On Race & Atonement

The United States has never atoned for the Original Sin of slavery.

THE UNITED STATES has two Original Sins: genocide and slavery. For the quarter millennium of our existence as a nation—and, indeed, for the four complete centuries that have passed since European colonizers first brought enslaved Africans to these New World shores—we have failed to atone for these sins. Instead, we have reveled in them, glorified them, insisted that both were necessary for our survival. We have created faux science to justify them, unfair laws to codify them, entertainment propaganda to reinforce them. We have done everything but atone. And atonement for these sins is the only way to move forward from our current crisis.

The Declaration of Independence, our much-ballyhooed founding document, centers on a lie. Thomas Jefferson, who not only owned slaves but raped them, managed to compose this sentence without a twinge of irony: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” All men? Really? No. All property-owning, white men. Jefferson was so sure that his meaning would not be misinterpreted that he didn’t bother to qualify. Meanwhile, the alleged tyrant sitting on the throne of the United Kingdom in 1776, George III, was the very same king who reigned in 1772, when slavery was held illegal on British soil in Somerset’s case, and in 1807, when Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act, abolishing the practice in the whole of the British Empire. To Black slaves in the Colonies—half a million of them, almost a quarter of the total population in 1776—who was the real tyrant?

The years between the Revolution and the Civil War were a tug-of-war between the free states and the slave states. Our political leaders bent over backwards not to disturb this delicate balance, believing, as Lincoln did, that the Union was dearer than anything else. Because the Southern states wanted slaves to count for purposes of population—and thus seats in the House and the Electoral College—but not as actual human beings, James Madison devised a formula that equated one Black man to three-fifths of a white man. (In our Constitution, then, black lives do matter—but only at the rate of 60 percent.) That was the first devil’s compromise on the slavery issue, but hardly the last: There was the Missouri Compromise, in 1820; the Second Missouri Compromise a year later; the famed Compromise of 1850, thought to be a masterpiece of diplomacy; the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854; and even, in the 1860 secession crisis that kicked off the Civil War, the doomed Crittenden Compromise, that would have made permanent the slave trade below the Mason-Dixon line. These “compromises” comprised 80 years of our country enabling a relatively small group of rich Southern slaveholders, at the expense of Black people’s liberty—and the nation’s soul.

I don’t want to make the mistake of projecting my own progressive 21st century worldview onto figures from a different time and place, nor do I seek to diminish the profound achievements of our founding fathers by recognizing their ugly flaws. With that said, I find it difficult to fathom that white men 200 years ago, who founded a nation upon the concept of liberty, could also believe that it was okay to own black men, to use them as chattel. To profit from their labor. To buy, sell, and trade them. To rape them and beat them and maim them and brand them and kill them. To demand the return of “fugitive” human beings who had escaped to the North. To have those demands made legitimate by the Supreme Court. It’s so egregiously unjust and heinous as to be almost unthinkable to my sheltered, cosseted mind. But it was real, and it happened, and it wasn’t that long ago in the grand scheme of things. And make no mistake: On the backs of those enslaved Black men and women, the nation’s economy was built.

It took a war to abolish slavery in the United States—a brutal civil war between North and South, at the time one of the bloodiest conflicts in all of recorded history. Lee surrendered on 9 April 1865. Less than a week later, Lincoln was assassinated. A Carthaginian peace was necessary, for the nation to atone for the sin of slavery. But lesser leaders than Lincoln botched Reconstruction, prioritizing Southern reintegration over atonement. The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution effectively allowed Blacks to be enslaved as long as they were in the prison system. Monuments were erected to honor the Confederate heroes of the Civil War—vile traitors, all of them, who sacrificed three quarters of a million Americans to retain their “birthright:” to keep Black men and women in chains. Their hideous rebel flag, with its Trump-colored field, remains in wide circulation to this day throughout the South, and indeed the entire United States. In today’s Germany, by contrast, it is illegal to fly a Nazi flag; that country has made legitimate attempts to atone for its heinous sin.

After Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws collectively enforced racial segregation in all the former slave states. The Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896, which established the doctrine of “separate but equal,” was yet another attempt to “compromise,” to assuage Southern racists. Overt racism was the codified law of the land for the next seven decades, until the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965—a full century after the end of the Civil War. Not that that legislation ended racism, any more than the election of a Black president a half-century later would end it.

During those seven decades of Jim Crow, the eugenics movement flourished. The IQ test was developed based on testing done on soldiers during the Great War by Robert Yerkes, a Yale professor and the head of the American Psychological Association. This led to the 1923 publication of Carl Brigham’s landmark A Study of Human Intelligence. Brigham, a psychology professor at Princeton University, argued that “Nordic” Europeans were intellectually superior to Eastern and Southern Europeans, and that all of those were intellectual superior to the “Negro.” (“Polack” jokes derive from the response to this study). Brigham’s book was 1) a catalyst for the Immigration Act of 1924, the piece of legislation that prevented Jewish refugees from emigrating to the U.S. during the rise of Nazi Germany, 2) a “scientific” argument for discrimination against Blacks, which white racists eagerly touted, and 3) flawed to a preposterous degree, as Stephen Jay Gould shows in The Mismeasure of Man. (In case there was any question of Brigham being an agent of pure evil, he also invented the SATs). Basically, a bunch of pompous, well-heeled white men provided a supposedly scientific rationale for their disgusting racism. Blacks, these Ivy League eggheads held, were inferior to whites, because they were not as inherently intelligent. And they had tests to prove it! This “scientific” view was hugely influential in the halls of power.

