The “Racial Issue” has been in the popular vernacular for well over a century, though the actual words used have come in and out of vogue. Yet as things are turning out, it is increasingly clear that it is not, nor was it ever, really a racial issue. The race factor was just a convenient bonus passed on by the state of slavery that started it all.
Yet it is not now, nor was it ever a “racial” issue as everyone said. It was and is a slavery issue! It was about guilt for the slavers, and for the slaves, it was having to accept someone else’s pronouncement of inferiority leading to massive self-contempt. The fact that they were of different racial backgrounds was just an offshoot of the original slavery itself. Why were Africans so popular as slaves? Because they were so easy to tell from the rest of the population. Other sources could have been tapped for other desirable qualities, like easy to capture, train, and manage. But if they got their slaves from Finland, they’d be a lot harder to distinguish from the other Europeans. So African’s were perfect.
But the focus was shifted onto race simply because no one on either side was ready to look at what it was really about for them. They still aren’t. Don’t believe me? Then take a look at this simple and fully public fact that I’ve never heard anyone acknowledge: Barack Obama does not have, to the best of my knowledge, a single ancestor who was ever a slave in this country. He most certainly has African roots, but he is no more the descendent of plantation slaves in Ante-Bellum America than Scarlett O’Hara was!
Yet Americans who really are the descendants of slaves have adopted him as one of their own, and thereby allowed themselves to share in his victory. I wouldn’t take that away from them for anything in the world, even though it is based on at best a misrepresentation of the true facts.
Now this notion that race is just a convenient, pardon the expression, whitewashing job to cover up the real issues may seem far fetched to you. Maybe even offensive or insulting. But I assure you it is not only based on facts but also offers much more satisfying explanations for a great many known social conditions than the traditional view.
No one has really liked things the way they were for a long, long time. But there have been serious problems to be solved before any real progress could be made.
For the majority, the main problem was the descendants of former slave owners. They faced a serious challenge: if it’s wrong to treat the descendants of slaves as less-than-human now, then it was wrong all along. In other words, they cannot change their own stance on moral grounds without committing an act of supreme disloyalty to their own ancestors. That goes down hard for a lot of people.
For the descendants of slaves, they have been inculcated for hundreds of years with a self-image that says they are inferior, powerless, and immoral. That is a pretty big monkey to be born with on your back. Yet it was business as usual for a very long time.
So what do we humans do in the face of such monumental challenges that we aren’t really up to handling? Simple. We blame somebody else. So the whites blamed the blacks, and the blacks blamed the whites. Of course, they didn’t make the useless distinction between white people who had actually owned slaves, or at least treated them badly, or the distinction between those who really were slaves and those who were highly intelligent and literate. That would be asking too much. Nope, there had to be simple rules for simple people, and what could be simpler than: “I know what’s wrong with us: YOU!” Worked great for both sides, or so it was pretended.
But then came a generation of people, both black and white, who were raised by saner parents, parents who were separated far enough from the total insanity that permitted slavery to exist and thrive for so long. And these people were determined to put an end to the lies and their consequences.
So they raised their kids with a different set of beliefs than those of their own childhood. Here were black parents teaching their children that it was no one’s choice but their own how far they would go in life. Here were white parents teaching their children that no one is born “beneath” them. And the scale began to tip, ever so slowly, back.
It took many years, and countless people of great courage, determination, and fortitude, even brilliance, to forge ahead, but they did. First, it was athletes like Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson, and entertainers like Paul Robeson and Sydney Poitier. In the ’50s they were joined by “civilians” like Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But along with these were their counterparts, like Branch Rickey who signed Robinson to a contract with the Dodgers and countless others who stood up to be counted.
Slowly, painfully progress ground ahead until November 2008 when Barack Obama was elected president. And even though not one drop of former-slave blood runs in his veins, he served as a symbol for all Americans that the time had finally come to close the gap. It did not finish the problem once and for all. But it closed the gap far enough that it is almost inconceivable that it will ever again get anything but smaller.
What I most sincerely hope people will begin to catch on to, now that the smoke can begin to clear, is that the whole era, going back to the first slave ships making landfall on American shores, has been about an experiment in our relationships with ourselves and with one another. It was an experiment of massive scale and scope involving many millions of people over centuries of time, and at the center of it was the ongoing question, “What if we separated ourselves from ourselves so far that we could enslave another person and come to see it as acceptable, even inevitable?” While at the same time, another group explored the question from the other side: “What would it be like to so surrender your birthright of choosing your own life that you were left enslaved by others for hundreds of years before you could begin to start to recover?”
Together we acted out those questions, or others very much like them. Together we arrived at answers, myriad individual answers. And there were surprises galore for all concerned. For these kinds of questions contain lessons that cannot be taught. They must be lived.
So hurrah for us all, for our curiosity to have been driven to adopt such a bold and powerful plan, for the courage to put ourselves to the test, and for the integrity to find our way out of the maze after all that time. Yet when you consider that we were never the clueless physical victims we appeared to be in the first place, it should come as no surprise that we apparently had it all figured out all along.
Didn’t you ever wonder why Roots took the world by storm? Sure wasn’t because of all the great songs and dancing. It simply signaled another milepost on the road from slavery to sanity. Our job is to bring the process to final fruition and to do so in a way that assures it will have been well worth the effort.