The Common Good

Racial Jeopardy and American Politics

Sojomail - January 26, 2012


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 GUEST COMMENTARY by Lisa Sharon Harper

Racial Jeopardy and American Politics

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During a roundtable chat with a group of emerging young evangelical leaders recently, someone posed the question: “Has America become a post racial society?”

Well, we haven’t had a race riot in a while — does that mean race isn’t relevant anymore?

A black president just gave the State of the Union Address. How about that? Does that mean America’s OK with the race thing?

Our nation is a more ethnically diverse nation than it’s ever been. Does that count for anything?

Scholars across disciplines agree that what we think of as “race” literally was invented here in the 17th century to delineate castes within a system of extreme privilege and subjugation.

So, rather than thinking about the dreaded word, “racism,” to answer the question, perhaps it would be more helpful to think about how our society has been “racialized” and then ask if such a racialization still exists or reverberates in today's American culture.

In 1662, the Virginia legislature declared that children born to enslaved women would be slaves “in perpetuity” (a.k.a. “forever”) no matter what the father's race. It was the first law delineating legal difference in status between blacks and whites passed in the New World.

Before the Virginia law's instatement, the status of a person had been based upon the status of the father. This new law made it possible for white slave masters and overseers to rape their female slaves and gain more “chattel” to work their land. In fact, the Virginia law created a new kind of permanent underclass — the black slave — to support a new kind of permanent nobility — the white American.

Our forbears mirrored England's caste system, with its aristocracy and servant classes where privilege or subjugation was inherited by birthright or circumstance, with one crucial difference. In England, everyone was white, so blood lineage, rather than race, was the delineator.

America's founding fathers believed that in our hallowed land, every man should be the king of his own castle, so-to-speak. Here every man is free and equal and able reap the benefit from the land, its resources, and representative democracy. Every man, that is, except the ones who were not white.

Just seven years after the end of the Revolutionary War, our forbears felt the need to clarify who could enjoy the ultimate privileges and protections of U.S. citizenship. Through the Naturalization Act of 1790, they made it clear. The privilege of citizenship was reserved for “white” people.

Yeah, yeah, Lisa, but that was like 220-something years ago. That doesn’t prove that racialization still exists in America today. Come on! We have a black president.

OK. Let’s play a game. It’s called “Racial Jeopardy.”

1) Name the year race-based slavery ended in the United States. What is 1865?

(Good! That's right. It ended at the conclusion of the Civil War.)

2) Between 1865-1876, this number of African-Americans held elected office.

What is about 1500?

(Yes. Great! African-Americans experienced 11 years of absolute freedom after the Civil War and look what they were able to accomplish with total freedom — right after being enslaved for more than 200 years! There were black senators, representatives, judges, mayors, lieutenant governors — you name it.)

3) This is the year that state and local Jim Crow laws begin to clamp down on southern blacks’ ability to vote, move freely, receive education, or receive equal protection of the law.

What is 1876?


4) How many lynchings of black people happened between 1876 and the start of the Civil Rights movement in 1954?

What is 3,438?


5) Now, this is the year that the Jim Crow system was outlawed in America.

Um ... I don’t know.

(AAAARRRRNNNNKKK! Sorry. The answer we were looking for is, "What is 1964, when the Civil Rights Act was passed, or What is 1965, with the Voting Rights Act.)

6) So, how many years have African-Americans been actually free in the United States?

What is 47?


Now answer this:

7) What two pieces of legislation are credited as having laid the foundation for the American middle class?

What are the Homestead Act of 1862 and the WWII GI Bill?

8) When the Homestead Act of 1862 was passed how much free land did folks get from the government? And who got it?

What is 160 acres? And who are white folks?


9) Who benefited from the GI Bill?

Who is everyone?

(AAAARRRRNNNNKKK! Technically, yes, everyone should have benefited equally from the GI Bill. And by 1956, 7.8 million World War II veterans had received free college education or training and 2.4 million were carrying home loans backed by the Veterans' Administration. But the GI Bill was crafted it in such a way that it made it difficult for African-American GIs to take advantage of the benefits. So, the white middle class far out-paced the development of the African-American middle class.)

10) Has the United States ever sought to repair the damage done by more than two hundred years of institutionalized racialized slavery and one hundred years of racialized Jim Crow law?

What is “no”?


As a result, the median wealth of white U.S. households in 2009 was $113,149, compared with $5,677 for blacks and $6,325 for Latinos, according to July 2011 data from the Pew Research Center.

As a result, at the height of the economic downturn, the poverty rate in the black community was 27 percent, compared with 9.9 percent for whites.

As a result, if you were to lay down a map of the nation's most toxic or polluted land and lay on top of that a map of all the most black, Latino, and Native American communities in the country, you would find a nearly one-to-one correlation.

As a result, the United States incarcerates black men at a rate 6.6-times higher than that of white men.

So, my answer to the question of whether America has become a post-racial society is this: African-Americans have been completely free for just 47 years.

Our nation still has work to do. Race will continue to matter in the United States until we take active, structural steps to counter the more than 300 years of racialized politics and policies — more than 300 years of sin.

Lisa Sharon Harper is the Director of Mobilizing at Sojourners. She is also co-author of Left, Right and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics and author of Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican ... or Democrat.

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