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W. Richard Turner: America continues to be plagued by racism
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W. Richard Turner: America continues to be plagued by racism

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With the recent anniversary of the events of Jan. 6, 2021 and the upcoming celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday Monday, it is timely to think about the part race has played in our nation’s history. Too often the role of race has been distorted, misrepresented or simply ignored. There is a longing to return to the values of the past, to recapture the heritage of the Confederate dream, to rewrite history, and to relegate slavery and its legacy to a temporary aberration that is over and done with. Simply put, racism is the perception that one race of people is inherently superior to another. Racism is the inability to recognize white privilege for what it is: the reward for living in a racially divided country.

Why do people vote against their own self interest? The answer is simple. Racial superiority is such an overriding self interest that they are willing to sacrifice their own well-being to maintain it. For them it is an existential threat. They are led to believe that racial equality can only be achieved at their expense. They see a growing nonwhite population and a time when whites will be a permanent minority. There is a name for this. It is called “white replacement theory.” It means that there is a conspiracy afoot to replace whites with Blacks in our society. Just look at those who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and it should be obvious who is fighting for what. They were angry white people carrying Confederate flags and wearing MAGA hats.

Some will argue the Civil War was fought between the agricultural South and the industrial North over economic issues. Others will say that it was about states’ rights and whether states could secede from the Union. Many will say the real cause was slavery while ignoring the racial foundation for slavery. The truth is that the institution of slavery as practiced in the South was based on the premise that dark-skinned people from Africa were from a race so inferior to the white race that they were not really human beings. They were enslaved for their own good. That is what the Civil War was all about. It was a struggle for equality and justice that still defines the persistence of racism in the American culture today.

Even our Constitution once said that a slave was only three-fifths of a person. Later in 1857, the infamous Dred Scott decision from the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that slaves were not entitled to protection of the law because they were not really human beings. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney wrote in the Dred Scott decision, “They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.”

‘Cornerstone’ speech

Perhaps most telling were these words from Alexander Stephens, previously governor of Georgia and later vice president of the Confederate States of America. He was speaking not just for himself but on behalf of the Confederate states to explain why a new nation separated from the United States was needed. He said, “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” It is this perception of inequality which is at the heart of racism, even today.

Dr. King once said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” His dream was for a nation where racial equality and reconciliation were universally accepted and practiced. But that is not what we have become today. Stripped of all the rhetoric and “dog whistles,” it comes down to those who believe in racial equality and those who still cling to a dream of racial superiority.

These two opposing visions were once represented in both political parties. But then in the 1960s one party cynically decided to embark upon a “Southern strategy,” a very telling choice of words. So we became polarized into one party of racial equality and the other became a party of racial superiority. One party offers hopes and dreams. The other relies on fear and intimidation. One party looks to the future. The other party wishes to return to the past. They want to “Make America Great Again,” just like it was before 1954. Their supporters know exactly what that means.

Slavery may have been eliminated in the 1860s, but the racism that supported it was not. It persisted in Jim Crow segregation laws. It was supported by the doctrine of “separate but equal” which was affirmed by the Supreme Court in Plessy vs. Ferguson. It gave rise to terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. It persisted in opposition to desegregation in the 1960s and beyond. It persists in opposition to legislation that might promote economic justice and eliminate poverty for fear it might also benefit racial minorities. It persists in making it more difficult for people of color to vote. It persists in the reality that too often black lives don’t matter. Its banner is the Confederate battle flag. It’s heroes are those who fought not just to preserve slavery but also to preserve a separate and unequal racially divided society.

When it comes to defining who is a racist, it is irrelevant that your ancestors never owned slaves. What is relevant is whether you support racial equality and will practice reconciliation in your daily life. Our Constitution promises “equal protection under the law” regardless of race, gender, religion or sexual orientation. When we salute the flag, we promise to be one nation with “liberty and justice for all.” That is what it means to be an American. If America is ever to live up to its promise, we must work to eliminate racism. Our common humanity matters.

W. Richard Turner is a retired research chemist who lives in Hewitt.

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