There’s a maxim when studying history that goes: You have to judge a people by the context of their times. This means that to apply modern sensibilities when judging how folks long ago dealt with “an issue” is unfair. Accordingly, we (today) have the cumulative advantage of years in which human beings have “advanced” (scientifically, culturally, ethically).
This has always been an interesting question to me: How do we judge our ancestors? Our Founding Fathers, white boys all, found it just fine to count a slave as three-fifths a human being for reasons of representation. I find this perversely funny. Slaves could not vote, were deemed to have no rights, yet Southerners insisted “they” be counted nonetheless. “The Three-Fifths Compromise” codified into our Constitution the complete marginalization of African-Americans.
America’s democracy, imperfect as it is, was compromised from the beginning. Without this compromise, it is argued, America may not have become the “United” States. The take-away: it was necessary for the existence of the United States to unequivocally marginalize black Americans (slaves) in our original founding document, the U.S. Constitution. That for all intents and purposes, a black man counted as three-fifths of a white man. Auspicious beginnings.
How should we judge our Founding Fathers today in this regard? By contemporary standards, this is clearly racism. But what was it in 1787?
In 1783, Quakers in England formed the first anti-slavery group. I mention this because it is important to understand that voices opposing slavery were actually raising objections internationally and in America. It is one thing to operate in a vacuum (slavery is an historical fact, normal and sanctioned by society) and another to become aware that “some” found slavery an abomination and should be outlawed.
Interestingly, most abolitionists, while opposing slavery, did not consider Africans as “equal” to white men, let alone have them live next door. But the conversation for “justice” had begun. Its clarion message had not yet reached a crescendo; that would take another 180 years. America’s Civil War was more about the Union, less about slavery.
After the Civil War, the Jim Crow laws were put in place in the South, and to varying degrees throughout the North. It wasn’t until the post WWII period that civil rights for America’s black citizens actually began to seriously trouble (agitate) white America.
The Civil Rights Movement that took place in the 1960s was just the beginning of the quest for black freedom and justice. Slavery/Jim Crow had been a continuous part of the American fabric since the establishment of the Spanish colony of St. Augustine in 1565. That is 400 years of unmitigated terror and oppression of African-Americans. It is less than 50 years since the Civil Rights Act of 1965 — 400 years of slavery and oppression, 50 years at making amends/corrections.
The question on the table is what will Americans generations from now make of us? How will we be judged regarding race? What will be the context of our times?
The line most quoted in the just-released hit movie “The Hunger Games” is, “May the odds be ever in your favor.” It’s ludicrous. Twenty-four children are selected to participate in a killing field where only one survives. Some odds, huh? Speaking of which, when I heard that “line” I immediately thought of America’s young black men. The odds sadly never seem in their favor. Why is that?
What does Trayvon Martin’s death say about you? And America in 2012?
Jepson is a 24-year resident of Florida. He’s fiscally conservative, socially liberal, likes art and embraces diversity of opinion. Reach him at Jepson@MEDIAmerica.US