Many people believe our racial problems would all go away if we all would simply focus on being “unhyphenated Americans.”
This assimilation argument is wrong. In America, assimilation into the default ethnic culture means becoming white.
The birth of a white nation
In fact, before America, the concept of “whiteness” largely did not exist. The people who came to identify themselves as white previously stuck to their national identities: English, Greek, Dutch, Swedish, etc., and they usually were fighting the heck out of each other.
In the dawning of the United States, it became legally, economically, socially and militarily advantageous for European immigrants to put aside their cultural differences to form a new identity: White Americans.
Whether a family came from France in the 1770s, Ireland in the 1860s, Italy in the 1920s or Germany in the 1950s, all they had to do was drop their accent and maybe alter a letter or two in their name and presto — they were able to enjoy all of the legal, economic and cultural advantages of being a fully accepted member of the default mainstream culture.
Just ask Donald Trump about his grandfather Friedrich Drumpf.
It’s impossible for some to assimilate
This acceptance remains impossible for people who are perceived, visually or otherwise, as different. Remember that America constitutionally provided a different legal standard and standing for whites from our founding until the passing of the 1968 Civil Rights Act.
“I never could be considered an authentic member of our default mainstream culture.”
A quick look through my photos will tell you I never could be considered an authentic member of our default mainstream culture. Beyond that, I have to ask myself what I would have to give up of who and how I am in order to try to assimilate into the mainstream default culture.
That is a question each individual should have the right to wrestle with, because surely there is a sacrificing of the historical richness of culture and heritage that is given up when one assimilates. For some it’s worth it. I have determined that cost is too high for me.
While I assert that right, I am fully aware that my decision to take pride in the history and wealth of the culture of my ancestors does impact my ability to participate fully in the mainstream culture. But then again, a realistic perspective of our history and current circumstances as Americans shows me that my access to the mainstream culture is inherently limited, no matter what I do.
Not designed to serve people like me
Furthermore, that accurate perspective tells me our institutions never were designed to serve me well.
Our founding fathers established this nation by securing their own freedom while sacrificing or at best punting the ball on the freedom of people who looked like me. Where did that leave my ancestors in 1789?
Our Constitution restricted the right to vote to white male property owners. Where did that leave my ancestors?
The laws surrounding slavery, post-reconstruction and Jim Crow segregation were designed to maintain the legal, economic and cultural superiority of whites over Blacks. Where did those laws leave my ancestors?
Our educational institutions for the predominance of our history were designed to serve whites exclusively, or much better than Blacks. Where did that leave my ancestors?
Even our largest Christian denominations were founded with the intention of affirming those Christians’ rights to own, exploit, rape, maim, even kill people who looked like me. Where did this leave my ancestors?
These institutions, and in fact all American institutions, were intended to function for the benefit of whites and to the detriment of Blacks.
Lingering effects not easily fixed
While we can now say the discriminatory purposes of our Constitution have been removed, it is also true that institutional behavior can have lingering residual effects.
If our American history were to be experienced in the timeframe of one day, we as a nation, as reflected in our laws and institutions, have engaged in legally sanctioned slavery, genocide, murder, rape, discrimination and Jim Crow bigotry from 12 midnight all the way until about 9:30 p.m.
“Name any institution today, and with minimal effort I can show you the contemporary manifestation of institutional racism.”
It is the behavior of these institutions that is the real forefront of the fight for justice and equality. Individual attitudes or acts of racial animosity are relatively insignificant compared to an institutional infrastructure that hinders and denies equal justice. Some dude who calls me a name — not that big a deal. Besides, in most cases individual prejudiced attitudes tend to dissipate with familiarity.
However, you see a problem of a completely different magnitude all together when you see, for instance, that in America the average family wealth for whites is six times what it is for Blacks.
This disparity is easily explained when you factor in the head start whites got accumulating wealth with the advantages of more than a century of free labor from Blacks. And when you also factor in that the largest bridges to home ownership through the FHA and GI Bill (which were designed to build middle-class wealth) were legally restricted from Blacks from their beginnings until the late 1960s. And when you factor in discriminatory banking practices like redlining, which still exists today. And when you factor in today’s gentrification, which is decimating our Black communities from sea to shining sea.
Name any institution today, and with minimal effort I can show you the contemporary manifestation of institutional racism.
Becoming who we say we are
America has a long way to go in order to be who we say we are. We never have honestly confronted our national legacy of racism and white supremacy.
There are some examples of the value of truth and reconciliation we can see in effect elsewhere in the world — which provide much more healing than America has experienced.
