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The Bright Line is not Monotonic

The anthology of myths commonly known as America rests upon the notion that history is linear. In the past people in this country ignorantly did bad things to other people. But thanks to the passage of time, we can now "let the past to be the past," because today we live in a time when things have gotten much better. Furthermore, any problem that our society faces in the present will inevitably be solved as "the old guard" dies off and a new generation of better people takes their place. 

Of course this story isn't told so simply or explicitly. But the assumption lurks beneath the other stories we, as Americans, tell ourselves and each other. The myth certainly undergirds the notion that racism is a thing of the past, and that today we inhabit a "post-racial" world in which all people, regardless of race have equal access to betterment, dignity and happiness. We are lulled into beliving that at some point in the mid to late 1960's, a wise reverend implored the nation to judge others by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, and America heeded his call, dropped racism from our social fabric, and we all moved forward into the light. 

Time heals all wounds, or so the story goes.


The problem is that this linear historical framework shows cracks and strains when well-documented facts are pieced together along the bright line that links the present to the past. In this space, I have previously explored the historical origins of race, as well as the construction of Black criminality which was used to justify convict leasing for half a century following the Emancipation Proclamation and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. Without knowledge of the new slavery that followed old slavery, it can certainly look as if things improved for Black Americans after the Civil War. But knowing that most Black people entered into new forms of captivity and racial control shows that the bright line of history had at least one justice-related kink in it. 

Indeed, this is not the only kink. After all, all Americans know about the form of racial apartheid commonly referred to as Jim Crow that was practiced in the South until the middle of the 20th century. Less well known, but just as well documented was the housing discrimination in the North that locked generations of Black Americans out of building wealth at the same time that white Americans were granted government-backed home loans; subsidized roads leading out of the cities and into the new suburbs; and government assistance in higher education, as well as a socialized safety net to help them protect the wealth they built and pass it along to their children—back when affirmative action was roundly endorsed by white Americans. Meanwhile, and since then, red-lining, contract-selling, blockbusting, white flight, and tales of "oh, that house is no longer on the market," have greeted generations of hard-working Black Americans as they attempted to claw their way out of the poverty they were relegated to following the end of antebellum slavery. 

Time heals all wounds, or so the story goes.

History shows that the line does not monotonically increases from injustice to justice. The path that Michelle Alexander follows in her best selling book The New Jim Crow, shows twists and bends, and no discernible net increase in justice. Instead, it shows a pattern of oppression, resistance, incremental gains, and a morphing of racial control from one form to another, ultimately leading to a return to oppression. 

Millions of slaves resisted their bondage, stealing their bodies along the Underground Railroad; serving in America's endless string of wars under the promise of freedom rarely granted; and denying the Confederacy their labor (mass striking) and defecting to fight with the Union. The resistance of slaves eventually led to the end of of their bondage and a decade of Reconstruction, during which Black folks made major political and economic gains, despite starting from scratch (no, there was no forty acres, nor a mule).

However, America, with its abiding faith in the existence of race, and their insistence on the supremacy of whiteness, could no longer be bothered to protect its non-white citizens, and new forms of racial control took over: debt peonage, share cropping, and convict leasing. These systems later morphed into Jim Crow segregation, enforced by local police forces in collaboration with citizen brigades such as the Ku Klux Klan. Fine, upstanding (white) citizens posing in front of Black bodies hanging as strange fruit. Terrorism visited upon Black communities as local, state and federal governments looked the other way, or participated. During this brutal period of racial control, six million Black Americans fled north following railroad lines. Ever wonder why there are so many Black folk in Milwaukee, Newark, Oakland? They came from the South as part of one of the largest domestic migrations the world has ever known.

But what of the Good Reverend? America learned its lesson after the children had firehoses and dogs turned on them, right? Sadly, the King specified no radius of curvature when he said the moral arc of the Universe bends toward justice. After all, a segment of a circle (or sine wave) is an arc. 

You see, white America was never comfortable with the Civil Rights movement. MLK and other Black leaders were the targets of intensive monitoring by the FBI, local police forces, and political leaders. The man we lionize today was a villain back then to the the vast majority of Americans. Your father or uncle or cousin may have marched with the man (really?), but the rest of America was transfixed by a message of "Law and Order" preached by a new leader named Nixon. They were transfixed by the notion that their truest civil right was "freedom from domestic violence." 

