Racism is America’s ‘Original Sin’

  • DANIEL A. BROWN

Published: 6/26/2020 8:24:00 AM

In order to further my education about race in America, I turned to an old but venerated source. Civil Rights luminary W.E.B. Du Bois’s epic “The Souls of Black Folk” was written in 1903. I only needed to get five pages in, however, to realize that his descriptions of racism and racial attitudes could have been expressed today.

Du Bois begins his first chapter by contemplating the dilemma of being a patriotic American while being spat on and cursed at by his fellow white citizens. Why, Du Bois asks, do white Americans see him as a particular “Problem?” This word runs throughout the book. Prophetically, he proclaims that “The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.” Little could he have predicted that it would be the problem of the Twenty-First Century as well.

I also discovered an essay penned in 1962 by famed author James Baldwin entitled “Letter from a Region in My Mind.” In it, Baldwin observed “It was absolutely clear that the police would whip you and take you in as long as they could get away with it, and that everyone else — housewives, taxi-drivers, elevator boys, dishwashers, bartenders, lawyers, judges, doctors, and grocers — would never, by the operation of any generous human feeling, cease to use you as an outlet for his frustrations and hostilities.”

Racism is indeed America’s “Original Sin.” At this point, no conscious American needs a lesson as to our murky history in this regard. But when one connects the dots, there is a consistent pattern of suppression that from time to time becomes unbearable.

The fact that African Americans have suffered 400 years of enslavement, lynching, mass murder and the denial of their basic human rights and not resorted to vengeful violence shows a moral restraint that should shame their white neighbors. By contrast, white supremacists turn out with assault rifles and threaten state governors after two months when they can’t get a haircut.

Many nations of the world practice some form of bigotry against their minority populations. What makes American racism especially pernicious is that it exists in a country that supposedly espouses the values of Freedom, Liberty and Equality. 2020 might be the year that finally separates American myth from American reality. The United States has always presented a schizophrenic identity. How does one explain how the presidency of Barack Obama could be followed by that of a racist white supremacist like Donald Trump or that a substantial amount of Americans voted for both.

Thanks to Trump’s reactionary actions, our allies now view the United States as a “flawed democracy’ while our adversaries mock us as posturing hypocrites.

Racism in America isn’t some anomaly that pops up from time to time. It’s a constant cancerous undercurrent. Frankly, I was more upset by the hysterical white woman in New York’s Central Park calling the police on a gentle bird-watching Black man than the ugly image of George Floyd being choked to death. And I was further outraged by Donald Trump threatening to “dominate” peaceful protesters with military force so he could desecrate a Bible and a church for a photo-op, an act so disgusting that even televangelist Pat Robertson condemned it.

In the past when these uprisings occurred, there were the usual reactions. Black Americans tried to educate white Americans, too many of whom sunk in guilt or denial. White allies bent over backwards to prove how “woke” they were. Right-wing news outlets focused on the few violent protesters and blamed non-existent “outside agitators” while ignoring the many who were not. Mayors and governors decried the destruction of property.

This time it’s different. Mayors and governors are siding with the protesters as are the national mainstream news media and the heads of giant corporations. Even some Republicans are awakening from their cowardly torpor and challenging Donald Trump’s determination to turn America into a fascist police state. Gen. James Mattis, a decorated combat commander and many other military leaders denounced the president as a “Danger to the Constitution.” More importantly, the majority of those who have taken to the streets are young and white.

In curing the cancer of racism, James Baldwin offered this; “White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this — which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never — the Negro (sic) problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”

Daniel A. Brown lived in Franklin County for 44 years and was a frequent contributor to the Recorder. He lives in Taos, New Mexico.

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