If you think racism in America is a Southern problem, you are not paying attention. American racism has never been a Southern problem. Our federal government has always enforced racist norms. When Nat Turner rebelled, the federal government sent in the United States Navy to stop the uprising. Both the American Navy and Army were used to crush perhaps the greatest revolt against tyranny America has ever seen, the German Coast Uprising. The commissioners enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act were federal. Woodrow Wilson sent in federal troops during the 1919 riots in Washington, D.C….to quell Black folks attacked by white vigilantes. The Federal Bureau of Investigation targeted Dr. King, Malcolm X, Fred Hampton, and they did it again with the Black Lives Matter movement. Federal force enforces racism.
It has always been so.
And it Matters Because…?
Because I’m weary of the idea that our culpability for American racism depends on whether our family personally enslaved laborers. It doesn’t. We have culpability as Americans. This is our group. America. Unless you don’t identify as an American. Then this post is not for you. You may have culpability as a member of another group, though.
You don’t like the strength of the word “culpable”? Substitute responsibility instead. As in, we carry responsibility as Americans for America’s actions. If that makes you chafe, consider: did you drop the bomb on Hiroshima? I mean, was your dad the pilot of the Enola Gay? No? So that sobering act doesn’t make you squirm? Or maybe you feel grief for America’s actions at My Lai or Abu Ghraib. Why? Were you there? It doesn’t have anything to do with you just because you’re American.
If I Try It On, It Feels Like…
To look at it another way, do you cheer at the Olympics for America? But if you aren’t the one breaking the tape at the finish line, what right do you have to identify with the team just because you’re American? Do you weep when Texans die in a flood? When a tornado devastates the mid-west? Is your heart with Hawaii? Are you proud of Jazz and Rock-n-Roll and the Blues and Kitty Hawk and Neil Armstrong and the Greatest Generation that defeated the Nazis? Can you feel tears forming when the colour guard passes with the flag because you are American?
If any of this feels familiar, then the only possible explanation for why we persist in refusing to identify with the American sins of slavery and racism is because we refuse to admit how embedded they have always been in America. They aren’t American, they can’t be. Or we would realize they must be ours grieve. Not just grieve. Like the outpouring of people eager to help Hawaii repair the devastation of the fire, ours also to repair.