A Reflection During Black History Month

Of course the discourse around Black History is politicized.  

Ron DeSantis cites an AP African American History course’s “shoehorning” Queer Theory in with Black History as evidence of a political agenda.  He’s not incorrect, but his own agenda is also political.  Had he said that the shoehorning was an injustice to both the “queer” and the African American experience, he might have had a claim to be above politics, but he did not appear concerned. 

On the “other side,” Hulu is releasing a series based on the New York Times’ “1619 Project,” which puts slavery and racism “at the very center of our national narrative.”  Had it aimed to show how racism imposes itself at the very center of any Black person’s national narrative, the project could have been an exercise in moral education.  But to paint it as the essence of America’s national purpose is to stake a political claim.  

It is a tragedy of American History that there should be such a thing as Black History.  Black History only stands apart from American history because of the exclusions of the African American population from the rest of America.  Slavery and discrimination, based on race, created a separate society in America, which means it has a separate history, with racism at the center of its narrative.

Many have come to refer to slavery as America’s “original sin,” but that usage is inaccurate.  Original sin refers to something that cannot be excised from your existence, like the fact that all of us are sexually conceived.  America’s conquest of our territory from Native populations very likely qualifies as original sin.  That raises a profound issue that demands a whole discourse of its own.  And while race played a role in white hostility to Natives, shoehorning the two racisms together does justice to neither.   Getting back to racism per se, the nation was founded on a creed of rights equally endowed in all.  The sins of slavery and racism run far too deep, but their persistence in America is a violation of our existential premise.  To call them original sin is to concede them some place in national life.  We must, as a requirement of our national existence, eradicate racism, in a way that original sin cannot be erased.  

Most Americans do know that racism violates our founding tenets.  Most try, or know they should try, to respect the equal endowment of rights in all.  The only concerted counter-argument, that called the Declaration’s tenet of equality less than central to national identity, was eradicated with its offspring, the “Confederate States of America.”  Racism is un-American.  Most that occurs today reflects laziness or inattention.  Those who actively promote it and commit race-based abuse are usually people whom no one respects, and who know it.  But, because sanctions against racism and its legacies are so lax, all of society needs to answer for it.  After all, for a black person, it only takes one lowlife to keep racism active and consequential.

While all racism is un-American, much prejudice against other minorities has diffused over time.  Blacks not only were enslaved on the basis of race, but have ever since been excluded from the means to make their way as free persons.  Schooling was segregated throughout the country; prejudice precluded mortgages and homeownership and jobs at equal pay.  Hence the sense of ‘systemic” racism.  And while it may be that 99 percent of the world is not racist, the remaining lowlifes can inflict race-based abuse with some feeling of sanction.  Any Black person always stands vulnerable to capricious abuse.   

The worst sin of racism does not lie in the damages such as denial of schooling or exclusion from homeownership.  The damage is real and immense, and the “long train of Abuses,” inflicted against these specified persons for specifically race-based motives, does call for redress.  But for all that, the worst effect is moral.  America exists for the unalienable rights of all persons.  The point of these rights is for everyone to make life by their own lights.  Every person is a whole person, with needs, aspirations, skills, and impulses.  Our creed of rights says all deserve the same innate respect as whole persons.  Any treatment based on reduction of a person to something that they did not do, whether in their favor due to (say) inherited wealth or to their detriment, undermines America’s very existence.  Real life, of course, will always lag an abstract ethos such as our founding creed.  Convergence with that aspiration does, in practice, take time and persistent development.  But for anyone to reduce another based on race is a specifically repugnant sin, against the nation as well as the victim.

What is America to do?  The urge for a Black person to disown our founding is emotionally understandable.  But renunciation of the Declaration’s tenets would throw away the best impetus to make all of us truly free.  Rather it is up to all of us to eradicate racism, to check ourselves for its impulses, to call others on it when we see it, to ensure full and severe punishment, swiftly and surely, of race-based abuses.  It is up to all of us to treat each of us as whole persons.  And it is up to all of us too, to know and assert that America’s nature calls for racism’s eradication.  Racism, in its violation of America’s reason for being, is a threat to national existence.  

As for Black History, we should work to turn it into true history.  It should devolve into an account of the past, an integral chapter of America’s history that spurs us to our best efforts for the future.  


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