Reflections on race 2/3: “How Racial Identity Became Entrenched in America” workshop

19 Apr

 

This is a continuation of a series started in this post, based on the Duke Vigil Commemoration events at Alumni weekend.  MUCH of our historical discussion echoes strongly in today’s society.

The second event we attended was a discussion/workshop led by Professor Peter Wood and Ann Chinn, who founded and leads the Middle Passage Project, which puts historic markers at ports of entry for the twelve million Africans who came through the transatlantic slave trade.  Just look at how many sites they’ve identified, which are definitely not all in the South.

Peter reminded us of how long slavery has lasted in America (see the tweet above).  Coincidentally, Bree Newsome just tweeted about how long black resistance has existed:

Remarkably, Peter said that for the average African-American, their first ancestor in America arrived in 1760.  For the average white American, that date is 1900.  This reminded me of the phrase “all-American,” often used to describe a blonde, blue-eyed sport player.  But black Americans are way more American than white Americans if you go by how long their families have been here (and obviously Native Americans are the most American).

Even though Europeans and especially Brits knew about people of other races since the Roman ages, American racism began as a way to justify slavery, which was seen as necessary for economic development and growth.  As long as races stayed to their own countries, there were enough power dynamics in place to keep a mutual “respect” (might be stretching the word).  But once the transatlantic slave trade started looking good economically, scientists and legal and church officials started claiming that black people weren’t people at all, but another species.  One audience member pointed out that even the Catholic bishops said that baptism couldn’t change your “state”-black people were lesser-than and also not even people, even if they were baptized.

I was definitely confused about the entrenched racism, since Marco Polo was a name I had heard of (I have a remarkably poor grasp on European history).  But this economic explanation made a lot of sense- they didn’t need structural, institutionalized racism before, so hadn’t bothered to set it up.  Around 1650, Peter said that persecution due to and identification with religion was much stronger than with race.  But then Britain got hit by the Plague AND a big old Fire, so they had a shortage of labor.  At the same time, the Royal African Company was founded, and the stage was set for slavery of Africans.  Add in the American colonies and the fire was lit for racism, which we still feel the effects of today.

Our conversation was rambling and far-reaching and I can only hit a few of the points that were discussed.

