Social Justice

America is facing a reckoning over race, but we’ve seen this before

Our history shows African Americans make gains, but are stopped short of full equality

What kind of country sees Black Lives Matter as a radical idea and Black suffering and death as unremarkable?

African Americans are dying at 2½ times the rate of white people from COVID-19, continuing a long history of unequal health outcomes that have seen Black people disproportionately stricken by diseases, including cancer, heart disease and strokes. Black people are far more likely than white folks to fall victim to infant mortality, maternal mortality and murder. Black men are six times as likely as white men to end up in prison and 2½ times as likely to be killed by police.

Until recently, most of America saw all that as no cause for alarm. It was just the way things were, and have been to a greater or lesser degree since the founding of the republic. Black lives, it seems, have always been expendable.

But since the world witnessed a Minneapolis police officer nonchalantly squeeze the life out of George Floyd by pressing his knee into his neck, there has been a seismic shift. Elected officials are moving to rein in police budgets and practices. New York and Virginia decreed Juneteenth a paid holiday for state employees. Congress is debating legislation to make it easier to prosecute bad cops. The Pentagon is considering rechristening Army bases named after Confederate officers. Quaker Oats Co. has done away with the brand name Aunt Jemima, and food conglomerates Mars Inc. and Conagra Brands say Uncle Ben’s and Mrs. Butterworth’s are being reviewed.

“Something is fundamentally shifting,” said Rev. William J. Barber II, president of Repairers of the Breach, a coalition pressing for a national program to attack systemic racism and poverty. “There is a consciousness awakening and you cannot put it back in the box.”

Paintings are displayed on a boarded-up building near the White House in Washington on June 16.

Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The nation has experienced startling racial watersheds before, of course, and each time African American gains were stifled long before full equality was achieved.

Reconstruction tried and failed to get the nation to recognize the humanity of African Americans. Following World War I, African Americans who had proven their valor in the trenches of Europe were returning home and hundreds of thousands of others were moving north to flee racial terrorism and abject poverty in the South. They found opportunity, but also murderous white hostility.

After World War II, as civil rights lawyers found once unthinkable success chipping away at state-sanctioned segregation, the old order was maintained by redlining, massive resistance and white flight. Even as the Black middle class grew, educational levels increased and Black officials filled thousands of political offices, culminating in the election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first Black president, those achievements did not erase racial disadvantages baked in over time. The nation’s racial hierarchy is now perpetuated not by mobs, but by the way the criminal justice, education and health care systems work, and the economic pie is shared.

That structure is now being challenged in unprecedented ways. But what will become of this moment?

A reckoning

A recent poll conducted by SurveyMonkey for CNBC found a dramatic increase in the percentage of white people who agree that racism against Black folks is a major problem, a growing feeling that white people benefit from unfair advantages and an increasing national consensus that the police do not provide equal treatment. It is as if Floyd’s death removed the scales from the eyes of many Americans, allowing them to see how the country fosters and tolerates racial inequity, and even honors those who maintain it.

The demonstrations and reactions that followed Floyd’s death are unlike anything the nation has experienced in a generation. A statue of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, was toppled in Richmond, Virginia. A statue of Christopher Columbus was beheaded in Boston, another toppled in St. Paul, Minnesota, and a third submerged in a lake in Richmond. At Philadelphia’s Italian Market, workers painted over a mural of the city’s former mayor and police chief Frank Rizzo, who once urged residents to “vote white.” After his statue was vandalized by protesters, it was also removed from the steps of the Municipal Services Building, where it had stood for 21 years.

“There is a consciousness awakening and you cannot put it back in the box.” — Rev. William J. Barber II, president of Repairers of the Breach

“The statue represented bigotry, hatred and oppression for too many people for too long. It is finally gone,” tweeted Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney.

The moment has also spurred uncomfortable racial conversations and confessions that might have been hard to imagine just weeks ago.

The top editor of Bon Appetit resigned in disgrace in early June after a picture resurfaced of him and his wife dressing up as Puerto Ricans for Halloween. The old photo was only part of the story. Shortly afterward, Business Insider reported that the celebrated food magazine maintained a toxic culture that excluded and demeaned Black people and other staffers of color. Black folks received less pay, fewer privileges and little of the respect accorded their white colleagues, the report said. In one particularly egregious example, the editor is accused of asking his Black assistant to clean his golf clubs.

The founding editor of Refinery29 also resigned after employees took to social media to describe a culture of discrimination at the women’s lifestyle publication. At the Philadelphia Inquirer, the executive editor resigned after a column headlined Buildings Matter, Too ignited a walkout by Black and other reporters at the paper.

