Whitewashing Slavery

Slaves Waiting for Sale: Richmond, Virginia, 1853. Painting by Eyre Crowe.

The tide of freedom in America is receding.  Reproductive rights, affirmative action, lgbtq+ rights and the accuracy and integrity of Black history have been crippled for the comfort and convenience of a radically conservative minority. A minority disproportionately represented in our highest court.

Since the abolition of slavery the fight for racial equality has moved at a glacial pace. Despite periods of stagnation, there has been relatively consistent forward motion.

Now, three rapid-fire reversals of Supreme Court precedents based on religious dogma and bigotry have set equality back decades for people of color, women and the lgbtq community. (Since its inception the court has reversed legal precedents in less than one half of one percent of its decisions) In its wake, the stench of newly created, whitewashed standards for teaching Black History have been passed by Florida’s Board of Education. Middle school students must now be taught the “benefits” of slavery such as, “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

These new standards are not just ignorant, they open generational wounds and incite rage among people of conscience. Forcing a false narrative upon a new generation undermines 250 years of hard-fought progress.

In my fifty years of social justice advocacy, from an early 1970s internship at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, to serving as founding board president of Philadelphia’s 30 year old lgbtq youth center, The Attic, I’ve seen my share of social justice setbacks, but none so blatantly created by harnessing fear and hate. The atmosphere created by Ron DeSantis’ “war on wokeness” is rancid to the point of enabling the whitewashing of slavery. So let’s examine the source. Fear and hate. We know it’s learned. Can it be unlearned?

Pockets of hate have always existed. Human history is littered with holy wars, class wars, race wars, vendetta culture and scapegoating for advantage, power and revenge.

Tracing the origins of hate paints a mind boggling picture of humanity’s destructive nature. Fourth century B.C. philosopher Laertius described hate as “an irrational urge that plagues humankind.”  Buddha labeled it one of the three defilements (poisons) and the source of human suffering. We know it’s old and likely here to stay. A look at hate as a contagion might illuminate ways to diminish its potency.

Hate loves to stereotype. Exaggeration is among the most effective means to create blame, a primary motivation to hate.

Echoes of ancient hate are readily revived through stereotype and myth. The Jews, for example, were targeted for disdain having believed in one god during ancient times when the norm was to worship many. The stereotype of its day was that those aligning with monotheism were different and not to be trusted. Long before the birth of Jesus, the original stereotype had set the stage.

Once hatred is practiced in the home, it tends to be taught or mirrored, becoming a legacy, an interwoven imprint of home, family and identity. Can a perception so entwined be changed?

Yes. It’s happening now. Today in America, many are coming out of the slumber of White privilege with stunned awareness and discomfort. “White fragility? It never dawned on me that accepting benefits from a system that favored me for my race was to cosign oppression.

This massive uprising of American consciousness is causing some to question long held beliefs. And with this uplift in consciousness, children living in households of hatred have more exposure to truth – if not in the home, in the streets, schools (where accurate history is essential), and on their screens. They will question. They will develop independent thought. Some will choose a new way, diluting legacies of hate.

The downside of this messy, transitional time of enlightenment is desperate pushback by the dinosaurs of bigotry sensing their own ice age, utilizing every trick in the book to turn back the clock, including rewriting Black history – OUR history.

Our job is to keep the difficult conversations going. To speak out with our vote and voice. Homophobia and transphobia are not gay or trans issues. They are failings within the straight community and we must all speak out. The reinstatement of reproductive freedom for women is undoubtedly a human rights issue for which we must all speak out. And racism is not a Black issue. It is a failing within the White community and we must all speak out.

David Topel is the author of The Heart of a Leader: The ’72 Biden Senate Campaign:  He is the founding Board President and Sole Incorporator of The Attic Youth Center, Philadelphia’s LGBTQ Youth Center, now in its 30th year. More information can be found at DavidLTopel.com