Black Struggle Series #3

The Struggle of Black Americans in the U.S.A.
– part 3

by Rev. Warner Traynham

Holy Faith, Inglewood • Pentecost 18 • August 1, 2021

With the decision in the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education, and the resistance of the country to it, blacks and their white supporters began to organize and to demonstrate across the nation to secure the rights that decision promised. The Civil rights movement had begun.

In the interest of brevity, I shall assume that my hearers know something of this movement because you lived through it, or because you were born shortly after it transformed the nation and you studied it in school. If you do not know or do not know enough, I refer yo to the TV documentary,” Eyes on the Prize” to begin informing your self.

Presidents, Eisenhower and Kennedy struggled to determine how to respond to this transformative movement, but it was a southerner and a Texan, Lyndon Johnson, who grasped the nettle and came to understand it best. He pushed two Civil Rights bills through Congress, signed the voting rights bill, lost the segregationist south to the Republican party and initiated Affirmative Action. In a speech given at Howard University in 1965, he began by stating his position: 

“Freedom is not enough,” he began. “You do not take a person who, for years has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, “You are free to compete with all the others” and still justly believe that you have been completely fair…..We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity, but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and equality as a result.”

Then he outlined the facts of this American failure. HIs figures are dated because the speech was given in 1965, but I cite his illustrations because the failures he cites continue to happen.

“ 35 years ago the rate of unemployment for negroes and whites was about the same. Tonight the Negro rate is twice as high.

Between 1949 and 1959, the income of Negro men relative to white men declined in every section of this country. From 1952 to 1963 the median income of Negro families compared to white actually dropped from 57 percent to 53 percent.

In the years 1955 through 1957, 22 percent of experienced Negro workers were out of work at some time during the year. In 1961 through 1963 that proportion had soared to 29 percent.

Since 1947 the number of white families living in poverty has decreased 27 percent while the number of nonwhite families decreased only 3 percent.

The infant mortality of nonwhites in 1940 was 70 percent greater than whites. Twenty two years later it was 90 percent greater.

Moreover, the isolation of Negro from white communities is increasing, rather than decreasing” and if he was speaking today he would have noted that schools are more segregated today than when the Supreme Court struck down the separate but equal doctrine in 1954.

He notes that “Negro poverty is not white poverty. Some of the causes are the same, but there are deep corrosive differences, not racial differences, but differences that are simply the consequence of ancient brutality, past injustice and present prejudice.”

“Nor, he continues ”are the experiences of other minorities, who have emerged from poverty and prejudice helpful.

“They did not have the heritage of centuries to overcome, and they did not have a cultural tradition which had been twisted and battered by endless years of hatred and hopelessness, nor were they excluded, these others, because of race or color, a feeling whose dark intensity is matched by no other prejudice in our society”

The poverty program, Affirmative Action, desegregation and integration were part of Johnson’s answer and he might have accomplished much. But once again the racial dance took over, two steps forward and one step back. Johnson’s Poverty program fell victim to the war in Vietnam that also ended his presidency.

In my previous two sermons I have tried to describe in some detail, what Johnson called “ the ancient brutality, past injustice and present prejudice” that did and still does characterize the black communities. ‘400 year sojourn on this continent, from slavery, to freedom without resources, to reconstruction, to lynching, to sharecropping, and forced convict labor, to segregation, to jim Crow, to redlining, and mass incarceration, to the present.

I am aware that the Irish and Italians were discriminated against in New England, and that Jews were discriminated against across the country. That the US went to war with Mexico, took half their country and still hold hispanics in contempt in much of the nation. In the 19th century the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed and Chinese were killed in the streets of California. And I know that the Japanese living on the west coast during the Second World War were dispossessed and interned in camps in the interior.

