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Sunday, April 7, 2013

Recent History

Americans have a peculiar sense of time.
Many other countries can trace their history for millennia, if not as nations, then as cultures and societies: China, England, Egypt, Japan, Ethiopia. The United States has really only existed for a blip in time (having actively divorced itself from the society that occupied the land before it).

Perhaps because our country is relatively young, the scale on which we measure our history has been shortened. The majority of our historic sites are at most 300 years old, and we think a 50-year-old building is ancient.

This mindset makes it easy to believe that our past is far behind us. But in reality, every aspect of our history has occurred within just a few generations. Eliza Moore, the last known legal enslaved person, died in 1948. That means your parents (or certainly grandparents) had the opportunity to hear first-hand accounts from those who experienced American slavery. The 13th Amendment was passed less than 150 years ago, less than twice our current lifespan.

Anyone currently over the age of 50 lived in a time when police dogs and firehoses were unleashed on school children* and people of different races couldn't even be in swimming pools together. It is within a single generation of us that people of color were regularly denied the right to vote.** For centuries, officials were elected, laws were written, and a racialized society was legally maintained. And we think that all that has been washed away after just a few short decades?

How can we claim we are colorblind when this is the environment in which we have come of age? State-sanctioned, legally-mandated racism was in place less than a generation ago. How can we think we are free from the prejudice that was so recently the law of the land?

The idea that we are 'post-racial' is laughable. To assert that we should 'move on' or 'just get over it' is ludicrous given the accumulated injustice and disparity that has birthed our modern racialized society. The consequences of a not-so-distant past reverberate loudly today in our segregated cities, our education systems, in police behavior, and in the justice system.

Imagine if Germany had a society in which Jewish citizens were imprisoned twice as frequently and then disproportionately executed. The world would be up in arms! Yet with the USA's own brutal track record with people of color, our current practices remain unchecked.

If we are allowed to distance ourselves from a recent past, we may come to believe that we are inherently better people than those that came before. We forget that they read the bible, attended church, loved their children, and gave to charity, just like we do. Hiding behind the idea of 'ancient history' allows us to live unexamined lives in the present.

*Update: That sentence was written before Michael Brown was shot. Turns out this history is even more recent that initially stated. In fact, it's not even history.
**Similarly, see The Trouble with Voter ID Laws

1 comment:

  1. I am white, and old enough to remember the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s, and every word you say here is absolutely and shamefully true. Anyone who says we have a "post-racial society" is either lying or on drugs.


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By Their Strange Fruit by Katelin H is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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