I listened to a podcast a couple of weeks ago. Toward the end there is a reader mail section where regular listeners write to the show’s hosts to share their thoughts.
The writer of this particular email thanked the hosts for an episode on Black history in Washington, D.C. Although she grew up in nearby Maryland, the writer didn’t know any of the history mentioned on the show. The writer of the email realized that she always thought of history, specifically Black history, as separate events, never understanding the connection to American history and other parts of Black history. For example, the writer didn’t make the connection between slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement and on until today.
Part of this, she surmised, is because Black history is taught in a vacuum. Black history is separated from American history and only taught in fractured segments. The hosts empathized and said white Americans all over the country could probably echo that same sentiment. Oh, the writer was white.
However, I think most Americans have this issue when it comes to Black history. Black history is othered, as in not part of American history — the real history.
This lack of true understanding of our history is yet another reason why race relations in America haven’t progressed much. Let’s be honest, they’ve never been great, but today the veil of politeness is gone, and people’s true colors are on display.
Our lack of understanding of history is why many feel so comfortable telling immigrants to go back to their country of origin. It’s why people continue to paint their faces black and then feign ignorance. It’s the reason poor white people say white privilege doesn’t exist.
This lack of historical knowledge is probably most deadly when it comes to Black people’s relationship with the police. This relationship is tenuous at best. What many people living today may not realize is this strained relationship didn’t just start a couple of years ago. It has roots in slavery. Slave patrols, patrollers, pattyrollers or paddy rollers, as slaves called them, kept a lookout for runaway slaves. When they found runaways, they returned them to their master. The slaves endured all manner of abuse once found.
This was the beginning of policing of Black people in America.
I thought about this relationship when I read about the white police officer in Michigan who had Ku Klux Klan memorabilia hanging on the walls in his house. A couple in the market for a new home saw the KKK document when they went to the home.
During Reconstruction it wasn’t uncommon for the sheriff and his deputies to be part of the KKK. Can you imagine the fear Black people lived with at that time? The law was actually omnipotent outlaws, allowed to inflict all manner of atrocities on you and your family.
Unfortunately the needle hasn’t budged much when it comes to policing in this country. Every time I hear a Fraternal Order of Police president proclaim innocence for a police officer accused of beating or killing a Black person, I can’t help but think how little has changed. No, police aren’t hanging Black men from trees, but they’re killing them (and women) just the same. I can’t help but think of how disposable Black bodies are, have always been and likely always will be when it comes to protecting Blue lives.
Much like I believe white people are the ones who must dismantle white supremacy, police officers must understand the conflict between them and the Black community and work to repair it. Black people want to be safe just like everyone else. We just want to make sure the ones we’re paying to protect and serve us aren’t racists.