Telling the Truth About Race

Don Taylor @donaldhtaylorjr

It has taken me half a Century of life to acknowledge an idea that is foundational to the United States that has been hiding in plain sight all along—there is a hierarchy of human value that has been most commonly marked by Race across U.S. history that continues today. Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 of the United States Constitution, ratified in 1788, says:

“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”

The word Slavery does not appear in the U.S. Constitution until it is banned by the 13th Amendment in 1865, in spite of being a key reason the Articles of Confederation were jettisoned as unworkable in favor of a constitutional convention called in 1787. Article 1, Section 9, clause 1 of the original Constitution banned changes to the importation of enslaved persons until 1808, again, without using the word Slavery, an institution that remained in force for nearly 60 years after it became illegal to import more enslaved persons.

After the Civil War, our country had a second chance to live into the lofty ideals stated in the Declaration of Independence. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the 13th (abolished Slavery), 14th (ensured equal treatment of all persons regardless of Race), and 15th (former Slaves could not be prevented from voting) Amendments to the Constitution provided an outline of what a one hundred-year effort to ensure that former enslaved persons and their descendants had an opportunity to be full citizens could have looked like. It would have taken concerted action and focus, but our nation went the other way. In fact, our concerted action was directed toward making these Amendments little more than words on a piece of paper for many freed Slaves, their descendants and anyone who could not pass as White, especially in the South.

I am embarrassed to say that when reading a book last Summer, I assumed a mention of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 was a typo—I did not realize that the Civil Rights Act of 1964, rightly celebrated as a huge step forward for the United States back toward the ideals of “all men are created equal” as expressed in the Declaration of Independence is best understood as a promise delayed by 100 years. During that Century, numerous policies stood in direct contradiction to the amended U.S. Constitution that said that freed Slaves and their descendants were to be full citizens. A few examples.

40 Acres and a Mule, the original reparations policy was not seen through on a large scale, and General Sherman’s Special Field Order 15 that would have provided land and self-governance in South Carolina and Georgia to freed Slaves was overturned by President Andrew Johnson in the Fall of 1865, less than 6 months after the end of the Civil War. At the same time, the Homestead Act of 1862 was providing cheap land for Whites who did not fight for the South, even as freed Slaves were excluded from this land in the nation’s westward expansion after the Civil War. This westward land expansion program was expanded numerous times up through 1934 with different details, but there was always a similarity—the land grants primarily went to Whites while excluding freed Slaves and their descendants from receiving nearly free land west of the Mississippi river, and commonly displacing American Indians.

In North Carolina where I grew up, students in public schools have year-long units in North Carolina history, but I have come to understand that the version we were taught was sanitized of White efforts to keep power from Blacks. In 1900, after the Democratic party resumed control of the State Government, the State Constitution was amended in order to make it more difficult for Blacks to vote, leading to the near eradication of Black elected officials, and overturning progress that had been made during the quarter Century after the Civil War. Two years before, in 1898, a coup d’etat took place in Wilmington, N.C. that overturned the elected multi-racial local government in the thriving port city that was in the process of serving as an example of what the United States could have looked like. Even now, the event is typically called a race riot, which conjures for most Whites Blacks run amok, when in fact the event was the opposite. Even this well done history has that misleading title.

Did you know that North Carolina Governor William Holden was the first State Chief Executive impeached and removed from office in United States history in 1871? His sin was putting down a Ku Klux Klan rebellion and murdering spree of Blacks in two North Carolina counties (Alamance and Caswell). Holden’s metamorphosis shows what could have been, a Confederate soldier, appointed Governor after the Civil War and elected to another term several years later, he was not an ideological abolitionist by any stretch, but simply felt the law as changed should be followed. That is what progress would have looked like if it had not been snuffed out.

Charles B. Aycock is perhaps the most famous person from my hometown of Goldsboro, N.C., and his statue was one of two North Carolinians in the United States Capitol Building from 1932 to 2018. Growing up, he was described simply as the education Governor, because he brought compulsory education to both Black and Whites in North Carolina, albeit segregated. Governor Aycock’s own words tell a more mixed story. In a speech he gave in 1903 entitled “The Negro Problem” he said:

I am proud of my State… because there we have solved the negro problem…. We have taken him out of politics and have thereby secured good government under any party and laid foundations for the future development of both races. We have secured peace, and rendered prosperity a certainty.

