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09/10/2015

Will America Ever Come To Terms With Its Past?

In my last blog I wrote, what was in effect, a review of three books from my summer reading I did while on vacation. The first book covered the life of George Washington from the time of his resignation as General in the Continental Army, through his leadership in the Constitutional Convention in 1788, until his inauguration ceremony on 1789. The second book was a narrative history of the Great Migration of African Americans from the Jim Crow south to Northern and Western cities, and the hardships they endured throughout. And finally the third book was a contemporary description of what it is like to live in a black body today in the United States. I have been continuing my thoughts on the fate of blacks in America.

From the era of George Washington, we see the American political and social power structure becoming embedded into a political system filled, from the first moment with enormous hope but with equal, deeply troubling contradictions. There was eloquent language of the “many” no longer having to remain subservient to the “few” that seemed to reflect through reason the rights of human kind. Yet it was equally clear that Washington’s America was created to protect the financial interests of privileged white males as many human beings were excluded from participation in the new, fledgling nation, including women, native Americans who would be driven from the lands and basically exterminated, and African Americans, a few of whom were free but most enslaved as the property of white slave owners. For any semi-reflective human being with only limited moral insight, this would be an obvious contradiction and a barrier to viewing this grand experiment as worthy of moral support and allegiance. Our founders were smart men and most understood that there would be a time of required accommodation to a new order, that slavery would be, indeed, a burden for future generations to resolve. Our founders were historical figures whose moral and political ideals, though progressive for their era, exceeded what they were capable of actualizing in their own lives—Washington and Jefferson are shining examples. From the first moments of our nation, the hopes of African Americans to be included and granted full participation in this grand democratic experiment would have to wait.

Following the formation of our constitutional system of government slavery became even more entrenched in southern states and persisted through the Civil War; Reconstruction provided moments of hope and relief, but those positive signs were dashed by 1877 when northern troops left the south and southern states were able to create a system of Jim Crow laws, which relegated blacks legally and socially to second class citizens and condemned them to be at continual risk of being beaten or killed by white racists; by WWI the great migration the quest of blacks to major American cities for new lives and new possibilities met new forms of racism that restricted their opportunities to live where they wanted and work in jobs for which they were qualified or were capable of learning, which continued until the civil rights era when Jim Crow laws were banned. Though legal progress was significant in the mid 1960’s for black Americans and many blacks were able to take advantage of new opportunities for social and economic advancement, the demographic data on disparities in education, employment, income, health status, life longevity, etc. don’t lie—the gap between black and whites in America with respect to major quality of life measures has been and remains a persistent problem. Consider these facts:

-Black median household income is about 60% that of whites: $34,815 versus $57,684.

-Blacks are twice as likely to live in poverty: 27.6% versus 11.1% of whites.

-Black unemployment is nearly double that of whites: 11.3% versus 5.3%

-In terms of wealth, meaning assets owned versus debt, the median black household has $6,314 vs. $110,500. Black households average 6 cents in wealth for every dollar of white household wealth. (National Urban League 2015)

Recent evidence of rapid growth of the prison population since 1980, rising from 2-300,000 to over 2 million currently, is alarming. “Approximately 12–13% of the American population is African-American, but they make up 60% of the almost 2.1 million male inmates in jail or prison.” (US Dept. of Justice 2009) The majority of these black males are non-violent drug offenders who received excessive sentences based on concocted laws that view black drug violations differently from white drug violations. They leave prison as felons and are unable to get jobs, qualify for housing loans, and to vote—many or most are permanently disenfranchised as citizens. And many of our black communities live in fear of police violence and becoming trapped in the system of not paying traffic fines and other minor violations, which some cities and local governments use to raise badly needed revenue in an era where tax increases for the rich is unthinkable. You get the idea. 

Americans don’t like to get into the details of the history of how blacks have been treated in America. We like to think that individual initiative and determination alone can lift persons up from their original station and people can do whatever they choose and put their minds to. This attitude of hope being based on individual achievement is almost uniquely American—and it’s not all bad—I happen to like much of it, to a point—but when taken as a way of holding all people accountable for how their lives turn out, quite independently of the structural forces in which their lives have evolved, it is not only wrong; it’s also cruel and unjust. I am embracing a traditional view of justice that requires the society in which past wrongs to certain groups of people to at least acknowledge them, if not take steps to rectify them which I would prefer. My sense is that white America not only has not done that, but may be hard-wired to be incapable to doing so. The American mythology of individual self-sufficiency is a powerful driver of political views that dominate public thinking. My sense is that it is possible that the sad and tragic historical narrative of white injustice to blacks in America, that people like me feel morally requires redressing, could be replaced by a whole new narrative. Just listen to what we are hearing from some aspiring political candidates and you’ll see what I mean.

In 2013 Ben Carson, a retired Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon who is rising the Republican Tea Party polls, said that “Obamacare was the worst thing that has happened in this country since slavery”. Obamacare, or the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is a modest federal effort to expand healthcare for more Americans, many of whom are poor and black, and are in urgent need of primary care. Most healthcare experts see expanding access to healthcare as a good thing. But because Carson is a radical ideologue he sees this expansion as an overreach by the federal government. Let’s get this straight, because there was a government initiative, led by a black president who campaigned for this program and was elected twice by wide margins, to address serious healthcare needs for more Americans, those who are beneficiaries of this program are now in enslaved or otherwise as bad off as those black Americans whose bodies were owned and controlled by the slave masters? Mind-boggling, is all I can say. Equally mind-boggling are statements Carson and other Republican Tea Party leaders say about comparing contemporary America to Nazi Germany, a comparison that was used in the recent Kentucky case of public official unwilling to follow the law (marrying same sex partners) because of religious reasons. Very easily, too many people are making light of the horrors of history because of changing trends, which many of us call moral progress, that violate their ideological purity. 

Getting a handle on the past is a real challenge for America. There is much that is wonderful about the grand democratic experiment George Washington help set in to motion in 1788. Countless individuals have emerged from nowhere, from nothing, to achieve greatness and success on countless ways. But many more with similar potential have been held back and stranded in darkness. And the success of some or a few doesn’t justify the subordination of others. Without question those Americans with the contingent biological trait of white skin have had a natural advantage throughout American history. That is a very difficult notion for most of white America to admit. We may very well never come to terms as a nation with our past and how that past has shaped the present, but we do so at our own peril. 

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI’s online graduate programs, please visit our website.

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