A look into America's history of racial injustice and its legacy across generations – learning about how racial inequality affects lives to this day.
Huge blocks of cement that look like coffins dangle from high above the ground at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, just as bodies once did when lives were cut short by “racial terror lynchings”.
Last November, I embarked on a journey to Georgia — little did I know that the South represents slavery and bigotry in America. As such, Georgia has the highest correctional control rate in the United States —1 in 18 Georgians is either in prison, in jail, on probation, or on parole at any given time, double the national average.
I visited Atlanta under the EU-funded GERIS (Global Exchange on Religion in Society) project —one of 18 people, including religious actors and those from NGOs, academia and the media from 12 different countries. We went through a week of training, meetings and deep discussions on diversity, coexistence and social inclusion while exploring the region's social fabric and cultural identity.
We investigated America's history of racial injustice and its legacy across generations – learning about how racial inequality still affects lives. The most crucial visit was to the Legacy Museum of Montgomery, Alabama, the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved Black people.
The Legacy Museum Memorial features the names of 500 documented victims of white supremacy killed for asserting their rights during the Reconstruction Era from 1861 to 1900, which followed the Civil War. As you enter the memorial, you are faced with statutes of slaves in chains; people like you and me—a woman reaching out to her husband in fear as her lactating baby cries, a man kneeling down in pain on the floor, exhausted after weeks of travelling in slave ships. Other figures resist the chains or are forcefully taken to cross the Atlantic.
The narrow path leads you to pillars where you read the stories of victims of terror lynchings.
It is a moment of awakening, a reality slap, as spine-chilling stories of Black people that you may not have heard before jolt your conscience. You begin to shudder as you are told that Black people were killed for reasons such as writing a note to a white woman, annoying a white woman, carrying a photo of a white woman or drinking from a white man’s well.
Reading all these details — names, age, locations and reasons for the lynchings — while passing by these huge blocks, all you feel is that they want to be seen or acknowledged for the price they paid to end slavery.
These stories are an open wound in Alabama, a strong testimony of racial terror lynchings and the humiliation suffered by African Americans due to segregation and the Jim Crow laws. But most importantly, they resonate with what Americans witness even today -- the police brutality and institutional bias Black men and women face daily.
From enslavement to mass incarceration.
The Equal Justice Initiative collected data and documentation of racial terror lynchings between 1865 and 1959. Stories of Black men and women lynched or killed during racially-motivated attacks provide a comprehensive history of slavery in the US during the Civil War and Reconstruction after the Emancipation.
It was an eye-opening visit to the Legacy Museum Memorial to find out historical details on lynching, codified racial segregation, and the emergence of over-incarceration in the 20th century.
Honouring the Black people, who suffered and died during the most tragic and violent era in American history, the museum tells the story of racial terror during the twelve years of Reconstruction, as Black people struggled to exercise their new legal rights to freedom and citizenship established by the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments following the Civil War.
According to the National Archives, nearly 4 million African Americans were freed at the close of the American Civil War. In the first years of emancipation from slavery, white people killed Black men and women throughout the South for leaving plantations, asserting legal rights and economic independence, or voting or running for office. Although scholars estimate that thousands of Black people were targeted and killed during those twelve years, there is no reliable data on the total number of casualties as quantitative documentation of race murders was insufficient.
During our visit to the Peace and Justice Memorial Center, which is located across from the Legacy Museum, we learned more about the United States’ history of racial inequality and racialisation of criminality, where Black people were transitioned from enslavement to mass incarceration.
According to the Georgia Justice Project (GJP), 4.3 million people have a Georgia criminal history and while Whites are underrepresented in the incarcerated population, Blacks and Latinos are overrepresented.
For more than three decades, the Atlanta-based project, GJP, has provided legal services to poor people accused of crimes and services and advocacy for those rehabilitated Georgians to move beyond their criminal history.
GJP’s Executive Director, Doug Ammar, welcomed GERIS members in Atlanta and provided an in-depth presentation on Georgia’s criminal justice system and how they fight for systemic changes to criminal and legal institutions.
While Georgia has the highest correctional control rate in the United States, 40 percent of adults in the state have a criminal record. But why is that so?
“Unemployment, poverty and crime are inextricably linked. Over 90 percent of those involved in the criminal justice system fall below the federal poverty line. Though poverty might have been one of the underlying factors for a person’s arrest – the criminal justice system too often becomes a force keeping folks in poverty,” argues Ammar, as a criminal record in Georgia is a major impediment to getting a job or keeping/obtaining public housing.
When people with criminal records are denied both employment and housing, they are forced to live in poverty and become vulnerable to re-offending.
GJP helps end this cycle of poverty and crime with their holistic approach by providing a second chance to rehabilitate individuals. While the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, 39 percent of the US prison population is African-American despite it being only 12.9 percent of the US population.
The racial disparities in who is incarcerated are profound. While the South has the highest incarceration rate in the US, 61.6 percent of Georgia's prison population is African-American. African-Americans constitute 31.5 percent of the state’s population.
