By Denise Merriweather, retired high school principal, member of the Episcopal Diocese of Western New York and Northwestern Pennsylvania Commission to Dismantle Racism and Discrimination – Buffalo, New York, July 7, 2020
The cathartic experience of viewing videos showing the murder of George Floyd, a Black man from Minneapolis, on May 25, 2020 has emphasized the reality of systemic racism. National and international protests have become widespread due to the brutality of a police officer who continued to press his knee into the neck of Mr. Floyd for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, causing asphyxiation and, ultimately, death. Mr. Floyd lost his life after being accused of trying to purchase items with a counterfeit $20 bill!
Over-policing leading to the murder of unarmed non-violent Black individuals such as Michael Brown (hands raised in the air), Tamir Rice (using a toy gun on a playground), Sandra Bland (traffic stop for failing to signal), Breonna Taylor (no knock warrant purposely acquired through deception), Elijah McClain (deemed suspicious while walking home from a store) is pervasive due to the legacy of slavery. In addition, the murders of Ahmaud Arbery (jogging) and Trayvon Martin (returning home from a store) by white males are examples of how the slavery mentality continues to exist by which Black people are dehumanized.
As we witness outrage with this so-called awakening, perhaps many of us (Christians), are asking ourselves “How did we get here?” and “What has gone so wrong in our country?” We talk about becoming the “Beloved Community,” but what have we done from the time of our complicit behavior as Episcopalians during slavery and throughout a legacy of violence, segregation, discrimination, mass incarceration, and a variety of other social injustices against our Black brothers and sisters?
Before there can be engagement and ultimately healing, we must connect our visceral feelings to the direct knowledge of the ongoing atrocities and inhuman treatment of Black people from the time of their arrival in what is now the United States as the enslaved, beginning with Spanish expeditions circa 1520s. The subjugation of Black people with the implementation of chattel slavery went into its final stages in 1863 due to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. However, there was such resentment among the states, it took two years for the ratification of the 13th Amendment – “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime where of the party shall be duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Even then, many states did not ratify the 13th Amendment immediately, with Mississippi being the last state to ratify the amendment in February, 2013.
This brings us to the period of institutional slavery after the Civil War. Imagine having to start with nothing, just the clothes on your back and being expected to “pull yourself up by your boot straps” along with the resentment of former slave owners in states that depended on you for economic stability! That resentment boils over into anger in the form of lynching and incarceration for the purpose of free labor. The Black Codes gave ordinary citizens the right to detain and kill Black people. It is estimated that more than 4,000 Black people have been lynched in the United States. As of July 8, 2020 the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Bill has not been approved by Congress!
The Great Migration to the North, beginning during the WWI era, due to ongoing violence and the lack of reasonable paying jobs for Black people in the South, was plagued with a variety of attacks and tactics such as arrests, lynching and laws that even prevented the sale of or gift of train tickets to Black people. The NAACP was subjected to fines and the payment of taxes for the advertising of jobs or assisting with travel plans.
Black people have the challenge of living daily in a society where there is limited equal protection under the law. Consistently, Black people deal with blatant incidents that deny their rights to protection of life, liberty, or property as stated within the 14th Amendment. America’s denial of equal rights and the humanity of Black people has also been manifested in the following (a partial listing):
Jim Crow Laws
Separate but Equal
Response to Brown v Board of Education, 1954
Attempts to overturn; tax dollars diverted to private schools for whites; few options for the education of Blacks which led to school closures; substandard schools; shortened school days and years; per student funding disparities
Restrictive Covenants – Refusal to allow middle income Blacks to purchase homes in white communities
Redlining – The use of a red lines on maps to indicate areas where Blacks are allowed to live and the denial of loan approvals in white neighborhoods; complicity of the Federal Government-FHA, local governments, lending institutions and insurance companies; higher home prices and down payments for Blacks
Blockbusting, Contract Sales, Reverse Redlining, increased costs and penalties for Black homeowners led to struggles in the areas of home affordability and maintenance.
These factors have contributed greatly to the lack of generational wealth among Black people in comparison to their white counterparts. Black people have also had to contend with the burning and bombing of their property.
Discrimination in Healthcare
Lack of universal access to quality medical treatment; disenfranchisement of Blacks due to mistreatment and experimentation without consent
Aggressive and Violent Policing of Black People
Racial profiling; stop and frisk; greater number of deaths while in police custody
Sentencing more severe; use of Black people and the poor for the financial benefit of privately-owned corporations causing delayed prison reform; higher percentage of wrongful convictions for Blacks due to the failure of legitimate due process
Reduction and/or elimination of the number of precincts in Black neighborhoods, thereby limiting access; canceling early voting without notice in Black communities; purging Black people from the rolls; the institution of modern day poll taxes (government ID, literacy tests, fees for the formerly incarcerated); mail-in votes notarized with a copy of government ID
Employment Discrimination – Preference for white employees; lower wages; fewer opportunities for advancement
The psychological impact on Black people continues to be severe and devastating. Hopelessness, depression and other forms of mental illness due to the legacy of slavery are prevalent. The economic impact has left the Black community without a voice due to a lack of substantial financial resources.
If after reading this commentary, we subscribe to former South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond’s notion (and that of Mitch McConnell) regarding the injustices continuously levied against Black people; that it is wrong “to continually charge a state and a people with alleged injustice that occurred many years ago,” we as Christians have abdicated our charge and responsibility to spread the love of Christ. However, if we feel strongly that any and all injustices against Black people and others require action now, we must be willing to speak up in one voice in support of policies, laws or doctrines that will change the current situation. This is a commitment that will take endurance and a strong belief of our faith!