BHCCRC Lecture Explores History of Racism

Khalil Gibran Muhammad, left, and Ken Miller spoke as part of the Thinking Forward Lecture Series at Guild Hall on Friday. Lori Hawkins photo

Independence Day in Sag Harbor was marked in two distinct ways. The Walk for Interdependence attracted hundreds of people advocating to keep families together and celebrate the principles of our democracy, like inclusion and equality. From the windmill, a diverse group of people marched and sang peacefully, many reflecting that it was the perfect way to celebrate Independence Day this year.

But that very night, on a beach in Sag Harbor, racial slurs were allegedly hurled at a group of African-American adults who were relaxing on their porch. As Khalil Gibran Muhammad explained on Friday in a talk on Race in America at Guild Hall, racism and inclusion have been at odds since before the founding of our country. And while there have been many promising opportunities to resolve these disparities, this past holiday showed that success has not been completely achieved.

The event was organized by the Bridgehampton Child Care and Recreational Center as a part of its Equality Matters in the Hamptons series.

Mr. Muhammad, a professor of history, race and public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School, took a crowded Guild Hall audience on a walk through American history, pointing out some of these squandered opportunities. He called Reconstruction, after the Civil War, “the most misunderstood era in U.S. History.”

“We won the Civil War,” he said, “but we lost the racial narrative battle. In today’s world of political spin, they say the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, but about states’ rights. That’s not true, of course.”

Mr. Muhammad pointed out debates around the Confederate flag and monuments to Confederate soldiers.

“There’s debate about what the Confederate flag symbolizes,” said Mr. Muhammad, “but it’s a symbol of treason in defense of an abominable institution. The legacy of our Civil War is a part of our national culture.”

Sometimes it feels like that legacy is rearing its ugly head today, but it would be all too easy to label the conflicts of our time as left vs. right, just as it would be simpler to distill the conflicts of the Civil War into north vs. south. Mr. Muhammad explained that the north can’t be absolved of racial responsibility. Even though slavery was certainly more accepted in the south, abolitionists in the north were not seen as the norm.

“Boats that moved people from Africa to America were built in New England,” said Mr. Muhammad. “It’s all fundamentally linked to slavery. New England carried abolitionism, but those abolitionists were seen as crazy people.”

In the same way, the left can’t be absolved today. The responsibility proliferates through generations, because, he said, the wealth of our nation was built on slavery.

“Wealth in this nation is inextricably linked to slavery, an institution that lasted for 250 years,” said Mr. Muhammad. “We need to get the story of the fundamental economic engine of this nation right. At the time of the Civil War, four million black people were tradeable objects. American wealth is built on that. That wealth can be used to gain more wealth. We look at this ‘horrible’ class of people who were plantation slave owners, and it moves us squarely to Wall Street.”

In the late 19thand early 20thcenturies, when the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts built their massive fortunes at the expense of humble farmers, both black and white, an opportunity to rally together in defense of the people, and of democracy, was once again squandered, Mr. Muhammad said.

“There was a populist uprising that paved the way for black and white farmers to rally together, but they couldn’t do it because of racial scapegoating,” Muhammad explained. “So the inequality [brought about by the] robber barons was resolved by racial terror instead of racial alliances. Whites get the security of their whiteness.”

Mr. Muhammad said that in the generations following the Civil War, white supremacy only changed forms; it never died. And the deep-seated stereotypes that it left imprinted on the collective consciousness affected not only white people, but people of color as well.

“James Baldwin was one of the most expressive writers in terms of his own journey,” said Mr. Muhammad. “He was a keen observer of the work of white supremacy and how effective it had been. It caused white people to believe in their own superiority, but also black people to believe their inferiority.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about this as cultural homicide, and he used the active voice to describe what was happening. Stereotyping and racism were not passive constructs, he said, but concepts that were actively and deliberately taught.

“These stereotypes are being taught to us right now,” said Mr. Muhammad. “Even as we speak. That’s why we have to change the way we teach our history. We have to be brave.”

He warned that we can’t pretend that being “color blind” is an option. Choosing to not talk to your kids about race is choosing to allow them to absorb the racist system that exists today.

“Color blindness leaves intact the universe of intentional white supremacist ideas,” said Mr. Muhammad.

The Civil Rights movement was another historic opportunity that didn’t quite get us there, says Mr. Muhammad. And a major reason for this, he said, is that it didn’t affect a large portion of the country.

“The Civil Rights Movement was necessary but insufficient,” he said. “It never touched the hearts and minds of the white neighborhoods. It wasn’t their problem.”

He referred to Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail in 1967, which said that “whites had psychological cataracts,” used “blind euphemisms” and lived in a “fantasy of self-deception.” Dr. King said white ambivalence may have been even more of a problem than white resistance.

When Bonnie Cannon, Director of the Bridgehampton Childcare and Recreational Center, asked Mr. Muhammad what he would say to young people today, he said, “The kind of work that is required for young people to have a better future than their parents requires their participation. They need to understand the systems, so they can dismantle them and build new ones.”