“White Americans desire to be free of a past they do not want to remember, while Black Americans remain bound to a past they can never forget.”
The 1619 Project is a collection of essays, flash fiction, and poetry from a variety of writers concerning the experience of Black Americans. Black history is not well taught in US schools. Unbelievably, in 2017, only 8 percent of high school seniors named slavery as the central cause of the Civil War!
African slavery began on the American continent in 1619, one year before the Mayflower arrived. In 2019, on the 400th anniversary of this event, Nikole Hannah-Jones published a special issue of the New York Times to mark the occasion, relating facts of American history long known by academics, but unknown to most Americans who are given a sugar-coated version of history in school. The pushback included over a dozen Republican legislators at the federal and state levels attempting to defund schools that incorporated the 1619 Project into their curricula.
“We must assert our Rights, or Submit to every Imposition that can be heaped upon us; till custom and use, will make us as tame, and abject Slaves, as the Blacks we Rule over.” – George Washington
Thomas Jefferson, who wrote that all men are created equal, owned over a hundred slaves, including some he fathered himself. George Washington, who also owned over a hundred slaves, claimed the British were treating the colonists as slaves. Slaves could legally be raped, tortured, worked to death, or murdered. Unsurprisingly, more slaves joined the Revolutionary War on the British side than on the American side.
John Murray, the Earl of Dunmore, offered freedom to any slaves who joined the British side. This infuriated white Virginians, many of whom went from neutral or loyalist to patriot. In fact, Washington, Jefferson, and Madison hadn’t originally intended to declare independence. The Dunmore Proclamation is what prompted them to. The Southern states would have likely remained British colonies if this hadn’t happened. America couldn’t have broken free of Britain without the profits from slavery, making slavery one of the primary causes of the Revolutionary War.
The hypocrisy of fighting for the freedom to own slaves was noticed by many at the time. Samuel Johnson quipped, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?”
Jefferson, in order to explain this hypocrisy, originally wrote a defense of slavery into the Declaration of Independence, but other congressmen struck the passage. However, the Declaration does refer to Dunmore’s Proclamation last in the list of grievances against England, which means the colonists considered it the most important reason for war.
Our nation’s founding documents were mostly written by Virginians and most of the presidents for the first fifty years were Southerners, mostly from Virginia, such as Washington, Jefferson, and Madison. Virginia was the oldest, wealthiest, largest, and most influential of the colonies due to slavery. Ten of the first twelve presidents were slave holders.
Africans (prisoners of war, criminals, undesirables, or kidnap victims) were sold into slavery by fellow Africans. During the Middle Passage, men were chained together, cramped into spaces smaller than a coffin, had trouble getting enough air to breathe, and were surrounded by human waste. Iron shackles tore into flesh with every jolt of the ocean, causing death in some cases. Women were kept in a separate room where it was easy for sailors to rape them. Between 5 to 20 percent (lowering in later centuries) died during the passage, mostly from disease.
On Louisiana sugar parishes, deaths greatly exceeded births. Life expectancy was lower than on a cotton plantation. The most overworked and abused could die after seven years of back-breaking labor combined with inadequate nutrition.
Shortly after America declared its independence, Haiti did likewise, but in a more impressive manner. The Haitians were formerly enslaved people and not only defeated Napolean’s army, the greatest military power on earth at the time, but also held off military invasions from the Spanish and British as well. This inspired several slave revolts in America in which hundreds died.
The Second Amendment was largely written to assure white Southerners that they could defend themselves against Black people. The main purpose of a well-regulated militia in the South was to suppress slave uprisings. Consequently, Black people have often been barred from owning guns and when they do use one in self defense, they typically get charged with murder. During the Revolutionary War, the North offered freedom to enslaved people who joined the army, but the South never did, preferring to surrender to the British rather than arm Black people.
To this day, Stand Your Ground laws protect white people who shoot Black people as in the Trayvon Martin case, but not the other way around as in the Jessie Murray case. To this day, white people who shoot Black people are ten times more likely to be found not guilty than the other way around.
During the Constitutional Convention, slavery was the most decisive issue. The Union almost didn’t happen. Southern states feared democracy because they thought it would lead to slavery being outlawed. They only agreed to join the Union after the compromise that gave them congressional power and created an electoral college based on population, with slaves counting as three fifths of a person. This compromise gave the Southern states more power in Congress and more power over the presidency until Abraham Lincoln’s time. To this day, the fifteen states where slavery was legal in 1861 still hold the power to block a constitutional amendment supported by the other 35 states.
America is a capitalist nation, but it practices a particularly brutal form of capitalism called “low road capitalism.” 1 percent of Americans own 40 percent of the wealth. A larger share of working-age Americans live in poverty than any other OECD nation.
