This is a personal post. It’s part confession; part tearing at the fabric of my own privilege and hubris; and part invitation to examine one’s own influences and determine if there are any bubble that need popping. It has been prompted by a realization I had last week; one in a long series of revelations that I’ve been having as my historical, political, and social justice awareness has increased. I’m not sure what it says about either myself or our white supremacist system that I seem to be doing my greatest amount of learning post-age-60, but I find some small comfort in the fact I’m still capable of popping my own bubbles.
My “mass incarceration/voting rights” bubble
The news from last week that the Florida legislature was looking at ways to ignore the will of Florida voters and obstruct paroled felons from voting prompted a whole train of thought that should have been obvious to me long ago. But I was protected by the privilege that assumes that a)because I am generally law-abiding, I will never face [false] arrest; b)because I am white, any arrest would be non-life-threatening and any conviction would be just; and c)any imprisonment would be minimal. In other words…
Feels like the ultimate “Twitter is not real life” Q. As pure policy, though, I really know nothing about how prisoners lost the franchise in the first place. If any experts are on Twitter rn… https://t.co/ra4a3PFN3J
— Dave Weigel (@daveweigel) April 23, 2019
Twitter being Twitter, Weigel’s request for expertise was answered promptly with a lengthy and detailed thread.
Many states implemented disenfranchisement statutes after Reconstruction. For instance, in 1890 MS chose some offenses to be disenfranchising & some not. (Still today, some incarcerated people can vote, but many offenses disenfranchise for life.) https://t.co/JKWYMGY39j pic.twitter.com/z58NcDz2Ym
— Taniel (@Taniel) April 23, 2019
Until I read Taniel’s tweet about New Jersey, I didn’t know that disenfranchisement and conviction were two separate elements of a white supremacist approach to criminal justice. I had always assumed that disenfranchisement upon conviction was somehow a hold-over from English common law and as much a part of our legal heritage as Latin words and judges in robes. The discovery that the two are not “natural” companions but created for the purposes of sustaining Jim Crow was a bubble-popping moment. It’s leading me to consider if the conviction for a crime should lead to disenfranchisement at all. In other words, should a prisoner lose citizenship rights because they have been convicted of a felon? If this is allowed, what is the basis for continuing the restriction upon completion of one’s sentence? (And yes, I do recognize the extreme privilege in reaching this stage in my life and only now considering the history and ramifications of disenfranchisement, especially when coupled with mass incarceration. That’s going to be an ongoing and embarrassing theme of this post.)
My “lost generational wealth” bubble
As a transplanted Michigander, I’ve made myself aware of some of the history of Detroit, particularly as it pertains to the African-American community. I know the shameful story of Black Bottom (a reference to the fertile soil of the river’s flood plain) and Paradise Valley, the thriving black business and entertainment districts of Detroit. Forced into existence through stringent redlining, the neighborhoods, although burdened with the oldest, most substandard housing, were a vibrant city within a city.
Then, in the early 1950s, in one of the most controversial episodes of mass gentrification in Detroit history, the virtually all-white city government bulldozed Black Bottom in the name of “slum clearance,” eventually to replace it with the Chrysler Freeway and Lafayette Park, an upscale residential community that initially was occupied by mostly white residents… (Bringing Detroit’s Black Bottom back to (virtual) life)
I also know the basic outlines of the story of Greenwood, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which was dubbed the Black Wall Street because of the concentration of African-American wealth in the neighborhood. When white Tulsans went on a rampage in 1921 (commonly called the Tulsa race riot of 1921, despite the fact that only one race was engaging in destructive and genocidal behavior), hundreds of African-Americans were killed or injured, and the entire neighborhood was razed in mere hours (in part because private planes were used to drop bombs of burning turpentine on the buildings of Greenwood).
