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July 22, 2013

American Racism's Deep Roots

I doubt many Americans were very surprised by the Zimmerman verdict. However, it's still much too early to tell if the weeks of courtroom drama and polarized discussions generated by the trial will have a negative or positive effect on its 2 main issues: our national preoccupation with guns and our troubling legacy of racism.

To consider the most recent anomaly first: consistent with our per-capita leadership in gunshot deaths among developed nations, our irresponsible gun lobby has succeeded in quietly getting "stand your ground" laws passed in over 30 states since 2005. Talk about a malevolent fait accomplit! Nor is it very surprising that Florida was the first state to do so.

As for our racist past; while our modern treatment of blacks isn't nearly as brutal as in the bad old days of Judge Lynch and Jim Crow, we are not nearly as "color blind" as most Right Wingers claim. Far from it. In a color blind society, a wannabe cop like George Zimmerman would not go free after stalking and executing an unarmed black juvenile he didn't know just minutes after calling him an "asshole" and a "punk" in a 911 call.

The bottom line is that slavery based on skin color had been institutionalized throughout the Americas long before our founding. Unfortunately, we protected it within our original Constitution and still deny basic fairness to blacks; a situation underscored by the Zimmerman trial, its verdict, and much of the tone-deaf commentary that has followed.

Any realistic assessment of American history must recognize that chattel slavery had been an important part of our colonial economy well before 1776. However, our founders weren't forced to address it as an issue until 1787 when it became part of a dispute over enumeration for purposes of representation: should slaves count as people? As we know, the "3/5 compromise" settled the problem temporarily, but by delaying any consideration of the larger moral and ethical questions, it made things significantly worse. Didn't our revolutionary manifesto proclaim that "all men are created equal?" The delegates ended up by scrapping the Articles of Confederation and writing a new Constitution from scratch; but by avoiding the issue of slavery, they allowed it to fester offstage as it was growing in economic and cultural importance until 1860 when the nation found itself hopelessly divided.

It's difficult to imagine any President but Lincoln who could have held the Union together after Fort Sumpter. Tragically, we never learned how he might have guided us through the difficult days of "Reconstruction," but we know it became a grotesque failure in the hands of his successors. The ultimate result was de jure segregation, a racist policy blessed by the Supreme Court in 1896. More disgrace.

Although we finally passed a voting rights Act a century after Appomattox, the first attempts at implementation sparked riots all over the South and in many Northern cities. Curiously, the "Party of Lincoln" now controls all the state houses of the ex-Confederate states, a political shift comparable to that of Earth's magnetic field.

Although the Constitutional Convention has been admired by historians for helping to end monarchy as the world's default system of government, they have tended to overlook its greatest flaw: sheltering a cruel economic system that betrayed our founding manifesto while it grew in both size and importance through the antebellum period until Secession made the Civil War inevitable.

The implications of that history are complex; they suggest that following defeat, Southern resentment and its regression into a subsistence economy combined to produce sharecropping within the context of Jim Crow laws, a system that became even worse than slavery and lasted for almost another century. Blacks in the South had no choice but to migrate to other parts of the country where their lot was marginally improved, but they were often herded into Ghettos and continued to face discrimination based almost entirely on skin color. That Republican "Neocons" are almost unanimous in denying the existence of a racial issue in the Zimmerman case is both grotesque and an indicator of their lack of intellectual honesty and political intelligence. At this writing, Geraldo, Limbaugh, Coulter, Krauthammer and a gaggle of lesser lights have further exposed themselves as political and historical morons. It's no accident that most of them also deny climate change and support our lunatic war on drugs.

At some point we will have to face some grim realities of our national history: five of our first 7 presidents were Virginia planters who owned slaves and served two terms in office; the 2 one-termers were New Englanders: John Adams and his son, whose opposition to slavery was well known. The 7th was the autocratic Andrew Jackson who owned over two hundred slaves and subjected the Cherokees and other tribes to forced relocation from ancestral lands.

What the Zimmerman-Martin case tells us is that a lot more national soul-searching is long overdue. President Obama's legacy could give him the political power required to lead the nation in the direction of change, but he would have to exhibit a lot more courage than he has so far in another controversial area. Certainly he has the assets: he's a smart, Harvard-educated African American lawyer who is also a Constitutional scholar.

I wish him the best and hope he's up to a job that's even more difficult than Lincoln's. He will need all the understanding and good will the nation can muster.

Note: this entry was first published Saturday, but has since been extensively edited to reflect additional comments in the press. From now on, I'll try to keep up with new comments as they appear; instead of rewriting recent entries. The Zimmerman case has so many manifestations of human weakness, it should furnish grist for my mill for a long time to come.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at July 22, 2013 04:09 PM