Racist legacies

Dear President Trump,

The other day Laura told her brother and me how awhile back she tried to find out if anyone in their family had owned slaves (their family is from Tennessee). She described how even though she didn’t find any evidence that their family owned slaves there are too many holes in the available information to know one way or the other. (My ancestors were all Northerners as far as I know, but my grandmother’s father was in the Klan in Minnesota so I don’t need to go far back at all to find virulent racism in my family tree.)

This conversation prompted us to ask the Google Oracle for information on the proportion of white families that owned slaves in the Southern states. What we found was horrifying and, in an awful sort of way, enlightening as it helps to contextualize why someone who promulgated the racist “birther” lies about President Obama could have a viable presidential candidacy that needed only a small assist from Russia (say a 1, 2, or 3% nudge in certain counties) to win.

So what did we find? The website “Politifact.com” has a graph of the 15 Southern and border states showing the percentage of families in each that owned slaves according to the 1860 census. Of those 15 states, 10 had rates of 25% or more of families having owned slaves, with Mississippi leading the shameful pack at 49%, South Carolina right behind at 46%, and Georgia coming in third at 37%. That is a boatload of families that by now have a boatload of descendants who, to a greater or (hopefully) lesser extent, were exposed to and infected with white supremacist beliefs.

Depressing as these numbers and their implications are, I want to lift up the relevant positive development that Christine Emba shared in her WP editorial this morning: two-thirds of Georgetown undergraduates recently voted to have students pay a $27.20 fee each semester for a reparations fund for the descendants of the 272 slaves the university sold south in 1838. The resolution is non-binding and there are already challenges to it, but Emba points out how hopeful it is that students are willing to step up and address an old wrong they benefit from even as it’s clear they didn’t participate in the original wrong. However, neither she nor I are holding our breath as we wait for the rest of the country to find the resolve to follow suit.

May we all feel safe to deal with our country’s and our family’s racist legacies.
May those of us who need to reckon with our ancestors’ roles in these legacies have the courage to do so.
May we see that we can’t create a healthy society if we don’t deal with our oppressive biases.
May those of us who’ve had the luxury of pretending we aren’t implicated in racist legacies, make peace with the fact that we are.

Tracy Simpson

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