Thursday, 28 May 2015

Baltimore Unrest I: Background of Racism in the U.S.

For almost a year, in too many places in the U.S., racial unrest has been boiling over like untended rice on a hot stove. Street violence has followed confrontations with police where black men--often more boys than men--have died. The reasons for this cycle are complex.
Racism exists everywhere during every epoch. But in the U.S., the racism related to African-Americans is complicated by the legacy of slavery. The slave trade helped build the economy of the nation; slavery itself was critical to the growth of the great cotton and tobacco plantations of the southern states. The U.S. Civil War was mostly, if not entirely, about whether the South could keep its slave-based economy.
       Michelle Obama recently reminded us of how discrimination has been justified: "There were the so-called scientific studies that said that black men's brains were smaller than white men's. Official Army reports stated that black soldiers were 'childlike,' 'shiftless,' 'unmoral and untruthful,' and as one quote stated, 'if fed, loyal and compliant.'"
These same "arguments" were used to justify slavery: it was okay because blacks were somehow less "human," or at least, less capable, than whites, so in return for their feeding and care, they could be put to work for whites, much like domestic animals. Another view was a Biblical justification: Noah's son Ham--identified as black--was a degenerate and thus his descendants were cursed with serving others forever.
Segregation in Practice
         The reconstruction of the South (that is, the southern states that formed the Confederacy and tried to win independence from the United States, which was called the Union) after the Civil War wasn't our country's finest moment. Speculation, corruption and manipulation by mostly northern profiteers was mostly uncontrolled. Often former slaves were used as "straw men" to hold office or to let the speculators take economic advantage of programs intended to help former slaves build new lives.
         The abuses of reconstruction led to instability, which in turn, led to fear. The first Ku Klux Klan was born in 1865 as an attempt to protect whites from the perceived black threat--and to restore white supremacy. It terrorized blacks. However, by 1872, between legal action against it and its own internal corruption, it was broken--although it would revive.
Nevertheless, the South managed to keep its black population segregated and disadvantaged for almost a century after the Civil War.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s in the United States resulted in several laws that provided equal access for blacks (and other minorities) to education, housing, jobs, and most importantly, the vote. The laws were intended to "level the playing field" and prevent discrimination against minorities.
But attitudes on the street are hard to change. Especially if equal access means that there is more competition for limited jobs and housing, and minorities are given an edge to compensate for past discrimination.

Note: the words in bold type can be found in the Quizlet titled "U.S. Racial Unrest."

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