As far as I can tell everybody, with the exception of the northern europeans, was discriminated against for a time. But, the case of black people is unique. It is special. It is the worst and the struggle continues. Black people did not choose to come here like these other people. We were not immigrants. We were kidnapped and enslaved and put to work building this country. We are still struggling to be treated as citizens. We have been here longer than anybody except the original white settlers and of course the Native Americans whom those settlers found here and almost succeeded in exterminating.

Johnson believed as I believe, that this country owes black people something. We are owed justice at the very least. But we are owed more. We are owed acceptance in a country we literally helped to build from the ground up. We are owed citizenship and equal treatment and we are owed reparations. 

Affirmative Action is about reparations. The online dictionary describes Affirmative Action as a policy promoting members of groups that have previously suffered from discrimination.

Or Affirmative Action refers to a set of policies and practices within a government or organization favoring particular groups based on their gender, race, creed or nationality in areas in which they were excluded in the past such as education and employment.

I would further say that Affirmative Action is putting right the past at the expense of the present.

This stage of the dance, with which you are familiar by now, began with an attack on Affirmative Action in higher Education. The Regents of the University of California vs. Allan Bakke, was the name of the case. Although the Supreme Court had outlawed segregation in schools and had even ordered school districts to take steps to insure integration, the question of the legality of voluntary Affirmative Action plans initiated by Universities was unresolved. Proponents deemed such programs necessary to make up for past discrimination, while opponents believed they were illegal and a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Allan Bakke, already an engineer, sought admission to medical school. After twice being rejected by the University of California at Davis, he brought suit in state court. The California Supreme Court struck down the UC program as violating the rights of white applicants and ordered Bakke admitted. The US Supreme Court upheld Affirmative Action, allowing race to be one of several factors in college admission policy allowed under the Constitution. Nevertheless, UC Davis’ program went too far. The Court ruled that specific racial quotas such as16 out of 100 seats set aside for minority students were impermissible. It was struck down and Bakke was admitted.

The Supreme Court, in case after case, from Bakke on, limited the impact of Affirmative Action to the present, so that now each case is thought by conservatives to be the one in which the justices will strike down Affirmative Action altogether.

Chief Justice Roberts has said, “The way to get rid of racial discrimination is not to discriminate on the basis of race”. For him apparently, Affirmative Action is discrimination on the basis of race and ought to be done away with. It is not a solution; it is part of the problem. The problem with that position of course, is that it ignores the impact of centuries of slavery and racial discrimination which Johnson spoke of. Also, it does not answer how we as a nation are to stop discriminating on the basis of race since we have done this for our whole history.

Wiser by far was the opinion of Associate Justice Harry Blackburn who said, “In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race. There is no other way. And in order to treat some persons equally, we must treat them differently.” That is the point of Affirmative Action.

How does one get rid of that impact? Black people who were slaves and who were the focus of the nations legal and customary discrimination, are the ones at the bottom of the educational and economic ladder. Do we ignore that fact and the Supreme Court’s own support for the vicious doctrine of “Separate but equal”, or do we take action to address this disparity? And if the latter, what action do we take? That was the original point of school desegregation and Affirmative Action. But no sooner were these policies put in place, than whites cried reverse discrimination and the courts proceeded to undermine them. Of course they were reverse discrimination. White privilege is based on discrimination. To reverse it, we must at least reverse the previous discrimination.

Having mentioned white privilege, lets look at that insight for a moment. Part of white privilege is the result of whites being the dominant majority of the population, so things as trivial as flesh colored bandages being pink or the ability to arrange to be in the company of persons of their own race most of the time, are cited. More to the point are what Lawrence Blum refers to as “unjust enrichment”, privileges in which whites benefit from injustices to persons of color. “When blacks are denied access to desirable homes, or bank loans, this is not just an injustice to blacks, but a positive benefit to whites who now have a wider range of domicile options and more money on which to build family wealth, than they would have had if blacks had equal access to housing and mortgages. When urban schools do a poor job of educating their latino and black students, this benefits whites in the sense that it unjustly advantages them in the competition for higher levels of education and jobs. Whites cannot avoid benefitting from the historical legacy of racial discrimination and oppression. So unjust enrichment is almost never absent from the life situation of whites.”

