While the nation remained paused and indoors due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the horrendous murder of George Floyd by several Minneapolis police officers opened the eyes of many in white America to the reality that most Black people already knew existed: our nation’s institutions are, and always have been, racist.
This is not to say that everyone who works within these institutions is racist, rather, the practices, priorities and actions of these institutions are deeply embedded in our country’s shameful history of discrimination against Black people. A shameful history starting in 1619 that saw about 600,000 Africans stolen from their homes to labor for free in the New World for 263 years. Slavery was “abolished” with the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution following the passage of the Confiscation Acts and the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, with the last slaves being set free in Texas in 1865. What followed that atrocity was a hundred years of belittlement, hate and racism toward the Black community in the form of Jim Crow laws and segregation. The Black community saw its voting rights challenged and faced unequal treatment by law enforcement. Black facilities were never in as good of shape as those in white communities and nonviolent protests were often met by violence from police officers and white Americans. There was a “war on drugs” that turned out to be a war on Black people, and the infamous 1994 Crime Bill and mandatory minimums led to mass incarceration that disproportionately affected Black people as well.
Some of the problems faced by the Black community immediately following slavery are still prevalent today. The problems Martin Luther King Jr. and recently deceased John Lewis preached about during the March On Washington in 1963, such as Black people’s right to vote and to be treated equally, are problems Lewis talked about while walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 2020. The mistreatment of the Black community and overuse of force by police rapped about by N.W.A and Tupac in the 90s continues today and were central themes of Kendrick Lamar’s critically acclaimed album, “To Pimp A Butterfly,” released in 2015.
Why is that?
It is because America has never truly admitted its guilt nor has the country reconciled with its shameful treatment of the Black community. Our country never adequately apologized for slavery or gave what is owed to the Black community for building the economy that positioned the colonies, and eventually the United States, to become the economic superpower that it is today. How did the United States expect the Black community to become a prosperous group, capable of making it in America, if America never adjusted the institutions or practices of government that existed when people with Black skin were deemed to only be three-fifths of a person? How does the United States expect the Black community to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps” when so many within it are theoretically walking around barefoot?
Here’s a great analogy I heard: three people are playing Monopoly for hundreds of rounds, however, the makers of the game made it so that one player couldn’t earn money, buy any property or own any businesses. The other two players are able to accumulate a ton of money, buy a bunch of property and own just about everything on the board. All three players are following the rules of the game but the game makers tilted the scales against the third player to make it impossible for them to ever win.
That is the history of Black America.
Even though Black Americans abide by the same laws and now have somewhat of the same opportunities that white Americans do, the white community had a 263 year head-start and nothing has ever been done to level the playing field or shorten the gap. Black people to this day do not own nearly as much property or as many businesses as those in the white community because of the trickle-down effect of preventing our ancestors from being able to obtain money, educate themselves or live comfortably for 263 years. When will America make the Black community whole? How can America make up for its past wrongdoings and current shortcomings?
America can learn how to reconcile and come to grips with its past by examining the actions of Germany following the country’s own heinous crimes and policies during the 40s. With the end of World War II and the fall of the Third Reich, Germany was in physical and economic ruin. In order to revive its economy, Germany would need to become an ally to the very powers they had fought against, a feat that could only be possible if they admitted guilt and addressed their crimes against the Jewish people during the Holocaust. Vergangenheitsbewältigung, meaning “overcoming the past,” was the name of the process Germany coined to come to terms with what they had done under the rule of Hitler and National Socialism. This process included the Nuremberg trials where Nazi officials were tried for crimes against humanity by the International Military Tribunal. In order to atone for exploiting the Jewish community for free labor, Germany agreed to allocate reparation payments to individuals forced into labor and servitude or their living descendants, as well as payments to Israel, which integrated Holocaust survivors. Germany has provided over €66 billion (about $76 billion) in goods to Israel and payments to the aforementioned individuals.
While no one alive today is personally to be blamed or held accountable for the actions of their ancestors, their ancestors’ actions have long-lasting effects that continue to hurt the Black community today. We as a country have an obligation to accept our past and discuss how to move forward. Four hundred and one years have gone by since Africans were stolen from their homes, sent to this land and sold. From the moment they got here to now, America has shown a blatant disregard for the lives and well-being of people with Black skin. Many believe America to be “the greatest country on Earth,” and I cannot disagree. America is great, not for what it was or what it is, but because it is always open to change and to become a better version of itself. It’s time for our country to engage in self-reflection and come to terms with the fact that our institutions and their functions need to be re-examined and modified because they have done — and continue to do — little or nothing to uplift the Black community.
That would only be the first step. What would have to follow would be a form of reparations to the Black community. Not reparations in the form of a check from the government to the descendants of slaves, but instead reparations through investing and allocating resources directly into Black communities for education, social programs, community restoration projects, business loans or grants and job programs. If this were to happen, America would make the future for its Black population much more promising than its past. A future that the Black community not only deserves, but is owed.