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“America’s Forgotten Mass Lynching”: When 237 People Were Murdered In Arkansas

The visits began in the fall of 1918, just as World War I ended. At his office in Little Rock, Arkansas, attorney Ulysses S. Bratton listened as African American sharecroppers from the Delta told stories of theft, exploitation, and endless debt. A man named Carter had tended 90 acres of cotton, only to have his landlord seize the entire crop and his possessions. From the town of Ratio, in Phillips County, Arkansas, a black farmer reported that a plantation manager refused to give sharecroppers an itemized account for their crop. Another sharecropper told of a landlord trying “to starve the people into selling the cotton at his own price. They ain’t allowing us down there room to move our feet except to go to the field.”

No one could know it at the time, but within a year these inauspicious meetings would lead to one of the worst episodes of racial violence in U.S. history. Initiated by whites, the violence—by any measure, a massacre—claimed the lives of 237 African Americans, according to a just released report from the Equal Justice Initiative. The death toll was unusually high, but the use of racial violence to subjugate blacks during this time was not uncommon. As the Equal Justice Initiative observes, “Racial terror lynching was a tool used to enforce Jim Crow laws and racial segregation—a tactic for maintaining racial control by victimizing the entire African American community, not merely punishment of an alleged perpetrator for a crime.” This was certainly true of the massacre in Phillips County, Arkansas.

Bratton agreed to represent the cheated sharecroppers, who also joined a new union, the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America. Its founder, a black Delta native named Robert Hill, had no prior organizing experience but plenty of ambition. “The union wants to know why it is that the laborers cannot control their just earnings which they work for,” Hill announced as he urged black sharecroppers to each recruit 25 prospective members to form a lodge. Hill was especially successful in Phillips County, where seven lodges were established in 1919.

It took a lot of courage to defy the Arkansas Delta’s white elite. Men such as E.M. “Mort” Allen controlled the local economy, government, law enforcement, and courts. Allen was a latter-day carpetbagger, a Northerner who had come to Arkansas in 1906 to make his fortune. He married well and formed a partnership with a wealthy businessman. Together they developed the town of Elaine, a hub for the thriving lumber industry. Allen and the county’s white landowners understood that their continued prosperity depended on the exploitation of black sharecroppers and laborers. In a county where more than 75 percent of the population was African American, this wasn’t a task to be taken lightly. In February 1919, the planters agreed to reduce the acreage of cotton in cultivation in anticipation of a postwar drop in demand. If they gave their tenants a fair settlement, their profits would shrink further. Allen spoke for the planters when he declared that “the old Southern methods are much the best,” and that the “Southern men can handle the negroes all right and peaceably.”

There was nothing “peaceable” about the methods used to demolish the sharecroppers’ union. Late on the night of September 30, 1919, the planters dispatched three men to break up a union meeting in a rough hewn black church at Hoop Spur, a crossroads three miles north of Elaine. Prepared for trouble, the sharecroppers had assigned six men to patrol outside the church. A verbal confrontation led to gunfire that fatally wounded one of the attackers. The union men dispersed, but not for long. Bracing for reprisals from their landlords, they rousted fellow sharecroppers from bed and formed self-defense forces.

The planters also mobilized. Sheriff Frank Kitchens deputized a massive white posse, even setting up a headquarters at the courthouse in the county seat of Helena to organize his recruits. Hundreds of white veterans, recently returned from military service in France, flocked to the courthouse. Dividing into small groups, the armed white men set out into the countryside to search for the sharecroppers. The posse believed that a black conspiracy to murder white planters had just been begun and that they must do whatever it took to put down the alleged uprising. The result was the killing of 237 African Americans.

