Imagine if you will, a maximum-security prison built in Germany that was the largest of its kind in the country. Imagine if that prison was made up of predominantly Jewish men, where German officers in uniforms patrolled them like cowboys overseeing cattle. And imagine if said prison was built upon the site of an old concentration camp.
I don’t think it’s too far of a stretch to say the international community would be livid. And rightfully so. I’m confident that there would be protests surrounding that god-awful place night and day, and calls from human rights activists to have the prisoners moved and the site abolished.
Well, right here in America, we have the Louisiana State Penitentiary, more commonly known as Angola Prison (aka “The Farm” aka “The Alcatraz of the South.”) It is the largest maximum-security prison in the country, currently with over 6,000 inmates, 1,800 staff members, and covering 18,000 acres. It is built on and named after The Angola Plantations (which itself was named after the African country from which most of its slaves originated.) Today, black prisoners work the farmland at the prison, while white over-seers on horseback carrying guns patrol them like cattle.
A “Word” of truth
That “what if…” scenario I opened with was the excellent example recently given by author Clint Smith on the popular political podcast “Pod Save America.” Clint is a writer for The Atlantic and author of the book “How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America.” The book is a critical look at the remnants and effect of slavery in this country, and how little we as a country actually know about our sordid past. Annette Gordon-Reed, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Hemingses of Monticello,” describes the book as:
“A beautifully written, evocative, and timely meditation on the way slavery is commemorated in the United States.” (emphasis mine)
In that Pod Save America interview, Smith recounts his visit to the Angola gift shop and museum where one of the souvenirs actually reads: “Angola: A Gated Community.” The book is filled with stories of places he’s visited throughout this country born out of America’s worst sin. The locations are located in both south and the north (Smith references the story of how New York was one of the largest slave harbors in the country and courted the idea of seceding from the Union, shortly after South Carolina, because of the financial dependence on the slave industry.)
Hearing Smith talk about the writing of his book, I couldn’t help but ask the question (with tongue firmly planted in cheek)…
Are we post-racial yet?
The other day on Facebook, someone shared a meme that said Critical Race Theory (CRT) is racist (cue heavy sigh and eye-roll). I typically ignore ignorant memes on social media because all too often the people that post them are utterly bereft of any sort of education on the topic, and are usually notoriously known for being instigators.
This issue of CRT being racist is different. I felt it demanded a response. Not for the individual who posted it (he’s horribly lost), but for the many onlookers who might otherwise be open to understanding the truth, but are constantly bombarded with this lie.
All over the internet are right-wing pundits and politicians (not the least of which that twice-impeached, sedition-inspiring PO(tu)S who was handily beat in the last election), attempting to paint a picture that any curriculum based on CRT is “Un-American.” There are millions of Americans who think CRT is racist because it presumably teaches that all white men are evil and that this country, at its foundation, is immoral.
This is the lie they are told and what they believe.
As you might expect, that Facebook post generated quite the threaded debate. One of the follow-up comments supporting the original claim was as this:
Is there racism? Sure, there are individuals here and there. But systemic racism? I don’t think so.
We had a black president, we have a Black vice president, a black guy on the supreme court, black governors, mayors, senators…
It’s too exhausting writing out the whole comment. So here’s a screenshot for your amusement.
I had a surprisingly civil back-and-forth debate with this commenter. The refreshing civility of his responses notwithstanding, the ideas he was expressing were frightening.
I’m sorry if I’m not ready to do a dance and a jig because, in our nearly 250-year history, we’ve had one black/biracial President, one black/biracial Vice President, and a couple of “black guys” on the Supreme Court. He actually went on to say that he felt Obama was more racist than Trump (I don’t even know what to do with a statement like that).
One of the examples he gave that Trump wasn’t a racist was because of the bills he signed that presumably helped black people. Giving him the benefit of the doubt about the level of assistance any of Trump’s bills did for Black people, my response to him was the fact that despite signing the Civil Rights Act, Linden B. Johnson was indeed a racist.
Trump was a president who dog-whistled to known white supremacist organizations. He fought for and embraced Confederate iconography. Against the recommendation of his own generals, he fought to keep U.S. army bases named after Confederate soldiers. He’s told U.S.-born citizens and Congresswomen to go back to where they came from. There is a long history of Trump’s racism going back to the 70s. Trump is a man who was not only elected, but to this day still has a firm grip on the Republican Party. The seditious insurrection led by his followers just over five months ago, had its fair share of Confederate-flag-waving — even within the walls of the Capitol building itself.
But, according to this dude on Facebook, racism is only a minor issue in this country. There are a few individuals here and there. His reasoning speaks directly to the ignorance and lack of empathy pervasive in this country.
And precisely why CRT is needed.