The ongoing reckoning is reaching even the most buttoned-up corners of American society. The U.S. military, an organization often saluted for embracing diversity, has simultaneously marginalized African Americans. Just two of its top-ranking 41 commanders are Black, and people are now speaking up.

Early in June, Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Kaleth O. Wright took to social media to urge his colleagues to acknowledge racism and do something about it.

Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. was confirmed by the Senate to be the new Air Force Chief of Staff, the first African American to lead a branch of the U.S. Armed Forces. Brown, a fighter pilot, said there were times his credentials were questioned when those of white pilots were not.

Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images

“Who am I?” he asked. “I am a Black man who happens to be the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. I am George Floyd … I am Philando Castile, I am Michael Brown, I am Alton Sterling, I am Tamir Rice.”

Wright also called out what he referred to as “the Air Force’s own demons,” including a lack of diversity at the top and racial disparities in military justice.

The new Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., also shared his long experience with racism after Floyd’s death. Brown, who was confirmed by the Senate in June to be the first African American to lead one of the branches of the U.S. Armed Services and the second to serve on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, after Gen. Colin Powell, said in a video posted to YouTube: “I’m thinking about how full I am with emotion not just for George Floyd, but the many African Americans that have suffered the same fate as George Floyd.”

Brown, a fighter pilot, said that over his 36-year military career, he was “often the only African American in my squadron.” At times, he said, his credentials were questioned when those of white pilots were not. He said he felt pressure to perform error-free to prove wrong those supervisors who expected less from him because he is Black.

In the realm of sports, where political and social statements were frowned upon in the past, almost nobody is saying just shut up and play anymore. Top college football and basketball coaches, mostly white men who make fortunes off the talents of Black men, have felt obligated to make public statements condemning racial injustice.

The schools have also been forced to listen to Black athletes raising pointed questions about the coaches they play for and the institutions they represent. At Clemson University, athletes are demanding that the names of buildings honoring white supremacists be changed.

Clemson football players pray following the “March for Change” protest at Bowman Field on June 13 in Clemson, South Carolina.

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Black athletes at the University of Texas are leading an effort to jettison the school song rooted in the era of minstrel shows, rename several campus buildings and donate a portion of the university’s athletic revenue to racial justice groups. And at the University of Iowa, the longtime strength and conditioning coach was let go after a large group of former players, many of them Black, voiced grievances about mistreatment in the program.

NASCAR banned the Confederate flag at its races. The NFL’s hypocrisy over what is widely seen as its blackballing of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is being called out with renewed ferocity. And the long, contentious debate over the lack of Black coaching and front-office leadership in the predominantly Black league has taken on new urgency.

“We are definitely in a remarkable moment that has the potential to be a tipping point,” said Tricia Rose, director of Brown University’s Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America.

There have been other remarkable moments in the past, but each time progress was halted long before the nation reached full equality.

Cautionary tales

In the years following Reconstruction, baseball was one of the most popular sports in the country, and by the 1880s, historians say maybe 20 Black players were in the professional leagues.

But that move toward integration was soon stopped with the help of professional baseball’s first superstar, Adrian “Cap” Anson. Anson is most notable for two things: being the first player to reach 3,000 career hits, and his determination to drum Black players out of the professional ranks.

In August 1883, Anson’s Chicago White Stockings, the forerunner of the Chicago Cubs, played an exhibition game against the Toledo Blue Stockings, a squad featuring Moses Fleetwood “Fleet” Walker, who is often credited with being the first Black player in the majors. But Anson angrily refused to take the field if Walker played. Anson only relented when he was told that he would have to forfeit his share of the gate.

Still, other players and managers took Anson’s lead and similar incidents followed. In 1887, Anson refused to play an exhibition game in Newark, New Jersey, unless the local club removed its African American battery, catcher Walker and pitcher George Stovey. A few years later, white owners barred Black folks from professional baseball. The color line remained in place for nearly six decades until Jackie Robinson broke it in 1947.

Freedom Riders peer from bus windows during a stop.

Paul Schutzer/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Anson’s racism did not prevent him from claiming an honored place in baseball history: He was enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939. Meanwhile, Walker, his lucrative sports career cut short, encountered ups and downs afterward. He became a businessman and an inventor, worked at the post office and did a year in prison. After his release, he edited a newspaper and wrote a 47-page treatise, Our Home Colony, which advocated for Black Americans to return to Africa.

Walker’s ordeal mirrored the everyday horrors of Jim Crow. He and other African Americans lived through a new national consciousness that brought once unfathomable gains — freedom from slavery, seats in Congress and state legislatures, civil service jobs, baseball celebrity — followed by a determined, soul-sapping retrenchment.

The promise of Reconstruction was to turn Black people from property into full Americans. But Black Americans were never allowed to claim and keep their citizenship because many white people could not see their humanity.

