Growing up in America exposed me to both subtle and palpable symptoms of racism. Having been born in 1938, I was first exposed to racism during World War II. The Japanese were simply called “Japs” and were typically pictured in cartoons with large buck teeth and squinty, slanted eyes. They were also portrayed as being sub-human, as were German soldiers, our other major wartime adversaries. Japanese internment camps institutionaized this bigotry.

Reflecting their long history of dealing with bigotry, American Jews became racism’s target during the Red (Communist) Scare of the 1950s. Major figures in the entertainment industry, many of them Jews, were required to sign loyalty oaths to the United States; refusal meant that their careers were over. The conviction of Ethyl and Julius Rosenberg of espionage in 1951 ginned up the notion of the “sneaky Jew.”

But the most enduring expression of racism has been found in the experience of black Americans. Slavery in America began in 1619, when the privateer The White Lion brought 20 African slaves ashore in the British colony of Jamestown, Virginia. Black Americans were held in chattel slavery until the Civil War. (Note: Before the 19thAmendment of 1920, granting them the right to vote, white married women had limited legal existence except as agents of their husbands, a form of slavery in itself but expressed as benevolent chauvinism.)

The new U.S. Constitution tacitly acknowledged the institution of slavery, counting each enslaved individual as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of taxation and representation in Congress. It also guaranteed the right to repossess any “person held to service or labor” (an obvious euphemism for slavery). Although the U.S. Congress outlawed African slave importation in 1808, domestic trade flourished. By 1860, the enslaved population in the United States had reached nearly 4 million, with more than half living in the cotton-producing states of the South. Slavery was finally abolished in 1865 with the passage of the 13th Amendment.

Slaves picking cotton

Trumpism is essentially promulgated by white Americans who want to return to the halcyon days of the Founding Fathers, which is best characterized by yeomen tilling 40 acres with a mule, an exaggeration that perhaps invades the dreamscape of many underclass white Americans today. Even though it was white Americans and Europeans who benefitted from the slave trade, blacks have been looked on by many as invasive sub-humans whose power must be minimized through segregation (ghettoes in cities) and voter suppression (voter ID laws, etc).

Slave Auction

I bring to this article a unique perspective: I have two black great grandchildren, a black great-great grandchild, and a black great uncle, so I am more sensitive to racism than most. But while time expanded my gene pool, my earlier experiences with racism were enhanced over the years. 

In the fifth grade, my teacher entered the classroom one day with a black boy, Lloyd, my age. His entry effectively desegregated the lily-white schools of Locust Valley on Long Island. Before that, black children were bussed to a nearby district with a substantial black population. Of course, I didn’t think in terms of “desegregation” at the time. Lloyd was just another kid that I befriended. Sometime during these grade school years, local would-be thespians put on minstrel shows, which were performed in the school auditorium and included several teachers as cast members. This brings to mind a few political figures whose yearbook photos in blackface were roundly condemned in the press not long ago. 

Some have said that minstrel shows were part of a more innocent past. No, folks, it was whites making fun of blacks, nothing more, nothing less, an insidious form of racism clothed as entertainment. Similarly, the popular radio show, Amos ‘n Andy, had two white men, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, who carried on the minstrel tradition with weekly episodes listened to by millions.

In 1958, I stood on the infamous yellow footprints at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot on Parris Island, SC, along with 70 other recruits. Leaving the train station at Yamasee, we were bussed to the island but stopped at a local grocery store on the way to relieve ourselves and pick up what we were later told was “pogey bait” (candy, Cokes, etc.). About one quarter of the recruits were black or Puerto Rican. A sign above an exit door read “Coloreds,” with an arrow pointing toward an outhouse (which was probably no filthier than the “White” bathroom). I still wonder what my fellow black recruits thought of it all, being from the New York area.

After recruit training I went to Radio Operator School and was then sent to Quantico, VA, which became my permanent duty station. Two years later, I was married, and my wife got a nursing job at Mary Washington Hospital in Fredericksburg, VA, just south of Quantico. Since she was from New York, Barbara was assigned to the “colored” floor, along with other northerners; where she worked with both black and white staff. Black doctors were to be called by first or last names, but prefacing their name with “doctor” was forbidden. Everything else in the hospital was segregated, from the bathrooms to the cafeteria. This was Southern Living in 1961. 

When I was discharged in 1962, I moved back to Long Island. A few years later, I went to a local restaurant with my wife. Four town road workers sat at a nearby table having lunch. They emoted a steady stream of racist comments and jokes. I turned toward them and said, “Please knock it off. Some in my family are black.” The ensuing silence was, I hope, the result of collective embarrassment.

Civil unrest has a long history in America, and the years 2020-21 were no exception. Justified or not, riots are a reaction to perceived mistreatment. In the case of black Americans, it was a reaction to 400 years of ongoing oppression, capped off by lynch mobs and Jim Crow laws; for white Americans, a reaction to a “stolen” election. But the two reactions are not morally equivalent. Black oppression is baked into our history and was instantiated by the three-fifths clause in the constitution; in contrast, the Capitol insurrection was aided and abetted by the Executive branch of the federal government: Donald Trump et al.

Americans view the U.S. flag as an almost sacred symbol. When asked what the flag means to them, most Americans will immediately answer, “Freedom.” But since our history includes a long period of slavery and the repression of various social and ethnic groups, does not the flag also connote these less palatable traces of national character? Alternatively, do its constituent colors, by representing courage, purity, and justice, exclude the possibility of acknowledging their antitheses? 

If the flag as symbol is to honestly represent what America is about, that flag must be inclusive of what is bad as well as what is perceived to be good. By claiming that the flag represents only the national good, Americans must ignore parts of their history and certain aspects of contemporary life. Indeed, it can be argued that for some Americans, the flag represents little more than social and economic marginalization. As such, the reality of systemic racism is woven into the very fabric of our history.

Bill Britton is a freelance writer and formerly an editor for John Hopkins University Press, ABI Research, and Elsevier Science.  He is a frequent contributor to Vero Communiqué.

We strive to encourage a free and open exchange of opinions and welcome yours. Through discussions like these we can all learn more about the topics themselves and the perspectives of others.

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