American capitalism started with slavery. Many plantations had complex hierarchies like you’d see in modern businesses. Slaves were punished, not due to racism, but for not meeting quotas. The cotton plantation was America’s first big business. Slavery was made efficient. Slaves in 1861 picked 400 percent more cotton than in 1801 as management techniques were refined.
When the Industrial Revolution happened, slavery pulled down the wages of all workers since the bosses could always buy people instead of paying white workers more. However, pro-slavery newspapers of the time claimed freeing slaves would lower wages since freed blacks would steal white jobs. Unions had more power in other democracies in the 1840s, but American unions suffered because they barred free black workers from joining, thus reducing their bargaining power. Black people, not allowed to join unions, became de facto strikebreakers.
Although Native Americans had sometimes been slaves themselves, George Washington, in an effort to civilize Native Americans, sent Benjamin Hawkins to teach natives how to behave like Europeans, including teaching them how to enslave Black people. James Vann, part Scottish and part Cherokee, enslaved over 100 people of African descent. By 1860, approximately 2 percent of Native Americans in the South owned slaves.
By 1830, Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, relocating Natives west of the Mississippi. Some Natives brought Black slaves with them on the Trail of Tears. The wealthiest reestablished estates in Oklahoma and sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War.
Although Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, he originally didn’t want Black people living in America afterward, so he created a plan to send them to another country. The Civil War was originally started to keep the Union together. Lincoln hadn’t originally planned to free the enslaved people. Lincoln did evolve, though. His final speech expressed an openness to enfranchisement for a limited number of Black men.
An astounding 78 percent of free black military-aged men served in the Union army. After the Civil War, newly freed Black people did not have enough food, clothing, shelter, or medical care. They suffered from dysentery, cholera, smallpox, and other diseases. Hospitals often wouldn’t admit them. In some communities, their bodies littered the streets.
Hiram Revels was the first Black man elected to the US Senate in 1870. Blanche Bruce, elected four years later, would be the last Black man elected for nearly 100 years until 1967.
During Reconstruction, Black officials and white Republicans (the liberal party at the time) passed numerous laws against discrimination, and also established a public school system in the South for the first time, which helped both Blacks and poor whites who couldn’t afford private school. White and Black students even attended school together for a short while, until former Confederates regained power and segregated the schools.
The Civil Rights Act of 1866 gave citizenship to everyone born in the United States, including Blacks. President Andrew Johnson vetoed the bill, but Congress overrode it. Shortly after, the Fourteenth Amendment gave all citizens due process and equal protection under the law. (Kentucky didn’t ratify the 14th amendment until 1976.) The Fifteenth Amendment gave Black men the right to vote.
The Thirteenth Amendment didn’t entirely end slavery, it allowed those convicted of crimes to be slaves. Black people were often convicted of minor crimes like loitering or vagrancy and forced to work under brutal conditions. The death rate in some of these prison camps was close to 45 percent, making prison leasing worse than slavery. Slavery hasn’t even been completely eliminated in 2022. Today, a prison in Louisiana called Angola, built upon a former plantation, requires prisoners to pick cotton.
In 1877, Rutherford B. Hayes agreed to pull federal troops from the South and the gains from Reconstruction were lost. Voter suppression, electoral fraud, and violence kept the South from being a true democracy until the Civil Rights acts of the 1960s. The lives of poor white Southerners improved thanks to Reconstruction, while Blacks were thrust into a situation worse than slavery. Between 1877 and 1950, more than four thousand Black men, women, and children lost their lives to lynching.
The only successful coup in American history took place in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898 when 1000 white men overthrow the elected biracial local government. They killed scores of Black people and drove thousands from their homes.
The Tulsa Massacre was triggered by a Black man riding in the same elevator as a white woman. Throughout history, white people have often murdered Black people who were too successful, resulting in economic inequality today. Black households are less likely to receive an inheritance. When they do, white people usually inherit three times as much money as Black people do.
In the 1930s, Black Americans were largely excluded from the New Deal as Southern congressmen excluded farm and domestic workers, a high percentage of the Black workforce, from Social Security, the right of collective bargaining, the minimum wage, and the eight-hour workday. In 1944, Black people were largely excluded from the GI Bill.
Hundreds of Black veterans returning from WW2 were beaten, maimed, shot, and lynched by the so-called “Greatest Generation” who were furious at the sight of a Black person in uniform. When Black people asked for equal rights, the “Greatest Generation” firebombed them in buses, mauled them with dogs, and blew up their churches.
Black neighborhoods were often targeted for demolition to build the interstate highway system. Sometimes highways were built to segregate. In the 1950s, the Mayor of Atlanta said I-20’s winding route was specifically designed to separate Black and white neighborhoods.
