In the years following the American Civil War whites in America both North and South pondered the greatest problem facing the nation: what was to be done with the Negro now that American blacks were emancipated from slavery.
The strivings of black people to be treated equally under the law as promised by the Fourteenth Amendment, making them full United States citizens, and specifically guaranteeing them the “equal protection of the laws”—something actual and not just implied by the Fourteenth Amendment, raised the most difficult of questions for whites, particularly in the Southern states of the former Confederacy.
Slavery had been the means by which blacks were controlled and rendered fully inferior in status to whites. Now that institution was gone. Worst of all or best of all depending on your perspective, was that African-Americans began to act and to expect to be treated as full citizens of the United States following the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868. In point of fact, simple emancipation led many blacks to act in a manner anticipating an equal status immediately upon the close of the Civil War.
White Southerners and many of those in the Northern States, whenever faced with a difficult adjustment to the new state of things in the United States referred to the Negro’s new status as either the “Negro Question” or the” Negro Problem.”
Just how were blacks to be restrained from realizing full equality under the law? Never mind social equality which even many blacks saw as impossible at the time.
George Cable, a white Southerner from Louisiana with Northern roots wrote of this great question: “There is a growing number who see that the one thing we cannot afford to tolerate at large is a class of people less than citizens; and that every interest in the land demands that the Freedman be free to become in all things, as far as his own personal gifts will lift and sustain him, the same sort of American citizen he would be if with the same intellectual and moral caliber, he were white.”
Cable went on to note that it was not merely a question of legal equality. “There is scarcely one public relation of life in the South where he is not arbitrarily and unlawfully compelled to hold toward the white man the attitude of an alien, a menial, and a probable reprobate, by reasons of his race and color.”
This late Nineteenth Century observation about race relations in America was not just a legal or juridical one but a more broad social, human rights question where blacks were being judged as a group based on the color of their skin.
Of course the American answer to the Negro Question was Jim Crow Segregation for nearly a century of our history.
This bit of history from our deep past has an immediacy almost beyond belief. The verdict in the George Zimmerman Trial and the public comment following revealed and is revealing the deep racial division in our nation in 2013, a full century-and-a-half after the American Civil War.
First let us sample the views of opinion leaders on the conservative, Republican right:
Ted Nugent: National Board Member of the National Rifle Association and Columnist for the website WND. Writing in his regular column on July 24th:
“Why wasn’t Trayvon Martin educated and raised to simply approach someone he wasn’t sure about and politely ask what was going on and explain he was headed home? Had he, I am confident that Zimmerman would have called off the authorities and everything would have been fine.
Why the nasty “creepy a—cracker” racism and impulse to attack? Where does this come from? Is it the same mindless tendency to violence we see in black communities across America, most heartbreakingly in Chicago pretty much every day of the week? Where does this come from? And why is it so prevalent?”
Nugent is rendering the judgment that black Americans as a group have a “mindless tendency to violence.” There is a wonderful movie line in the Ronald Maxwell 1993 film Gettysburg where a Union soldier says with pithy profundity: “Any man that judges by the group is a pea-wit. You take each man one at a time.”
What of the behavior of Irish white Americans in New York City in the 1850’s and 1860’s in the Five Points neighborhood and its environs that led up to the New York Draft Riots of July 1863? Here, just such a “mindless tendency to violence” led to the death of over 100 black Americans, many of them women and children, and required the United States Army to send veteran combat regiments direct from the battlefield at Gettysburg to restore order.
Historians might helpfully tell Mr. Nugent that white Irish Americans in New York during that time were a much oppressed ethnic minority and poverty was rampant. This is true of the very same Chicago neighborhoods that produce the violence Nugent rightly complains of. Is race or ethnicity a determinant of human behavior or could poverty and an oppressive discrimination play a central part?
Patrick Buchanan weighed in on the growing racial divide in America by pointing out that New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly notes that 96 percent of all crimes in New York City are committed by blacks and Hispanics. Only 85 percent of stop and frisks are in those two racial categories. Of course omitted by that set of statistics is the fact that those crimes are black-on-black or Hispanic-on- Hispanic and a factor of where you live in the city.
Nationally, 84 percent of whites who are murdered are murdered by other whites. So it would seem race does not absolve some races from the responsibility for their actions as individuals. Criminality is common to all of humanity over recorded historic time. This says more about where we live and that de-facto racial segregation is a fact of American life in the Twenty-first century as it was previously. And, the quality of education, opportunities for legal, gainful employment, and the prevalence of poverty in both New York and Chicago are factors Buchanan and Nugent leave out of their analyses.
Marcus Garvey, the Black Nationalist leader of the Twentieth Century wrote an essay “The True Solution of the Negro Problem” where he said, “if the Negro were to live in this Western Hemisphere for another five hundred years he would still be outnumbered by other races who are prejudiced against him. He cannot resort to the government for protection for government will be in the hands of the majority of people who are prejudiced against him, hence for the Negro to depend on the ballot and his industrial progress alone, will be hopeless as it does not help him where he is lynched, burned, Jim-crowed and segregated. The future of the Negro therefore, outside of Africa spells ruin and disaster.”
Fortunately, since 1922 when Garvey penned those words, major strides have been made in race relations in the United States and much of the Western Hemisphere—yet a shadowy and intractable racism remains in how all Americans perceive each other. It will take working together to work our way out of this rather than employing race-based stereotypes, or racially profiled views of racial or ethnic or even religious minorities in the nation. The Fox News Interview with a distinguished religious scholar who has written a book on Jesus Christ and who factually is a Muslim boiled down to an inquisition and repeated questions about just how a Muslim scholar could write a thing on Christianity. Religious discrimination is part of this too.
