Sweet Democratic debate special. Kucinich only Dem for slavery reparations. Report 5.Continue reading.
Newsflash: Slavery didn’t die with the Civil War
Conspiracy theorists are quick to say that ongoing racism and the effects of slavery are the main reasons why violence plagues certain neighborhoods on the city’s South and west sides. Those same theorists say unacknowledged racism and classism are choking the ongoing school choice and school closure debate.
What if they’re right?
Award-winning journalist Douglas A. Blackmon, whose groundbreaking book and documentary about the illegal actions that prolonged slavery until the 1940s, will address those issues and more when he speaks Thursday at Harold Washington Library as part of a national “Community Conversations” program financed in part by a group that goes by the name of Facing History and Ourselves.
“From the beginning of our country, one of the primary purposes of our government has been to create a better society.. to elevate poor people out of poverty and until the 1960s, nobody had any confusion about that,” says Blackmon, who penned 2009’s searing, Pulitzer Prize winning book ‘Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II.’ “Now unfortunately because ours is a society rooted in white supremacy, when black people said ‘the government should be trying to change our lives for the better too,’ all of a sudden, people said ‘no no no, that’s not the role of government.’ Well, that’s the political climate we live in today.”
A conversation with Blackmon (who is white and is from Mississippi) about race and class brings up topics that some might consider uncomfortable. Yet his comments – like his book – are backed by research and historical documents, many of which are available for anyone to see for themselves in places such as the National Archives.
Here’s a bit more of what he had to say.
ASG: Why are people shocked to hear that, as late as the 1940s, our very railroads and coal mines were built (and worked) by black men who were illegally imprisoned by for-profit southern jails who then “leased” the men to slave (and die by whipping or worse) for major companies?
Blackmon: “It’s really important for people to understand the scale of injuries done to African-Americans leading up to the beginning of World War II. That is the critical part of explaining why we continue to struggle with income inequality and educational disparities.
These are things that are very connected to the fact that enslavement or the thread of it remained a widespread fact of life for millions of African-Americans. So many living people today, who were growing up in the far south, like Alabama or Arkansas, had lives shaped by involuntary servitude. We have this idea that the Civil War stopped slavery, but it only began to break down as an institution about 65 years ago. We have to be willing, as a country, to face up to the fact that the things we tend to think of as ancient history are in fact, barely history at all.
ASG: Given the US’s well-documented racial history, is it odd that people are shocked by LA Clipper’s owner Donald Sterling’s racist comments?
Blackmon: Sterling is just another reminder, and unfortunately not a very uncommon reminder, that there are still a lot of people who hold repugnant and idiotic views about race in America. And, it’s a reminder of how naive it for anyone to suggest that, because legally sanctioned racism has disappeared from American life, it also means all the devastating attitudes that go with it have disappeared.
ASG: Are today’s for-profit prisons our new slavery?
Blackmon: I don’t think it’s going too far to say it’s modern day slavery. One thing important to know is that if somebody is required to work while they’re incarcerated and you are required to work against your will, then that’s not prison work. That’s slavery. That is the one form of legalized slavery which remained in the United States and there’s no dispute about that because it’s in the Constitution, in the 13th amendment. When I say that to people, it creeps them out.
ASG: Charter versus other schools?
Blackmon: It’s not as simple as ‘let’s have more charter schools’ or ‘let’s have no charter schools.’ Neither of those are positions that lead to the re-imagining of public schools in places like Chicago or Atlanta. The one things that is not permissible, in a debate like this, is anyone who suggests that there shouldn’t be citizen-funded public schools. Anybody who suggests that public schools have been a mistake or should all be privatized is failing to recognize that the creation of public school and operation of them by government is the single most important thing government has ever done in America, aside from defending the country in war. Anyone who suggests moving away from public education is un-American. Simply un-American.
ASG: Your thoughts on the Supreme Court’s recent moves that could affect affirmative action?
Blackmon: “There is no effort in American society that has cost less, harmed so few – if at all – and accomplished so much aside from the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act. So to just kind of shrug it off when its about to be struck down is a giant mistake.
ASG: What happens if it’s struck down?
Blackmon: [Eventually] If a university admits people purely on SAT scores, then the result will be a college of about 65% women – majority will be white, with a big chunk of Asian and African-American- and there will be Black men and a decent chunk of white males, but it aint gonna be anywhere close to 50%. All of this opposition to affirmative action is rooted in the idea that white males will always perform at the top, but the reality is that the slacker generation is really the white male slacker generation. And this idea that white men always come out on top? That was true when black people were denied access to education and white girls were discouraged from learning math. With everything loaded in favor of white, yes, we scored the highest. But it’s not that way anymore.”
ASG: Have you lost friends because you wrote this book?
Blackmon: I did run into a little bit of friction when we were shooting the documentary. There was a town in Alabama where the mayor threatened to arrest us if we didn’t leave town. And the state of Alabama banned my book from being read by inmates. Other states did that as well. but for the most part, happily and a little to my surprise, no. I think there are more people in America today who are ready for honest discussion about these things.
The Atlanta-based Blackmon, a former Wall Street Journal bureau chief, speaks Thursday, May 8 from 6-7:30 p.m. at the Harold Washington Library in the Cindy Pritzker Auditorium. This event is part of the national series of Community Conversations offered free to the public, presented by Facing History and Ourselves and The Allstate Foundation. This event is in partnership with the Chicago Public Library.
Want tickets? Click here. No computer? You can also call 312.345.3203 for ticket information
– Adrienne Samuels Gibbs