RACIAL RECKONINGS-With Juneteenth just now being made a federal holiday, one would think that America is making great strides in being less racist — systemically or otherwise.
And as much of a milestone as this appears to be and as much as the recent recognition of the Tulsa massacre is — making Juneteenth into a federal holiday will no more cure racism in America than Veterans Day stops us from going to war again.
You see, since the Civil War and the passage of the 14th Amendment, the battle ground has been and continues to be about voting rights — as in who gets to vote and who doesn’t. What most high school history books don’t mention are the means by which the South resisted Reconstruction following the Civil War. History books don’t delve very deeply into the racially-based violence perpetrated against African Americans at that time. Terrorism was used to end Reconstruction and suppress the Black vote and install an apartheid system that we have colloquial called Jim Crow.
Through the intervening years, the argument over voting rights has mostly been an argument between powerful white men over whether Black people, women and other people of color should have the same rights as they do. Frequently, challenges to white supremacy were met with violence, extra judicial lynchings and murders by white people. If you have any doubts about this, just search history of race riots in America and educate yourself.
Immediately following the Civil War, political pressure from the North called for the full abolition of slavery. The South’s lack of voting power led to the passing of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, which in theory granted Black-Americans and other minority males equality and voting rights. Although federal troops remained in the South to protect these new freedoms, this protection was withdrawn as a compromise to ensure the election of Rutherford B. Hayes as President in 1877.
By the time this compromise was made, the North had lost its political will to protect voting rights in the name of reconciliation with the South. The continued existence of the Black Codes and the emergence of segregation helped erase most of the freedoms guaranteed by the 14th and 15th amendments. It took nearly another 100 years of struggle to restore full voting rights to all Americans.
For the majority of Americans (60.7% non-hispanic white) this history has been ignored, purged or not taken into account as it doesn’t seem to reflect their history. In other words we can’t be held liable for what our ancestors may or may not have done to your ancestors. I can tell you that when I was growing up in Southern California and going to a nearly all white high school, nothing was taught about racism even as civil rights issues were on the news nightly. If not for my parents’ political activism, reading Soul On Ice by Black Panther leader, Eldridge Cleaver and an unfortunate trip to Washington, D.C. on the very night Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, I too, might have been oblivious to the plight of communities of color.
Like many of my generation, my consciousness was born of this era. The Watts insurrection, the Vietnam War demonstrations, the flagrant police abuse and the criminalization of drugs all amounted to a systemic oppression that is still embedded in our laws and institutions today. These are the issues that the Black Lives Matter demonstrations confront. This is what Critical Race Theory analyses and Stacy Abrams in Georgia exposes. This is what Fox News, Ted Cruz and others on the far right try to deny.
As I watched from afar last summer, memories of another time came back to haunt me like a ghost from the past, whispering in my ear “the past isn’t dead. It’s not even the past.” A new generation has emerged, and they have ripped the rag off the faces of the old white guys who continue to stand in the way of progress. The times are still a changin’ Mr. Dylan, but “the wheel’s still in spin.”
So don’t try to fool yourselves about the current struggles over voter suppression in many states, the Arizona recount supporting the “Big Lie,” and the filibuster of voting rights legislation in the U.S. Senate this week are all attempts at resurrecting Jim Crow. That we here in Southern California have remained ignorant to much of this history was only revealed by the recent recognition of the tragedy of Bruce’s Beach. Our story, in this regard, is not so unique.
Here in the San Pedro Harbor Area, whose chapter of the Ku Klux Klan violently attacked ethnic dock workers attempting to strike for better conditions under the Wobbly banner — those dockworkers adopted the motto, “An injury to one is an injury to all.” This motto was later adopted by the International Longshore Workers Union a decade after the mass incarceration of the IWW unionists and the arrest of noted author Upton Sinclair at San Pedro’s Liberty Hill in 1923. This history is memorialized at the monument of the same name near 5th Street and Harbor Boulevard. The building, which housed the KKK headquarters, still stands on 10th Street — a silent reminder of our forgotten history. Yet, here we are left with this uncomfortable legacy and the statue of Stephen M. White down by Cabrillo Beach.
For many in Los Angeles, there will be this faint sense of regret for the past without any recognition of the present as they protest the homeless camps on the Venice Boardwalk or at Echo Park. The thing is, the past is still hiding in plain view, right in front of us, as we drive past the unsheltered encampments here in the wealthiest state in the union.
What the homeless stats attest to is that some 34% of the 64,000 living on our streets are African American. This, in a county where the total population of African Americans is 7.9%. Just let that sink in for a moment. The causes of homelessness are many and the answers are few. Providing shelter will end homelessness. It won’t cure racism.
(James Preston Allen is the founding publisher of Random Lengths News. He has been involved in the Los Angeles Harbor Area community for more than 40 years.)