I am reading Jill Laporte’s sweeping 800 page history of the United States entitled “These Truths” within the context of the current uprisings around racism. The theme of racial violence and racism is a primary thread throughout her book, from the beginning of the slave trade in 1619 through systematic, codified “power over” policies that oppressed the black population while preserving de facto white privilege and supremacy.
Skin color, I learn, was not originally the basis of widespread discrimination throughout the early years of European exploration. European traders regularly married indigenous people and raised families without a race consciousness. Lapore writes, "Color in many ways marked status, but it did not mark a line between slavery and freedom; color meant color: reds and browns, pinks and yellows.” Britain's mainland colonies, however, established a far different and more brutal racial regime, one that imagined only two colors, black and white, and two statuses, slave and free.” So that’s the summarized historical backstory that links skin color, slavery, and white supremacy that constitute the definition of the racism we have been confronting anew this past week.*
Early in our history, then, race, and its underlying principle of racism, came to be defined by the difference between “inferior” blacks and slavery while even poor white land owners were afforded the basis of "white privilege.” To use a rather harsh, but I think accurate analogy: racism is like an ignored and untreated skin carcinoma that has metastasized and invaded and infected the entire historical “body" of the United States. Slavery, subordination, inequality, oppression and protected white privilege are its symptoms. And racism’s advance throughout American history - from the introduction and dependence on slavery, the racially biased Constitution, the Civil War, the reestablishment of suppression of the newly freed slaves during the Reconstruction era that then led to Jim Crow - all have created a pattern of pain, oppression, and disenfranchisement for most black people for the past four hundred years. This is racism. And we who because of the color of our skin, have benefitted from the inequality of the racist distinction, we white folk who like myself have barely noticed the impact of racism on my black brothers and sisters, now need to accept our need to dispose of our various levels of "racist carcinoma" on our own backs.
Thankfully, for the past decade or so the American public has become slowly more aware of the depth and pervasiveness of our racist history. Well read books like The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander and Just Mericies by Brian Stevenson (now also a popular movie), among others, that have begun to make us aware of the use of the terrorism of lynchings and the calculated strategy of mass incarceration to disenfranchise, subordinate and politically and economically disadvantage the majority of the black population.
In spite of a growing awareness, however, the events of this week have once again made the presence of pervasive racism all too current. Most white Americans - and perhaps all of us - got a stunning upgraded “diagnosis" that despite some hopeful treatments and encouragement [read election of Obama and BlackLivesMatter] we are still with a "stage two or three level" of metastasized, debilitating racism in our American cultural system. And if we don’t deal with it it will likely be a major cause of a dying nation.
Fortunately I personally have not been treated for cancer, but I have learned from others its physical and emotional toll. People tell me of their anxious questions: What is the prognosis? What is the best treatment, and can I tolerate its impact on my already compromised body? When will I know my test results? But I also understand from my friends who have dealt with cancer the crucial importance of accepting their diagnosis, trusting and working with competent medical caregivers, and surrounding themselves with layers of love and support. And perhaps even more crucial, whether or not cancer patients survive, they often report the cancer crisis brought them closer to their friends and family and their mortality, and therefore a deeper appreciation of the not-to-be-taken-for-granted gift of life - theirs and life in general.
I want to believe our nation can heal from our debilitating racism along the lines of recovery reported by cancer patients. This past week we have witnessed a healing process that often begins with the initial responses of anger and denial. If and when we can accept our “diagnosis” we can then begin engaging in “second opinions” about what “treatments” are recommended or required if we choose to try to heal. Possible treatments will undoubtedly require some radical systemic change: livable wages for our “essential” workers [read people of color providing often unseen, menial, low paying but crucial services]; universal health care [read to include the poor], civil rights protections [read the right to vote]; and criminal justice reform [read stop imprisoning black people for the crime of poverty and being black]; among others.
My point: racism is a serious, historically conditioned, potentially fatal disease like a cancer that continues to compromise the nation’s body and soul. Whether or not it is treatable will depend in large part whether the American people can commit to healing through education and the willingness of white America to accept the required need for systemic change. A positive answer is not guaranteed. We can ask ourselves, however, regardless of color or creed, whether we are ready and able to take seriously the premise of the nation’s founders to “ hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” All people.
I need to close with a footnote of realism by acknowledging that the events of the past two weeks regretfully demand that we add the difficult task of dismantling racism to the other critical, overwhelming challenges of surviving the Covid-19 pandemic and life threatening climate disruption. Someone has astutely observed that they all could be summarized under the heading of “I can’t breathe.” But breathe we must if we are to survive, perhaps taking in deep breaths of appreciation for just being alive, and hoping that all this tumult with result in breaths of fresh and life-giving, radical, positive change for humanity, the environment and the whole fragile planet.
*These Truths, Jill Lapore, Norton, 2018, pp 69-70