Consider the African, circa 1550 A.D. or so. He’s captured by a rival tribe, sold to European traders, chained and put on a ship bound for the Americas. If he stays alive, he’ll likely be sold off to a plantation in the Deep South to work the land. The rest of his days are spent tilling fields, picking crops and doing whatever else his masters and handlers require of him. He may find a wife, marry and have children. His children, however, are not his own — neither is his wife. They belong to his master, and are treated as a commodity. His wife will possibly be raped, and there’s nothing he can do to stop it.
Since before the dawn of the republic, this system was the norm for the vast majority of Blacks living in America. I don’t call them “Black Americans” for a reason — they were not Americans. They were Africans brought and forced to live in America, but with none of the rights and privileges of their white counterparts. As Malcolm X once said, “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, the rock was landed on us.” At the end of the Civil War, legal slavery was brought to an end, more than 300 years after the first slave was brought to the United States.
While slavery may have ended with Reconstruction, the nightmare was just beginning. With the removal of Union troops from the South, a new racial caste system was created in the form of segregation. For the better part of a century, the United States remained a nation of government-endorsed inequality. Even after the Slaughter-House cases, even after Brown v. Board of Education and even after violent race-riots in New York, Detroit, Watts, Calif. and dozens of other cities, segregation remained intact. The Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act ended many of the remnants of Jim Crow, but racial inequality was far from over.
Interracial marriage laws weren’t ruled unconstitutional until 1967, and racial profiling, police brutality and race-based hiring continued well past the civil rights era. With the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the federal government moved forward to implement equal opportunity requirements for employers and schools, while endorsing affirmative action in jobs and education.
Today, Black Americans continue to underachieve in almost every major statistical category: Black unemployment is typically about double that of whites, while poverty is around quadruple the white rate. Moreover, Blacks own only around 7 percent of the nation’s businesses, and Black-owned businesses account for only half of one percent of all U.S. earnings.
So why are Black Americans, excluding a handful of overachievers, so far behind the pack as a whole? There are two main reasons. The first is lingering racism and racially biased systems that claim to be colorblind. Housing and schools remain largely segregated, while subconscious racial bias plays a powerful role in the everyday judgments individuals make about each other, from job interviews to the court room.
The second cause of Black underachievement is a failure to comprehend the immensity of the problem at hand and directly address it. While busing and affirmative action programs have been a noble attempt at righting the wrongs of the past, they have failed to attack the root causes of Black inequality. Think of history like a race, where Black Americans were not even allowed to start running until after 1964. Even once they left the starting line, they faced hurdles and challenges that their white counterparts did not: discrimination, racial profiling, poor schooling, de facto segregation, and a lack of connections and money. Ending discrimination allowed Black Americans to start running with policies like affirmative action meant to give them the boost they need to catch up with whites.
The greatest crime in human history was committed against Black Americans, and lasted more than 300 years. For nearly a century after the end of slavery, Blacks were still relegated to the bottom rung of society. That adage about it being much easier to destroy something than build it? Let’s just say that expecting 50 years of progress to overcome 400 plus years of slavery and discrimination is far too optimistic.
To say that racism has no serious presence in American life is laughable. To claim that the best way to end racism is to stop talking about race is just as ludicrous — race is exactly what has always driven inequality. Slavery was based on skin color, and so was Jim Crow. In addressing the outcomes of these institutions, race must be the driving force. To tell a group of people who were literally shackled for hundreds of years that “the laws says now you’re equal, work harder and stop complaining about the past” does not make a person racially colorblind — it just makes them blind.
James Brennan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.