Sean Hannity: “Now the president’s saying Trayvon could’ve been me 35 years ago. This is a particularly helpful comment is that the president admitting that I guess because what he was part of the Choom Gang and he smoked pot and he did a little blow—I’m not sure how to interpret because we know that Trayvon had been smoking pot that night.”
Here Hannity is employing a whole series of racial stereotypes, directed not only at the victim of the incident, whether criminal or not, but at a sitting President of the United States who was to any reasonably sentient human being, empathizing with the position of Trayvon Martin, no matter how troubled or problematic. Even white conservatives often intone that young Martin was tragically killed that night, however necessary his killing may have been to some.
Factually, any historian who writes of this period in American history will in future have to marvel at the level of invective and hatred of a lawfully and twice elected President of the United States. The fact of Obama’s blackness is itself being the most highly racially divisive. But it is not necessarily the product of Barack Obama himself and the mere fact of his existence or the high office he holds.
George Will, a long time and greatly respected conservative newspaper columnist was on NBC’s Meet the Press recently and turned to a racial explanation for the bankruptcy of Detroit, Michigan:
“You have a city 139 square miles, you can graze cattle in vast portions of it, and dangerous herds of feral dogs roam in there. You have three percent of fourth graders reading at the national math standards, 47 percent of Detroit residents are functionally illiterate, 79 percent of Detroit children are born to unmarried mothers. They don’t have a fiscal problem, Steve, they have a cultural collapse.”
George Will here is blaming the victim. Though he does not use racial terms, we all know the people who have failed he is speaking of are black. The much noted historical collapse of Detroit’s dominant industry, the automotive industry in the late 1970’s, popularized in Michael Moore’s Roger and Me, the white flight of affluent, middle class whites who previously paid a lot of property taxes to the suburbs, and even the siphoning off of the black economic and civic elite to black suburbs of their own, left the remainder of those resident in Detroit having to figure out how to maintain city services with not just a shrinking tax base but an almost non-existent one in large quarters of the city.
Successive minority mayors mismanaged Detroit in an urban meltdown hoping the auto industry would return, but it did not. The U.S. automobile industry has revived in the United States but not in Detroit’s 139 George- Willian square miles.
Hannity, Beck, O’Reilly and so many other commentators on the political right, all but two or three of them white Caucasians, have repeatedly demanded that blacks, Latinos, and other racial or ethnic or religious minorities pay attention to the violence perpetrated in our cities by blacks-on-blacks, or Hispanics-on-Hispanics, or Muslims-on-Muslims.
Civil rights leaders like Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, Al Sharpton, who has repeatedly spoken on the violence, especially gun violence in our cities, Jesse Jackson, himself resident in Chicago, whatever you think of his facial expressions in photos and personality, is a distinguished and historically significant civil rights leader deep in Dr. King’s non-violent passive resistance tradition for racial justice in America, and so many others have a keen awareness of the black-on-black crime and the weak underpinnings of black families who live in abject poverty in our worst urban neighborhoods.
Yet calls for resources, attention, and effort to be made in pitching into these urban problems have always met with a smug racially stereotypical response from white Americans who at this moment are 62.5% of all Americans in the United States. However negatively you view Africa-American achievement and behavior to be they are only 14% of all Americans. Individual black people are not being excused from any criminality which they commit. And the overwhelming majority of African-Americans who do not or commit minor offenses ought not be saddled with the yoke of racial inferiority.
Black civil rights leaders have been repeatedly calling for gun safety measures to keep guns out of the hands of gang members and criminals in black neighborhoods where most people amazingly are yet law abiding and often victims of this violence themselves.
It is as if the black community in the United States was too stupid to be able to make the distinction between violence wrought of splintered black families living in poverty, many of them working jobs yet poor, and those contemporary cases where racial profiling as in the Zimmerman Case is so marked and so well supported by the evidence in this case, George Zimmerman’s recorded audio reaction to seeing a kid in a hoodie going home with a can of iced tea and skittles and talking on a cell phone.
Those of us who are sensitive to the racial problems yet to be faced in the United States in the Twenty-first century stand incredulous at the resurgence of racism however well-intentioned or swept into the background. It is not President Obama who has been the most divisive force where the divisions of race are concerned but it is the white schizophrenic, even paranoid, extremist reaction to his appearance on the national scene and his election to national office as President.
In 1944, a Swedish academic came to the United States and researched and later published a monumental study of American race relations. Gunnar Myrdal was fully expecting to document the innate inferiority of the black race and the issue known to him even then as “The Negro Problem.” To his surprise, his sociological study showed that instead of a “Negro Problem” the United States distinctly had a “white problem” in regard to race. “America is continuously struggling for its soul,” he wrote. And so it is in 2013.
We don’t refer any longer in contemporary language to African-Americans as Negroes. Yet the cat-scratched fevered remarks of the Ted Nugent’s of the world and so many people of white, conservative bent have raised the specter of a New Negro Question for America.
Let’s cut to the chase and while recognizing the criminality and personal individual responsibility of inner city blacks who commit crimes, may each American have an intellectual and emotional epiphany where we see that racism explains a great deal about how members of minority groups are perceived and to what extent they are valued to this very day.
Dr. Thomas Martin Sobottke
for Struggles for Justice