The Roots of Racism: Understanding today’s protests through yesterday’s lens

By Ana Alhoud

On May 25th an innocent man was killed by an unrelenting knee.
That knee belonged to a man who saw only what he wanted to see.
He held him there on the asphalt and ignored his pleas for mercy.
“Please,” said the man on the ground. “I can’t breathe.”
While one man’s knee crushed life from the other, people watched.
Cell phones held like nets so the day’s injustice could be caught.
Horrified faces and traumatized eyes saw this same terror, but weren’t that surprised.
The deepest stares were those of the man’s peers, in silent agreement with the execution taking place at their feet.
The people cried, they screamed and shrieked
For another life lost on this “colorblind” street.
A few days later a police station was set ablaze by a group of people hurt to the point of fury.
This latest reminder that their skin is a sin took its place as the people’s jury.
The kindling of 400 years of terror and sub-standard citizenship finally caught flame,
And that flame roars with the wails of millions wrongfully slain.
The pot has boiled over and the world stops to see
What happens when the people remember how to be
Together, fighting for each one to be free…
George Floyd looks on, finally able to breathe.

The first time I was reminded I was black in Europe was at a café in the De Pijp neighborhood in Amsterdam. Having heard our American accents and seen our afros, a blonde, blue-eyed Dutch man approached my friend and I and asked if we would answer his questions about black people. “They’re so violent,” he said, “They always seem to be destroying things and making it harder for white people to live near them. At least, that’s what I see on American television.”

My friend and I were stunned. How do you even begin to explain the complex, painful reality of being black in the States? Of being black in the world? I realized then how incomprehensible the violence seen in US race protests must seem to Europeans whose societies, like the States, don’t fully acknowledge the hard truths of being a minority. This conversation has lingered in my mind for years, and now it will be used to illuminate some of the bitter truth behind the protests spreading across the world.

To understand today’s protests, one must go back in time to its roots. Not the roots of mind- boggling wealth, knowledge and cultural richness that characterized ancient African kingdoms. Nor the roots reflecting the immense economic, social and political power that Africa has represented throughout history. Instead, we will start where biased history textbooks decide African heritage begins: slavery. African slaves faced brutal journeys across the Atlantic Ocean, so frequently tossed into the open water by white slave traders that the migratory patterns of great white sharks changed to follow the constant supply of fresh meat.[1] Those that survived weeks of being crammed in the hull surrounded by feces and vomit were immediately sold to the highest white slave owner, often intentionally separated from their family members.

It’s been four hundred years since slavery first started in the US, precipitating a cruel, back-aching, whip-cracking, dog-chasing, impossible-to-accurately-describe black experience on American soil. Those centuries of free, forced labor set the foundation for the United States to be the economic powerhouse that it is today. And the reward for its thankless labor force? The thirteenth amendment, which abolished slavery and legally recognized the humanity of slaves who had always simply been considered property.[2] With no money, land or opportunity, many slaves stayed working for their masters, painfully aware of a black person’s place in a white-controlled land.

Freedom was not enough to be considered equal, yet black people continued finding ways to survive in a nation that hated them. In 1921, the most prosperous African-American community in the United States was violently destroyed by white mobs angry at an alleged rape of a white woman by a black man.[3] Black Wall Street, as it was called, burned to the ground without any of its perpetrators being charged. In 1955, a 14-year-old black teenager named Emmett Till was abducted, tortured, lynched and drowned for supposedly whistling at a white woman.[4] On her deathbed, that woman admitted she lied in her testimony that led to Emmett Till’s death.[5] Lynchings, public hangings of black people were community events in which entire white families would come to be entertained. The Ku Klux Klan would frequently burn crosses on African-Americans’ yards and hang any black person they came across, as famously described by Maya Angelou in “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” These are far from isolated incidents, but instead consequences of institutional racism that persists today.

The same year Emmett Till was murdered, Rosa Parks sparked a massive boycott against segregation on buses, a law which legally required black people to always give their seats to whites and sit in the back of the bus.[6] The black community mobilized, led by revolutionary figures such as Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, Angela Bassett and Nina Simone. These leaders helped coordinate the mass uprising of a people whose needs were never considered by the nation they called home. In the face of violent police action which involved fire engine hoses and attack dogs, African-Americans united with other oppressed minorities to speak in the name of justice and equality. Ruby Bridges, an eight-year-old black girl, faced mobs of angry white adults to become the first African-American child to desegregate American schools in 1960.[7] The Freedom Fighters, groups of black and white civil rights activists, confronted American segregation in 1961 by taking bus trips through the American South.[8]

Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.[9] The Black Panthers formed in 1966 a group of African-Americans who intervened in police racial profiling and provided food to black communities.[10] Hope rippled through the nation, raising downcast eyes to the horizons of what could be. On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated[11]; Martin Luther King Jr. would be suspiciously gunned down only three years later. State violence against the black community persisted, but the ‘60s activists’ efforts bore fruit that eradicated segregation for the next generations.

