When I report on police brutality, inequity in public education, or the need for criminal justice reform, it’s not to keep a daily account of unconnected, singular examples of bias. It’s to provide so many examples of inequity that explaining those examples away as exceptions to the rule becomes nearly impossible. They’re not exceptions to the rule. Racism is the rule in America. The ability to profit off of people of color is so fundamental to the major systems that keep our country running that some of the most effective means of reform historically have been boycotts of those systems altogether.
That was the case when Martin Luther King Jr., then president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, led a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, sparked by civil rights leader Rosa Parks' arrest on Dec. 1, 1955 for sitting in the front of a segregated bus. The end result was the Supreme Court affirming a federal district court ruling in 1956 that bus segregation was indeed unconstitutional. People of color work, paid or otherwise, and America’s capitalistic engine keeps running. That is both this country’s history and its present.
The Washington Post created a database of more than 1,700 members of Congress who once owned slaves. “Many of the lawmakers arguing in Washington were participants in the brutal institution at home,” the Post reported. “Here’s what that looked like on March 7, 1850. As Sen. Daniel Webster delivered a famous speech about slavery, 45 of the 106 congressmen listening owned human beings. Those slaveholders included Jefferson Davis, Andrew Johnson and Sam Houston.”
The Post reported that for the first 18 years of the country's start in creating its early laws, from 1789 to 1807, more than half of sitting congressmen owned slaves. "As Northern states outlawed slavery, the proportion of congressmen who were slaveowners declined. But some congressmen in New England continued to enslave people until at least 1820, and some representatives of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and other states continued to enslave people for at least a decade longer," the Post wrote.
More than 150 years removed from slavery, and no Black House Democrat has ever ascended to the upper chamber, Perry Bacon Jr. observed at FiveThirtyEight and Daily Kos reported in 2020. "The positions of governor and senator are, of course, traditional stepping stones to running for president," Bacon wrote in 2019. He listed only three Black Democrats—Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and Barack Obama—who have launched serious presidential campaigns and two others, Stacey Abrams and Deval Patrick, who have been "touted as possible candidates" by party leaders or media.
"None of them ever served in the house," Bacon wrote. "That might seem like just a coincidence. Maybe it is. But there’s a strong case that up to now, America’s political structure has pushed forward — or allowed the emergence of — only a certain kind of black candidate for the highest offices: one with stellar credentials in white-dominated spaces and relatively moderate politics."
That, my fine feathered friends, is plain old American racism on full display. It has for centuries shaped American society, long before the creators of critical race theory gave name to the observance or Republicans ironically began supporting racist legislation to keep the American people in the dark about the truth.
Historian Loren Schweninger, who visited more than 200 courthouses in the South to keep records on slavery, told The Washington Post that lawmakers were protective of the institution, "for sure." “There was brutality and there was all kinds of exploitation of slaves — but still there were laws,” he said.
Booker, of New Jersey, said in an interview the Post cited that he's "very conscious" of the fact he is only the fourth Black person popularly elected to Senate. "The very monuments you walk past: There’s very little acknowledgment of the degree that slavery, that wretched institution, shaped the Capitol," he said. “All around you, the very Capitol itself, was shaped by this legacy that we don’t fully know or don’t fully acknowledge.”
Booker, who has advocated for a national study on reparations for the descendants of slaves, said “it’s very hard to heal and move on.”
Twelve of the first 18 U.S. presidents were slaveholders, and eight owned slaves during their presidencies, the Post reported.
“We have never really tried, in any grand way as a country, to take full responsibility for the evil institution of slavery and what it has done,” Booker said.
In filmmaker Ava DuVernay's 2016 documentary 13th, she portrayed the prison system in America as a natural continuation of slavery following the 13th Amendment, which made slavery unconstitutional in 1865 for all people excluding those convicted of crimes. “If you have that embedded in the structure, in this constitutional language, then it's there to be used as a tool for whichever purposes one wants to use it," author Kevin Gannon said in the documentary.
And use it the country did.
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