Shedding light on a dark history
The truth is, CRT attempts to shed light on the ways in which slavery, Jim Crow, and other institutionalized forms of racism have effects that reverberate to today — in our schools, politics, finances, policing, and, ahem, prison systems. It’s about having a deeper, more profound understanding of our history — a history far too many Americans do not fully understand, or even know!
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre of “Black Wall Street.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people comment on not knowing anything about it until they saw it depicted on HBO’s Watchmen last year.
In the grand scheme of humanity’s existence on this planet, the length of time slavery has been formally abolished in this country is a blip. (And many would say that today’s penal institution is just another form of legal slavery.)
There are people alive today who knew or know the daughters or granddaughters of slaves. Slavery has existed in this country nearly twice as long as it has not. You can’t tell me that there are no lasting effects of that institution still infecting the DNA of so many black people today.
Jim Crow was only formally abolished a few generations ago. There are people alive today who lived through it; and their children and grandchildren (i.e. people my age and your age) still have in their memories, echoes of what their families endured.
We see the disproportionate killing of black people at the hands of police.
We still see the effects of institutionalized racism in the corporate and political structures of the world.
The socio-economic conditions of the Black community in the United States, and their effects on everything from the family unit to incarceration, can all be tied directly to the effects caused by the relatively recent institutions of slavery and Jim Crow.
How different would the Black communities in the U.S. be if every slave got the 40 acres and a mule promised to them and was able to build 150 years of generational wealth? Or if the “Black Wall Streets” of the U.S. weren’t all burnt down. I’m sure many of you don’t know that Tulsa was not the first time something like that happened. Nor was it the last.
What would Black communities look like today if even the GI bills promised to Black enlisted men were actually paid to the full extent of their promise? Or if there weren’t years of redlining preventing Black people from owning property.
How would our government look today if there weren’t gerrymandering and years of voter suppression laws made possible after the Supreme Court invalidated key aspects of the Voting Rights act just eight years ago? Even now, in the wake of the “Big Lie” that the 2020 election was stolen, Republicans are putting forth bills that would make it harder to vote (bills which, no surprise, disproportionately affect voters of color.)
These are all aspects that CRT attempts to address. So when there is a growing number of white people in this country attempting to squash it, how can it not feel like a meta-narrative metaphor of 1921 Tulsa. Just like the truth of that massacre was squelched for decades, there are groups of people attempting to squelch other truths that CRT is enlightening.
Maintaining the status quo of privilege and power
Whenever a person who is part of a privileged majority (irrespective of race), belittles or denies the real lived experiences of those in equity-seeking and under-represented groups (again, regardless of race), their actions help to maintain the inequitable status quo.
- White people denying white privilege (or calling CRT “racist”)
- Men (of any race) denying male privilege or minimizing sexism and rape culture
- Cisgender heterosexuals (of any race) minimizing or ignoring the plight and oppression of those in the LGBTQ+ community.
If you’re a cisgender, heterosexual white man (especially a Christian one), you are at the proverbial top of the social privilege pyramid. Once again. That does not mean you can’t or don’t face personal or financial stresses in life. The two are not mutually exclusive. But all things being equal, your race, gender, identity, and religion give you a privilege in every area of existence in the western world.
But I understand that many of you feel put-upon and even “oppressed.” For the past few years, people in the traditionally equity-seeking groups have been calling out privilege and calling for change. I can understand how that could make you feel like now YOU’RE the underdog. How you’re always the “villain.”
But trust me on this: any frustration and anguish you’ve felt these past few years due to equity-seeking groups calling for justice and equity, is a tiny, exponentially small fraction of what people in those groups have dealt with their entire lives — and for many of them, the lives of their parents, and grandparents, and great grandparents, and so on.
Instead of fighting against it and denying the lived experiences of others, try listening with empathy. Even if you disagree. Fight the urge to lunge back and defend yourself. And that goes for anyone in a privileged majority.
CRT is not the “Boogey Man”
CRT is not the proverbial “Boogey Man” out to get you and your children. As we have clearly seen, there is a “pandemic” of historical emaciation that has rendered us a nation devoid of knowledge and empathy. Empathy for the plight of a community still reeling from the effects of institutionalized racism, hatred, and subjugation.
It is not about making Black people victims either. It’s quite the opposite. We all become victors when the truth is told and revealed. Truth empowers all of us to fight for change, and have a better perspective that can lead to a more unified country — one built on the foundation of compassion, empathy, and justice. A part of me feels cynically naive for even writing this. But I hope for it just the same.
Spend this Memorial Day watching one of the many fine documentaries about the Tulsa Race Massacre. Then spend a little extra time learning one additional item of history.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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Photo credit: Scene from HBO’s “The Watchmen.” © 2019 HBO