None of the perpetrators—participants in mass murder—answered for their crimes. No one was charged, no trials were held, at least not of those who had killed blacks. In the early 20th century, state-sanctioned collective violence targeting African Americans was a common occurrence in the United States. 1919 was an especially bloody year. By September, the nation had already experienced seven major outbreaks of anti-black violence (commonly called “race riots”). Riots had flared in cities as different as Knoxville, Omaha, and Washington, D.C. In Chicago, a lakefront altercation between whites and blacks escalated into a week-long riot that took the lives of 38 men (23 black, 15 white). To restore order, Illinois Gov. Frank Lowden called in thousands of state militia.

The root cause of 1919’s violence was the reassertion of white supremacy after World War I. Disfranchisement, Jim Crow laws, and biased police forces and courts had stripped African Americans of many of their constitutional rights and created deepset economic, social, and political inequities. Blacks who defied the rules and traditions of white supremacy risked personal ruin (being banished from their hometowns was one punishment), bodily harm (beatings and whippings), and death. In just five months in 1919, from January to May, more than 20 lynch mobs murdered two dozen African Americans. One of these victims was a black veteran killed for refusing to stop wearing his Army uniform. Lynchers took pride in their actions, often posing for photographs at the scenes of their crimes; few were ever charged, let alone convicted. Mob violence helped protect the racial status quo.

What made 1919 unique was the armed resistance that black Americans mounted against white mobs trying to keep them “in their place.” During the United States’ brief but transformative involvement in World War I, almost 370,000 black men served in the military, most of them in the Army. On the homefront, African American men and women bought war bonds, volunteered for the Red Cross, and worked in defense factories. They were fighting to make the world safe for democracy, as President Woodrow Wilson defined the war’s purpose, yet they didn’t have equal rights and opportunities at home. When the war ended, African Americans resolved to make America safe for democracy. In May 1919, civil rights activist and prolific writer W.E.B. Du Bois declared, “We return from fighting. We return fighting. Make way for Democracy! We saved it in France, and by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States of America, or know the reason why.”

Whether they had served in the military or not, African Americans answered Du Bois’s clarion call. When a white mob in Longview, Texas, tried to seize a black man named S.L. Jones to lynch him for insulting the honor of a white woman, a self-defense force organized by Jones’s friends opened fire, dispersing the mob and saving Jones’s life. When police in Chicago failed to stop white gangs from attacking blacks, veterans of the 370th Regiment, 93rd  Division (an all-black unit recently returned from France) put on their uniforms, armed themselves, and took to the streets. And when white servicemen and veterans joined with civilians to form mobs in Washington, D.C., hundreds of black Washingtonians lined the streets of Uptown (now called Shaw) to prevent these mobs from marauding in the neighborhood known for its black-owned businesses and theaters.

The Arkansas sharecroppers who stood up against the white planters of Phillips County were a major part of black resistance during 1919. Their courage came with heavy costs. As word of the trouble spread, white vigilantes from Mississippi crossed the river and began attacking blacks. The posse organized by Sheriff Kitchens scoured the canebrakes and fields, firing on blacks. Meanwhile, Arkansas Gov. Charles Brough cabled the War Department to request the deployment of infantry units. Almost 600 white troops and officers soon arrived from Camp Pike. Told that a black uprising was underway, the soldiers rounded up African Americans and, like the Mississippi vigilantes and local posse, killed indiscriminately. A special agent for the Missouri Pacific Railroad who led a force of approximately 50 white men later said the Mississippi mob “shot and killed men, women and children without regard to whether they were guilty or innocent of any connection with the killing of anybody, or whether members of the union or not.” One of the county’s richest white men, Gerard Lambert, observed soldiers shoot a black man who had tried to run from a hiding place. Let that “be a lesson,” the troops told blacks who were also present. Vigilantes killed a black woman, pulled her dress over her head, and left her body on a road, another brutal “lesson” of what happened when African Americans forgot their “place.”

