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Tom Zirpoli: We must tell America’s story honestly | COMMENTARY

Some folks are selective when it comes to American history. Preserving the history of the confederacy is important, they say. They want to maintain public statues of the defenders of slavery and their names on our schools and military bases.

It is all about the preservation of our nation’s history, they say. At the same time, many of these folks want to squash the history of slavery and racism in America which, interestingly, was the cornerstone of the Confederacy.

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After the first slaves were brought to the Jamestown Colony 402 years ago, it took 244 years before an American president, Abraham Lincoln, would issue the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and another 101 years before another president, Lyndon B. Johnson, would sign the Civil Rights Act of 1965 to prohibit voting discrimination. Only a privileged white person could study these 402 years, look a Black person in the eye, and say, “Get over it; time to move on.”

Systemic or structural racism is racism built into federal and state laws that allow discrimination against people of color. Laws that prohibit voting or make voting difficult, owning a home, getting a car loan, getting certain jobs, and entering certain colleges are just some examples of systemic racism, past, and present.

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Teaching our children about this history is not teaching racism or teaching our children to hate America. We can love America and address issues of injustice. As David Brooks wrote for The New York Times, “America has the greatest story to tell about itself, if we have the maturity to tell it honestly.”

Systemic racism explains many of the economic disadvantages people of color face today. When your ancestors didn’t have opportunities to attend school, buy a home, or find a job, you don’t build wealth like many white families have had the opportunity to do over many generations. Some folks refer to this as white privilege. This is not an attack on white people. It is merely the recognition that white people have had advantages over people of color for centuries.

Some Americans are uncomfortable with this history. They believe America was always a great nation, doing good around the world, always to be defended from negative observations about its past. But historians will not have any of this, no matter how many laws are passed to avoid it. America is a great nation when it confronts its past and we demand that it lives up to our democratic values, including the fight for liberty and justice for all.

We can be selective historians and avoid the truth about Japanese internment camps during World War II or how Americans separated native Indian children from their parents and sent them to camps, never to see their parents again. We can ignore the lynching of Black people for sport or how we kept Black children from entering public schools. Yet, the history remains.

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Even after the Civil Rights Act of 1965, multiple state Supreme Courts documented the funding disparities between predominantly white and Black schools. The Suffolk University Law Review found that lenders disproportionately steered Black Americans to subprime housing loans, even when they were qualified for prime loans. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that Black home buyers are shown 17 percent fewer homes and apartments than White buyers. The University of Michigan Law Center found that Black Americans receive harsher punishments for the same crimes committed by white Americans. The list goes on.

The act proved that the government can make a difference, however. As stated by historian Heather Cox Richardson, “In Mississippi in 1965, just 6.7% of eligible Black voters were registered to vote. Two years later, that number was 59.8%” and 82.4% in 2012. Today, Republican-controlled states are trying to reverse this progress by limiting opportunities to vote, especially in cities where many people of color live.

The effects of 400 years of systemic racism contribute to the economic condition of people of color today. It is no accident that Black people are poorer, sicker, and more likely to end up in prison than white Americans. A recent study published in the Journal of American Medical Association Pediatrics found that the rate of suicide in Black children under 13 is two times higher than among white children.

We celebrate July 4th and our nation’s declaration in 1776 that “all men are created equal.” At the same time, we can teach our children, that “men” meant only white men. Women would have to wait another 144 years, and Black men and women another 189 years to be “equal.”

Our children should learn it all. They will be fine and our nation will be stronger.

Tom Zirpoli is a professor and program coordinator of the Human Services Management graduate program at McDaniel College. He writes from Westminster. His column appears on Wednesday. Email him at tizrpoli@mcdaniel.edu.

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