In the interim, as a result of the feminist movement and the uptick in immigration of latinos and asians, we have noticed a decided shift, so that it is diversity that is seen as the goal of Affirmative Action now, and not the lifting of the Negro to the level of equality with whites, which was its original purpose. This has had the effect of mudding the waters, and allowing the nation to once again avoid addressing the issue of black equality.

The goal of seeking diversity in education and employment and government, etc, is of course a laudable one. If there was not discrimination, I expect this would occur naturally and would not need to be a social goal. That it is such a goal, I believe derives from the work of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s which focused on representing blacks in the many areas of our national life from which we had been excluded. Observing this claim, by blacks, women and hispanics and asians recognized that to varying degrees, they had been excluded too, and are making the same claim for appropriate representation.

Unfortunately, sometimes, the claims of diversity undermine the quest for black equality and when that happens, whites are tempted to focus on diversity and ignore the quest for black equality which they apparently find less palatable.

Let me describe the national picture as I see it. From 1619, when blacks were first brought to these shores in bondage, to 1865 when slavery was abolished, white people were obviously supreme, on the top, and black people, mostly slaves, were on the very bottom. All the non-white immigrants who came here during those 250 years, fit in between the whites at the top and the blacks at the bottom, i.e. none of them were slaves. From reconstruction to the present, that has not changed. Socially, educationally, economically, whites have stayed on the top and they have seen to it that blacks remained on the bottom. That has been the purpose of the dance I have repeatedly referred to. It has also been true that all those non-whites who came to this country in this period, and suffered discrimination, continued to fit in between.

My belief is if blacks at the bottom can be made equal to the whites at the top, those in between will be made equal too. “A rising tide lifts all boats”.

I said that sometimes, the quest for diversity undermines the quest for black equality. A few years ago, before California unwisely voted to eliminate Affirmative Action in selecting students in the State University system, which occasioned a steep decline in black enrollment, a vocal group of asians argued for its elimination because it would in their minds, reduce the number of asians who would be able to matriculate in that system. They were making the same charge whites made of reverse discrimination because they perceived admission was their right because of their grade point averages. But like Allan Bakke and the Supreme Court of the US, they all ignored the struggle between blacks and whites. Everyone who comes to these shores soon discovers, if they did not know it before, that this struggle between white oppression and black liberation, is baked into the land. The impact of this struggle is inescapable as we are learning again and again.

When Asian Americans fear that as a result of Affirmative Action, they will be squeezed out of some seats in the UC system, they are right, as Allan Bakke was. But black people have been shut out of those same seats forever, as they have been shut out of jobs and education and housing and health care and the vote and everything else that the white majority enjoys and that they have denied to black people for four centuries. Affirmative Action or reverse discrimination is the only way to redress centuries of discrimination. To be biblical, it is the only way “to restore the years the locust have eaten.”

So I say to Asian Americans or any other immigrant group, when you chose to come to this country for freedom and economic benefits, you also bought into this struggle. It is the price of these benefits. This is also true of the whites or any one else who came here after the Civil War and declare that they never owned slaves so they don’t see why they have to pay for that institution. They all benefit from that institution and the discrimination that followed (Remember white privilege). The only question is if you will stand with the oppressors or with those who seek liberation and their rights, if you will be part of the problem or part of the solution.

An article appeared on the Opinion page of the LA Times this past June, which expressed some reservations by a black woman, about the new Juneteenth holiday. The article ended this way.

“I imagine swaths of white America laughing behind its collective sleeve at how easily we can be appeased. Just give them a holiday.”

So along with a day of vacation, how about America gives us something enduring to celebrate; protect voting rights, provide reparations, keep cops from killing unarmed black people, prepare new generations to challenge prejudice – and stop pretending that the end of slavery somehow leveled the playing field.” It did not.