The sharecroppers did the best they could to defend themselves and their families and neighbors. A group of sharecroppers and a black veteran in uniform shot back when part of the posse opened fire. Hearing the shots, union member Frank Moore rallied the men with him. “Let’s go help them people out,” he shouted. But the sharecroppers were outgunned and outmanned. By October 3, most had been captured and jailed. Sheriff’s deputies and special agents for the Missouri Pacific Railroad tortured them to extract false confessions to a conspiracy to murder whites. Rigged trials brought swift convictions and death sentences for 12 men whose only crime was their attempt to obtain fair earnings for their labor. Protracted appeals, supported by the NAACP, resulted in a Supreme Court decision (Moore v. Dempsey, 1923) that helped free the men. The ruling also established the federal government’s obligation to ensure that state trial proceedings preserve the Constitution’s guarantee of due process and equal protection of the laws, a standard the Arkansas trials certainly had not met.

This legal victory couldn’t give back the lives of the black residents killed by the posse, vigilantes, and troops in Phillips County. The death toll of 237 reported by the Equal Justice Initiative is a new figure, based on extensive research. In 1919, sources as varied as the NAACP and the Bureau of Investigation (forerunner of the FBI) estimated the number of killed African Americans at 25 to 80. Writer Robert Whitaker, who has identified 22 separate killing sites of African Americans during the massacre, put the death toll at more than 100. NAACP official Walter White, who risked his life in October 1919 to investigate the killings, stated that the “number of Negroes killed during the riot is unknown and probably never will be known.” In contrast, just four whites died, all of them posse members; one or two may have died as a result of friendly fire.

Say the number of African Americans killed in Phillips County in 1919 was 25. Or 80. Or 237. The very fact that, almost one hundred years after the massacre, we are still trying to pinpoint the death toll should lead us to a larger reckoning: coming to terms with one of the most violent years in the nation’s history, bloodshed that resulted from efforts to make America safe for democracy.

 

By: David Krugler, The Daily Beast, February 16, 2015

February 17, 2015 Posted by | African Americans, Arkansas, White Supremacy | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The ‘No Child’ Rewrite Threatens Your Kids’ Future”: Congress Is Attempting To Pass The Buck On Federal Funding For Education

In the weeks ahead, Congress will consider rewriting the No Child Left Behind Act and, if some leaders on Capitol Hill get their wish, it will feature dramatically reduced federal oversight of education.

These Congressional leaders point to states’ rights when they argue that the federal government should send $50 billion to 50 states and more than 10,000 school districts each year but ask for little or nothing in the way of results.

Despite America’s long and sordid history of extreme inequity in schooling and in spite of dramatic continuing disparities in educational quality, states’ rights advocates assert the federal government isn’t needed to monitor or assure educational quality and equity.

Whether because of racism, politics, ignorance, or indifference, the brutal facts are that states and school districts have too often neglected their educational responsibilities. The losers have always been children in poverty, children of color, and children with disabilities.

Think back to Topeka, Kan., in the 1950s, where seven-year old Linda Brown was denied the opportunity to attend a nearby public school because she was black. The Supreme Court eventually stepped in and ended legal segregation in the landmark 1954 decision, Brown v. Board of Education.

Three years later in Little Rock, Ark., despite the Supreme Court’s decision that segregation violated the Constitution, nine young Black students were denied access to a public high school by segregationist Governor Orval Faubus. President Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne Division to force Faubus to admit the students to Central High School.

The same thing happened over and over again, in state after state, in the ensuing years, including in Mississippi where my mother Marian Wright Edelman, on behalf of courageous black plaintiffs, sued several segregated local school districts. States and local school districts violated Brown, lawsuits or non-violent protests (which often provoked violent reprisals) eventually led to desegregation orders, and then great vigilance was required to ensure those orders were enforced.

On a parallel track, in the 1960s, federal officials recognized that states and local school districts were systematically spending less to educate poor kids compared to wealthier kids. So in 1965, Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) to provide federal funds to help make up the difference.