It is part of a cycle that has played out repeatedly in American race relations.

Following World War I, the nation again reached a racial turning point. Thousands of Black soldiers returned home from battling tyranny in Europe and were ready to claim their rightful place as full American citizens. At the same time, the first wave of the Great Migration was underway, with thousands upon thousands of Black people moving from Southern peonage to industrial jobs in the North.

A group of African American soldiers returning home from Europe after World War I. They are all wearing the Croix de Guerre (Cross of War) of France, which they were awarded for bravery in battle.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

But even as African Americans embraced new opportunities, they found themselves once again battling terrorism. With the nation in the grip of the Spanish flu pandemic in the summer and fall of 1919, race riots flared up across the country. Violence incited by white folks enveloped at least 25 cities and towns, leaving dozens of African Americans dead in Chicago and as many as 200 killed in Elaine, Arkansas.

The wave of rioting was dubbed the Red Summer by civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson, and it coincided with a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and lynching across the country. Two years later, a white mob in Tulsa, Oklahoma, left more than 300 Black people dead in a section of town known as Black Wall Street.

The violence was rationalized by the racist notion that Black people were a breed apart. Respected white scholars of the day theorized that African Americans were biologically inclined toward crime, even as white mobs carried out unspeakable assaults targeting their Black countrymen.

Resilience

Congressman James E. Clyburn, who is 79, came of age in the decades following World War II as the nation’s civil rights movement was slowly taking hold. He rose from legally segregated Sumter, South Carolina, to become the third-ranking Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he has served for nearly 28 years. The events that occurred during his life are a testament to both the astounding success of the movement and the persistence of Black suffering.

Growing up, he loved baseball. He played second base at South Carolina State University, inspired by his hero Robinson, who broke in with the then-Brooklyn Dodgers as a second baseman.

Clyburn saw that for all the racist abuse heaped on Robinson, his fate was different from Walker’s. Robinson changed baseball forever, and his memory is widely revered. But Clyburn also remembers the searing events of the civil rights years — the murder of Medgar Evers in his own driveway; the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church; the brutal police-led beating of peaceful marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama; the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Students from Howard University gather near the Capitol Building to pray as civil rights legislation goes to the Senate on March 2, 1960.

Bettmann/Contributor

Each of those moments shocked the nation’s conscience, creating momentum for substantive change.

“Those events led to things like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” Clyburn said. In 1968, the federal government outlawed housing discrimination.

The laws made a difference, moving the nation closer to its promise. But as always, there was backlash. By the late 1970s, affirmative action programs that helped Black businesses grow and fueled an increase in the number of Black college students were challenged in court as discrimination against white people, the start of a fight that still continues.

Through it all, the country continued to resist anything approaching true equality. Many white folks fled neighborhoods in cities when Black people started to move in. And when suburban neighborhoods attracted Black homeowners, they often fled those, too. Across the country, white people resisted policies that required their children to attend schools with substantial numbers of Black students.

The nation has experienced startling racial watersheds before, of course, and each time African American gains were stifled long before full equality was achieved.

African Americans now had their citizenship, and their rights were guaranteed by federal law, but white people did not want to be their neighbors.

By the time Clyburn was elected to Congress in 1992, African Americans were once again being elected to political office in large numbers. At first, they relied largely on Black constituencies to elect mayors in majority-Black cities, and members of Congress in majority-Black districts.

But that shifted over time as more white folks felt comfortable voting for Black representatives. The tide grew slowly for decades until Obama was elected president in 2008, marking another racial turning point.

Many Americans saw Obama’s election as proof that the country had finally overcome its racial demons. A country with an electorate that was just over three-quarters white had elected a Black president, so many white people saw the nation entering a “post-racial” era.

The feeling did not last long. The first Black president was confronted with the nation’s old problems. There were new cases of racial violence and police brutality, much of it captured on video. Also, the huge economic, health and opportunity gaps separating Black and white people remained in place.

Life expectancy for African Americans is three years shorter than for white folks. Black people are 40% less likely to have a bachelor’s degree than white people, and have just a dime for every dollar of white wealth.

“When George Floyd said, ‘I can’t breathe,’ I think it touched something much deeper in people who are also saying during this pandemic, ‘I can’t breathe,’ ” said Barber. “But it would be a terrible waste to have all this marching in the street and all we get is a piece of legislation that gets at the part of the issue around police violence and not deal with the violent public policy that affects Black life every day.”

American history makes this much clear: America will find a way to continue tolerating and justifying disproportionate Black suffering. Whatever becomes of this hopeful moment, it will be followed by some type of backlash. The only question is how far things will roll back.

Michael A. Fletcher is a senior writer at The Undefeated. He is a native New Yorker and longtime Baltimorean who enjoys live music and theater.