Confronting the History of Inequality

(AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

This picture from AP photographer Julio Cortez sums everything up with where we are as a people. The upside-down flag has historically been used to signal “distress.” And “distress” may not be a word strong enough.

For those people clutching their pearls over the destruction of property and using epitaphs such as “thugs” to describe protesters, I have one thing to say: know your history. You are echoing racist and privileged language that has been used over and over again, whenever the pain of inequality has exploded in anger and desperation. It has been used whenever violent responses to BLM protests occurred over the last few years. It was used to describe Los Angeles in 1992. Social unrest in April of 1968. Watts 1965. Zoot Suit Riots, 1944. Tulsa Race Massacre 1921. Chicago 1919.

The fact is this: inequality is in our DNA. It is America. We were founded on an inhumane system of slavery that was encoded into our Constitution. To protect the voices of wealthy slave owners, our system of representation was created to count slaves as 3/5 of a person. The vast majority of slaves were African, but there was a huge number of Native American slaves as well. The system we created was built on the fact that a large percentage of the people living, working, and breathing in the United States of America were not viewed as full human beings.

But this was masked in the most insidious way possible: by claiming that we were founded on one simple belief: “All men are created equal.” That sounds good in speeches on battlefields, but rings hollow in the reality of life for so many people, both past and present.

We fought a civil war over slavery, yet never banned slavery completely. Yes, you were told in school that the 13th Amendment outlawed slavery in the United States. But it didn’t. Slavery still is allowed as “punishment for a crime,” as per the 13th Amendment. And that was done on purpose. Since then, American has become the biggest incarcerator on the planet and the vast majority of people who go to jail are people of color and are there for non-violent offenses. And people make millions of dollars on this glaring and purposeful wording in a document that we claim is the greatest representation of liberty and freedom in the world.

Here is a plain and simple truth: America cannot change until we come to terms with our true history.

Is that even possible with the weight of over 400 years of history that has purposefully minimized, dehumanized and exploited a vast number of our fellow human beings?

This essay was originally published on Facebook and Twitter on May 29, 2020 by the author.

Educator. Historian. Filmmaker.

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