In South Africa, for instance, when apartheid was dismantled, they didn’t just say, “OK, you’re free, Black people; all is well” like we did here in America. They prioritized a truer healing by forming the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where instead of concealing and denying the inner workings and mechanics of apartheid honestly admitted it, with impunity because it was not about extracting revenge but about achieving authentic healing and reconciliation. South Africa is not perfect, but they have made more progress in a couple of decades than we have in 150 years.
Also consider the evils of the Holocaust. Upon the defeat of the Nazis in World War II, the world not only made the soldiers stop fighting, but the world actively insisted that Germany dismantle every vestige of the institutional expression of Nazism. You can’t even buy a Nazi flag in Germany today.
“Imagine if, upon Hitler’s suicide, the Allies just said, ‘OK, Germany, we beat you; now go on back to your businesses that financed Nazism.'”
Imagine if, upon Hitler’s suicide, the Allies just said, “OK, Germany, we beat you; now go on back to your businesses that financed Nazism, building concentration camps, performing propaganda, indoctrinating your school kids, discriminating against Jewish people —business as usual — we forgive you!”
The Allies and the world completely tore apart every German institution and rebuilt them all via the Marshall Plan to ensure that the evils of the Holocaust never would happen again.
Such effort never happened with U.S. slavery or Jim Crow. The Marshall Plan was like reparations, but for the Germans. The only compensation given for American slavery was given to white former slave owners. Nothing like that, though it was promised, ever happened for African Americans.
The police forces that were formed to keep Blacks controlled never were changed. The banks that financed slavery and profited wildly from it never changed. The educational systems that fortified white supremacy in order to justify slavery and Jim Crow bigotry never changed. The media institutions that reinforced negative imagery of Black people in order to exploit white fear never changed.
What makes you think we’ve changed?
So a lot of the peril and dysfunction facing the Black community is kind of inevitable, wouldn’t you say? There was a lot of talk about America being post-racial and post-racist upon the election of President Obama, but that was clearly unrealistic — even though many people think we’ve made much more progress than we really have.
Do you seriously believe America ever has provided equal access to justice, accountability and opportunity for all its citizens? If so, every measuring mechanism proves you wrong.
Think about it this way: Slavery started in what would become the United States in 1619. Slavery means free labor, which results in wealth. From 1619 until 1865 — the 246 years in which our nation was conceived, born, nurtured and developed into maturity — every institution was devoted either to the efficient operation of that free labor slave system or the promotion and reinforcement of the idea of the superiority of whites and the sub-humanness of Blacks. This was necessary to justify all the cognitive dissonance of murder, rape and exploitation of Blacks performed by the people who talked about God’s love, liberty and justice.
From 1865 until 1968, the United States Constitution gave whites rights and privileges that Blacks did not have. That’s 103 years of discrimination against Blacks on top of the 246 years of slavery — 349 years of constitutionally affirmed white supremacy.
It’s been 54 years since the final legislative corrections of the Civil Rights movement. If you believe we have overcome our racist past as a nation, then you would have to believe that 349 years of white supremacy has somehow been healed and reversed in 54 years. That’s comparable to an 80-year-old serial child molester who tells you he hasn’t been caught molesting any kids since he turned 75. Are you going to trust him with your children?
“If you believe we have overcome our racist past as a nation, then you would have to believe that 349 years of white supremacy has somehow been healed and reversed in 54 years.”
How did such a profound healing take place in such a relatively short time while escaping the notice of most Black people? In raising children, we can see it takes a lot longer and a lot more effort to correct and unlearn bad behavior than it does to learn the bad behavior. What exactly were the intentional healing steps that we as a nation took, or did we just morph into justice? What other sins in addition to racism are so easily overcome?
I love America
Lest you think I’m just some angry Black dude who hates America, let me assure you I love America, and I am grateful for our criminal justice system and law enforcement. I have worked in law enforcement. I have run for public office.
In fact, I view myself as a custodian of America and our public institutions. My love of America is similar to my love of my three children. I love them absolutely and will sacrifice everything for them if necessary.
A significant part of the duty of that love is the willingness to correct and even chastise my kids when they are wrong. If I fail to discipline them, then I am derelict in my parental duty by allowing them to grow up spoiled and immature, which will inevitably result in them being disciplined by some other force or authority not motivated by love. To fail to discipline my children is to express a very shallow and ineffectual love — just like loving America without the willingness to correct her when she is wrong is expressing a very shallow and ineffectual patriotism.
Sid Smith III is a music ministry consultant and serves at Third Baptist Church of San Francisco. His father, Sid Smith Jr., was a pioneer Southern Baptist Convention leader credited with starting more than 400 predominantly Black SBC churches.
Jesus does not ask me to assimilate | Opinion by Karen Gonzales