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Racism in America and Other Uncomfortable Facts

by LINN WASHINGTON, Jr.

The same day that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama stood in Philadelphia delivering a stirring speech on racism in America, authorities shut down a section of I-95 in that city to conduct emergency repairs on a crumbling support beam.

In many ways this serious infrastructure damage to the East Coast’s main north-south interstate highway–causing that closure–is as symbolic of conditions in America as the race-based ‘Rev. Wright’ controversy triggering Obama’s speech.

America’s infrastructure–from bridges to railroads to pipes delivering drinking water–is crumbling because of chronic inattention.

The chronic inability of America to really address racism has corroded its lofty promises since before the drafting of the U.S. Constitution in Philadelphia over 200-years ago. Obama began that speech quoting from the Preamble to the Constitution.

Remarks regarding racism in America by Rev. Jeremiah Wright–the retiring pastor of the Chicago church Obama attends–have become fodder in this year’s contentious presidential campaign.

Yet, is Wright wrong about racism–as Obama stated in that speech–or is he right? Are Wright’s remarks treasonous as some critics proclaim or do his remarks reveal truths that for many are not self-evident?

Many slam Wright for raising a historically correct albeit uncomfortable fact: the role of racism in America’s founding.

The US Constitution that Obama quoted at the outset of his speech enshrined slavery–a point the Senator discussed in the first dozen sentences of that speech.

America’s first president, George Washington, kept slaves in the Executive Mansion he occupied in Philadelphia during part of his presidency.

The location of the stable where Washington’s slaves lived in Philadelphia is literally at the entrance of the current pavilion housing the iconic Liberty Bell. That stable housing Washington’s slaves was steps from Independence Hall, the building where America’s Founders approved the Constitution.

Rev. Wright is not the first black to provoke criticism for criticizing constitutional shortcomings.

Legendary US Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall sparked a firestorm in 1987 when he criticized imperfections in the Constitution–like slavery and barring women from voting–during a speech in Philadelphia celebrating the bicentennial of that document.

Critics call Rev. Wright un-American for assailing America’s skewed priorities like spending for prisons while short-changing public education and job creation.

During the 1990s Pennsylvania authorities built eleven new prisons yet only one new public high school in Philadelphia, Rev. Wright’s hometown. According to Pa government statistics, most of the people sent to that state’s prisons are unemployed and undereducated.

Two months ago, America celebrated a national holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights activist who consistently urged America to rise above its racism–a central theme of Obama’s recent speech.

Dr. King provoked intense criticism during the last year of his life for assailing America’s skewed priorities, particularly funding a foreign war (Vietnam) while failing to fully attack poverty from Harlem to the hollows of Appalachia.

On the day of his death Dr. King was in Memphis, TN fighting against employment discrimination, a recurring problem in America.

The first major race riot in Philadelphia (1834) involved whites rampaging to bar blacks from jobs.

Six years ago, protests against discriminatory exclusion of minority and female construction workers cast a shadow over completion of the Constitution Center–the magnificent multi-media museum where Obama delivered that Philadelphia speech.

Just weeks before Obama’s speech, clashes over continuing construction industry racism dominated deliberations about expanding Philadelphia’s Convention Center.

Forty years ago–Feb 1968–the Kerner Commission issued recommendations calling for massive action “backed by resources” to address America’s infamous legacy of racism–recommendations never fully funded due partly to siphoning resources into the Vietnam War.

Consistent calls over the past decade for addressing America’s crumbling infrastructure encounter claims that ‘no-cash’ is availabledespite the federal government’s ability to find over $500-billion for the Iraq War that hit the five-year mark this month.

Rebuilding America’s crumbling infrastructure provides an excellent vehicle for addressing a concern critical to the nation’s viability that also energizes the faltering economy with jobs and business opportunities.

The $6-billion cost Pa’s Governor recently said is needed to modernize I-95 through his state alone equals a few months of Iraq War costs.

Pumping cash into needed infrastructure renovations can also address the poverty and prejudice underlying America’s perennial ‘race’ problem.

Federal funding for infrastructure upgrades is not unique.

During an economic downturn in the mid-1970s, for example, the federal government distributed two billion dollars to state and local governments for public works projects to stimulate the national economy.

Interestingly, the exclusion of minority contractors from that stimulus resulted in a minority set-aside that prompted a lawsuit from Philadelphia-area contractors backed by trade unions claiming reverse discrimination despite their receipt of over 99% of the initial allocation and 90% under the set-aside provision.

Recounting America’s past and present racism by Rev. Wright or others does not brand all whites racist, assert that racism is a barrier to all blacks or ignore the nuances of inequities confronting too many Americas regardless of color or creed.

When America’s Founding Fathers issued their Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia over two centuries ago, many in England were unaware of the “history of repeated injuries” that document listed against their King.

Forty years ago, the Introduction of the Kerner Commission report noted white Americans “never fully understood what [blacks] can never forget”–the role of white institutions in sustaining America’s racially discriminatory society.

It may surprise some, but blacks want to move beyond racism also. Blacks have always wanted to move beyond racism but racism blocks advance.

In January 1800 Congress debated a petition signed by 73 Free Blacks living in Philadelphia asking for the extension of America’s ‘promises’ of freedom and justice to persons of color. That petition was the first from blacks seeking an end to slavery. Additionally, that petition specifically sought congressional protection from the illegal practice of kidnapping Free Blacks into slavery.

Congress rejected that petition.

During debate on that petition at Independence Hall–two blocks from the Constitution Center–one congressman proclaimed “Thank God for slavery.” Rev. Wright is pilloried today for asking God to “damn America” for its racism during a church sermon years ago.

In February 2008, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination faulted the US for failing to address racism against its racial minorities–criticism receiving scant news media attention in comparison to the orgy of coverage on comments by Rev. Wright.

Irrespective of Rev. Wright’s remarks, it’s wrong to put America’s long festering race woes solely on the back of Barack.

Instead of Hillary Clinton or John McCain showing self-proclaimed leadership by denouncing the duplicity of using Obama’s candidacy as a barometer for racism in America, the pair remained silent, savoring political advantage.

Politics like race is a time tested weapon of mass deception exploited to smoke-screen public attention important issues.

Near the dawn of the 20th-Century, power-brokers and their puppet politicians’ foisted Jim Crow segregation to splinter inter-racial populism rising in the South at that time.

The 1896 US Supreme Court decision legalizing segregation resulted from a discrimination lawsuit in New Orleansthe city where the pathetic federal response to flooding a few years ago again exposed many Americans to realities of race/racism.

Forty years ago, the Kerner Commission declared the time was now to make good on the “promises of American democracy to all citizenswhite and black, Spanish-surname, American Indian and every minority group.”

The Kerner Commission, like Obama in his speech, spoke about “unfinished business” of this Nation.

The issue today is as it was at the time of the 1968 Kerner Report and that 1800 congressional debate: making the promises of democracy real for all Americans.

We have the way. Do we still lack the collective will?

Linn Washington Jr. is a columnist for The Philadelphia Tribune.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Linn Washington, Jr. is a founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He lives in Philadelphia.

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