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Aug202016

IF YOUR GRANDPA STEALS A CAR AND GIVES IT TO YOU, DO YOU OWN IT? Part 1

  THE MORAL CHALLENGE OF BEING WHITE

 

 

Our Unique Racial History

A highly-placed White official I know from a distance is married to a Black woman.  They’re both from the U.K.  From what I can tell over the 15 years I’ve known  about them, they have a successful marriage.  Both my personal experience and my conversations with others who’ve worked with him also tell me—and the others—that he really doesn’t “get” U.S. Black/White racial relations.  When I first noticed this, I wondered, “How can this be?  He’s married to a Black woman!”

U.S. citizens who travel abroad often learn that our country’s racial relations, especially between Whites and Blacks, are very different from what is found in England, Europe, and much of the rest of the world.  Part of the reason for this is that the U.S. has a unique racial history that leaves us with a legacy we see in violent news reports almost every day.  Furgeson, Miami, Milwaukee, Chicago, Charlotte, Detroit, and even Dubuque, Iowa[i] are sites of ongoing Black/White racial conflict.

            The distinctive way we understand race in the U.S. is rooted in our birth as a nation.  For one thing, the first colonists who asserted property rights here—almost exclusively white males—were displacing native people who had no concept of  “owning” land.  So the fundamental event enacted by these first persons in power was rapacious, and they justified their actions by labeling themselves as “Christians” and the darker-skinned natives “savages,” members of “another race” whose manifest destiny was to be subservient.

  A second important feature of our history is that the earliest U.S. settlers were largely made up of two classes, proprietors and indentured servants.  The latter group consisted of diverse individuals who had agreed to, or more often been forced to accept, a defined number of years of servitude for the promise of eventual freedom.  Indentured servants were the main people who created value in the New World—clearing and cultivating land, building structures and infrastructures, husbanding livestock, and serving families and businesses.

Some indentured servants were Black, and in 1640, a court document recorded an event that was dramatically important in what we now know as the social construction of race in the U.S.

Three indentured servants in the Virginia colony, one Dutch, one Scottish, and one African, were tried and found guilty of the crime of running away from their owner.  All three were sentenced to being whipped, and the two servants of European descent were sentenced to four extra years of servitude.  The African was made a servant for life, and the ruling said, “The third, being a negro [italics added] named John Punch shall serve his said master of his assigns for the time of his natural life.”[ii]  Jennifer Harvey notes, “There exist no historical records of a European servant ever receiving such a sentence.”[iii]

 

 

This was the first time, on this land mass, that, as Harvey puts it, “physical difference was invoked specifically and clearly as a means to assign a radically different servitude status to an African person vis-à-vis his European counterparts.”[iv] 

It was also the beginning of what Harvey calls

. . .the horrifying and relentless march toward the institutionalization

of slavery in what would become the United States—a history too few of

us here know well.  It is the history of one of the most comprehensive

brutal, inescapable system[s] of enslavement the world has known.  It is

the history of one of the most massive and intergenerational transfers

of wealth from one group of people—secured through physical

dislocation, bodily brutalization, and labor exploitation. . . .[v] 

This 1640 Virginia court record, along with tens of thousands of pages of local, state, and national laws, court decisions, newspaper stories and editorials, textbooks, novels, plays, poetry, song lyrics, speeches, pseudo-science, film scripts, magazine articles, pamphlets, posters, internet postings, and other artifacts published between 1640 and today have constructed and continue in many venues to define what “White” and “Black” mean in the U.S.[vi]

Science vs. Social Construction

For more than a decade, there has existed a counter-narrative, a different meaning, anchored in the successful effort to map the entire human genome.  This project demonstrates that, as the National Institutes of Health puts it, “There is only one race—the human race.”[vii] 

DNA mapping shows that there are more biological differences within groups of people we call “Whites,” “Blacks,” or “Asians” than there are between members of these same groups.  The 3-part PBS documentary, “Race: The Power of an Illusion” shows that people you’d expect to be genetically the most similar to you—because of their skin color, eye shape, hair texture, etc.—often have DNA that is much more different from yours than people who appear to be members of another race, whose DNA may resemble yours closely. 

So at this point in human evolutionary history, there is no scientific evidence to support dividing people into races.  The differences we use to categorize people into races are both undeniable and scientifically superficial.  There is no biological or genetic evidence that Blacks are more athletic than Whites, Whites are more industrious, or Asians are smarter.  Racial divisions are scientifically invalid.  This is reality, more certain than even the scientific evidence supporting the reality of climate change. 

But the social construction of “race” is more powerful than scientific understanding.  And unfortunately, because of the events that got racial beliefs and racial relationships constructed as they are now constructed in the U.S., we White people have a special, profound moral challenge that we must face.

PART 2 WILL BE POSTED ON FRIDAY, AUGUST 26, 2016

 


[i] Dubuque experienced its most recent cross-burning on April 13, 2016.

[ii] C. Johnson & P. Smith, Africans in America:  America’s Journey Through Slavery (San Diego:  Harcourt Brace, 1998), pp. 36, 37, cited in Harvey (2014), p. 49.  Ancestry.com claimed in 2012 that genealogical research and DNA validation prove that Punch was an ancestor of President Obama on his mother’s side and, because the family name was changed to Bunch or Bunche, was also an ancestor of Ralph Bunche, the first African American to win the Nobel Peace Prize. 

[iii] Harvey (2014), p. 49, citing W. D. Jordan, The White Man’s Burden: Historical Origins of Racism in the United States (London: Oxford, 1974), pp. 26, 27.

[iv] Harvey (2014), p. 50.

[v] Harvey (2014), p.  50.

[vi] David Pilgrim illustrates hundreds of these everyday artifacts in Understanding Jim Crow:  Using Racist Memorabilia to Teach Tolerance and Promote Social Justice (Oakland, CA: PM Press), 2015.

[vii] https://partners.nytimes.com/library/national/science/082200sci-genetics-race.html

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