The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Monday, October 16, 2006

African-Americans post slavery

So I’m going to talk a bit about why I think some problem areas for black folks actually increased in the decades following the end of slavery.

To do this, I have to lay down some ground rules, and in some cases my reasons for them.
1)     I take the position that people are just people.  In other words, in general, the difference in performance between groups in America is due more to external circumstances than intrinsic capacity.  No doubt there are differences, but those who begin from that assumption almost invariably end up arguing that their group is superior, and I consider that to be, in general, self-serving b.s.  While I may be wrong on this issue, I’d rather be wrong from this position than the other.
2)     Slavery was primarily an economic institution, but it rapidly became an important social one.  Poor white southerners always knew that, at the very least, they were better than blacks.  What a relief, huh?
3)     The end of slavery was linked to a devastating, humiliating, disillusioning defeat. 
4)     Black people believed that if slavery ended, that this would be the beginning of a golden era.

     During slavery, individuals were brainwashed to accept their position. This brainwashing worked to varying degrees—but it’s reasonable to assume that anyone who failed to accept it totally either fled to freedom, or was captured, punished, or killed in the attempt.  When slavery ended, you had millions of people unprepared for a life of truly equal opportunity, even had it been available.  But it wasn’t.  Slavery was followed by a century of Jim Crow and repression, segregation, and resistance to the notion of blacks as fully fledged citizens—including hideous violence against those who tried to vote or stand up as proud, free Americans.

     In some ways, slavery and segregation “protected” blacks from the violence, fear and anger of the majority, in the ways that zoos “protect” animals who were perfectly capable of fending for themselves in the wild. 
Remove the bars, and those animals will do poorly indeed.  As I’ve said, if upon emancipation blacks had received white skin, it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as bad.
But there’s another factor to take in—and that is that I look at damage to a social group to be somewhat analogous to damage to a single individual.  In other words, if you hade a 40 year old who was sexually abused for her first 35 years, wouldn’t you expect that woman to exhibit emotional dysfunction?  I would expect her body to be a shambles, her relationships to be in tatters, her ability to make a decent living severely inhibited.  Perhaps immediately after freedom, she would try to get a job, pretend she was a normal person…but after some months or years the wounds would overwhelm her intentions, and its time for serious, intensive therapy.

There’s no doubt in my mind that there was a black educated class in the decades following slavery, a class that felt that with the obvious shackles opened, blacks could march forward to equality.

But for that to have been so simple, and so true, blacks would have to be superhuman. You just don’t walk away from 400 years of slavery and subsequent oppression without limping. 

For the first decades following slavery, blacks were severely limited in where they could work or live.  Whites who coveted the old status quo had great success in limiting black access to power and wealth.  As communities did start to form, if they succeeded they often found themselves victim of violence and unequal justice.

(Back in college, I remember researching a paper concerning justice in America. The conclusion, which I’ve never seen disproved, is that if you hold steady for severity of crime and previous record, males, non-whites and poor people do more time than females, whites, and rich people.  To the degree that people obey the law because they believe it to be fair, this alone is enough to motivate many poor, black males to believe that they’re suckers to obey the law.)

So 1) as the legal barriers fell, racism went more underground.  It probably cannot be erased altogether, if part of its base is simply subconscious recognition of an “other.”  It will, I believe, diminish as America gets browner.

2) The damage went deep.  Deep.  Rape, torture and abuse a child, and they will be at risk for serious dysfunction as an adult.  There are problems in the black community that simply can’t be laid directly at external racism, including drug addiction, divorce and illegitimacy rates, college dropout rates, and some aspects of crime statistics.

But believe me, folks, being around smart, nice people who are also morbidly obese, in terrible abusive relationships and underemployed, it is very easy to see the damage of childhood expressing itself in an adult fashion.

But while a gap between black and white performance is real, it is interesting to note that African immigrants have an advantage over native-born blacks similar to those found in Asian and European immigrants.  This suggests to me that the PRIMARY problem is one of programming—the “software” being run in black communities. I can admit this, and hold black people responsible for correcting it, even as I know that they didn’t create their own software—these people were stripped of their names, culture, language, and religions.  They were told that their marriages were not sacred, their children not theirs to control, their bodies not theirs to protect, and that the men and women who owned them were closer to God than they were.  That the fruits of their labors were not theirs to keep.

When they left slavery, I believe they left with high hopes that if they accepted the lip service of the government, life would be onward and upward.  And after about three generations of constant pushing, I think fatigue set in.  Then the civil rights movement arrived, and galvanized things again.  The Civil Rights movement brought great opportunity, but also drove   racism further underground.  Hearts don’t change just because laws do, you know.

There was also another interesting effect: integration had at least one negative consequent.  When I was a kid in the 50’s, black neighborhoods were “vertically integrated”—in other words, both poor and wealthy black people lived in the same neighborhoods (more or less).  But after segregation ended, wealthy black people moved wherever the best property values and schools could be found.  Now, poor blacks didn’t have the example of the wealthy doctor or dentist down the street.  Now, you had poor people surrounded by other poor people—and the bottom-feeders who prey on poverty: pimps, drug dealers, bookies—who disproportunately represented “success.”

This is hell on your success software.  Just as fat people often seem to believe that their bodies disobey the laws of physics (trust me—I’ve had far too many disheartening conversations with otherwise intelligent people on this very topic), poor people have very little idea how money is accumulated and protected.   They tend to acquire and pass on beliefs that are actually antithetical to the accumulation of capital.

And this is part of what I’ve seen for the last thirty years.  In the period of the greatest opportunity that has ever existed for black people in this country, those left behind listen too damned much to those who haven’t made it, and justify their lack of success by saying “the white man won’t let you.”

Crap.  It’s crap.  Yes, there’s racism.  Yes, it’s harder if you aren’t white.  Yes, you don’t have as many resources.  But there is barely an area of human endeavor where SOME black people haven’t succeeded.  Model their behaviors and attitudes, and you’re way ahead of the game.

But SHOULD black people have done more of this?  While they are responsible for their lives, a lifetime of being around whites with far more advantages and still screw up those three vital areas, I have to blame this on human fear, laziness, resentment, and lack of clarity.

Whites, in the same situation, would in my thought exhibit the same problems.  Some of them would increase over the decades, as others decrease—but in my mind, rather obviously the overall health of the community has increased.

And will continue to if, as I believe, people are just people.  


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