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Taking a Long Look Backward to Explain a Police Killing in Sacramento

Photo by Chris Yarzab | CC BY 2.0

In Sacramento, California, on March 18, police bullets killed Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man.  The police misbehaved, but the real culprit was racial hatred, evident already in the recent wave of police killings of mostly black men.

Stephon Clark died as did black people who died at the hands of Klu Klux Klan raiders during the Reconstruction era,(1) as did thousands of blacks lynched over the course of decades, as did so many killed in dozens of massacres carried out by white people between the Civil War and the 1920s. (2)

Activists and potential victims sought relief from the long terror campaign. On December 9, 1948 the UN General Assembly approved its “Convention on … the Crime of Genocide.” Responding, the left-leaning Civil Rights Congress in 1951 delivered a 240-page petition to the General Assembly. Its title was: “We Charge Genocide: The Crime of Government against the Negro People.” (3)

The petitioners condemned the United States for “mass murder of its own nationals” and “institutionalized oppression and persistent slaughter of the Negro people in the United States on a basis of “race.” They cited as evidence “thousands of Negros who over the years have been beaten to death on chain gangs and in the back rooms of sheriff’s offices, in the cells of county jails, who have been framed and murdered by sham legal forms and by a legal bureaucracy.”

Terror and killings represent only one aspect of a system of racial oppression manifesting in the United Stated first as slavery. But oppression has assumed many forms. They include efforts taken to ensure less than decent lives for black people.  Poor schooling for black children is one of them. The death March 25 of Linda Brown of Topeka, Kansas served recently as a reminder.

Brown was the lead plaintiff in the famous Brown v. the Board of Education case which concluded on May 17, 1954. That day the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation of public education is illegal. Separate schools, it reasoned, make for inferior education. Hopes were raised, but then came disappointment. Today, U.S schools remain segregated by race. And educational outcomes for black students lag in comparison with those of white students.

It’s clear, therefore, that a system of racial oppression and race hatred has prevailed throughout U.S. history. Its staying power calls for explanation. Historian Gerald Horne enters the discussion at this point.

In his Apocalypse of Settler Colonialismpublished this year, Horne looks at 17th-century English colonial history. He explores political changes within that nation and problems associated with the exploitation of colonies in the Caribbean and North America.

Horne’s “Apocalypse” is an extended one, ultimately afflicting the United States at its founding and beyond, Colonial authorities faced difficulties. Rebel frontiersmen led by Nathaniel Bacon, for example, attacked Virginia’s colonial governor in 1676. They complained he’d left them vulnerable to Indian attacks and limited their access to Indian land. Accordingly, they attacked the Indians and occupied land.

Enslaved and dispossessed peoples resisted. An indigenous uprising known as King Phillip’s War brought chaos and bloodletting to New England in 1676 and later. Victorious settlers arranged for 500 captured indigenous to be “sold into slavery from Plymouth.” Slave rebellions occurred in Barbados and Jamaica – in the latter especially after 1655 when England stole the island from Spain.

Horne notes that “Enslaved Africans constituted two-thirds of the total migration into the Americas between 1600 and 1700.” In the Caribbean, the “colonial elite could not untie the Gordian knot of bringing in more Africans to produce immense wealth while preventing them from rebelling and taking power – which finally occurred in 1791 in what became Haiti.”

In response, many Caribbean settlers moved to the mainland.  Colonial authorities experimented “with providing more benefits – combat pay – to poorer settlers.”  Marginalized white settlers were granted access to land. Increasingly, the exploiters used indentured servants and other poor whites to oversee slaves at work.

Clearly, those in charge were panicked. Indeed, “massive slave revolts” revealed “the frailty of the colonial project.” And “the mainland’s productive forces were advancing, while those of the Caribbean had a foreseeable upper limit.”

Officials turned to promoting “racial solidarity” among European migrants. “The elite had devised a race-based despotism driving these recent [European] arrivals into the arms of these same elites, particularly after the poorer settlers were granted some concessions.” The colonial rulers “established a cross-class alliance between and among European settlers, who bonded on the basis of ‘racial identity politics” – that is, ‘whiteness’ and ‘white supremacy’- and [on] the basis of the looting of all those not so endowed.”

This defensive alliance took shape despite religious differences among white settlers. Horne suggests that as the 18thcentury progressed, their attraction to an agenda of political rights further solidified a united front.

In 1688, England’s commercial classes engineered the so-called “Glorious Revolution,” With the king’s power markedly reduced, they took charge of exploiting the colonies. The new rulers, Horne writes, “proceeded to build vast fortunes on the backs of enslaved Africans and dispossessed indigenes while shouting from the rooftops about the ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ they were demanding at the expense of the monarchy.”

And, “This blatant power and money grab by merchants was then dressed in the finery of liberty and freedom as the bourgeois revolution was conceived in a crass and crude act of staggering hypocrisy.” These developments led to “fueling the revolt against London in 1776.” Horne regards the United States as “a state founded on solemn principles of white supremacy, often disguised in deceptive ‘non-racial’ words.”

“Given the grimy origins of republicanism in the Anglo-American sphere, is it any wonder,” Horne asks, “that even in today’s United States, it remains difficult to extend the full bounty of rights to the descendants of the formerly enslaved or the indigenous?” Indeed, white supremacy “had its latest expression, at least in terms of underlying premise and intent, in the United States in November, 2016.”

In discussing racial oppression, Horne only indirectly acknowledges the role of capitalism, although other historians have recently paid considerable attention to the capitalist nature of slavery. Nor does he dwell upon societal realities of poverty and marginalization as contributing to oppression. But, actually, the idea that race and social class may converge in contributing to oppression is not foreign to him.

Concluding his book, he mentions that following the crisis of U.S. slavery, there emerged a “corollary crisis for white supremacy” and that it was “compounded by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, which – at least – thrust the question of class onto center stage.” The advent of the Soviet Union “helped to erode the capitalist world’s maniacal obsession with ‘race’” and to bring about “crisis for all aspects of the hydra-headed monster that arose in the seventeenth century – white supremacy and capitalism not least.”

Notes.

1) For the Klan, see: Eric Foner, Reconstruction America’s Unfinished Revolution, (Harper & Row, New York, 1989), pp 425 – 431.

2) Lynchings and massacres are listed and/or described at these internet sites: https://racialinjustice.eji.org/timeline/1910s/

http://www.theweek.co.uk/us/88784/america-s-forgotten-massacres

https://memory.loc.gov/ammem/aap/timelin2.html

https://memory.loc.gov/ammem/aap/timelin3.html

3) William L. Patterson, ed., We Charge Genocide, Civil Rights Congress, New York, 1951, 240 pages. A new edition, published by International Publishers, NY, appeared in 1970. Ossie Davis wrote the preface. We Charge Genocide may be read in its entirety at: https://archive.org/details/We-Charge-Genocide-1970

More articles by:

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.

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