In the 1970s, my mother and many others, including parents of children with disabilities, protested because states and districts weren’t meeting children’s special needs. A seminal 1974 Children’s Defense Fund report called “Children Out of School” chronicled the extent of the problem. The federal government responded by passing a law requiring states and districts to educate children with special needs and providing additional resources (though the feds have never come close to funding the cost of their mandate, which is a huge and largely undiscussed problem).

In 2001, with great fanfare, Congress updated the 1965 ESEA law to require every state and district to assess children’s educational progress regularly and publish results by race, income, disability, and whether English is a second language. The hope was that greater transparency about performance would drive results.

The new ESEA, or No Child Left Behind law, exposed grossly unequal educational outcomes and motivated a range of efforts across the country to address the low performance of low-income children and children of color. That said, the law was deeply flawed. States were encouraged and allowed to lower standards to make it appear they were improving. The tests on which the federal government based its ratings were “dumb”—they assessed students’ knowledge of information not their ability to think, solve problems, or write, and they only measured students within the confines of their grade level. And there was a ridiculous assumption that states would somehow get all of their students to proficiency—that’s right, 100%—by 2014.

In the past five years, the federal government has offered incentives and resources for states to lift academic standards, fix schools that have struggled for decades, offer more choices to parents, and strengthen teaching through more accurate educator evaluations. These incentives and lobbying by state-based education advocates led most states to raise standards, embrace choice, and develop fairer, more rigorous systems for evaluating teachers. (This is happening well in most places, but there’s still a long way to go.)

Now, we all know that federal interventions don’t always work as intended. What sounds good in concept often stumbles in practice, which is why it’s important to revisit laws regularly (that hasn’t happened with No Child Left Behind because of the stalemate in Washington).

That said, it’s patently false and downright irresponsible to suggest states and districts will do the right thing without meaningful oversight from the federal government. The evidence is everywhere that absent real accountability many states won’t ensure that districts protect children at risk.

Today, for example, because education is often funded by local property taxes, states typically spend much less money educating children in the bottom fifth of the economic ladder than the top fifth. In Illinois, for example, a student in the low property value Berwyn North school district just west of Chicago receives $8,588 in combined state and local education funding whereas a student twenty miles further west in suburban Lisle Community Unit School District 202 receives $17,169 in state and local funding.

In addition to getting the short end of the stick on funding in most states, low-income children and children of color are disciplined more severely, have less access to rigorous high school classes, and are more likely to be taught by ineffective teachers. [We only know about these disparities, by the way, because the federal government makes states measure them and publish the results.]

Not surprisingly, fewer than 10 percent of low-income children earn a four-year college degree, compared to about 80 percent of upper-income students.

This is why arguments for little to no federal oversight of education are so disturbing.

There’s also talk by states’ rights advocates of no longer requiring annual testing by states, which would deny parents and educators valuable information about whether students are on track, reduce the ability to measure and improve teacher quality, and make it harder for administrators to know how schools are doing and when they need to intervene. Ironically, this is being proposed just as “smarter” assessments come online that will more accurately measure student learning, including their ability to think critically, solve problems, and write.

If Congress takes the states’ rights, anti-accountability, anti-assessment tack that is being discussed, the outcome will be as predictable as it is tragic. Many states and districts will take the easier path than trying to educate ALL children, disadvantaged students will lose out, and millions of young people who could have become hard-working taxpayers will end up jobless, in prison, or worse.

So when you hear politicians talking about reducing the federal role and restoring states’ rights, what they’re really saying is that they’re passing the buck. They’re saying they don’t want to take responsibility for ensuring ALL children receive a quality public education.

President Harry Truman kept a sign on his desk that read: “The Buck Stops Here.” When it comes to educating our children, Congress should heed that message, not ignore it.

 

By: Jonah Edelman, The Daily Beast, January 3, 2014

January 6, 2015 Posted by | Congress, Education, No Child Left Behind Act | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Judging The Supreme Court”: A Disturbing Picture, The Court Is Guilty Of Failing To Adequately Enforce The Constitution

After 227 years of history, how should we judge the United States Supreme Court? All of my years of studying, teaching, and practicing Constitutional law have convinced me that the Supreme Court has rarely lived up to lofty expectations and far more often has upheld discrimination and even egregious violations of basic liberties.

