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"H.R. 40 Misses the Point,"

by Sharon Parker September/October 1994 issue of Poverty & Race

Racism is embedded in the dominant American culture so deeply, we (some of us) fail to see it. Most important, we fail to see that it continues to affect all of us: every person, male or female; every immigrant, every refugee; every race, every age group; and every religious, social, legal, artistic, business, educational, governmental institution in the country. Many Americans want to believe that racism has been overcome and that White Americans have no responsibility for slavery because it ended 129 years ago. Such an attitude is consistent with American historical perspective: we are short-sighted, unilateral, and vainglorious. As rugged individualists, we are conditioned to believe that we can fix any problem and overcome any challenge that tarnishes the idealist image of America. But we have not yet Afixed@ the problem of racism, and we cannot even hope to do so until we, as a nation, are willing to look beyond the utopian image to the root causes. The legacy of slavery is definitely a root cause of the persistence of racism in today's society.

I use the pronoun Awe because, regardless of our race, ethnicity, color or culture, as Americans we are all responsible for this legacy. It is not just the problem of African Americans to raise again and again. It is not just a problem of relations between African Americans and White Americans. Nor is it simply a matter of oppressor vs. oppressed, or perpetrator vs. victim. We have all been victimized by racism; but worse still, we continue to be victimized by it... today! That is why I am so distraught at the notion of a national commission to study Athe damage racism did to African Americans.

Rep. John Conyers' advocacy for federal legislation to establish a national commission is troublesome to me because it only looks at one part of the problem. Once again, the root cause may be ignored and an opportunity for real change will be missed. Rep. Conyers says AMy contention is that African Americans are still victims of slavery as surely as those who lived under its confinement. I do not deny the truth of that statement, but it is only a partial truth. A national commission that only focuses on part of the issue is like trying to build a national health care program by only focusing on physicians, or deterring crime only by building more prisons.

The cost to all of us is demonstrated in the local, state, and federal budget prior-ities on funds for security and punishment rather than education and employment; education systems which cannot address their purpose because of overcrowding, understaffing, inadequate facilities and supplies; health care systems responding to the crisis needs of assaults and drug-related accidents rather than disease prevention and treatment; substandandard services and goods because workers are not literate, are under great stress, or are malnourished and weak. Incalculable is the loss of human dignity and potential.

Slavery is one of the foulest, most despicable eras of our society. Racism, however, is not the result of that terrible history; it was perpetuated by it. It was racism, fueled by the superstitions and ignorance of the Dark Ages and justified by economic greed and power mania of the European monarchies and churches, that allowed Europeans to classify Africans as sub-human and, hence, legitimize slavery. To most slave dealers, this occupation merely involved the exploitation of another resource in a land full of promise but devoid of ready laborers.

So, with the importation of slaves and the sanctioning of the slave trade, raw, stark racism took hold in the colonies. As with everything else that has grown to become uniquely American in the intervening centuries, racism too evolved to suit the unique blend of peoples and activities carried out in the New World. It mutated and survives today.
It survives as such a fundamental part of the fabric of society that we stoutly deny its existence except in individual incidences we call Ahate crimes. But those who manage to step outside societal confines and look closely enough see an entire culture predicated upon the oppositional natures of White and Black: a legacy of the times when Africa was considered a dark and mysterious continent and its peoples savages, devoid of soul and culture. In his book Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal, Andrew Hacker noted that White, like Black, is not a simple reference to a homogenous race of humans. It is a symbol of acceptable unacceptable status in the societal order developed in the U.S. White privilege is only measured in terms of Black penalty and exploitation. Black people and the concept of Black identity are essential to maintain the power and authority of Whites. This is both an abstract concept and a daily reality. This reality means that people who are defined as Black can never fully become a part of society as a people because of the way society is constructed.

I would happily support a commission to study the impact of slavery, or racism, on Americans today. But if Rep. Conyers' advocacy for reparations for the descendants of African slaves is successful, the best I could hope for would be that such action would have the effect of propelling Americans to thoroughly examine the legacy of slavery and provoke critical awareness. Trying to remove only one piece of the cancer of racism will not result in a healthy people. It will only prolong the suffering.

Sharon Parker is Director of Social Responsibility Programs for the Union Institute (1731 Connecticut Ave. NW, #300, Washington, DC 20009). Prior to that recent appointment, she was Director of Stanford University=s Office of Multicultural Development.
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