By SUSAN K. SMITH
Crazy Faith Ministries
Maya Angelou, the beloved actor, poet and civil rights activist, gave one of the most important life lessons that any of us might get in a lifetime, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”
I keep thinking about that as I hear pundits and news anchors and politicians say, in response to the most recent eruption of racial violence in this country that “this is not who we are.”
This is exactly “who we are.” America has been racist since its inception as a country, and even before it formally became a country.
Isabel Wilkerson, author of Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, says that the dehumanization of Black people began before slavery, but that with slavery, the categorization was cemented.
People of African descent were used to build this country’s economy. Early on, White employers separated White and Black workers, subliminally teaching each group that there was one group that was greater, superior to the other. America’s caste system required that each group stay “in its place.” Black people, relegated to the lowest rung of this country’s society, would forever remain there. While White people from other nations might enter this country and be in servitude for some time, they could hide their ethnicity (some ethnicities were more likely to become indentured servants than others) but Black people could not hide. The color of their skin set us apart, making it easy for “the mark” of inferiority an indelible imprint.
So much of what this country did was based on the belief of those who constructed the new nation was based on the widespread belief that Black people were inferior; we were dehumanized and criminalized, and nobody thought much about it. I was recently reminded about how Black people were treated at the Chattahoochee Brick Company in Atlanta after reading Remembering toll, legacy of Chattahoochee Brick Co. in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Black people were basically re-enslaved after the slavery was ended, but because they were needed to continue to build the American economy, Whites devised Convict Leasing, where Black people could be and were arrested for the most minor offenses and assigned to labor in various companies. At the Chattahoochee Brick Company, young Black men [and some women] were assigned the task of making literally hundreds of thousands of bricks every day. Douglas Blackmon, author of Slavery by Another Name said that the company worked Black people to death and buried them in unmarked graves.”
That treatment of Black people as expendable, inhuman and criminal has only gotten worse through the years. The paranoia we see these days, coupled with White anger, is not new, and with the reality of the “browning” of America, the virulent pus that has been a part of America since her birth is pushing to the surface.
Some White people who were part of the work to demonize and dehumanize Black people in the past are now repentant and want to stop what they see happening right before their eyes. They know what it is; they helped create it, but never thought it would get this bad. I have actually heard some former conservative hardliners break down and cry as they have admitted they have helped create this monster.
Others have said that what is unrolling before us will result in violence – or should we say, more violence. A reporter friend of mine said, “I hate to say it, but this is going to end up in a civil war.”
America has never dealt with its bigotry. While spouting its pride in its “exceptionalism” what has actually been exceptional is that this country has gotten away with claiming to be “the land of the free and the home of the brave” while actually being such a toxic country when it comes to race that in history, other countries, including Nazi Germany, studied America’s race laws as they constructed their own societies exclusion, making “White” people the “chosen” race.
It is troubling that so many people who have the power to teach the truth about this country and thus perhaps offer real ways to combat it, seem ignorant of the history. The media feeds right into the narratives that the dominant culture has been spoon feeding everyone again – since this country became a country.
I shudder to think about where we are headed. Too many Americans think that what happened in German can never happen here. That denial will accelerate and clear the path for America to be … what she has always been.
America has shown us and the world what she is. We should believe her.
Rev. Dr. Susan K. Smith is the founder and director of Crazy Faith Ministries. She is available for speaking. And she is an award-winning author for her latest book, “With Liberty and Justice for Some: The Bible, the Constitution, and Racism in America,” available through all booksellers. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.