Burying Racial History Means You’re Living A Lie

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Sometimes there are days when I wonder what life would have been like had I not committed myself to the never-ending, thankless task of advocating for the Black community.  Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do and I love the people for whom I do it.  It’s difficult to live in a world, though, where White folks label you before they know you,  and many Black folks think you’re only speaking for economic gain.  Even worse, is that similar to the days on the plantation, some of us are so addicted to the system that oppresses us that we end up fighting those who speak against racial oppression.

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One area that has served to maintain my “angry Black man” status is the field of Black history.   Whenever we demand a conversation about the racial history of the United States, punishment is typically forthcoming.  Those who speak on the issue can be drowned out by the “Kumbaya crowd,” some of whom seem to think that all of America’s racial inequality will disappear if we simply hold hands and sing, “We shall overcome.”  They believe that the past is as irrelevant as a cheeseburger in a room full of vegetarians and that not talking about our past is a great way to make it all go away.

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We’ve been falsely led to believe that eliminating discrimination serves as an adequate remedy for the effects of historical discrimination.  We think that the tremendous racial imbalance in America today will fix itself magically because Black people are suddenly allowed to taste a small piece of their humanity.   That’s like arguing that if I spit in your face 50 times in a row, your face will clean itself simply because I’ve decided to stop spitting.

It’s easy to believe that America is a land of equal opportunity.  In many ways, our country can be the most outstanding nation in the world, but what we often forget is that one’s ability to take advantage of many of the educational and economic opportunities of this country is largely dependent upon the resources at one’s disposal.  Also, the vast psychological damage caused by hundreds of years of slavery and the stripping of an entire culture leads to dysfunctional outcomes and family structures that mitigate a community’s ability to fulfill its potential.

Examples of this challenge include the fact that it takes money to make money, or that you are more likely to be promoted on your job if you have powerful mentors who look like you.  You are more likely to gain acceptance into an Ivy League university if your parents or grandparents graduated from the same school.  The problem is that my forefathers were not allowed to own land, get promoted in major corporations, or attend Ivy League schools.  Most of us are starting from scratch with nothing.

As I explained to the ever-so interesting Linda Chavez in our NPR debate on Affirmative Action, it is because of America’s persistent and undeniable commitment to creating an imbalanced society that many of our nation’s best opportunities are not readily available to our children.  It’s difficult for a child to get to the Ivy Leagues if they are attending a horrible inner city school with gunfire on every corner.  African Americans who are hired as professors at major universities are often fired shortly thereafter because they have no Black mentors to protect them in the “good old boy” system of non-merit based cronyism.  Many major corporations have middle- and- upper-level management that is 100 percent White male.  The list goes on and on.

So to talk about history as if it has no impact on the present is like saying that a man’s existence has nothing to do with his parents’ decision to have sex.  The past creates the present in the same way that our decisions as young adults impact our lives during middle age.   To beat, rob, and ruin a community over several hundred years and then try to move forward without correction is like an apologetic bank robber expecting the judge to let him keep all the money.  Modifying your behavior in the future is a necessary, though not sufficient condition for making things right; you also have to fix the damage that has been done.

To this day, because of the legacy of Jim Crow, White folks own nearly everything.  They control media outlets, major corporations, vast amounts of real estate, and have legacies of power in important governmental and academic institutions.  White kids have better schools, higher family incomes, and a lower likelihood of conviction even when they commit the same crimes.  There is no way anyone can argue, with any degree of intelligence, that America is a society that has achieved racial equality.  Rather than doing the hard work necessary to make things right, some would rather just live in denial.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Professor at Syracuse University and founder of the Your Black World Coalition. To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.

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