Before the 17th century, the concept of race did not exist in what would become America. According to Professor Audrey Smedley, the first time the term “White,” (rather than “Christian” or an ethnic name to indicate origin i.e., English, Irish, Scots, Portuguese, German, Spanish, Swede, etc.) “appeared in the public record was seen in a law passed in 1691 that prohibited the marriage of Europeans with Negroes, Indians, and mulattoes”.*
Race was created in America to separate poor whites and poor peoples of color. Outnumbered landowners sought to divide their labor force by encouraging and incentivizing poor whites to identify on the basis of color versus socio economic status. And it worked.
Slavery was not the result of race, but the other way around. And the uniquely, brutal American version of slavery didn’t really end but morphed into other forms of oppression, all undergirded by the racism created during slavery to control and economically exploit people of color.
“…the notion of racial difference…proved far more durable than the institution that gave birth to it.” ~ Michelle Alexander
The durability and relentless nature of racism was my key takeaway from two days of exploring the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. The pattern of gains by black people, followed by backlash from those who would oppress and control was on full display at the museum.
A Civil War fought over slavery and the all too brief Reconstruction period after emancipation was followed by the terror of terrorists groups like the Klan and the implementation of black codes and Jim Crow laws which sought to control and restrict every aspect of black life.
The legislative gains of the 50s and 60s were negated by the seeds of mass incarceration of people of color sown during the Regan era War on Drugs.
The election of Barack Obama led to the overturn of key Civil rights legislation to include the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act because, according to Chief Justice John Roberts, it “had done its job, and it was time to move on”. The ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, which removed the requirement for states with histories of voting discrimination to approve their voting changes with the federal government, resulted in the almost immediate passage of restrictive, discriminatory voting laws by Republican state legislators under the guise of voter fraud.
Of course, the real voter fraud is being committed by those states with a history of discrimination. Another kind of voter fraud is being committed by those who would try to convince you that your vote doesn’t matter. The truth is your vote does matter…unless you don’t use it.
I’ve seen and heard a lot of cynicism expressed about the power of voting by Chicagoans recently. It’s surprising given the success of activist organizations like Black Lives Matter, Assata’s Daughters and Black Youth Project 100 in ousting Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez during the Democratic primary. But if those same voters don’t vote in the general election, her opponent, Kim Foxx, who won 58 percent of the primary vote, could lose the general election.
The forces of racism are relentless and determined to undermine every hard fought gain, negate every success, overturn every piece of legislation enacted to protect and empower those who have been exploited and abused.
The voices of equality and freedom must be vigilant and just as determined to use all the tools are our disposal, to include our vote.
In other words…stay woke, go vote!
Renita Alexander, Leadership Unlocked
*The History of the Idea of Race… And Why It Matters by Audrey Smedley