Nevertheless, the black fight for survival was far from over. Los Angeles burned in the 1992 riots, sparked by the savage police beating of a black man named Rodney King.[12] The officers were acquitted of all charges. Time passed but the social circumstances remained, for there has always been a glass ceiling for black people in America. This ceiling not only oppresses black people but also serves as a mirror by which their complaints and concerns are thrown back into their faces. No one outside of the black community truly believed that such heinous acts were being committed by the police. And if they were, there was surely a good reason for it.

And then, cellphones and social media changed the playing field. All of a sudden, the unjust treatment or killing of a black person by the police could be documented, making it a fact instead of an opinion. The deaths of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and Michael Brown in 2014 ignited public outrage at the continued police brutality experienced by black communities. Already grieving African-Americans took to the streets to demand the fair treatment that humanity demands. Again, police officers brutally abused their power by shooting protesters at point-blank range with rubber bullets and teargas, using vehicles as weapons against the crowds. This was the same story black people knew so well, the only difference was that now the world could see.

The past is the past, some say. That’s true, but the past paves the path that we walk today. How are today’s protests any different from the ones repeated throughout American history? Are we not still fighting for the same respect and justice every human being deserves? The history of African-Americans is one filled with blood, tears and unspeakable pain and today, we see the continued struggle for equality. People, regardless of skin color or ethnicity, march together in these protests in the name of something bigger, something desperately needed: justice. In these times we are able to see just how strong we are when carrying the same load.

In that café in Amsterdam, my friend and I came face-to-face with the universality of racism. This man, who admitted to not having any black friends or acquaintances, confirmed that black people everywhere face unwarranted discrimination based on their skin color alone. But this story, at least, has a happy ending. He asked us what his privilege blinded him from seeing and we shared our personal experiences as black women living in today’s world. We listened to each other. Years, decades, centuries of race-related trauma were laid on the table without apology. On that day, we had an honest conversation about what it meant to be black, what it meant to be white and what it meant to be human. It’s hard to say if that conversation changed that man’s view of black people, but before we left, he thanked us for telling him the truth he had no idea existed. My friend and I walked into the afternoon sunshine with the same historical weight, but this time we felt stronger in carrying it.

If this article conveys anything to its readers, let it be the dire need for universal support of the righteous fight against racism. One of the most wonderful perks of being a Euroculture student is that we get to see firsthand how much more similar we humans are than different. We all breathe, we all hope, we all love. This understanding allows us to stand up for our fellow women and men in the fight against oppression because we know that by standing for them, we stand for a better future. Life is not constrained to articles and research, it throbs and pulsates with change. If for only this reason, we must be willing to act on the side of that which is true, right and just. As we move forward from these difficult past months, may we remember that being united is truly the only way for us all to be free.

Note: the attached bibliography provides a wealth of information concerning the black struggle in the United States. Please feel free to use these resources as tools of empowerment and understanding towards humankind.

https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/interactive/2020/05/mapping-police-killings-black-americans-200531105741757.html

https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/the-death-of-emmett-till

https://daily.jstor.org/the-devastation-of-black-wall-street/

https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/malcolm-x-assassinated

https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/the-death-of-emmett-till

https://www.archives.gov/files/press/exhibits/dream-speech.pdf

https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/freedom-rides

https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/montgomery-bus-boycott

https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/ruby-bridges

https://www.npr.org/2017/04/26/524744989/when-la-erupted-in-anger-a-look-back-at-the-rodney-king-riots

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/video/2017/mar/14/michael-shooting-new-surveillance

Footage-video:

https://www.nytimes.com/1994/06/19/nyregion/remembrance-of-slave-ancestors-lost-to-the-sea.html

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/27/us/emmett-till-lynching-carolyn-bryant-donham.html

https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=40

https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/16/us/black-panthers-50-years.html

Sources:

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/1994/06/19/nyregion/remembrance-of-slave-ancestors-lost-to-the-sea.html 

[2] https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=40 

[3] https://daily.jstor.org/the-devastation-of-black-wall-street/ 

[4] https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/the-death-of-emmett-till 

[5] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/27/us/emmett-till-lynching-carolyn-bryant-donham.html 

[6] https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/montgomery-bus-boycott 

[7] https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/ruby-bridges 

[8] https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/freedom-rides 

[9] https://www.archives.gov/files/press/exhibits/dream-speech.pdf 

[10] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/16/us/black-panthers-50-years.html 

[11] https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/malcolm-x-assassinated 

[12] https://www.npr.org/2017/04/26/524744989/when-la-erupted-in-anger-a-look-back-at-the-rodney-king-riots

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