In 1845, Frederick Douglass, a fugitive from slavery, joined dozens of white passengers on the British ship Cambria in New York harbor. Somewhere out on the Atlantic, the other passengers discovered that the African American activist in their midst had just published a sensational autobiography. They convinced the captain to host a sort of salon, wherein Douglass would tell them his life story. But when the young black man stood up to talk, a group of Southern slaveholders, on their way to Britain for vacation or business or both, confronted him.
Despite claims that we've entered a "post-racial" era, racism is alive and well, thriving even, and anti-black racism in particular continues to escalate. Layla AbdelRahim and I first discussed this topic several years ago after the Treyvon Martin murder. The recent modern-day lynching of eighteen year old Michael Brown by a Ferguson, MO police officer has once again raised familiar issues, including the mainstream media’s propensity to posthumously blame the victims of racist violence for their own deaths.
This is a community grieving. Not just over the murder of a single unarmed young man, though that was terrible enough. What I learned painting stencils with the children of that neighborhood today was this did not occur in some back alley. Where they shot him 6 times was right in the middle of a street, surrounded by multi level apartment complexes filled with children. If the shots did not get their attention the 4 hours they left the body in the middle of the street did. Several of those children did not have parents home.
Social Security’s right-wing critics like to argue that a program guaranteeing a minimal income in old age undermines the family by discouraging working people from having children—and that the resulting decline in the birthrate undermines Social Security. Yet, the right also likes to vilify people of color who have too many children. Could it be that we’ve got a double standard here?
Since I first read about him two decades ago, the oversized figure of John Brown has held a steady, awkward place in my conscience. As a white man who was willing discard his racial privilege and lay down his life to end slavery, I can think of no better inspiration with whom to identify. His daring acts were the kind I can only wish I’d have the fortitude to carry out if they made sense today.
I spent 12 years of my life in St. Louis. I went to college there. Got married. Landed my first teaching job. Bought my first house. Between door-knocking for candidates and causes, driving around on ice cold nights in a homeless shelter van, and breaking bread in people’s homes and churches and synagogues, I came to know the metropolis well. I came to love and admire its many communities — including Ferguson: so tenacious, so full of hardworking families trying to stay afloat, trying to dismantle racial apartheid and make a better life for their children.
In Chicago and across the country, whites looking to achieve the American dream could rely on a legitimate credit system backed by the government. Blacks were herded into the sights of unscrupulous lenders who took them for money and for sport. “It was like people who like to go out and shoot lions in Africa. It was the same thrill,” a housing attorney told the historian Beryl Satter in her 2009 book, Family Properties. “The thrill of the chase and the kill.”
Poverty in America is an enormous problem. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 15 percent of Americans, or 46.5 million people, lived below the poverty line in 2012. And the poor are increasingly isolated across America. As Sean Reardon and Kendra Bischoff have documented, between 1970 and 2009 the proportion of poor families living in poor neighborhoods more than doubled, from 8 to 18 percent. And the trend shows no signs of abating.
During his 2004 Senate run and again during the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama stood firm in his opposition to reparations for the descendants of enslaved Africans here in the United States. "I have said in the past - and I'll repeat again - that the best reparations we can provide are good schools in the inner city and jobs for people who are unemployed," he said in 2008 right before his historic election.
Which side of history do you stand on? Do you stand with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 that made every neighborhood watched by the slave patrols. Do you stand with the courts, police and juries that time and time again acquitted anyone accused of lynching a Black person? Do you stand with the White Citizenship Councils who were the most “respected” men of their community, who defended Jim Crow apartheid? Do you stand with the Klu Klux Klan who were the first to make the argument that the Voting Rights Act and Affirmative Action gave “special rights” to Blacks, an argument that quickly became a rally crying for white Americans around the country.