America has failed in its experiment with race. Our great founding fathers–George Washington, John Adams, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, John Hancock, and Benjamin Franklin had two things in common– 1) They all despised the institution of slavery and 2) They all owned slaves. In fact, 10 of our first 15 presidents owned slaves. Moreover, the U.S. Constitution states that slaves should be counted as three-fifths of a person. From the outset, race relations in the U.S. were tumultuous.
The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to our Constitution attempted, on paper, to liberate blacks. Each of these constitutional amendments was flawed because the commitment to racial equality was never wholehearted. For example, the 15th Amendment ostensibly gave black men the right to vote but this right was undermined with the Grandfather Clause, Poll Tax, Literacy Test, and the White Primary.
It took our Courts 58 years to decide in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case that “separate but equal” was unconstitutional.
Blacks were not allowed to assimilate into the American mainstream so they developed their own style and cultural nuances. Over the years, this style has become louder, more animated, more rebellious, and more defiant. Today, almost every aspect of black culture makes others uncomfortable.
Because of centuries of racial segregation, we now face the “70 Percent Problem,” in which 70% of one race is uncomfortable or adversarial toward the other race.
Because of this “70 Percent Problem” our public schools and communities are re-segregated. And, our social clubs, civic groups, and churches remain segregated. We see the clear manifestation of this problem in Ferguson, Missouri, which has followed the familiar American script: white police officer kills unarmed black man, blacks mourn and protest “No Justice/No Peace,” some whites support the officer, blacks become more outraged, whites become outraged by black outrage.
We can see that our experiment with race has failed because there is little or no value given to black life, which is seen in the incessant examples of police brutality.
There is one side fighting to control the “thugs” and the other side fighting for their freedom. The powder keg was bound to flare up.
We can see that our experiment has failed by observing the deplorable treatment of our president. Six years ago, the President and others would have said that our experiment with race had finally succeeded. Today, however, President Obama knows firsthand that our experiment has failed.
And, if the President had grown up in McDonough, GA, where I was raised, he would have had a better understanding of the deep-rooted racial divide that exists in this country. I attended a segregated kindergarten in the part of town called Blacksville. In high school, I had a wonderful white U.S. Government teacher with whom I continue to stay in touch. On the day that I began writing this essay, he e-mailed me the following:
“Our nation is so torn and fragmented now that I worry if we will ever heal. Maybe we were never in good condition anyway. For those of us who strive to do the right thing, it is a lonely world out here. I am tired of fighting the fight when ignorance raises its head. In this part of the country, my friend, the fear mongers, new secessionists, and party akin to tea rule with iron fists.”
Beaten down by racial politics, my old government teacher has lost hope. He has come to realize that “Maybe we were never in good condition anyway.”
Instead of holding up our experiment as an exemplary model of racial equality we should begin to rebuild by first admitting that we have failed.
Renford Reese, Ph.D. is a professor in the political science department at Cal Poly Pomona. He is the author of five books and the founder/director of the Colorful Flags Human Relations program: www.ColorfulFlags.org