Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

Let’s not undo 50 years of progress on racial equality

From the Everett Herald:

John Burbank, Executive Director

This week is the start of a five-year period of commemoration, celebration, consideration and contrition. It was on Dec. 20, 1860 that South Carolina seceded from the Union.

On Monday, in Charleston, the people nostalgic for the confederacy held a “secession ball.”

Let’s be clear: The reason for secession was to preserve slavery. The following is from Mississippi’s Secession Declaration: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world … The hostility to this institution … has grown until it denies the right of property in slaves … It refuses the admission of new slave States into the Union … It has made combinations and formed associations to carry out its schemes of emancipation in the States and wherever else slavery exists …”

The secession of the Southern states unleashed our Civil War, which did indeed result in the abolition of slavery. But within 20 years, white supremacy reasserted itself and, with organized violence, Ku Klux Klan terrorism and lynchings, blacks were pushed back to the edges of poverty and desperation, denied the rights of citizenship and the ballot. That’s the way it was for almost 100 years, until the civil rights movement challenged the institutions and culture of Jim Crow. 

Earlier this month I toured the Civil Rights Memorial in Alabama. It featured the life stories of almost 100 people who had been killed in the civil rights movement. They were killed because they were organizing to end segregation. They were killed because they were trying to finish the unfinished business of the Civil War. They created history that we can touch — it happened just a few decades ago.

From this memorial I walked two blocks to the Alabama State Capitol and looked down at the gold star on the steps where Jefferson Davis took the oath of office for the presidency of the Confederacy. He is still celebrated in Alabama and throughout the South with official state holidays.

It was a strange feeling, to go from a memorial to freedom fighters to a tribute to the slaveholder who led the Confederacy, and directed its fight for the preservation of slavery. A man still held in reverence.

On the same trip I visited the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Atlanta. It combined the narrative of the civil rights movement with Martin Luther King Jr.’s arc of life, even to the horse-drawn cart in which his body was taken to be buried after his assassination. But it is not a pleasant walk to the memorial. You move through urban desolation and human desperation and poverty — black poverty. You witness the embedded embers of inequality in our country.

We have a lot of unfinished business in this country, and not only in the South. Just a few years ago a small group of Seattle parents sued the Seattle School District to overturn the policy of racial tiebreakers when filling slots at Ballard High School. This suit went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which threw out the tiebreaking policies, with the blind argument that this whole issue of prejudice against blacks was settled a few decades ago, so it just isn’t relevant.

Wouldn’t it be nice if it was that easy. But we know it isn’t, and it gets harder in a great recession when unemployment and falling incomes hit blacks and whites, Hispanics and Native Americans, young and middle aged and old. Unemployment simmers on the back burner.

Throw in a few teaspoons of lost hope and lost homes, and oversized privilege and wealth for a handful of people, and add a few drops of good old latent American racism. It is a recipe to make scapegoats of anyone else who does not look like or act like “us” and roll back all the progress of the past 50 years in racial justice and middle class economic opportunity. It’s a tea party!

Tuesday was the winter solstice. Each day forward lengthens with the sun’s light. Each day brings a little more hope than the previous. Many of us celebrate the birth of Jesus, a symbol of love, peace, generosity, hope and Christmas.

We have a choice: We can continue with the ongoing diminishment of our quality of life, and enable the undercurrents of racism to pull us apart even more. Or we can act on the good tidings of the season to realize a rebirth of justice, of hope, of progress, of brotherhood. Christmas is not just a parable from 2,000 years ago. It is a parable for us, for now.

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