I am inclined to give to you our solution of this problem. It is, first, as far as possible under the Fifteenth Amendment to disfranchise him; after that let him alone, quit writing about him; quit talking about him, quit making him “the white man’s burden,” let him “tote his own skillet”; quit coddling him, let him learn that no man, no race, ever got anything worth the having that he did not himself earn; 

It makes me mad as hell that in the eighth grade we were not trusted with the truth, that Charles B. Aycock brought about progressive education reforms, while he was also a vicious, ideological White Supremacist. And born in 1859, all of his adult life was lived after the Civil War, and the Amendments to the U.S. Constitution that he described as precepts to be thwarted. He learned all of this after the Civil War.

I am writing a book about land theft from Black farmers in Eastern North Carolina near where I grew up, and the systematic loss of land echoes today in the Black/White wealth gap.  More recently, a house that I once owned in Durham, N.C. had stipulations in the deed written in 1959 that stated that Blacks and anyone who was not White could not spend the night in the home, unless they were servants. A note on the deed declared this to be unenforceable when I bought it in 2006, but that historical fact surely helped to explain why the neighborhood was all White.

None of these events were random, happenstance, nor can they be explained away as the actions of a few bad apples because they were part of a strategy of maintaining White Supremacy, an idea that is plainly baked into the U.S. Constitution. The Black/White inequalities in education, health, wealth, and incarceration observed today are not an accident, nor are they explained fully by the individual behavior of Blacks or Whites–they result from systems that were designed to produce the observed outcomes.

The idea of a hierarchy of human value marked by Race continues to bear fruit today. The killing by Minneapolis police of a handcuffed and unarmed Black man George Floyd took place in plain sight of several other police officers, a crowd on the sidewalk and the entire world due to a cell phone camera video. The video shows a callous disregard for Black life, and its repetitive playing inflicts a further trauma to persons who are not White, even as I scan the video for examples of things Mr. Floyd did wrong. I cannot find anything, but I surely looked.

The disproportionate death toll of the SARS COV 2 pandemic among persons who are Black is viewed as fully predictable by my colleagues who study health inequalities, while numerous White friends or acquaintances ask incredulously “I wonder why that is the case?” or they note the presence of comorbidities as an explanation that somehow make the fact less scandalous. At the end of a day-long conference last week about inequality and COVID19 I felt sick to my stomach sitting in the two worlds with respect to disproportionate Black death—one surprised, the other not.

There are at least three reasons for this Black/White COVID19 mortality disparity and they all flow from the multi-Century history of White Supremacy in the United States. First, Blacks are at higher risk of occupational exposure because they disproportionately work jobs that are deemed essential, but are not paid as such, nor adequately protected on the job. Second, there are decades of research showing that Blacks are treated differently when seeking health care than are Whites, a phenomenon being reproduced today with COVID19. And finally, Racism and White Supremacy not only have structural impacts on Black people’s lives (housing, incarceration, income, education, health care) that put them at risk, but there are physiological impacts due to increased allostatic load that result in cellular changes through that is called the weathering hypothesis that have effects on health and mortality independent of factors like poverty among Blacks as compared to Whites.

I used to view White Supremacy as the folks marching in Klan robes, but have come to realize that it is an idea that operates most consequentially as the quiet default, and through systems that make White the ideal, provide White the benefit of the doubt, to the detriment of those who are not White, who are efficiently marked as less valuable in ways that require no shouting. The phrase White Supremacy is jarring to most Whites and I fear being called ‘a Racist’ as much as almost anything. Sorting the world into Racists and Not Racists lets me off the hook and is a way of perpetuating the pernicious old idea that there is a hierarchy of human value, most commonly marked by Race across U.S. history. The systems operating need to be named and rejected if we are ever to live into the notions of equality, stated as truths in the Declaration of Independence, that remain aspirations worth fighting for today.

An idea can only be replaced by another idea, and the first step in doing so is naming the one to be replaced and learning to talk about it. It is hard and scary but if White people do not speak up, then we are complicit, in direct proportion to our power and influence. I am not sure what to do next. Telling the truth is the best I can do right now. 

About Don Taylor
Professor of Public Policy (with appointments in Business, Nursing, Community and Family Medicine, and the Duke Clinical Research Institute), and Chair of the Academic Council at Duke University https://academiccouncil.duke.edu/ . I am one of the founding faculty of the Margolis Center for Health Policy. My research focuses on improving care for persons who are dying, and I am co-PI of a CMMI award in Community Based Palliative Care. I teach both undergrads and grad students at Duke. On twitter @donaldhtaylorjr

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