How can a nation so lofty in ideals produce a people that are so base in character?
That is the question that confronts even the greatest of U.S. admirers as they contemplate the savagery of the recent racist shooting massacre in Buffalo, New York, where a teenage white supremacist shot to death 10 Black people.
That is the paradox that goes back to the very foundations of the U.S.
The US Declaration of Independence proclaims that “all men are created equal” and that “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights’ such as that ‘Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
Those are the words written by Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers and the third president of America. They are some of the most momentous words ever written, being almost spiritual insignificance.
But, even as he was writing those words, Thomas Jefferson himself was running a highly successful estate founded on slavery. In his life, he owned a total of 600 slaves. So, how did he reconcile slavery with this contradiction? In other words, did he have Black Americans in mind when he wrote those words?
Assemblage of horrors
The answer is ‘yes.’ In Jefferson’s original draft, he called slavery “this assemblage of horrors” and “a cruel war against human nature.” Moreover, the reaction that followed equally indicates that those who read that statement understood exactly what he meant – that all men meant ‘all men.’
Nonetheless, the contradiction between the moral ideals and the individual practices of men such as Jefferson became a great deterrent to the emancipation of Black people. Worse still, anti-black racism in America took a turn for the worse – it led to a hatred that has been so persistent, so virulent, and so ugly, more than anywhere else in history.
Probably nothing illustrates this better than the Tulsa Race Massacre.
In the early 1900s, the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma, had acquired the moniker ‘Negro Wall Street’ for being possibly the most prosperous Black community in the US. The community was very cohesive – following the script provided by men such as Booker T. Washington who had passed here earlier.
For the racist white supremacists of Tulsa, this was dangerous. Hence, on May 31, 1921, taking advantage of a trumped-up charge against a young Black man, thousands of White residents, some deputised by the police, descended on a Black neighbourhood in Greenwood.
They were told to ‘get a gun and get a nigger’, and that they did – supported by a dozen aeroplanes shooting from above and dropping incendiary bombs, they killed, looted and destroyed homes and businesses.
In the end, 300 people laid dead and 10,000 were made homeless. While that was horrific enough, the attack erased years of Black success in Greenwood, with over 1,250 houses, 35 blocks, and 200 businesses burnt. Scholars estimate the losses to be over $200 million in value today!
The incident highlights the wickedness that Black Americans have had to suffer and the deleterious effects that it has had on them. Being Black and successful in America was and is an offence that many are willing to kill to purge.
In Tulsa, remarkably, no one was ever jailed, no reparations were ever paid, the number of victims was highly understated, and reports of the massacres disappeared. Only one insurance claim was ever granted – that of a white shop owner in Greenwood!
Not how things were
But this is not how things were at the beginning. For a moment, in the 17th century, there were Black people who enjoyed relatively equal rights with the rest.
In late 1619, an odd ship that appeared in Virginia, with about 20 slaves from Angola, marked the beginning of slavery in British colonies in America. While the Spanish have had slaves for about a century in Florida, this is the date that many Americans trace the origins of Blacks in America, 45 million strong today.
Anthony Johnson, one of the slaves aboard that ship, went on to earn his freedom in 1635 and became a successful property owner himself. However, in 1662, a court in Virginia ruled that children of mothers who were slaves were themselves to be slaves too.
Thus, slavery became hereditary and being Black meant being a slave. Within two generations, the Johnsons had become disinherited by the state and were reduced to historical insignificance.
As an institution, slavery was very profitable. In a letter to President George Washington, Thomas Jefferson revealed that each slave earned him a compounded profit of at least 4 per cent annually. Thus, more and more slaves were brought to America, at least 6 million in the 1700s alone. By 1865, there were 4 million slaves, making them the second most valuable asset, next only to land.
But the tide against slavery started to turn in the north. On the force of Thomas Jefferson’s words, Massachusetts freed its slaves in 1780. By 1810, 10 per cent of Black Americans were free.
Nonetheless, the south was experiencing an industrial boom, and the demand for slavery was huge. This set the north and the south on a collision course, leading to the American Civil War which the north won in 1865.
However, as it is often said in America: the Unionist north won the war but the Confederate south won the peace. While the north’s victory led to the abolition of slavery but the white supremacist ideology of the south restricted the realisation of true equality for Blacks.
Moreover, it is the south’s vision of Black Americans that conquered America. It is this legacy that bred KKK race terrorism and Jim Crow laws.
This ideology of hate is founded on the need to preserve White interests. The racists oppose equality because it provides an existential threat to their interests. Thus, they dehumanise Black people to make it easy for them to sleep at night without a smidgen of moral compunction: it is easier to hide behind an abstract veil of race rather than deal with the reality of one’s ugliness.
However, the use of racist terror is the manifestation of fear rather than power. What if Blacks shake their shackles off, what if they show agency, what if they marry our women, what if they rise up?
Thus lynching became a preferred method for keeping Blacks firmly in their place. In Florida, despite slavery, 75 per cent of all Black people in 1850 were of mixed race. This means that many White men had no problem dipping their wafer rolls into their neighbours’ mochas. But the converse was considered to be anathema!
Thus, from Virginia in the 1660s’ to Tulsa in the 1920s to Buffalo in the 2020s, the pattern of the marginalisation of Black people through the law and violence is established. If you have more Whites using cocaine and more Blacks using crack, put heavier sentences for crack offences.
If you have to build a highway, let it pass across a black community to bring real estate prices down. If you have to use humans as guinea pigs – use Blacks. If you need people for high paying jobs – avoid Blacks.
So, Buffalo is not an isolated incidence, it is a reminder of the systemic racism that Blacks in America face. Unfortunately, there are no simple solutions to this issue.
Preventing race crimes means tackling the white supremacist ideology which is intertwined with American history. In short, America needs to be ‘founded’ again if Black people are to enjoy the equality and the liberty that Thomas Jefferson had in mind.
Charles Makakala is a technology and management consultant based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He is available at firstname.lastname@example.org. These are the writer’s own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of The Chanzo Initiative. Want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at email@example.com for further inquiries.