What "Context" Was Obama Talking About?

by Paul Siciliano


Yesterday, President Obama decided to give an 18 minute speech offering his perspective on the Martin shooting and Zimmerman acquittal.  I was impressed that the President said many things that needed to be said.  At the same, however, he left other things unsaid, which left the impression that people should know these things. 

The biggest thing left unsaid was the context in which African Americans have a distrust of the criminal justice system.  There is the current context which does get some play, such as the disparate treatment of African Americans with respect to drug crimes.  There is also the truth that African American men disproportionately commit and are the victims of violent crime (a lot of which I believe stems from our "War on Drugs"). 

What went left unsaid was the historical context.  And that is important.  Almost all Americans who are not African American have a skewed view of American history and do not fully appreciate the African American experience.  Yes, most school children are taught the horrors of slavery.  At least it is no longer taught as a benign institution - "Gone With the Wind" aside.  Yes, most school children are taught about Jim Crow, segregation and the civil rights movement to end such practices.  But, what is missing, and what is essential to the current dialogue is how Jim Crow was enforced. 

Most U.S. History classes gloss over what happened to African Americans between emancipation and the Civil Rights Movement.  You may learn they were sharecroppers, which was akin to slavery, or that they drank from separate water fountains.  But, what is missing is the extreme violence and brutality that whites used against African Americans, especially men, to implement, to codify and to enforce the regime.  African Americans did not readily accept their lot, especially after the promise of Reconstruction, they were violently forced to succumb to it.   

Mass, mob violence against African Americans was not uncommon, especially in the South (where 90% of African Americans lived in 1910 and before the mass migration north in the 1920s).  The North was not immune. African Americans were lynched.   They were also subject to harsh punishment, even worse than slave labor, for arbitrary misdemeanors such as "vagrancy" or "swearing in public".  Many African Americans were re-enslaved through a convict leasing system.

People speak of race riots today with respect to what happened in Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict.  In our history, race riots was something completely else.  Up until the Civil Rights Movement, race riots were white mobs indiscriminately attacking African Americans, their homes and their businesses.   

And very few, if any, white individuals were ever punished for the violence committed against African Americans up until the 1960s.  While we have made gains, the institutional racism of our criminal justice system continues.  Now, we have arbitrary drug laws which we use to disproportionately police and incarcerate African American men.  Once an individual is put into the criminal justice system, it is close to impossible to ever fully rehabilitate him.  When you make one a social pariah, it is difficult to expect one to follow social norms.   

I am not saying everything African Americans do is correct and they have no responsibility going forward, I am saying that Americans, and whites, in particular, need to know our history and our culture to understand why we have segments within the African American community who feel they have no stake in our grand experiment.  We need to understand why so many people automatically connect criminality with African American men.  We need to understand that this was socially and culturally constructed, and that we need to desconstruct it.  And such deconstruction will take time.  We should never be too quick to declare racism over though we do continue to progress.  

Unfortunately, just as in times past, whites do not want to discuss such matters.  They refuse to recognize our country's original sin and will continue to believe what they have been socially taught to do.  That is a shame.  Obama says, as politicians always say, we need a honest dialogue about race.  I can say, after my own experiences with other white individuals, it will never happen.