Later this month America will observe an ignominious historical moment: the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first African slaves at Jamestown. Incredibly, the shadow of that fateful arrival lingers over us to this day.
In August 1619 the English privateer, the White Lion, arrived at Port Comfort, Va., with a cargo of Africans who had been captured by Portuguese forces in a series of wars. The Angolans had been put aboard a ship bound for Vera Cruz, Mexico. But somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico the San Juan Bautista was attacked by the White Lion and another privateer ship and relieved of its human cargo.
In Jamestown John Rolfe, planter, merchant and former husband of Pocahontas, recorded that “20 and odd Negroes” were “bought for victuals.”
Over the next 246 years the number of slaves grew into millions. In the census of 1860 slaves made up 13% of the U.S. population.
The story of race relations in the United States is a shameful saga. It is punctuated by the acceptance of slaves as property in the unamended Constitution; the Dred Scott case; the Plessy v. Ferguson decision in which the Supreme Court made “separate but equal” the law of the land; Black Codes; sundown towns; physical violence, including lynchings, more than 4,000 of them; red-lining; Jim Crow; the exodus of whites from cities and the rise of mostly white suburbs; voter suppression; the resegregating of public schools; gerrymandering voting districts along racial lines.
What strikes me as I think about the tragic story of race relations in our country is the number: 400.
In July U.S. senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders claimed in a Washington Post op-ed that “the straightest path to racial equality is through the one percent.” While I appreciate the senator’s effort to deal with our seemingly intractable problem, I am struck by this: though European Americans and African Americans, along with Native Americans, have shared this geographical space for 400 years, we’re still trying to find the straightest path to racial equality.
According to the Federal Reserve, “Black families’ median and mean net worth is less than 15% that of white families.”
In 2017 white home ownership reached 73%, while black home ownership stood at 43%. That same year the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that there were 1,549 black federal and state prisoners for every 100,000 black adults — nearly six times the imprisonment rate for whites.
In a Pew Research Center poll this spring 75% of African Americans said that they had personally experienced discrimination or unfair treatment. The same percentage of African Americans said that they believed that “blacks are treated less fairly than whites” in dealing with police and the criminal justice system, as well as in hiring and promotions, treatment in stores and restaurants, and in getting loans and mortgages. A majority — 58% — of African Americans said that being black “hurts people’s ability to get ahead in our country these days.” By contrast, 59% of whites said it helps to be white in America.
Granted, in our history there have been moments of courage, moments of grace and renewal. Undeniably there has been progress, most notably in the wake of the civil rights movement, the uniquely American liberation movement.
But the nagging question remains: Why has it taken so long? Why aren’t we there yet?
The issues are complex to be sure, and the answers are likely to be complex as well. But it is hard to escape the conclusion that a major part of the answer is that there is a deep-seated belief among many people, unrecognized by some perhaps, unspoken by all but the most belligerent white nationalists, that America belongs to whites in ways that it does not belong to others.
That was never more obvious than in the chilling call and response between Donald Trump and his overwhelmingly white audience in Greenville in July. The people who yelled, “Send her back,” in response to Trump’s mostly false or misleading charges against Ilhan Omar and the other members of “the Squad,” believed that because of their status in this country they had a right to tell four women of color they should leave.
The term “Tikkun olam” originated in classical rabbinic Jewish literature. It means to repair the world. The fabric of American society is in desperate need of spiritual and moral repair. There is no more important task before us.
Because it’s been 400 years.