My disappointment in the Court is historical and contemporary. Its preeminent task is to enforce the Constitution in the face of majorities that would violate it. The Court is thus especially important in protecting minorities and in safeguarding rights in times of crisis when passions cause society to lose sight of its long-term values.

For the first 78 years of American history until the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865, the Court enforced the institution of slavery. For 58 years, from 1896 until 1954, the Court embraced the noxious doctrine of separate but equal and approved Jim Crow laws that segregated every aspect of Southern life. Nor are egregious mistakes by the Supreme Court on race a thing of the past. The Roberts Court has furthered racial inequality by striking down efforts of school boards to desegregate schools and by declaring unconstitutional crucial provisions of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The Court also has continually failed to stand up to majoritarian pressures in times of crisis. During World War I, individuals were imprisoned for speech that criticized the draft and the war without the slightest evidence that the expression had any adverse effect on military recruitment or the war effort. During World War II, 110,000 Japanese-Americans were uprooted from their lifelong homes and placed in what President Franklin Roosevelt referred to as “concentration camps.”

During the McCarthy era, people were imprisoned simply for teaching works by Marx and Engels, and Lenin. In all of these instances, the Court failed to enforce the Constitution. Most recently, the Roberts Court held that individuals could be criminally punished for advising foreign organizations, designated by the United States government as terrorist organizations, as to how to use the United Nations for peaceful resolution of their disputes or how to receive humanitarian assistance.

For almost 40 years, from the 1890s until 1937, the Court declared unconstitutional more than 200 federal, state, and local laws that were designed to protect workers and consumers. The Court even declared unconstitutional the first federal law designed to prevent child labor by prohibiting the shipment in interstate commerce of goods made by child labor. Minimum-wage and maximum-hour laws were frequently invalidated.

Even the areas of the Supreme Court’s triumphs, like Brown v. Board of Education and Gideon v. Wainwright, accomplished less than it might seem. American public schools remain racially separate and terribly unequal. Criminal defendants in so many parts of the country, including in death-penalty cases, have grossly inadequate lawyers.

The Court’s decisions from the last few years — preventing employment discrimination suits and class actions against large corporations, keeping those injured by misconduct of generic drug makers from having any recovery, denying remedies to those unjustly convicted and detained — illustrate what has historically been true: The Court is far more likely to rule in favor of corporations than workers or consumers; it is far more likely to uphold abuses of government power than to stop them.

What should we do about it?

Some scholars urge the abandonment of judicial review, but I reject that conclusion. The limits of the Constitution are meaningful only if there are courts to enforce them. For those I have represented over my career — prisoners, criminal defendants, homeless individuals, a Guantánamo detainee — it is the courts or nothing.

But I believe that there are many reforms that can make the Court better and, taken together, make it less likely that it will so badly fail in the future. I propose a host of changes, including instituting merit selection of court justices, creating a more meaningful confirmation process, establishing term limits for court justices, changing the Court’s communications (that is, televising its proceedings), and applying ethics rules to the court justices.

The Supreme Court’s decisions affect each of us, often in the most important and intimate aspects of our lives. I think that we need to focus on the Court’s long-term and historical performance. If we do, it is a disturbing picture and there is only one possible verdict: The Court is guilty of failing to adequately enforce the Constitution.

But it can and must get better in the years and decades ahead.

 

By: Ewin Chemerinsky; The National Memo, January 5, 2014; Originally Posted at The Washington Spectator

 

January 6, 2015 Posted by | Civil Liberties, Constitution, U. S. Supreme Court | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Common Victims”: Movements For Racial Justice And Economic Justice Could Converge To Form A Powerhouse For Change

What happens to a dream deferred?

Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?