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The descriptions are harrowing enough; what I never considered is what happened to the wealth lost under these circumstances. The story of J.B. Stradford is instructional. He was one of the wealthiest men in Greenwood, with $1.6 million (today’s dollars) invested in Greenwood; after the massacre and destruction by the white mob, he was virtually penniless. He was accused of being a mastermind of the uprising and fled to Chicago, effectively an outlaw. When he tried to file insurance claims for his real estate losses, the claims were denied, because the policies had a riot exclusion clause and the white wilding had been labeled a riot. His descendants were denied some of their inheritance as a result; the sort of inheritance a white person of similar financial worth would view as routine, automatic, and could build upon. It’s easy as a disinterested bystander to say, “At least he only lost property; think of the people who lost their lives,” but I think it’s possible to feel empathy and anger for both. Nor does one have to think of generational wealth in terms of the assets of millionaires. What of the small businesses in a Paradise Valley or a Greenwood…the barber shop, the butcher shop, the millinery? Even though many in Greenwood were able to rebuild, how many dollars were spent on rebuilding rather than expanding or updating in preparation for the son or daughter who would take over the family business? How much generational wealth went up in smoke merely because of the envy of poor whites who, having fed on a Klan diet of white supremacy, expected to do better than their black neighbors? How much of this have I never considered because my very white world makes it unnecessary?
My “language and the Middle Passage” bubble
My great-grandmother came to South Bend, IN from Germany in 1892; in 1910, German is still listed as her language, and it isn’t until the 1920 census that English becomes the language she speaks in the home. From my perspective in the immigrant-descendant bubble, that seems understandable given she was spending most of those years giving birth and raising children, and lived in a very German community, attending a German-language church, and socializing with other recent German immigrants. It was probably difficult for her to learn English, and I wouldn’t be surprised if most of her learning came about as her own children attended public school and became English speakers. Given all of her circumstances, it’s easy for me to cut her some slack about taking almost 30 years in the United States before declaring that English was the language spoken in the home.
In contrast, there is this:
…if the African religious leader was to operate in the open, the safest cloak to hide behind was that of Christianity. African religious leaders predominated in slavery and in that oppressive environment orchestrated their people’s transformation into a single people culturally. James Weldon Johnson makes the penetrating observation that it was through the old Negro preacher that “people of diverse languages and customs who were brought here from diverse parts of Africa and thrown into slavery were given their first sense of unity and solidarity.” (Stuckey, Sterling, Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory And The Foundations Of Black America, 2nd Edition, 2013, p. 67
Another truth of the horror of slavery was suddenly staring me in the face; a bubble-popping truth that was always there to be seen for eyes not blinded by the privilege of viewing slavery as an abstraction. When slavery is not theoretical, it suddenly becomes easier to imagine the terror of a newly-enslaved person making not just a horrific voyage across the ocean, but doing so with no certainty that there will be anyone they can communicate with once landing in a new and strange land. It’s unlikely the enslaved knew or understood English. It’s also possible they would be living with people from a different part of Africa, with different languages, different customs, different religious practices. And yet, the white cultural expectation was (and remains) for near-immediate assimilation. If my great-grandmother had been a slave rather than an immigrant, her failure to learn English in a timely manner would have been a virtual death sentence; learning the language of the oppressor was a survival technique. How many slaveholders understood or cared that their “property” was learning at least one new language, if not more? How many stepped away from their racism long enough to see that these people they considered to be lesser, even subhuman, were learning and using skills that most slaveholders didn’t even have?
I’ve been asked on more than one occasion why I keep reading about some of the ugliest aspects of our history when we’re living through the Ugly right now. I’ve been asked (and have asked myself) why I keep writing about some of the most depressing of our stories when the Depressing is all around us. It would be easier to stay in bubbles of privilege, of ignorance, of obliviousness. And there are days, even weeks, when I make the choice that my whiteness allows. But this is what I’ve learned. When I see the bubbles and make the choice to pop them, I am broadening my world. I am committing myself to a sisterhood/a brotherhood with wider communities. I am saying that though I benefit from white supremacy, I don’t ally myself with it. Most of all, I’m saying that popping bubbles is good thing; recognizing bubbles is a necessary thing.