Blacks and Whites in the United States

The affliction of black people seemed endless. Suffered from slavery to discrimination or racism, the blacks tried to get up and to have a place and to be accepted in society. Here, I want to discuss about slavery –how it began and how it ended, racial discrimination against blacks and their struggles, slavery and discrimination represented in Hollywood cinemas, and how the blacks and the whites’ worlds twist based on some facts.

Little do people know about the beginning of slavery. It began in August, 1619 when a small Dutch warship sailed up the James River to the young English colony of Jamestown, Virginia. The Dutch ship had captured a Spanish ship in the Carribean Sea carrying black men and women to Spanish colonies in South America (Cusack, 1986).

At that time, there was not a thing called slavery. The English had the practice of indentured service. Both blacks and whites were servants. The difference was that the whites will be freed after a period of time, but the blacks stayed servants. In my opinion, it happened this way because the owners of those servants were whites. Therefore they were willing to have contracts with white servants.

There were of course black or indigenous people in Australasia and North America long before there were whites. But few people realize that there were black people in Britain before the English (or Anglo-Saxons) arrived – black soldiers in the Roman army helped to pacify and ‘civilize’ the ‘barbaric’ natives. And there was a continuous black presence in Britain from the sixteenth century onwards – Sir Walter Raleigh’s wife started a trend by having an imported African servant and this became highly fashionable in the course of the next hundred years. Certainly there was racial prejudice at this time – wild notions about people who looked so obviously different and came from a world away. Racism – an ideology which bundled up prejudices into a package to ‘prove’ that black people were inferior – didn’t come about until it became economically useful for white people to believe such a thing (Gordon and Brazier, 1985).

From the paragraph above, I want to underline the ideology that says the blacks are inferior for further discussion. Hitler, however, also says in his book that his race, Caucasian, are superior than the other races such as blacks and Jews. I conclude Hitler’s opinion about his race being the strongest is called individual racism, as what the Encyclopaedia Americana (2001) explains,  individual racism is racism at the individual level involves a misguided personal belief that an entire racial group is deficient or superior because of a set of moral, intellectual, or cultural traits that are thought to be indicated by the group’s biological origins. Therefore, Hitler made the opinion based on himself and his own belief. As time changes, Hitler’s opinion about the blacks can be broken.

Slavery, however, ended when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that slaves in states, or portions of states, at war against the United States were free. Freedom of all slaves came later in 1865 (Cusack, 1986). But the blacks’ affliction did not end then. As slavery was dismissed, racial discrimination against blacks arose. Seems like blacks were born to suffer. Freed from a pain, they are given another pain.

According to Encyclopaedia Americana (2001), the concept of racism is often closely related with the idea about ‘racial discrimination’, a term that is often associated with invisible differences such as skin colours and other physical features.

Racial discrimination against the blacks first arose in the early years of 20th century. In most former slave states, a system of racial segregation arose, and blacks had to use separate schools, churches, hospitals, parks, swimming pools, lunchrooms, washrooms, bus sections and theater sections (Cusack, 1986). This type of racism is called ‘institutional racism’, which is defined as racism by governments, corporations or other large organizations with the power to influence the lives of many individuals. The process of purposely discriminating against certain group of people through the use of biased laws or practices. Often, institutional racism is subtle and manifests itself in seemingly innocuous ways, but its effects are anything but subtle (Wikipedia the free encyclopedia, 2009).

Many opinions about how inferior the blacks were arose. One of them is Frederickson’s (1987) which argues about the origin of the blacks:

“As portrayed in pro-slavery writing, Africa was and always had been the scene of unmitigated savagery, cannibalism, devil worship, and licentiousness. Also advanced was an early form of biological argument, based on real or imagined physiological and anatomical differences –especially in cranial characteristics and facial angles – which allegedly explained mental and physical inferiority.”