That was the poet Langston Hughes, in 1951. In that year, more than half a century ago, the most basic dreams of African Americans were deferred. Segregation was mandatory in the old South. Discrimination was legal everywhere in America, whether in housing, education, or employment. Blacks were not just separated, but isolated, marginalized, restricted to the worst jobs and most dilapidated neighborhoods, the most dismal schools.

For many, the racism just sagged, like a heavy load. It destroyed hope that hard work would be rewarded. The deferred dreams of that era seldom produced explosions, because the state had a very efficient system of terror. Blacks who resisted were likely to be lynched, jailed, or otherwise destroyed.

It is a testament to sheer grit, tenacity and courage that large numbers of blacks managed to get educations, raise families, start businesses, and enter professions at all—and demand inclusion in civic life.

The next 20 years were almost miraculous. From the small beginnings of local bus boycotts and sit-ins came the transformation of civil rights laws, finally giving African Americans full civic and legal equality, a hundred years after Lincoln.

The progress of the 1960s reflected a combination of the courage of the civil rights movements, the alliance with decent whites, and the leadership of an accidental president. Lyndon Johnson was able to prick the conscience of just enough of white America, to cajole and pressure just enough legislators, and to make a startling alliance between the White House and the radicals in the streets.

If you have never read or watched LBJ’s “We Shall Overcome” speech, you have missed a key moment in American history.

It helped that the economy was booming, so that economic progress for blacks did not equate to explicit sacrifices for whites (though whites did have to give up their role as a privileged caste). It helped that there were still liberal Republicans in that era, without whom none of the great civil rights laws could have passed.

So here we are, approaching Christmas 2014. Racism still taints the American dream. And unlike, say, in 1964 when there was a sense of a movement on the march with history on its side, it is hard to summon up optimism.

It is one thing when the government decrees that blacks can’t vote, can’t patronize restaurants, can’t apply for good jobs. That sort of racism shames everyone.

But when cops brutalize young black men, and prosecutors wink, and grand juries refuse to indict, that sort of racism is deeper in the social fabric and much harder to explicitly root out. It is encouraging to see outraged citizens on the march again, heartening that the marches includes whites as well as blacks and other groups.

Yet what sort of movement, what sort of policies, what sort of majority support in the country can we imagine that will fix what is broken?

New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio, whose bi-racial son Dante sports an Afro, has spoken of the need to “literally train him, as families have all over this city for decades, in how to take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers who are there to protect him.” That comment provoked outrage from the police.

Sunday, speaking on the ABC News program This Week DeBlasio threaded his way between outrage and support for law enforcement, declaring:

We have to retrain police forces in how to work with communities differently. We have to work on things like body cameras that would provide different level of transparency and accountability. This is something systemic. And we bluntly have to talk about the historic racial dynamics underlie this.

There have, in fact, been moments when thoroughly racist local police departments have been made over to discard their worst racist practices. The Los Angeles Police Department, after decades of strife and civic reform, is better than it once was. But it took a consent agreement with the Justice Department and five years of direct federal supervision.

President Obama, who did manage to summon up some outrage in the Trayvon Martin murder (“If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon”), has been relatively circumspect, appealing both for reform and for order. He is not close to calling for federal supervision of local police.

Obama is no LBJ. And in fairness to Obama, in the absence of stronger public demands, the federal government is not well-positioned to remake local grand juries and police departments.

We have gone utterly backwards since the 1960s, a time when the Justice Department and the courts vigorously interceded to protect the right to vote. Now, the right to vote is being taken away and rightwing courts are tying the Justice Department’s hands.

We need a broad movement once again, to force government’s hand. As Dr. King appreciated in the last year of his life, it needs to be a movement for economic justice as well as civil rights, a multi-racial movement. Only when there is common appreciation that whites and blacks are common victims of an economic system that delivers all the gains to the top do we have a prayer of mobilizing the whole nation to demand action.

