And Justice For All
By NANCY PATRICK
Last summer (2020), I attended a community gathering held at Stevenson Park in Abilene. I went to support the Black Lives Matter Movement. The sweltering June evening drew a large number of Abilenians. I proudly observed people of all races and ethnicities, most carrying placards with expressions of protest for George Floyd’s recent murder. Others expressed hope for unity, fairness, and justice. My own placard read “And Justice for All.”
When European settlers arrived in the New World in the seventeenth century, they assumed ownership of the land. Realizing the presence of indigenous people did not deter their ambitions of possessing the land and becoming wealthy and independent.
The treatment of the indigenous people set the precedent for the future of American society. The belief in white superiority firmly rooted itself into the very fabric of American life. Settlers discovered the plentiful and fertile land could produce riches and opportunities beyond their dreams in Europe.
Raising the wealth-producing crops required much land and many workers. The plantation owners found the answer to their needs by “importing” Africans from their homeland, bringing them to America, and buying and selling them like cattle.
This new slave industry laid a foundation in the American system of life. White people considered slaves (Blacks) property. Slave owners named their slaves with easy-to-pronounce names, giving them the last names of their owners. Owners freely raped their female slaves, thus producing babies whom they owned as new slaves.
Because whites did not recognize slave marriages as sacred, the husbands had no right to refuse access to their wives. Owners could separate families, selling children or spouses away from each other. This practice systematically prevented family bonding and encouraged promiscuity.
Although the Civil War officially ended slavery, it did not end the belief in white supremacy. Not only did many white people resent the loss of their economic base with slavery, but also many held a deep hatred for people of color. One of the first hate groups formed, the Ku Klux Klan, wreaked fear and havoc across the South as they hunted down former slaves, torturing and murdering many.
In the last few decades, we have heard the term “systemic racism” used to refer to the automatic and subconscious ways in which white society treats people of color. Some older generations of white Americans may have had difficulty understanding the meaning of that term.
“System” refers to the root system of an organism. For example, herbicides go to the roots of plants and destroy them from the roots as they permeate the entire body. They annihilate their host. This definition clearly depicts systemic racism. It has so permeated our society that it has the potential to annihilate the peaceful and fair society for which most Americans yearn.
The 2009 novel The Help by Kathryn Stockett, set in the 1960s South, presents an accurate portrayal of the relationship between Blacks and whites of that era. The Jim Crow laws effectively separated Black and white Americans with specific rules that relegated people of color to a lower social class that forbade them equality with white people. The book clearly shows how systemic racism assigns people to specific roles in society, much as the caste system works in India.
A walk through history illustrates the systemic nature of racism in America. The young slave Phillis Wheatley actually thought herself a lucky girl. Why? Because her owners, Mr. and Mrs. Peters, taught her that had she not been kidnapped and sold into slavery at the tender age of eight, she would not have had the opportunity to become a Christian and go to heaven.
During the long and arduous struggle for their rights as human beings and United States citizens, countless other Blacks have written, sung, marched, preached, taught, demonstrated, and died for the same rights afforded me upon my birth as a white baby girl in 1950.
As I learned about Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and countless others, their work influenced one of my primary goals as a teacher: to impart a sense of humanity, fairness, justice, and equality to my students. My favorite novel to teach ninth graders, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, never failed to produce in my students a better understanding of systemic racism.
I love reading the words of Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and (the list goes on and on). These writers opened a new world to me—a world that portrayed the human soul in all its beauty, love, anguish, desire, and worth.
America’s recent racial crisis that includes the beating of Rodney King, and the killings of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, Amaud Arbrey, George Floyd, and many others illustrates the systemic nature of American racism. Many white people seem to have an innate fear, distrust, or hatred of the “other.” When we react negatively to the very sight of a Black person, that reaction signifies a gut or systemic reflex.
Our forefathers founded America on principles of democracy and equality. I realize that their vision focused on Europeans when they wrote the Declaration of Independence, but surely our history and our good fortune as Americans has grown within us a broader sense of the terms democracy and equality that can include all human beings regardless of race or creed.
Nancy Patrick is a retired teacher who lives in Abilene and enjoys writing