In my opinion, Frederickson generalized all black people. Some facts prove that not all blacks behave like the ways he defined them. For instance, Dr. Charles Drew (1904-1950) who advanced medical science and saved millions of lives during World War II by his discovery of a way to preserve blood, and Dr. Ralph Bunche (1904-1971) who saved countless lives by promoting peace in the Middle East during the late 1940s. He also won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950. I do not think these two people represent Frederickson’s images of black people.

The decade of the Great Depression in 1930s was a difficult time for all Americans, but it was particularly hard for black Americans. In many communities, when welfare aid or jobs were given out, whites came first. For many black families, staying alive was a daily struggle (Cusack, 1986). I think that that time, the government thought that the whites were more productive than the blacks, and that the blacks could not do pretty much than the whites.

The economic depression, however, ended with the outbreak of World War II. As America’s factories started turning out the weapons of war, blacks as well as whites benefited from the employment boom. Many of the discriminatory practices against blacks were eased, particularly in the North (Cusack, 1986). It was probably because the North had not practiced slavery in the first place.

But the racial discrimination did not happen not only in welfare, but also in the Army. In September 1940, over a year before the war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the nation’s first peacetime conscription. Young men –blacks and whites– answered the call. But the call affected blacks and whites differently. White youths were rushed to training camps while black youths had to wait around for months until there was a room for them in black units. The demand for black youths came mostly from support units while the demand white youths came from all units (Cusack, 1986). Seemed like this kind of situation referred to Frederickson’s argument about the blacks that says blacks are inferior. The Army used black youths for support units because they thought the blacks were incapable of fighting in the front line or any fronts.

This led to a campaign by the black youths to fight for their rights. They said that they wanted to be soldiers, not servants. They were backed up by the entire black community. Many whites, including Eleanor Roosevelt, the president’s wife, joined the campaign to get blacks the right to fight for their country. I assume that this proved that not all whites at that time were practicing racial discrimination against blacks.

However, the campaign succeeded. On December 1, 1941, all specialties in the Army, including the Army Air Force, were opened to qualified blacks. Six months later, the Navy, Coast Guard and Marine Corps followed suit. Astonishingly, one black unit in particular made a name for itself. It was the 332nd Fighter Group of the United States Army Air Force. In the skies over France and Germany, pilots of the 332nd destroyed 261 enemy planes. In March 1945, the Group was awarded a total of 904 medals for bravery. This, I think, showed that not all blacks were lazy, as what Hall (1997) says in his book, “Laziness, simple fidelity, mindless ‘cooning’, trickery, childishness belonged to blacks as a race, as a species.” They worked hard and they fought for their country. Moreover, this seemed to prove that blacks did not need helps from whites to make an achievement.

There were many struggles to end or to fight racial discrimination against blacks. Some of them came from black associations, and some of them came from the blacks themselves. One obvious example is the Civil Rights Movement. At that time, black leaders felt that the people themselves would have to take action to end discrimination and denial of civil rights. One opportunity for action was presented by the arrest of a woman named Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama, on December 1, 1955, for refusing to give up her seat to a white person on a city bus. In this case, Rosa’s arrest did involve police, a government institution, which I think was unfair to the blacks because the police only took sides on the whites and gave nothing to the blacks. I can conclude that this was not the pretension of the police itself, but it came from the government. Hence, they once again practiced the institutional racism.

When Parks was taken to jail, she made a call to E.D. Nixon, head of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) –an organization of blacks and whites formed in 1990 to gain full rights for blacks. After getting Rosa Parks out of jail on bail, Nixon and other NAACP leaders planned on a course of action to end segregation on buses. Finally, the blacks agreed to boycott buses and not use them for their activities. During the boycott, Nixon was helped by Martin Luther King, Jr., the new pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church who was known by people from his famous “I Have A Dream” speech.

Over 95 percent of the black riders stayed off the buses. The boycott lasted over a year and cost the city more and more money each day. Finally, on November 13, 1956, the Supreme Court decided that segregation on buses was unconstitutional. In my opinion, the Montgomery bus boycott showed that nonviolent direct action could produce results, and no violence was needed at all.

