To cite Faulkner, it isn’t even past.
In this ongoing, “Groundhog Day”-like, so-called “conversation on race,” it is important that we identify what is often left out. The following is a reworking of the foreword and introduction to my book, When Racism Is Law & Prejudice Is Policy: Prejudicial and Discriminatory Laws, Decisions and Policies in U.S. History, published in 2007. No this isn’t a shameless plug, but rather a recognition that what has been stated in the past holds some relevant points for us regarding where we find ourselves today.
Crafting a greater understanding
As we as a nation continue our perennial search to understand what, exactly, it means to be “American,” many institutions of higher education are beginning to offer more courses on race, race relations, ethnicity and culture. A plethora of teachers on every level have started to interpret history through clearer lenses than nationalism and prejudice. I humbly seek to add my voice to the massive chorus of authors who have written volumes on prejudice and racism.
This writer agrees with those other authors that for a democratic government to perpetuate injustice and inequality is not only an all-too common transgression, but an outright betrayal of the principles that this government was supposed to be founded upon.
There are many who may balk at delving into the history of the political and social sins of America. They say that those things happened a long time ago; that the examination of the past only stirs up trouble.
I will first answer the “it happened a long time ago” argument. As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “there is nothing magical in the flow of time. Time is neutral; it can be used either constructively or destructively.” Many people have the erroneous belief that time heals all wounds. In reality, a wound without proper medical care and attention doesn’t get better over time but worse. Infections can spread and become deadly.
As to the idea that examining the past only “stirs up trouble,” I respond that while sweeping does indeed stir up dirt and dust, when all is said and done, the floor is cleaner. One should always be apprehensive of peace that comes at the expense of truth.
As a sociologist, this writer has tried to view himself as a social physician, of sorts, and one the first things any physician wants to know about a patient is the medical history of their family. I’ve never heard of any patient telling a doctor that by doing this they would only stir up trouble. By knowing the medical history of a patient’s family, a physician can not only better treat the medical problems that patient may suffer from in the present, but also can indicate what preventive measures to take as well.
If a patient dares to ignore the medical history of their family and the precautions prescribed by their physician, they court danger and disaster. Along these same lines, any country that ignores the ills of their political and social history and refuses to take the necessary precautions to treat those ills courts danger and disaster. I am neither naïve nor arrogant enough to believe that by the revealing of certain truths it will make justice inevitable, but it is my hope to make injustice inexcusable.
Laws and policies can’t be separated from culture that produced them
It is an irrefutable truth that in a historically racist social system, laws will continuously reflect, protect and sustain values that are consistent with racism. The historical testimony of this is too compelling to be ignored. Most people have very little social or historical perspective, knowing next to nothing about how racism and prejudice have played a leading role in the formulation of this nation’s laws and policies. Instead they erroneously believe that America has always been impartial in administering justice.
In examining current laws and policies it should be abundantly clear to the honest mind that racism and discrimination are the norm in America’s legislation. This is made manifest when comparing the speed and vehemence by which discriminatory statutes are implemented to the apathetic, sputtering pace that laws aimed at ensuring equity and justice are enacted and enforced.
For example, consider the lightning speed by which the internment-concentration camps for Japanese Americans were set up following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. It was all of four months for the first internment camp to be established, in March 1942.
Altogether different was what took place after Brown v. Board of Education. The Supreme Court’s decision, which ruled that segregating public schools along racial lines was unconstitutional, was delivered in 1954, but no substantial action toward desegregation was taken until another Supreme Court decision 17 years later, 1971’s Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, which ruled that busing was an appropriate way to desegregate schools.
Another example is the hurried passage of the Patriot Act — a law which is discriminatory and full of prejudicial undertones — on Oct. 26, 2001, barely a month after the September 11 terror attacks. In stark contrast, the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments passed after the Civil War, but to almost exactly a to become a legal reality with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And we have witnessed challenges to those laws in the years since their groundbreaking passage.
No law that significantly impacts a specific group in a society or country can be separated from that same group’s history within that society or culture. The most important events of history are contingent upon long-standing arrangements and past experiences. Particular attention must be given to the social and political climate leading to a law or policy’s creation..At the same time, certain immediate factors can impact the passage of these statutes, (for example, the Long Depression of the 1870’s and its effect on the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882).
Importantly, a given policy has its own set of consequences – intended or otherwise. As an educator I have witnessed a disturbing detachment and indifference concerning the very laws and policies in question. I have watched students discuss many of these decrees as historical curiosities, while ignoring their contemporary social impact. To quote the anthropologist John Henrik Clarke, “What happened 500 years ago, 50 years ago or 5 minutes ago, impacts what happens 5 minutes from now, 50 years from now and 500 years from now. All of history is a current event.”
One must stay rooted in historical truth and pontificate as little as possible. By this I do not mean that I’m without opinion on the subject of racism (I regard it as a sin and a cancer, America’s greatest unresolved moral dilemma). Simply that in my experience, the agents of bigotry and error are not silenced by opinion, but by the truth.
With that in mind, there still may be some who will view the things I have written — as well as those of countless others — as a scathing indictment of America. This is unfortunate. It is history, not I, that points the finger of rebuke.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News editorial policy.