Motion pictures reinforced racist stereotypes. Birth of a Nation, the 1915 R.W. Griffith film hailed as one of the greatest seminal works of cinema, was a propaganda picture about the Ku Klux Klan. It portrayed Black men as sexual predators, on the prowl to rape white women. The burning cross, now a symbol of the KKK, was actually invented by Griffith for the film; he thought it looked cool. (Note: This is all covered in the documentary 13th, as well as in the Spike Lee film BlacKkKlansman). The film’s influence continues to be felt in modern cinema, as the graphic novelist Alan Moore suggests: “I think that a good argument can be made for D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation as the first American superhero movie, and the point of origin for all those capes and masks.” In the same interview, Moore laments that “these iconic characters are still very much white supremacist dreams of the master race.”

Some of this ugly history is taught in schools. Most is not. I’d never heard of the Tulsa “Black Wall Street” Massacre of 1921, when whites crossed the railroad tracks under cover of night and burned, pillaged and killed, destroying the vibrant African-American community that was thriving there. Tulsa was not a case of Blacks violating the segregation laws. Rather, this was Blacks following those laws, succeeding anyway—and that success provoking the jealous, violent rage of their racist white neighbors. One of the worst atrocities committed on American soil in the first half of the twentieth century, and I didn’t find out about it until I watched a re-enactment of the massacre on The Watchmen. “Did that really happen?” I asked my wife. “How could that have happened, and I didn’t know about it?”

But it did, and I didn’t, and that is part of the problem. In America, we don’t admit our mistakes. We don’t look back and study our fuck-ups, so we might learn from them. We don’t atone for our sins. We issue perfunctory apologies, if we even go that far, and we move on. Nothing to see here.

So: the laws have been stacked against Black Americans since Jefferson. Law enforcement has never been particularly sympathetic towards Black Americans. Until quite recently, lawmakers ran on overtly racist platforms; Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” activated deep-seated white racism to turn the South from a Democratic to GOP stronghold. The segregationist Strom Thurmond was a Senator for, what, a full century?

Racism was baked into our institutions. Three-fifths of a white man. Forty acres and a mule. Banks would only grant housing loans to Blacks in certain designated areas (which is why certain neighborhoods of New York are predominantly Black and others are not). Shit, interracial marriage was not legal in this country until nineteen-fucking-sixty-seven!

Throughout all of this, Black Americans were, and remain, active citizens. They serve in the military. They fight in our wars. They establish vibrant communities. Their contribution to American culture is unsurpassed. Black musicians invented jazz, invented R&B, invented rock and roll, invented hip hop. Black athletes dominate the world of sports: from Jesse Owens to Jackie Robinson to Mohammad Ali, from Michael Jordan to Tiger Woods to LeBron James. Black scientists helped put us on the moon, helped crack Nazi codes. Black entertainers, Black writers and poets and artists, Black actors and comics, Black showrunners, Black business owners, Black political and civil rights leaders…in every human endeavor, Black Americans have made enormous impact. In short, Black Americans are exemplary Americans. Why does our country not reciprocate their patriotism and commitment?

And today, in 2020—two full centuries after the Missouri Compromise—cops are still killing Blacks with impunity. A cop broke into a Black man’s apartment and killed him, because she thought he was in her apartment. A cop killed a Black man for selling loose cigarettes. And now, a preening racist cop knelt on the neck of a Black man for almost nine full minutes, as his colleagues watched—as he was being videotaped!—until he killed him.

The protests that have taken place these last two weeks look like they may bring about real, significant change. Voices are finally being heard. This is welcome, because we need reform in law enforcement, in the criminal justice system. But mostly, we need change in society as a whole. We need to boil the racism out of our institutions. We need to atone for our original sin. The time has come.

What will that look like? I don’t know. And I don’t need to know. This is the time to listen to leaders of the Black community, do what they suggest, and have them show us the way to a better future. Some of it is economic, certainly—which means we have to have a real debate about reparations that will make the bloated heads of Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs explode—but a lot of it is cultural and symbolic. A nation that puts slaveholders on its currency is a nation that makes excuses for racism. A nation that builds monuments to slaveholding traitors, that names schools and towns and avenues for them, is a nation that makes excuses for racism. Removing a Confederate statue may feel almost silly, given what’s happening in the streets right now, but what they’re doing in Richmond is enormously significant. Symbols of glorified racism are, at long last, being dismantled! It’s powerful stuff—the hard work of atonement.

Atonement allows our country to truly be United States. To come together as one. To join in common purpose. This is something neither Donald John Trump nor his Russian owners desire. The former, as General James Mattis wrote this week, “is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us.” The latter actively sow discord, fomenting divisions between white and black, men and women, Republican and Democrat, and so on. Stoking racial unrest is a key strategy of Russian election fuckery. We must resist these Russian psy-op attacks. We must not only remove this racist shithead from office, and all those who stand with him, but we must continue along the path of atonement.

We are better than Donald Trump. We are better than Henry Billings Brown and Roger B. Taney. We are better than Andrew Jackson, better than Madison and Monroe, better than Woodrow Wilson. We are better than Thomas Jefferson. We are even better than George Washington, who owned hundreds of slaves before, during, and after serving as the country’s first president. We need to continue to evolve, as human beings, and as Americans. We must atone for our original sin.

Photo: still shot from Birth of a Nation.