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Racism in America

April 11, 2013

By John Bertsche
Originally Published: Feb 21, 2012

Our Wednesday morning men’s book study group has most recently been reading Lincoln’s Greatest Speech, by Ronald C. White, Jr., referring to Lincoln’s second inaugural address. As expected, the focus is on the Civil War and slavery—the primary cause of the war.

Unfortunately, racism has a long and ugly history in the United States. Shortly after Europeans came to these shores, they began importing slaves from Africa. Following the Revolutionary War, when our nation was officially founded, slavery was endorsed in our Constitution. Not only was slavery legalized, but slaves were counted as 60 percent of a vote that was given to a “freeman.”

Though slavery was officially ended after the Civil War, by the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments (ending slavery, granting citizenship, and giving the right to vote), racism did not end. Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) recently ran a series on a new twist to slavery following the War. Blacks were often arrested on flimsy counts and then forced to work under slave-like conditions, usually in coal mines.

James Cone’s recent book The Cross and the Lynching Tree recounts the morbid history of lynching in America. Between 1880 and 1940, five thousand people were lynched, primarily persons of color.

Around 1900, the Supreme Court decided in Plessy vs Ferguson that separate but equal school systems were legal. Schools then were separate, but hardly equal. That decision was reversed in 1954, with the Brown vs Topeka Board of Education decision. Despite that decision, segregated educational systems are still all too common.

After the Civil War, official segregation continued for another one hundred years, with African Americans relegated to second class status. When I left for Akron, Pennsylvania, for my Mennonite Central Committee assignment to Gulfport, Mississippi in 1952, the bus stopped at the Mason-Dixon Line and the driver required that all black passengers go to the back of the bus. The Civil Rights movement ended legalized segregation.

The Sunday school series during this quarter, Peace and Justice at Our Doorstep, has indirectly highlighted a more recent form of racism. Drug use as a cause of imprisonment disproportionately targets blacks. Most studies show little different between white and black drug use. However, blacks are much more likely to be incarcerated. Currently, blacks constitute thirteen percent of our population, but account for forty percent of the prison population. Today more than 250 out of every 100,000 black adults are sent to prison on drug charges—a rate ten times higher than that for white adults. More black men are in U.S. prisons today than were slaves at the time of the Civil War. Incarceration leads to additional problems, including decreased opportunities for employment and the denial of the opportunity to vote.

Christians were often in the forefront of the pre-Civil War abolitionist movement and in the Civil Rights movement fifty years ago. Vigilance is still required for the more subtle forms of racism which exist today.

Be alert for manifestations of racism. Watch for code words in political debates that try to use subtle racism for political advantage. Be ready to denounce racism and use judgment when casting your vote.

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Writings and sharings from the Peace and Justice Committee of the Mennonite Church of Normal, IL.

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Writings and sharings from the Peace and Justice Committee of the Mennonite Church of Normal, IL.

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