Another famous activist to fight for the end of racial discrimination against blacks was Malcolm X. Born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, on May 19, 1925. He had struggled to survive ever since he was little. His father, Earl Little, was an outspoken Baptist minister and avid supporter of Black Nationalist leader Marcus Garvey. Earl’s civil rights activism prompted death threats from the white supremacist organization Black Legion, forcing the family to relocate twice before Malcolm’s fourth birthday (Haley, 1992).

Malcolm Little spent most of his time surviving from whites’ attacks. When he moved to Harlem, he started to commit petty crimes. By 1942 Malcolm was coordinating various narcotics, prostitution and gambling rings. In 1946 he was arrested and convicted on burglary charges, and Malcolm was sentenced to 10 years in prison. In my opinion, Malcolm committed such crimes because there was not any opportunity for blacks to get legal jobs to feed their mouths. Therefore, most blacks at that time became criminals in order to survive.

However, Malcolm started to learn Islam and converted to the Nation of Islam (NoI) while he was in prison. He changed his surname from Little to X, because he saw his former surname Little represented a slave name. He then became the Minister of NoI’s Detroit Temple. He left NoI and started to found his own organization called Muslim Mosque, Inc.

In 1964, Malcolm went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The trip proved life altering. For the first time, Malcolm shared his thoughts and beliefs with different cultures, and found the response to be overwhelmingly positive. When he returned, Malcolm said he had met “blonde-haired, blued-eyed men I could call my brothers.” He returned to the United States with a new outlook on integration and a new hope for the future. This time when Malcolm spoke, instead of just preaching to African-Americans, he had a message for all races.

His statement, “Human rights are something you were born with. Human rights are your God-given rights. Human rights are the rights that are recognized by all nations of this earth,” makes me think that it was dedicated to all races in the world, especially the blacks in order to motivate them to make a move and to end their own miseries.

Tragically, Malcolm’s life had to end in the hand of his own people, the blacks. Malcolm was assassinated on February 21, 1965 as he began speaking at the Audubon Ballroom, New York. They shot him 15 times at close range. Malcolm’s assassins were all members of the Nation of Islam. Here, I want to assume that the members of NoI attempted to kill Malcolm because he was no longer on the same side with them. They perception about all whites were evil, was contranstive to Malcolm’s that said not all whites were evil, the perception he got after he came back from Mecca.

There are several themes about slavery and discrimination represented in Hollywood cinemas. There are also some movies with slavery and discrimination backgrounds. As what Hall (1997) states that the repertoire of stereotypical figures drawn from ‘slavery days’ has never entirely dissappeared. One of the example is a movie entitled The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The movie was produced in 2008, with the setting of time from 1918s to the 21st century and the setting of place in New Orleans, the South part of America, which was a place that used to practice slavery and racial discrimination. By following the plot, I observed how the lives of blacks and whites had changed from one period of time to another. When Benjamin Button was born in the end of the First World War, he was adopted by a black woman named Queenie, a servant in an old folks’ home. Although that time slavery was ended, there still was a practice of racial discrimination. Queenie and her husband had their bedroom in the basement while the old folks –all whites– lived on the first and second floor. Queenie’s bedroom was unsuitable for living. It was very dark and small. Although there was not any practice of discrimination was shown in the movie, I could see clearly that the whites got all privileges, and the blacks in the house were all servants.

queenies-bedroom

Picture 1       Queenie’s Bedroom in the Basement

When Queenie took Benjamin to a church, it was a church for blacks in a tent. There were only blacks in the church and no whites. The blacks’ and whites’ church was separated that time. However, in 1962, when Queenie died, blacks and whites had already shared the same church.

church

Picture 2       The Church for Blacks in A Tent

When the setting of time was in the 21th century, there was obviously no racial discrimination against blacks. At the hospital, for instance, there was one black woman who was a doctor.

