If you want to see the heart of America, take a look at Ferguson, Missouri, a town torn apart, and now ablaze, this day following the acquittal of a white policeman who shot and killed an unarmed black youth.
Not only is Ferguson in the heartland of our nation, it is a reflection of America of the 21st century … which in some ways is not much different than America of the mid-19th century.
In today’s America, the average black citizen owns about 7% of the wealth of the average white citizen. In terms of liquid wealth, the average wealth of whites is 100 times that of the average wealth of blacks (and 65 times that of Latinos). Today’s wealth disparity is but the latest chapter in the history of a nation in which white supremacy has always reigned.
In colonial times, white Americans of means embraced black slavery in order to enrich themselves, while the practice at large reinforced white Protestant beliefs in the supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon race. Wealthy southern slaveowners refused to ratify the U. S. Constitution until northern Constitution Convention delegates preserved their right to own black people as slaves. Then they orchestrated the passage of the Second Amendment partly in order to enshrine their right to raise southern militias for the purpose of putting down future slave insurrections.
In the 19th century, wealthy slaveowners in the South convinced poor whites that black slavery was to their advantage, co-opting common folk whites by declaring that the poorest of whites were superior to the black race. Southern Baptists, evolving from outsiders to insiders in southern culture, quickly embraced the paradigm of white supremacy and black slavery.
Prior to 1790 most white Baptists of the South were either ambivalent or against human slavery. Yet in 1845 white Baptists of the South formed the Southern Baptist Convention in order to perpetuate white supremacy and black slavery, holding aloft a newly-interpreted Bible of God-ordained black slavery and inequality.
By 1860 the ten richest counties in the nation were all in the South, counties characterized by enormous plantations where tens of thousands of black people toiled in bondage, producing unparalleled wealth for their owners. Many of those counties were in South Carolina, the state that led the South into a war to preserve the wealth of white elites by continuing black slavery in perpetuity. The leaders of the Confederacy were clear in calling the war what it was: a war for black slavery and white supremacy.
When defeated and forced to liberate their slaves, white southerners turned to other means of maintaining white supremacy and black inequality. White Christian terrorists, acting in the name of God, in the late 19th century and for most of the 20th century locked blacks out of America’s democratic processes, murdering or beating by the thousands blacks who attempted to transcend their prescribed inequality in all aspects of life, including church, politics, society, education and wealth.
When a black Baptist, Martin Luther King, Jr., finally succeeded in rallying black Americans to overcome white terrorism and forced the federal government to acknowledge racial equality and integrate public schools, whites in the South promptly began pulling their children out of public schools and forming white-only, private “Christian” schools. When blacks moved into white neighborhoods, whites more often than not moved to the suburbs to maintain racial separation. Economic and business policies and structures, controlled by whites, remained closed to blacks at large. White dominated-police forces treated black citizens differently than whites, arresting blacks at a far greater rate, and for lesser offenses, than whites.
In the years since, the white Christian Right has worked hard to tear down public education in America, while in recent years supporting Republican Party efforts to gerrymander and suppress minority voters by enacting state laws making it more and more difficult for blacks and other minorities to vote. More and more of the nation’s wealth is confiscated by huge corporations led by white CEOs who refuse to pay taxes while bribing congresspersons to redistribute ever more wealth from the middle class and poor into their offshore tax havens. At the same time, discriminatory practices against minorities by white-dominated law enforcement agencies continue, even as Republican and Christian Right hatred of the nation’s first black president and of minority immigrants seemingly ratchets ever higher.
Ferguson is America. White privilege and astronomical, systemic black and minority inequality is both our nation’s heritage and the present reality. Ferguson burns today because for blacks and other minorities, justice remains largely out of reach, our nation’s founding principles of human equality and democratic processes too often thwarted by the inherent advantages enjoyed by white citizens.