This is what I have been trying to say. John Conyers, who at his death was the longest serving black representative in the US House of Representatives, introduced a bill in every session of the House in which he served, calling for a discussion of reparations for the nation’s treatment of its black population. That bill has not yet been brought to the floor of the House for discussion or vote. 

I have sketched that treatment in three sermons for which I believe reparations is required. I am talking about reparations for slavery, but also for legal and customary segregation and discrimination, mass incarceration and red lining that has kept blacks behind and beneath white people for our whole history, much of which is still happening. The issue of reperations can be divided into two parts, Justice or Civil Rights and financial compensation. I believe the national government should encourage an open discussion of the experience of black people in this country and their treatment at the nation’s hands, so all its citizens will understand it. As a result, I would like to see the schools truly desegregated, and in such a way as to keep them desegregated and made equal as a result.

I would like to see Affirmative Action in higher Education and employment sustained until there is, as President, Johnson stated, “An equality of result.”

With respect to voting rights, You are, I hope aware that the Supreme Court recently struck down the pre clearance clause of the voting rights act, believed to be the most effective part of a very effective law, guaranteeing black people the vote. And just the other day, it whittled away at another part of the law’s protection of the people’s right to choose their government. This has been done at the same time that many of the affected states were in the process of limiting the vote and when Congress was too polarized to act. I believe that federal law should govern voting in this country at all levels, at least, to the degree, that maximum access is guaranteed and all votes cast are counted.

Finally, with respect to financial compensation, black households on average earn just 59% as much as their white neighbors.( These are current figures) Blacks have also been the most unemployed racial group in the country with an unemployment rate almost double the national average. Because of slavery and discrimination, the typical black household now has just 6% of the typical white households wealth. In dollars that means the median white household is worth 171,000 while the median black household is worth just 17,150. Though redlining was outlawed in the 1960’s the effect persists today in the form of neighborhoods consisting mostly of people of color that have high poverty rates, low home values and declining infrastructure.

After West Coast Japanese were interned during the 2nd WW, they lost all the assets they could not take with them to the camps. Some years later Congress voted cash reparations to the descendants of those people, so on at least one occasion, congress has paid some financial compensation to people it was persuaded that the government had wronged.

I believe the nation similarly owes financial compensation to the black community for excluding that community from the opportunities to escape poverty and accumulate wealth as the white community did. With wealth restored black people would no longer be at the bottom of the social and political order where we have been kept for four centuries. All of the deprivations accruing to the black community, are I believe, due to its treatment by our fellow americans and our government, which I have tried to outline, over its sojourn on this continent. All these matters need to be determined by the national discussion I mentioned on reparations.

In 1864, Fredrick Douglas in his paper,” The North Star”, had this to say about black people in the US: “We shall never die out or be driven out; but shall go with this people either as a testimony against them or as evidence in their favor through out their generations.” Contrary to the expectations of the founders, so far history seems to have proven Douglass right, though which of his stated alternatives shall finally prevail, remains to be seen. 

  • NOTES ON THE STATE OF VIRGINIA, by Thomas Jefferson
  • YOUTUBE: Jefferson, Slavery, Reconstruction.
  • YOUTUBE: “The Revolutionary Origins of the Civil War, by Gordon Wood
  • THE  ATLANTIC MONTHLY  of June, 2014, “The Case for Reparations, by Ta-Nehisi  Coates
  • AFTER  APPOMATTOX: Military  Occupation and the Ends of War,  by Gregory P. Downs
  • AFTER APPOMATTOX: How the South Won  the War, by Stetson Kennedy
  • SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME: The Reenslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to WW II, by  Douglass A. Blackmon
  • UNTIL JUSTICE BE DONE, by Kate Masur
  • THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS, by Isabel Wilkerson.
  • THE NEW JIM CROW:  Mass Incarceration in the  Age of Color Blindness, by Michelle Alexander.