There is also a movie entitled Glory Road. The movie is based on a true story about racial discrimination against black in sports. It was in 1965-1966 when a basketball coach Don Haskins made a breakthrough by recruiting seven black players for his team Texas Western Miners. At that time, the South were practicing racial discrimination against blacks, and no blacks were given a chance to make any achievement.

The black players Don chose were all great, they played even better than the whites from their team. As they succeeded to play in the National Championship, many protests arose. The team was mocked and ridiculed for their showboating and flaunting of black players on the court. They got thrown drinks and junks as they were entering the court by white people. This, I think, shows that whites acted like what were described by Frederickson about black people that black people were savage and licentious. In this case, Frederick’s opinion about blacks was wrong. It was whites who were savage and licentious. However, with mocks and protests, the team finally won the National Championship and that proved how blacks were better than whites in basketball.

As we can see now, the worlds of blacks and whites have turned upside down. What I mean here is their worlds in sports. Rarely do we see white basketball players. Black players dominate the world of basketball. For instance, Kareem Abdul Jabar who is known by his jump, and Michael Jordan who is known by his slam dunk and rebound. There are also many other great black basketball players such as Lebron James, Shaq O’Neal, and Vince Carter. Some brand of shoes even produced shoes and named them after Michael Jordan, it is the Air Jordan.

Black basketball players even invented new kinds of basketball such as Streetball and Slamball. If basketball were still dominated by whites, I do not think they could invent these new kinds. And if we ask people to mention some basketball players, they will probably not mention white players, because only a few of them who become famous in basketball. Not only in basketball, blacks also dominate most sports. For example, Tiger Woods, who became the icon of golf.

Black people also dominate music. They created a new genre, that is rap or hip hop, which was originally produced as a form of protest to the government for being on whites’ side. Nowadays, hip hop music is enjoyed by both blacks and whites.

This proves that Hitler’s opinion about his race being the strongest is not fully correct. This also proves that the ideology which says blacks are inferior is wrong. Blacks are as good as whites. They can make achievements as well as whites.

Hall’s opinion that says, “Laziness, simple fidelity, mindless ‘cooning’, trickery, childishness belonged to blacks as a race, as a species,” is also not correct if we look at the present fact that Barrack Obama, an African-American man, has proven that by his hard work, he can be the first black President of the United States.

As a conclusion, blacks went through many mistreatments; being slaves, and being discriminated. But in the end, they can prove that they are not inferior and that they can make achievements as well as whites. And today, what Martin Luther King, Jr. had said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. I have a dream that one day on the hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-holders will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood… I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by he colour of their skin, but by the content of their character,” has come true. Blacks and whites do sit down together at the table of brotherhood and people do make judgment about other people by the content of their character instead of the colour of their skin.

 

R E F E R E N C E S

Books

Cusack, Michael. Black America. In About the United States. USA: The United States Information Agency. 1986.

Encyclopaedia Americana International Edition. Connecticut: Grolier Inc. 2001.

Haley, Alex. The Autobiography of MALCOLM X; As Told to Alex Haley. New York: Ballantine Books. 1992.

Hall, Stuart. Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. London: Sage Publicity Ltd. 1997.

Hitler, Adolf. Mein Kampf. Diterjemahkan oleh Sinaga, R.W. Yogyakarta: Penerbit Narasi. 2007.

Movies

Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The. California: Warner Brothers Classic Production. 2008.

Freedom Writers. USA: Paramount Pictures.

Glory Road. California: Buena Vista Pictures. 2006.

Websites

Gordon, Paul & Brazier, Chris. Racism Then and Now. 1985. In http://www.newint.org/issue145/racism.htm (accessed: July 1, 2009; 01:38 p.m.)

Person-Lynn, Kwaku. The Origin of Rap. 2001. In http://www.africawithin.com/kwaku/origin_of_rap.htm (accessed: July 21: 21:46)

Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Racism. 2009. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Racism (accessed: July 8, 2009: 21:40)

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