 

By: Robert Kuttner, Co-Editor, The American Prospect, December 10, 2014

December 11, 2014 Posted by | Civil Rights Act, Inequality, Racism | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Racism Is As American As The Fourth Of July”: Despite Progress On Racism, The Uncomfortable Truth Is That Work Remains

President Obama’s observation that racism is “deeply rooted” in U.S. society is an understatement. Racism is as American as the Fourth of July, and ignoring this fact doesn’t make it go away.

These truths, to quote a familiar document, are self-evident. Obama made the remark in an interview with Black Entertainment Television, telling the network’s largely African American audience something it already knew. The president’s prediction that racism “isn’t going to be solved overnight” also came as no surprise.

Right-wing media outlets feigned shock and outrage. But their hearts didn’t seem to be in it. Not after Ferguson and Staten Island. Not after the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland. These recent atrocities prompted Obama’s comments.

“This is something that is deeply rooted in our society. It’s deeply rooted in our history,” the president said, in excerpts of the interview that were released Sunday. “You know, when you’re dealing with something that’s as deeply rooted as racism or bias in any society, you’ve got to have vigilance but you have to recognize that it’s going to take some time, and you just have to be steady so that you don’t give up when we don’t get all the way there.”

Patience and persistence are virtues. As Obama well knows, however, we’ve already been at this for nearly 400 years.

The election in 2008 of the first black president was an enormous milestone, something I never dreamed would happen in my lifetime. Obama’s reelection four years later was no less significant — a stinging rebuke to those who labored so hard to limit this aberration to one term.

But no one should have expected Obama to magically eliminate the racial bias that has been baked into this society since the first Africans were brought to Jamestown in 1619. The stirring words of the Declaration of Independence — “all men are created equal” — were not meant to apply to people who look like me. The Constitution specified that each slave would count as three-fifths of a person. African Americans were systematically robbed of their labor — not just before the Civil War but for a century afterward, through Jim Crow laws and other racist arrangements. Blacks were deliberately denied opportunities to obtain education and accumulate wealth.

You knew all of this, of course. I recite it here because there are those who would prefer to forget.

A Bloomberg poll released Sunday found that 53 percent of those surveyed believe race relations have worsened “under the first black president,” while only 9 percent believe they have improved. A 2012 Associated Press poll found that 51 percent of Americans had “explicit anti-black attitudes” — up from 48 percent four years earlier, before Obama took office. All this makes me wonder whether, for many people, Obama’s presidency may be serving as an uncomfortable reminder of the nation’s shameful racial history.

Then again, it may be that having a black family in the White House just drives some people around the bend. Why else would a congressional aide viciously attack the president’s daughters, ages 16 and 13, by telling them via Facebook to “dress like you deserve respect, not a spot at a bar”? The scold apologized and resigned, perhaps without fully knowing why she felt compelled to go there in the first place. For some people, it doesn’t matter what the Obamas do or don’t do. Their very presence is inexcusable. There’s something alien about them; their teenage girls can’t just be seen as teenage girls.

We already know, from painful experience, how our society looks upon black teenage boys.

After reminding the nation that racism exists, Obama went on to express optimism. “As painful as these incidents are, we can’t equate what is happening now to what was happening 50 years ago,” he said. “And if you talk to your parents, grandparents, uncles, they’ll tell you that things are better — not good, in some cases, but better.”

Of course, that’s true. But it would be a betrayal of the brave men and women who fought and died during the civil rights movement to lose our sense of urgency when so much remains to be done.

U.S. neighborhoods and schools remain shockingly segregated. Jobs have abandoned many inner-city communities. The enormous wealth gap between whites and blacks has increased since the onset of the “Great Recession.” Black boys and men wear bull’s-eyes on their backs.

Whatever Obama says about race, or doesn’t say about race, somebody’s going to be angry. He should just speak from the heart — and tell the uncomfortable truth.

 

By: Eugene Robinson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, December 9, 2014

December 10, 2014 Posted by | African Americans, Civil Rights, Racism | , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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