Michigan in Color: Nothing has changed

Sunday, July 10, 2016 - 10:13pm

As Americans, we pride ourselves on how far we’ve come from the disturbing times of slavery and segregation. We view stories like the following, which occurred in a small Southern town during the early 1940s, as bestial and archaic, instead of recognizing how they directly affected the events of today.

As a young man walked past a young woman, he was accused of piping out a “wolf call” whistle in her direction. Though this was undoubtedly irksome for the woman in question, the townsfolk responded in an excessively severe manner — for the man had the misfortune of being born Black in a country where white was, and continues to be, the more privileged shade.

Word quickly spread through the town, and, as a result of the growing outrage, the man fled north to Philadelphia. However, the man’s best friend was later found dead behind a 50 gallon gas can deep in the woods. The killers couldn’t tell, or more likely simply didn’t care about, the differences between the two.

After arriving in Philadelphia, the fleeing man joined the army to fight for his country in the Second World War. He died during combat in Italy — giving his life for a nation that wouldn’t give anything for him.

This man’s story will not be found in the pages of a history book or in any documentary; however, it is present in my family’s conversations. This man’s name was Osborne Ellis, and he was my grandmother’s uncle.

It’s easy to say what happened in the past is done and over with, but doing so only creates room for gross ignorance surrounding modern-America’s issues with race. All four of my grandparents were well into adolescence or adulthood during, or before, the outbreak of the Civil Rights Movement — meaning a significant portion of their childhood was spent in a time and place where events like these occurred with relative frequency. Because many opinions, viewpoints and habits are formed during childhood, my grandparents’ generation carried their worldview, which was crafted by living in a violently discriminatory society, into adulthood, shaping how they raised the next generation of Americans — a generation that includes my, and many of my peers’, parents.

Like clockwork, social reproduction ensured that my parents’ generation imprinted upon us the perspectives that their parents, who grew up in Jim Crow America, taught them. Though the past may seem distant, we are closer to segregation than we’d like to imagine.

When people ask why African Americans can’t simply forgive and forget, they assume we have a choice to move on from the decisions of the past — decisions, by the way, that were made without the consent of African Americans, despite the fact that these decisions radically influenced our livelihoods. We never chose to be systematically profiled and imprisoned. We never chose to be red-lined into destitute neighborhoods. We never chose to be denied opportunities based on the pigmentation of our skin. How can we "forget" these obstacles when they are still restraining us in 2016? Asking us to forgive and forget implies that we’re the ones keeping the legacy of segregation alive.

Whenever an African American is senselessly gunned down by the police, like we’ve seen over the past few days with Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, I’m angered that people still ask, “How could this happen in America in 2016?” Though most people who ask that type of question are simply too optimistic about the state of race relations in this country, failing to acknowledge these realities turns a blind eye to the deep-rooted racism in American culture.  

Until people begin to recognize the reality of race relations in this country — that segregation and oppression have never truly disappeared, they’ve simply taken up new names and forms — nothing will ever change. The deaths of Sterling and Castile are not isolated incidents. Their lives have just become a number on the long list of victims of systematic racism in this country.

Until people begin to recognize the reality of race relations in this country, police brutality will continue to plague the African-American community, employers will continue to give white applicants preference over their Black counterparts and the cycle of oppression will remain healthy and strong. This is no different than what has been happening in America since the beginning, only now it’s done in more subtle ways. Obviously, some progress has been made. But in the grand scheme of American race relations, we’re still living in the shadow of the Jim Crow era.

When people start having these realizations, maybe we will be greeted with compassion rather than condemnation. But I’m not holding my breath.