Of course, there is a bitter irony in this call for law and order, given that white America had consistently visited lawlessness and disorder upon Black communities, particularly when those communities strove for something better (see the coup of Wilmington, NC, or the Tulsa Pogrom). No American community understands the fear of domestic violence better than the ghetto, where the domestic actor is too often the local police force. But, no. To Nixon's supporters, the protests in Harlem, Watts, Detroit, and DC were not the result of people crying out for freedom from state-sanctioned violence. Rather, those protests were the violent crime that Nixon was referring to. Those Black people sitting at segregated lunch counters, standing unarmed in the way of riot police, and otherwise highlighting the injustice of racial control—they were the ones breaking the law of the land. And all good Americans know that those who break the law are criminals. 

This would not be the first, nor last time that the fight for civil rights was perverted by people's deep-seated belief in race. This was just the latest time that Black criminality was leveraged for political gain. The fear of Blackness moved America as no other force, then as now. The freedom to discriminate will not suffer infringement. Nixon, followed by Reagan, Bush and Clinton made good on the promise of law and order. It might appear that it was the police—and political leaders, and Wall Street executives—who broke the law. But this reading of events ignores the racial double standard upon which our country rests. Crime, you see, is Black.

As a result, Black leaders across the nation were arrested, exiled or executed. Hampton, Shakur, Davis, King, Acoli, Marshall, Malcom, Carmichael (Ture). Today, people inveigh against the lack of leadership in the Black community, without any regard to the documented history of America removing that leadership forcefully as a matter of policy. And lest anyone look too closely, the allure of the myth of Black criminality provides all the justification needed to change the subject and move on. What rights does a criminal have?

Time heals all wounds, or so the story goes.

From slavery to convict leasing. From the selling of bodies for corporate profit, to "segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." From the Jim (and Jane) Crow to...freedom? Is that where we find ourselves today? From the Civil Rights Act to a post-racial America? Well, if the election of a racist as our president—and here I use only the flaccid, dictionary definition of racist—along with his white nationalist cabinet hasn't disabused you of this post-racial dream, allow me to give you some facts and figures:

US Americans represent 5% of the world's human population, yet is home to 25% of the world's prisoners. 

Black men make up 6.5% of the US population, yet 40% of the US prison population.

At the height of white America's anxiety about crime, back when Nixon promised to protect them from domestic violence, there were about 260 thousand people in prisons and jail. Today, that number has increased nearly 10-fold.

A white child has a 1-in-13 chance of eventually ending up in the prison system (prison, jail, parole). The chance is 1-in-3 for Black child.

There are more Black Americans in jails and prisons today than there were slaves just before the Civil War.

In recent years many historians—at least those willing to look with seeing eyes—were wondering if we were in the latest nadir in the Black experience in this country. The good news is that we were not. The bad news is that we're on our way there. For you see, we are now living in the era of Mass Incarceration, an epoch now in its fifth decade. The descent will be hastened because our newest leader attained office on an old promise: Law and order.

He told the electorate that the police in Chicago, who were once found guilty of running a interrogation and torture chamber, were too restrained and needed the freedom to impose force properly. He told an audience of millions on national television that he would reinstate stop-and-frisk, which was found to be in violation of our Constitution because it unfairly targeted people of color. He promised to rid our country of the Mexican menace by building a wall along a border where people already die routinely trying to enter our country. He also promised secure our borders against Muslims, despite the myriad acts of domestic terrorism committed by white men; despite our meddling in the Middle East that has led to the present refugee crisis there. Anti-blackness has, predictably, been leveraged into anti-brown-ness, because the supremacy of whiteness will not be challenged without consequences.

Time heals all wounds, or so the story goes.

A linear historical framework is a funny thing. It makes change look like progress. But once this mythological framework is rejected, a new world comes into view. A world in which the fundamental civil right of our country is the right to discriminate, to dominate, to control, all in the name of the primacy of whiteness, with the end result of ever more wealth concentrated with the few. 

This view of history is painful, both because of the lies it reveals, but (perhaps?) because it reveals the violence and theft that is so regularly visited upon people of color in order to maintain the American Dream. The ignorance carved out by American mythology truly leads to bliss, especially when coupled with the soothing sensation of consumerism. It makes historical facts pieced together in a cogent manner look and sound like "fatalism." But the thing is, the truth is the truth, no matter how we feel about it. And its only by seeing it clearly that we can work toward a better future.

I once lost hope for this future, which led to despair. I have no desire to return to despair, but at the same time I cannot go back to believing the Lie. Instead, I'll find agency in learning about my country's history, and continue the long legacy of resistance found woven throughout that history. As I do, I will snatch happiness where I can find it along the way. 

I've learned that it's not the passage of time that heals wounds. Instead, it's what you choose to do with that time.

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