Don’t understand what’s happening with Black race relations in America? First, a quick history lesson. Last year marked the 400th anniversary of the first recorded entry of slaves brought by the Portuguese to sell to English colonists in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. During this time, labor was plentiful, but workers were not. So settlers bought slaves to support the labor market. Millions of slaves were sold to settlers and slave patrols were established in 1704 to quell fear of a slave rebellion which would jeopardize the southern economy. Thousands of slaves fought alongside white settlers for their independence from Britain in the American Revolutionary War. (Black soldiers were promised freedom at the conclusion of the Revolution in 1783, but never received it.) The slave trade was abolished in 1808 yet slavery was not abolished until the Emancipation Proclamation was ratified after the Civil War in 1865.
Black people didn’t become citizens until 1868 with the ratification of the 14th amendment and weren’t eligible to vote until two years later. Black codes and Jim Crow laws limited work, education, and travel for Black people as well as upheld segregation. Nearly 100 years after Black people were granted citizenship, they were granted civil rights under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This came after years of civil unrest that resulted in sit-ins, boycotts, and lynchings. In 1965 the Voting Rights Act removed barriers to voting that disproportionately affected the Black community. The Fair Housing Act followed in 1968 to end discrimination in the renting, selling, and housing to non-white people. Starting with Pres. John F. Kennedy in the 1960s, affirmative actions took hold across the country aiming to hire more Black people in governmental and higher education roles and admit more Black people into predominantly white universities. Unfortunately, due to systematic racism and over-policing of Black neighborhoods, more Black men were incarcerated than in college by 2000.
But what does that mean now? America has hinted at a post-racial society citing the election of Barack Obama, a bi-racial man from Hawaii, for president — twice. However, systematic racism still exists in America though laws and acts have been put in place to prevent them. Black Lives Matter may be the largest movement in U.S. history and has been compared to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. The impetus of the movement was the acquittal of a Florida man who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager, in 2012. Since then, a growing list of Black people have been unlawfully killed by police and civilians in the United States and their perpetrators have gone without punishment — even if the act was videotaped. The movement aims to dismantle white supremacy as the guiding force of morality and allow for fair and equal justice under the law.
The Black experience in America is vast, however, the unjust treatment of Black people in America has taking an economic, not just emotional toll on the community. Black people make up about 15% of the population. Yet, according to the Economic State of Black America in 2020, the incarceration rate for Black people is nearly six times the rate of White people. Black households earn 59 cents for every dollar a white household earns making the income gap between Black and White annual households about $29,000 per year. Black adults are twice as likely to live in poverty and black children are three times as likely to live in poverty compared to White adults and children.
Now, that you are all caught up, here is what you can do to support your Black housemate, friend, lover or co-worker.
Listen. It sounds simple, but it is not. A singular Black person’s experience may not reflect what you’ve experienced or what Black people you know have experienced. Don’t interrupt to share. When a Black person is talking about their lived experience, listen to them. Just because it hasn’t happened to you, doesn’t make their experience less valid.
Own your mistakes. Anti-blackness is global. It’s a learned behavior. It has been written into the Constitution, laws, dress codes, zoning, history books and more. If a Black person says something is offensive to them you should apologize, learn why it’s offensive, and not do it again.
Confront racism. Not all racism happens in front of Black people. Your family members can say racist things. Your co-workers can say racist things. Your boss could say racist things. Fellow students may say racist things. A stranger could have a cruel reaction to Black Lives Matters. If you witness a racist act, you should feel empowered to say that you do not support that act even if you are not Black. Everyone is allowed to have an opinion, however discrimination, suppression, and cruelty are also acts of violence for the Black community.
Be transparent about pay. There are lots of reasons companies don’t want you to talk about salary, discriminatory practices is one of them. Talk to your Black friends about pay but give them a full understanding of your prior salary history, education, role, responsibilities, and work environment. It will help them determine for themselves if they are getting paid fairly if they are in a similar position.
Be anti-racist. It’s different than not being racist. To be clear, Merriam-Webster defines racism as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” Anti-racism requires your help to disrupt the systems of oppression that allow and prolong inequality.
Remember that your Black housemates, friends, lovers, and co-workers are being bombarded with images, videos, and memes of fellow Black people that have died unjustly while also talking about race with their family, friends and colleagues. Having allies means that the black community doesn’t have to fight equality alone. More just communities benefit us all.