access.
What is so frustrating is that we know how to fix all of these problems. Proven solutions are available now. We know how to provide excellent health care and we don’t need experts to do studies to identify the difference between access and no access to health care. We know how to build safe, affordable shelter and we don’t need research to identify the difference between lousy and good places to live. We know how to build and maintain good neighborhoods and, again, it isn’t necessary to employ consultants to differentiate a good from a poor neighborhood. We know what a good, living wage is and we don’t need Nobel economists to distinguish between an adequate and inadequate income. We know what good, effective schools look like and we don’t need a government panel of experts to lay out criteria.
We have the resources to do what we know and we could start doing what we know today. Why don’t we?