This weekend, I finally watched Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave. Yes, I’m over-dramatic as a general rule, but I can’t remember the last time I cried like that (actually, it was probably after I saw McQueen’s last movie, Shame).
The brutal reality of the film combined with the knowledge that this wasn’t hypothetical–this was real–broke me. Further, it wasn’t just real for this one man, but for our entire nation. The brokenness, evil, and callousness of it all was staggering.
And we’re still doing it today.
No, I’m not exaggerating. The effects of slavery in this country are still absolutely tangible, apparent, and real. And frankly, too many of us don’t give a damn.
There are still people alive today that knew slaves when they were younger. That’s how recent this whole thing was. And yet, we’ve done to racism what we’ve done to every other thing we should engage with meaningfully but don’t–we’ve privatized and individualized it. We’ve redefined “racism” to mean harboring active, conscious, discriminatory thoughts and feelings towards someone of another race.
That’s not racism in its fullest sense. Racism is embedded into every level of human existence, and we ignore it so systematically and regularly. The effects of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation are so deeply hard-wired into our American existence, we’re largely blind to it. Here are just a handful of ways:
- Cultural: you ever wonder why the main sleeping room of the house is called the “Master Bedroom”?
- Genetic: new studies are showing how trauma can be passed down generationally. African-Americans today still have the blood of slaves flowing in them, literally.
- Political: Black constituents are still far far far under-represented in Congress.
- Geographic: Largely-Black neighborhoods are more likely now than 30 years ago to be segregated from Largely-White ones.
- Economic: Simply being black handicaps you economically in this country and automatically disadvantages you in ways Whites will never know.
- Legal: Whites use drugs more than Blacks. Yet Blacks are (on average) four times more likely to be arrested for drug use (in some states, over eight times more).
- Sexual: Black bodies are still over-sexualized and treated more as objects to be used for the pleasure, joy, and critique of whites than dignified in and of themselves.
- Aesthetic: Black culture, art, language, etc. is marginalized until it is appropriated and subjugated to White purposes and tastes, then it is seen as valuable and “good”.
I could go on and on and on.
Because less people have conscious, open hostilities against black persons, we have a whole generation and a half of people in power and privilege in this country that have no inclination at all that there is any more work to do. How dare we?
My main point in this rant is simply that the effects of slavery and injustice towards black communities and other minorities are still very ever-present–and they are structural. Those traumas were so systemic, so deep, and so lasting, that they are still tangible. They are not abstract ideas somewhat floating around that African-Americans use to justify a “victim mentality”. They are real, material, and consequential.
If you don’t see it, then (I promise you) it’s because you have drunk so deeply of a culture of privilege, it’s actually densitized you and killed your social “taste buds” to notice these things. As a white male, there’s literally an inability for my brain to truly comprehend and speak to these issues as if I really know them.
And in a sense, that’s okay. It’s reality. All of our own cultural imbibing comes with gains and losses, biases and preferences, sensitivities and blinders. Progress is recognizing this and accepting the perspective of others as accurate portrayals of reality even if you can’t immediately see it.
These are not problems that have happened because of welfare policy. Or divorce policy. Or our “national morals”. They are the continuation of a national legacy that was around a lot longer than it’s been gone (the first African slaves came in 1619).
This is real. This is us. This is now.
Black bodies in this country bear the bruises and scars from communities segregated by economic and housing policies, and the police that beat and kill them with far more abandon than whites.
Black minds bear the weight of generations of learned helplessness, non stop fight-or-flight living, endless survival mode, and PTSD.
Black hearts suffer the crippling nihilism that comes from a culture of hopelessness that can only focus on how to survive and get through each present day, rather than dreaming of days to come.
Black blood stains our streets, our policies, our theologies, our education, our economy, our culture, and our consciences.
Or at least, it should.
Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy.
[image credit: Robert Motherwell’s, “Elegy to the Spanish Republic”]