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August 17, 2014 6:43 pm
US has yet to overcome its tortured racial past
By Annette Gordon-Reed
Jefferson’s doubts about black American citizenship still exist, writes Annette Gordon-Reed
or a founding father who usually took a sunny view of his nation’s prospects, it was a darkly pessimistic prophesy. In his
Notes on the State of Virginia
, Thomas Jefferson argued that if – as he hoped – America’s black slaves were one day set free, the result would be conflict and aninevitable descent into racial war. And in the hours after Governor Jay Nixon imposed a night-time curfew on the Missouri town of Ferguson following the killing there of an unarmed teenager by a police officer earlier thismonth, it is indeed reasonable to wonder whether a form of war (sometimes hot, sometimescold) has been waged against blacks in America from Jefferson’s time until our own.It is hardly uncommon in the US for a young black man to die under questionable circumstances at the hands of the police. Many blackshave stories about young men they knew, or knew of, who were killed this way. When I was at school, a black teenage boy in my hometown died in police custody. The officers spun a wildly implausible tale about what had happened to justify the teenager’s killing. Ourtiny black community ached at its inability to achieve justice in a town still firmly gripped by the legacy of Jim Crow.Jeff erson saw slavery as a state of war bet ween master and slave. It was a legal institution that categorised blacks as property and gave
all w hites authority over e very black person. Ev en after it w as destroy ed, the la w and the officers who enforced it remained a useful way
of k eeping blacks in an inferior position – in particular, of policing the movement and behaviour of black men.This was not war as Jefferson envisaged it, but the post-slavery experiences of black people were consonant with his predictions. Black people, he said, would never forget the wrongs done to them in slavery and the white majority would never overcome its “deep rootedprejudices” against black people. And this, he feared, would undercut America’s republican experiment – for it would discredit arepublic founded on the egalitarian principles eloquently set forth in the American Declaration of Independence.That document, which insists that all men are equal and entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, would lose much of itspower if the society formed in its image contained a permanent group of second-class citizens. And so Jefferson offered separation asthe most viable solution. Blacks would have to leave the US to find true citizenship in a country of their own.Perhaps nothing Jefferson ever wrote has caused more outrage and, in some quarters, ridicule among present-day Americans who havecome to take a diverse America and black American citizenship for granted. That these thoughts should come from the author of whathas been called the American creed seems particularly dispiriting to those who hope we will, one day, “overcome”. Yet in the twocenturies since the
were published, the doubts Jefferson expressed about the true quality of black American citizenship havehardly been eliminated.This is not to suggest that criminals should not be punished or to argue that law enforcement is anything other than an essentialcornerstone of any society based on law. It is to say that the “deep rooted prejudices” that Jefferson spoke of have warped this vitalsocial function – and made black people, particularly young black men, presumptive felons outside the boundaries of full citizenship.If you examine the record of police conduct – from instances of brutal treatment of blacks in custody, to stop-and-frisk policies thatdisrupt the lives of innocent people in black communities, to racial disparities in drug arrests and sentencing – that is surely theconclusion you must draw. Yet merely to state it is to invite efforts to change the subject. “What about black-on-black crime?” “What about the problems with black families?” As if the existence of these problems justifies diminishing the rights of an entire community.
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