“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776
Racism, the idea that some human beings are inferior to other human beings solely because of race, has existed for millennia. When “superior” groups gain power, persecution and oppression of the “inferior” group often results. These practices then become “normalized” and hard to change.
Racist ideas are enhanced where slavery exists. To own another human being requires viewing the owned person as something less than human, especially when the owned person can be bought and sold like livestock.
In North America, slavery of Africans began in the 1500s. In 1705, laws called the Virginia Slave Codes stripped away all legal rights for slaves in the American colonies, making them non-persons legally. Viewing slaves as “non-human” resulted in patterns of thought which were passed down through generations.
Over the years, people of conscience fought against these views. Benjamin Franklin, once a slave owner, became a member of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery. By 1804, all the northern states had abolished slavery. On March 2, 1807, President Thomas Jefferson signed the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves; it became law in 1808. But slavery and its evils still existed in the southern states.
The Civil War ultimately settled the legal issue of slavery, but it didn’t erase the decades of racist beliefs instilled in so many people. After the Civil War, many white southerners worked to maintain as much control over their black citizens as possible.
The 1896 Supreme Court ruling Plessy v. Ferguson allowed southern states to pass laws restricting the lives of black people regarding where they could live, work, vote and go to school. Terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan enforced these laws with violence.
Lynching was one way to keep black people in line. Between 1882 and 1964, nearly 6,500 black Americans — men, women, and children — were lynched. They were hung, shot, burned alive, and beaten to death. Lynchings became community events; anyone who objected could themselves be threatened.
In reaction to these atrocities, the modern civil rights movement was launched. It began in the mid-1950s, with the May 17, 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. Board of Education, desegregating public schools. On Dec. 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala. The resulting bus boycott changed the national conversation.
Since then, civil rights supporters have worked to bring attention to the systemic racism that infects our country. Their non-violent protests often became deadly. One unforgettable incident happened on March 7, 1965, when peaceful protesters walking from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Men, women and children were viciously beaten by law enforcement officers. And of course, critics said these protestors should have chosen a different way to protest.
Awareness of racist incidents, including police brutality against black people, has grown over the years. Here is just a sample of unarmed black men killed by police — Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, George Floyd, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, and Rayshard Brooks.
On Sept. 1, 2016, 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick, a UNR alumnus, decided he had had enough. He took a knee during the National Anthem to peacefully protest police brutality against black men. Conservatives were outraged.
On Nov. 30, 2016, right-wing host Tomi Lahren went on the Daily Show. She thought Kaepernick “went about protesting the wrong way.”
Daily Show host Trevor Noah, a black man, then replied, “What is the right way? When people say that I'm always fascinated. What is the right way? Here's a black man in America who says, I don't know how to get a message across. If I march in the streets, people say I'm a thug. If I go out and I protest, people say that it's a riot. If I bend down on one knee then it's not — what is the right way? That's something I've always wanted to know. What is the right way for a black person to get attention in America?”
We are still asking that question.
When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, he was expressing an ideal of equality. We’ve been fighting to achieve that ideal for 244 years. Maybe, in this moment, we are getting closer. We can hope.
Jeanette Strong, whose column appears every other week, is a Nevada Press Association award-winning columnist. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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