Recent years have seen waves of protests in the USA against slavery and injustice against blacks. They included “Black Life Matters” movement, dismounting of statues of confederate heroes and kneeling by black football players during the National Anthem at NFL games.
Most recently, violent rioting and looting across the country to protest the death of George Floyd under police custody has reached an unprecedented intensity. This is probably an appropriate time to look at slavery and history of black people from different perspectives to see if this continuing feeling of racism against the white people is ever going to end.
First, blacks were brought here by a “slave trade” where a slave was “bought” in exchange for money or some other goods. The black folk in Africa were an equal partner with the whites in this trade and equally to blame for slavery just like drug dealers are equally responsible as drug users in the drug trade.
Second, while slaves were brought under inhumane condition and held against their will, not allowed to have many rights and forced to do manual labor-intensive jobs, there were compensations (if nothing else, in the form of living quarters and food) and possibilities of activities outside their jobs.
Third, the slave trade blossomed out of necessity, especially as the demand of cotton increased exponentially with the invention of cotton gin; there was a lack of non-black labourers. The slave trade, no matter how inhumane it was, was not illegal in those days. (Actually, there were no laws regarding treatment of slaves).
Conceptually, it is not much different than bringing Mexican day laborers to work on farms or even bringing Indian IT engineers to work here on H1B visa. Finally, slavery is long gone. Yes, there are complaints of all kinds of racial discrimination, lack of equal opportunities for blacks, racial segregation; but slavery was abolished more than 150 years ago.
Apparently, that was not a long enough period for the black community to come out of the shadow of slavery-induced racism and get assimilated into the society at large. I often ask myself the question: “If you find out one day that you are really an African-American, how would you really feel?” I believe that I would feel thankful that my ancestors were brought to this country as slaves by white people.
I am living in the most prosperous country in the world with all the opportunities of becoming whoever I want to be, even the president, available to me. At the very least, I am not living in misery with potentials of famine, civil war, deadly disease and attacks of wild animals looming over my head. In my opinion, the white people built a great nation based on fair principles.
Even if black slaves in the seventeenth or eighteenth century had succeeded in taking over by killing/imprisoning their white masters, the country would have evolved, at best, like a prosperous nation in Africa, Nigeria, for example. The life that blacks enjoy in USA is certainly better than living in a country like Nigeria. It is easy for me to say this because I did not grow up in black communities.
I did not experience the poverty and filth of ghetto living, gang violence on a daily basis, absentee father, ridicule and bullying from white kids and a lack of guidance from elders about my education and profession. If I had, I would have probably chosen the easy way out; relying on government handouts for my existence, blaming white folks and their century-old injustice for all my failures and basically done whatever I pleased. It seems that if one was born in a black neighborhood, one was doomed from the beginning.
Is geographical segregation a key cause of present-day, race-related issues? To understand this segregation, one must follow history. With the advent of the industrial revolution, the northern part of the country relied on heavy industries which required labour force with specialised skills while the south was predominantly agricultural (mainly cotton) and this only increased with increasing demand for cotton.
While slaves were no longer critically needed in the north and gradually freed, the trend was almost opposite in the south as the need for manual labour increased. The freed slaves in the north concentrated in urban areas (presumably because of availability of mass transit and other necessities) – the predecessors of the “inner city” or “ghetto” areas – while the black slaves had their own limited areas in the plantations in the south, which remained poor and rural even after slavery was banned.
It is indeed difficult, if not impossible, to get out of this mold of “inner city blacks” or “southern blacks” once you are born there, but it seems that a majority of black folks have not tried hard enough to break out. Various opportunities have been handed out to them, starting with voting rights, “equal opportunity” quotas at college admission and workplaces, fair housing programmes, equitable education through forced busing, but without success.
Desegregation of blacks from their neighborhoods seems like a “chicken and egg” situation. Part of the reason for segregation has been the flight of white folk from any given neighborhood once it gets populated by a significant number of blacks. The whites would not flee from blacks if the blacks behave more like whites, but blacks would start to behave more like whites only if they interact with whites on a regular basis and are welcome as neighbours and co-workers.
Perhaps it was the widespread practice of “lynching” of blacks that left a deep, irreparable and ever-lasting scar on black/white relations. However similar shameful chapters in other countries’ history such as the Holocaust in Germany; the British oppression of the people of the Indian subcontinent; war crimes against the Chinese and Korean by the Japanese have been settled long time ago by monetary compensation and other means by oppressing nations. The black slaves were brought to USA for the purpose of using them as manual labour.
They were not killed or tortured as a rule. Yet, it seems that black folks today feel that the country owes them continuing and never-ending preferential treatment which amounts to financial compensation amounting to billions of dollars through social programmes. By contrast, let us look at Hispanic people who came to this country illegally.
They live here as “second-class” citizens with no voting or other legal rights, working in menial jobs with low salaries, living in impoverished neighborhoods and constantly under fear of getting caught and being deported. Yet, I bet they are all delighted at the opportunity of being here and their children are prospering. Is there any hope of an end to this black/white racial tension in the USA in my lifetime?
I see some hope based on what I see in people like the conservative black female journalist/ activist Candace Owens. Ms. Owen’s views are simple and easy to understand. She believes that blacks should not dwell on the past especially since young blacks today have no experience and no idea about the mistreatment their forefathers had endured. They should be thankful for the opportunities they have at their disposal and move on to build prosperous lives.
They should not feel animosity towards white people with the mistaken belief that they are still viewed as slaves. According to Ms. Owens, a solution would come from what she calls a “civil war” of ideology within the black community itself. This is a profound statement. Solution cannot come from some external effort by whites such as desegregation or welfare programme or equal opportunity policy.
She points out that blacks have the opportunity to live a wonderful life in the most prosperous country in the world. Her views were embraced by black music superstar Kanye West. Mr. West was immediately chastised and ridiculed by liberals and most of the black community but he did not back down. He created a storm of controversy by saying that 400 years of slavery “sounds more like a choice”.
In other words, the blacks seem to prefer to present themselves as victims instead of trying to change their lives. Unfortunately, most black celebrities continue to fuel the fire of racism-induced hatred. Ms. Owens practices what she preaches. She lives in an upscale community in Connecticut, has a white boyfriend and is highly educated. If more prominent black celebrities spread similar messages that might signal a new beginning.
(The writer, a physicist who worked in academia and industry, is a Bengali settled in America)