With us or against us
The system of American slavery created a permanent racial hierarchy that grew from and reinforced racial prejudice that Black people needed to be disciplined and supervised. Although the Constitution’s presumption of innocence is a bedrock principle of American criminal justice, African Americans were assigned a presumption of guilt.
While many questioned whether President Richard Nixon's war on drugs was a racially-motivated crusade, his domestic policy advisor John Ehrlichman revealed in a 1994 interview that the “War on Drugs” had actually begun as a crusade to criminalise Blacks and the anti-war left.
Indeed, the claim of prejudice is obvious in racial disparities in incarceration. Half of those in federal prison are incarcerated for a drug offence and two-thirds of those in prison for drug offences nationwide are people of colour.
When Nixon assumed office and declared a “war on drugs” in 1971, the number of people incarcerated in American jails and prisons escalated from 300,000 to 2.3 million. And his popular narrative, “tough on crime and drugs”, led to an explosion in racial profiling and more Black people were convicted of drug charges and faced long prison sentences compared to Whites for the same crimes.
So, in the end, the “War on Drugs” has hurt Black people the most and has contributed to racial disparities in the justice system where African Americans receive severe sentences for drug offences — 10, 20, 30 years, even life imprisonment.
A powerful quote from George King, an enslaved Black man in Oklahoma, says it all: “The Master he says we are all free, but it don’t mean we is white. And it don’t mean we is equal (sic).”
Because, up until today, the justice system is biased against African Americans and it is crucial to understand that people carry all sorts of subconscious biases against Blacks which then turn into systemic disparities in housing and employment in America.
Meanwhile, another minority group in America also suffers from systematic mistreatment due to another endless war that the United States has waged against “terror”.
While the war on terror and the war on drugs can both be seen as derivative of the US national security agenda after the Cold War, the Republican “national security” discourse around a foreign threat has been enabling the manufacturing of new enemies for centuries depending on their agenda.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, former US President George W Bush led an emergency response and launched his anti-terrorism campaign. In his famous address to the US Congress on 20 September 2001, Bush put nations around the globe on notice and said, "Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists."
These wars against terrorism and drugs have been mainly defined by what they lack, according to Law professor Wadie Said; “a readily identifiable opponent, a clear-end goal, a timeline, and geographical boundaries”.
As such, Bush was looking for reasons to stoke fears of cultural change and inclusion so that he could activate his base and justify the war for oil.
Paul O'Neill, Bush’s Treasury secretary who was fired for objecting to the president's policies, said in 2004, "Already by February (2001), the talk was mostly about logistics. Not the why (to invade Iraq), but the how and how quickly."
American military historian Donald Stoker argues that “America endures endless wars because its leaders no longer know how to think about war, particularly wars fought for limited aims, taking the nation to war without understanding what they want or valuing victory and thus the ending of the war”, criticising seventy years of “misguided thinking” in American war-making from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan and questioning why America loses wars.
Twenty years after the terrorist attacks of September 2001, the so-called war on terror cost America $6 trillion, according to Brown University’s Cost of War Project. The most recent data estimates that at least 897,000 people around the world have died in violence that can be classified as part of the war on terror, while at least 38 million have been displaced due to these wars —from Iraq to Somalia and Pakistan to the Philippines — over the past 20 years.
Based on the Airpower Statistics, the US and allied air forces have been dropping an average of 46 bombs a day for 20 years while grandstanding for peace and security, as the American right uses the replacement theory to create anti-otherness and racist conspiracy theories.
To add to the enormous costs and the massive death toll, on the other side of the coin, Muslim Americans have been suffering from anti-Muslim sentiment, racism and increased US government surveillance that has been altering millions of people’s lives.
Issued in January 2017, Trump’s Muslim Ban ripped apart hundreds of families worldwide, while many lost educational and employment opportunities that may never come again.
Just like the African Americans were assigned a presumption of guilt, “the Muslim is presumed guilty” on American campuses, argues Hatem Bazian, director of the Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project at the Berkeley Center for Race and Gender. “And as such, (they) experience verbal harassment, bullying, even physical attacks. But the assumption is that the Muslim is the instigator,” Bazian explains.
While the far-right fans are the flames of extreme nationalism, racism and xenophobia, they constantly look for new issues to stoke fears of cultural change. The critical race theory (CRT) is the newest front in their culture war is the critical race theory (CRT). As the rightwing ecosystem has been weaponising the critical race theory against the American people in their political rhetoric, people of colour view it as the latest tactic to halt racial justice.
Legal scholars first developed CRT in the 1970s and ’80s following the civil rights movement, which came as an academic response to the illusionary notion that American society and institutions are “colourblind”. However, the CRT framework holds that racism goes far beyond individual prejudices and that it is indeed a systemic phenomenon woven into the laws and institutions of the American nation.
Since this is a war against “the accurate teaching of America’s history in classrooms around the country”, silencing the voices and denying the experiences of Black people and other historically marginalised groups in America, it is a war on truth. Yet another war America has waged against the country’s own history that they do not want its people to know.
In the very same context, American journalist Charles M. Blow refers to the critical race theory as “the new Shariah law, a boogeyman the right can use to activate and harness the racist anti-otherness that is endemic to American conservatism”. After all, America is in constant need of an enemy.