Preface to African Americans in American History, 1526 – Present

We must always take sides.
Neutrality helps the oppressor,
never the victim. Silence encourages
the tormentor, never the tormented.
Elie Wiesel

The subject matter of this next book is not African American history, but American history which includes aspects that white Americans considered unimportant, painful, or attempted to ignore. Blacks have contributed much to this country, and the United States has an obligation to recognize their contributions and compensate them for the considerable damage wrought by mistaken notions of white supremacy.

Our nation faces multiple moral, social, economic and political crises – climate change, senseless gun violence, a crumbling and backward infrastructure, voter suppression, wealth and income inequality, and criminal justice reform — all of which 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, some holding to 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 sadly still rings true.

In Birmingham, Alabama 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 would have expected that white churches would hold reconciliation or prayer services after four little girls were killed at 16th Street Baptist Church. Instead, many pastors attacked Dr. King as an outside agitator (he was from Atlanta, Georgia), ignoring Ku Klux Klan members who emplaced the bombs. 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” to suppress his crusade for justice.

In 1950, the United States’ population was almost 90 percent white. In the seventy years since the white population has aged significantly and the white birth rate barely sustains itself. Since then, the United States has had an influx of immigrants, many 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. The United States has never been a more multi-racial society, a fact that makes many whites fear their loss of power; they forget that our “mixing bowl” has always been America’s great strength.

The racial wealth gap between blacks and whites is a glaring reflection of injustice. The median (half above and half below) wealth of white households is over twelve times greater than that of a black household — white households’ median wealth is $134,430, compared to $11,030 for black households. Most of this is due to home equity, the basis of middle-income Americans’ wealth. African Americans still suffer from segregation created by the federal government’s red-lining, National Association of Realtors’ policies, and individual bigots which excluded blacks from decent neighborhoods and confined them to ghettoes. Although there were 2 million black veterans after World War II, very few could access the GI Bill’s education or housing benefits. As a result, residential segregation is the linchpin maintaining America’s racial and economic stratification, and as well as unequal access to education. That must change.

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 the greatest rate of home repossession, 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 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. 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, most of whom are people of color. It is almost impossible for felons to find suitable employment, they can’t vote in many states, and their families are not eligible for government assistance of any kind.

This 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 (1877-1898), and over seventy years of rigid Jim Crow segregation laws (1898-1965), during which roughly 5,000 African Americans were lynched. Dr. King noted in his address to 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.” 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, results in starkly different tax bases between suburbs and inner cities. The result is two disparate school systems; one with state-of-the-art resources in the suburbs, the other consigned to antiquated, poorly maintained facilities starved for supplies, with less qualified teachers in our inner-city ghettoes. The sum of all these injustices caused dramatically different outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 in both unemployment, health, and housing.

Although Germany and South Africa made attempts to right past injustice, the United States has steadfastly refused to pay any type of reparations for our shameful, centuries-long past. While it may be difficult to devise a system to apportion payments to the descendants of slaves, one option that would provide great benefit to their descendants — and to the nation – would be to remediate ghetto housing and inner-city schools. This would disrupt the breeding ground of demoralization and violence that plagues our major cities and enhance the wellbeing of the entire nation.

These issues go beyond simple justice or charity, directly addressing who we aspire to be as a nation. We have wasted tremendous human capital and thrown away a huge amount of human potential. 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 depravity and meanness.

Each of us has a choice; collectively; we determine our future.

  To be clear: the above is the preface to my next book; the offer below is for my book published in February 2019.

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Gene Betit

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