African Americans in American History

History, despite its wrenching pain,

Cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage,

Need not be lived again.

Maya Angelou

This is the preface of my forthcoming book:

The subject matter of this book is not African American history, but rather American history white male elites considered unimportant or attempted to ignore. Blacks have contributed much to this country, and the United States has an obligation to recognize their many contributions and compensate them for the serious damage white supremacy has wrought over the course of more than four centuries.

Tuskegee Airmen in pre-operation briefing over Anzio beachhead, Italy.
Tuskegee Airmen in pre-operation briefing over Anzio beachhead, Italy.

Our nation faces numerous moral, social, economic, and political crises -climate change, gun violence, crumbling and backward infrastructure, voter suppression, gross wealth and income inequality, and criminal justice reform — which are interrelated and to one degree or another pose an existential threat to future generations. Most churches remain silent in the face of these and other mounting threats. Many are also silent on another great threat to our society, the egregious injustice of racial inequality, perhaps in the belief or wish that racism no longer exists in the twenty-first century. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous observation that the most segregated hour of the week occurs Sunday morning at worship service sadly rings true.

In Birmingham in 1963, as dogs bit children, high-pressure fire hoses knocked down peaceful protesters, bombs blew up churches, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other black leaders were jailed, many white church leaders objected to King’s nonviolent challenge to segregation. One might have expected that they would hold reconciliation or prayer services after four little girls were killed at 16th Street Baptist Church. Instead, some pastors attacked Dr. King as an outside agitator, ignoring the Ku Klux Klan members who placed the bombs. Apparently, they found it easier to live with the unjust status quo, preferring that African Americans wait another decade — or century — until the time was “right.” Comparatively few whites supported Dr. King, while J. Edgar Hoover was busy wiretapping him and claiming that he was a Communist in a vain attempt to suppress his crusade for social justice.

In 1950, the United States’ population was nearly ninety percent white. In the seventy years since, the white population has aged significantly and the white birth rate has barely sustained itself. For most of these years, the United States has had a significant influx of immigrants, many of them people of color from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Today, whites are increasing by 1,053 individuals each day, while non-whites add 7,261 daily. The US Census projects that whites will no longer constitute the majority by 2045. As a result, the United States has never been a more multi-racial society, a fact that makes many whites fear a loss of power.

The racial wealth gap between blacks and whites is a glaring reflection of injustice. Federal housing regulations and restrictions on the GI Bill after World War II disadvantaged African Americans to such an extent that the net worth of a typical average white family in 2016 was roughly ten times that a typical black family – over $170,000 for a white family, compared to $17,150 for a black family, according to the Brookings Institute. (https://www.brookings.edu/ blog/up-front/2020/02/27/examining-the-black-white-wealth-gap.) Residential segregation is the linchpin maintaining America’s racial and economic stratification.

Moreover, middle-class black families, lacking inherited wealth, were victims of the most aggressive and leveraged home loans. In the financial collapse of 2008, African American households absorbed the worst damage, and black unemployment rose twice as much as whites.’ When the “Great Recession” came, they suffered most, experiencing the greatest rate of home repossession and losing somewhere between 75 and 98 billion dollars’ worth of home equity.

The wealth gap between white and black wage earners is not erased by educational attainment, full-time employment, or having a successful occupation. The typical black family with a head of household working full time has less wealth than a white family whose head of household is unemployed. The median wealth for a black family whose head of household has a college degree is about one-eighth that of a median white family with the same education. Furthermore, the War on Drugs has created a huge underclass, individuals with felony convictions for drug possession. Most of the estimated 24 million felons are people of color, since the police do not patrol suburbs with the vigor as ghettoes. Once convicted, felons cannot find employment, their families are not eligible for government assistance of any kind, and in many states, they can’t vote. This is an ever-growing problem.

The wealth gap has deep historical roots: 246 years of chattel slavery (1619-1865), twelve years of Reconstruction (1865-1877), nineteen years of black codes, and violent attacks by the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacy groups (1877-1896), and over seventy years of rigid Jim Crow segregation laws, when nearly 5,000 African Americans were lynched.

Slaves frequently were under their master’s lash for a variety of reasons.

Dr. King’s observation at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967:

All too few people realize how slavery and racial segregation have scarred the soul and wounded the spirit of the black man. The whole dirty business of slavery was based on the premise that the Negro was a thing to be used, not a person to be respected.

The soul of white America was scarred as well. Hundreds of statues of Confederate heroes were erected from the 1890s to 1920 or so, most openly dedicated to white supremacy. As many as 90 have been relocated in the past year, to the great displeasure of those who believe this denigrates Southern “heritage.” Seldom are the feelings of black citizens considered. Even today, African Americans and other citizens of color face pervasive racial discrimination in school choice despite the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education 1954 decision. “White flight” to the suburbs, abandoning inner cities to African Americans and other minorities, resulted in starkly different tax bases. There are two disparate school systems in America: one with state-of-the-art resources in the suburbs, the other consigned to antiquated, poorly maintained facilities starved for supplies and with less qualified teachers in inner city ghettoes. The sum of all these differences was made glaringly apparent in dramatically different outcomes during 2020’s COVID-19 pandemic..

The United States steadfastly refuses to pay reparations for our shameful past, whereas Germany and South Africa made attempts to right past injustice. It may be difficult to devise a system to make payments to descendants of slaves, remediation of ghetto housing and inner city schools would benefit their descendants — and the nation. This would disrupt the violence and demoralization that plague our major cities and enhance the health of the entire nation.

These issues go beyond simple justice or charity, directly addressing who we aspire to be as a nation. Because of white spite, we have wasted tremendous human capital by frustrating the potential of minority youth. Perhaps the “Golden Rule” of all major religions, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is simply beyond human capacity. History, however, shows that this is untrue: humans are capable of great altruism, even if some fall into the abyss of cruelty and meanness. Each of us has a choice; collectively; we can choose a better future.

Gene Bétit

Winchester, Virginia

2021

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Gene Betit

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