People deemed mentally defective, disproportionately Black, were involuntarily sterilized well into the 1970s by the Eugenics Board of North Carolina and others. The Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which Black men weren’t given penicillin that could have saved them, lasted from 1932 to 1972.
To this day, Black children and adults receive inadequate pain treatment compared to whites due to ideas that go back to slavery. Recent studies show white medical practitioners falsely believed Black people experience less pain than white people and that black skin is thicker than white skin. Black people are more likely to die of Covid. Black babies are more than twice as likely to die in the first year of life compared to white babies.
Philadelphia police bombed a Black commune named MOVE in the 1980s and the fire department allowed 61 nearby houses to burn down. Throughout American history, when Black people riot, it’s due to discrimination, poverty, and police violence, but white people attribute it to senseless criminal acts.
After MLK’s assassination, violent rebellions erupted in more than two hundred cities, injuring thousands and killing scores of people. President Lyndon Johnson said, “I don’t know why we’re so surprised. When you put your foot on a man’s neck and hold him down for three hundred years, and then you let him up, what’s he going to do?” He recognized the root causes of discrimination needed to be addressed, but in practice, he looked to law enforcement as the solution.
For the next four decades, America declared war on drugs and crime, invested billions of dollars into a militarized police force and incarceration while slashing the budget for education, drug treatment, public housing, and welfare. Today, the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world, the number of people behind bars has quintupled, and the Black-white economic divide is as wide as it was in 1968.
The US has 4 percent of the world’s population, but 20 percent of its prisoners. This state of affairs has happened fairly recently. In the 1970s, fewer than 350,000 people were imprisoned. Today, 2.3 million are imprisoned with 4.5 million on probation or parole.
In 1980, 40,000 people were imprisoned for drug offenses, today about 450,000 are. Black people are disproportionately affected. Black defendants in Georgia convicted of killing white people are 22 times more likely to get the death penalty than if the victim is non-white. To this day, prosecutors are less likely to charge a man accused of raping a Black woman than a man accused of raping a white woman.
Black, Latino, and Native children are more likely to be sentenced as adults. In fact in 2008, all 13-14 year olds in this country sentenced to life in prison without parole for non-homicide offenses were non-white. Because of mandatory sentencing and three strikes laws, some people get life imprisonment for minor crimes like stealing a bicycle or possession of marijuana.
After Lincoln died, the federal government refused to give freed people any restitution, while at the same time giving away millions of acres of land in the West to white Americans and white foreigners under the Homestead Act.
From the end of the Civil War to 1950, an average of three Black people were lynched every two weeks. During the 1900s, Black farms were stolen, shops burned to the ground, and entire neighborhoods were razed.
Black people were further prevented from building wealth due to racist unions and hiring policies, segregated substandard neighborhoods and schools. Most communities in the South didn’t provide high schools for Black children until the 1930s or 1940s.
Due to redlining (which meant black neighborhoods were uninsurable for federally-backed mortgages), 98 percent of the loans the FHA insured from 1934 to 1962 went to white people. Public policies advanced white people but not Black.
The civil rights laws of the 1960s ended legal discrimination, but didn’t repair the harm already caused or return what was stolen. Also, the laws weren’t always enforced.
In 1950, Black median household income was about half that of white households and it remains so today. The typical Black household today is poorer than 80 percent of white households. No progress had been made in income disparity over the last 70 years.
Black college graduates are as likely to be unemployed as white people with high school degrees. Black Americans with college education hold less wealth than white Americans who haven’t finished high school.
Black Americans are less likely to be home owners, but when they are home owners, they get higher mortgage rates than white people with the same credit score and their homes are worth less due to being in Black neighborhoods.
The ability to buy a home has more to do with parental and grandparental wealth than with your own hard work and Black people have systematically been prevented from accumulating wealth over the centuries.
Nothing Black people can do can lift them out of poverty. Getting an education, saving more, and owning a home, all still leave them worse off than white people. Wealth begets wealth. White people have been getting centuries of government assistance while the government has held Black people back for centuries.
The only way to fix this is reparations. Freed slaves never got the forty acres they were promised. Black people since then never got all the government assistance white people got. Reparations are not about punishing white people and white people wouldn’t pay for them. They’d come from the government which has discriminated against Black people for centuries.
America has already paid reparations to victims of the Japanese internment, some Native American tribes, and holocaust survivors, yet simply studying the idea of giving reparations to Black people has been repeatedly denied by Congress. It’s non-sensical to oppose reparations for Black people when white people have been getting free government handouts for centuries. None of us can pretend racism has ended as long as this economic disparity exists.