  • Word choice matters.  Peter used “forced labor camps” instead of “slave plantations,” and “enslaved person” instead of “slave”.  I hadn’t heard either of these but I like them!  “Enslaved person” centers the person rather than the act that happened to them (slavery), sort of like person with schizophrenia or undocumented immigrant center the people vs. “schizophrenic” or “illegal.” Maybe “enslaved person” still isn’t satisfying “people-first language” but I like it better than slave.
  • A strong theme I’ve seen over the past few years that goes hand in hand with racism is white denial.  Ann talked about both positive and negative receptions of the Middle Passage Project- people like to say “that didn’t happen here” or “I’m not part of the problem.”  This reaction reminds me of how people got defensive on my behalf when I called myself racist- definitely a hair-trigger topic.  But we can’t move forward until people start talking about race, like this workshop, and like the communities that have embraced Ann’s project.
  • Did you know about John Punch, considered the first American slave?  There were some blurry times with indentured servitude and free blacks, but from Punch’s trial onward, blacks were slaves.  He ran away with two white indentured servants, and the white guys got their sentences extended for a few years, but he got lifetime slavery.  So officially, legally, skin color was now a reason to treat people differently.  I’d never known about this!
  • Reparations!  People react very negatively to the idea of individuals receiving checks because of wrongs done to their ancestors.  If inter-generational wealth and inter-generational trauma matter, then the American idea of “bootstraps” is bunk.  In a facebook group I’m in, people were asked how they made it to middle class.  Of hundreds of responses, almost all were either (a) helped by their parents/family to buy a house/car or get a job or (b) married someone who was in category (a).  It doesn’t discount the work you do to acknowledge that you’ve had help.  But if my wealth is not my doing, then others’ poverty may also not be their fault, and this radical idea is difficult.
  • Reparations part 2!  If we are to have reparations, they need to be future-thinking, not past-fixing.  For example, the Harlem Children’s Zone went literally door to door for blocks and did early intervention for every baby and every child they could find.  People love babies! Or at least, people love babies enough not to gripe that they shouldn’t be cared for/their parents shouldn’t receive education.
  • We had one #NotAllWhitePeople audience member who said two factually accurate points.  First, that most white Southerners at the time didn’t own slaves but were yeomen farmers, and the rich people were the ones who owned slaves.  Second, that African tribal leaders would trade captive Africans into slavery.  His unstated points, I think, were that not all white people should be blamed for slavery, and we should also blame black people for it.  He left before our discussion addressed his points in an interesting way (guess he didn’t really want to be engaged, but it’s ironic that he engaged us!)  First, that racism became more entrenched as a way to lift up those poor white farmers and make them feel differentiated from enslaved black people.  The institutional racism buffeted up the hierarchical society, as white farmers knew they weren’t on the bottom.  The slow erosion of institutional racism threatens white people in this situation–society is seen as a zero-sum game, so if black people rise, then therefore white people must fall.  My counter to this is that society is not a zero-sum game, and the more we raise people up, the more we all rise.
  • Second, part of why the transatlantic slave trade lasted so long was the lack of feedback loop: people left and didn’t come back to Africa.  One could argue that if tribes had known what was happening in America, they might not have shipped off their rivals.  How much do you have to hate someone to send them and their progeny off to live as slaves in America?  Unknown.  An audience member drew the parallel to the Nazi trains off to Jewish “work camps”-with no feedback, there was little resistance.  It’s hard because this is a counterfactual argument.  I find history difficult for this reason-things just happened they way they did and speculating on how people might have acted were circumstances different does not compute in my mind.

Phew!  Lots to unpack.  You can see why I wanted to write about the weekend; so much happened!  Anyways, this is post two, and hopefully I’ll get a post 3/3 up soon too.

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3 Responses to “Reflections on race 2/3: “How Racial Identity Became Entrenched in America” workshop”

  1. Dinah April 19, 2018 at 11:19 pm #

    This series is great. I’ve been listening to “Uncivil” (the episodes all came out in the fall but I’m only now getting around to it), which is untold stories around slavery + Civil War. They also talk a lot about how the North was complicit in and profited from slavery (cheap cotton for mills, banks making money by insuring slaves as property, etc), which isn’t how we usually like to think of the North. They did an episode about John Punch though! It’s great, you should listen to the whole thing.

    Oh, but an interesting thing about reparations. I heard Ta-Nehisi Coates speak shortly after he did his whole big reparations article a few years ago. And he made the point (that I’m probably mangling) that in no other situation where reparations have been paid (Germany to Jews, US to those in Japanese internment camps, etc) were those paid out in the form of services. And that there was some sort of patronizing and/or an unwillingness to acknowledge that what was taken did in fact have a monetary value. Like I said, I’m mangling his argument some, but I found it interesting to think about.

    • yenergy April 20, 2018 at 9:39 am #

      Ooh thanks for the recommendation, Dinah! The Middle Passages project map is fascinating because there are many, many ports in the North. Living in the South has definitely been a culture shock for me; this stuff is not dead and gone and faraway but living, real history today.

      I know nothing about past reparations- what form did they take? There’s definitely an unwillingness to put $ on what was taken, but as an audience member who worked in insurance or courts put it, we’re really experienced at assigning $ amounts to “damages” every day. Whether we do it well or fairly is up for question, but we as a society certainly can do it.

  2. Evelyn May 15, 2018 at 11:41 pm #

    I think the phrase “enslaved person” points out that there is a person doing the enslaving, which is rather important! For a person to be a slave, another person has to make the choice to enslave them.

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