Wind River Reservation photo taken by Michelle Ruston
The history of the United States of America is not without blemishes; bigotry, bias and injustice have been prevalent. Upon the arrival of the first colonists to the new land, they discovered it already inhabited. The people were different and uncivilized by their own standards. These people were the Native Americans and were the first to experience American bigotry and racial bias. While the first Americans were explorers and pioneers and in their own right they were escaping the same bigotry and bias ironically that they brought with them to the new land.
The colonists first encountered the Native American tribe now known as the Mashantucket Pequot Nation. These people discovered quickly how their differences determined their destiny. The Native American population, the first to inhabit what we now know as the United States of America, were persuaded to trade their land for much smaller parcels, most starting with many acres, like the Golden Hill Paugussett Indian Tribe that traded all of their land for a mere 80 acres and within a little over 200 years their tribal land was reduced to ¼ of one acre. Incidents like this occurred all over the entire nation. Native Americans, some persuaded, some forced and many killed over a century of wars, now mainly reside on reservations and as a majority live far below the poverty line. Their nomad and free range living, their entire culture has been reduced to reservation life. We all are taught stories of kindness and co-operation and participate in rituals like Thanksgiving festivities where we dress up as pilgrims and Indians all coming together for a Thanksgiving feast. While there are true accounts of Indian and early American friendships like those of Sacagawea, or Sacajawea, a Lemhi Shoshone woman who helped the Lewis and Clark Expedition, these examples are few and far between. However, these stories are revealing and show that common elements present in all humans are binding and when outside elements and pre conceived notions are set aside, humans form true friendships and recognize common goals and common attributes and start to recognize differences as opportunities to learn and see them as something to appreciate. These positive stories are sprinkled throughout history and are constantly brought to light and given more attention while the countless battles and wars that resulted in many deaths and the final relocation and encapsulation of the Native Americans on scattered reservations are very rarely truly recognized.
Regardless of history’s account of the truth, no objection can be raised that the Native American population in modern society is now reduced to small reservations (we would now call that government housing), receiving rations (we would now call that welfare and we can probably take the leap to call it reparations) and their tribal populations are now a mere fraction of the numbers of pre-colonial dates. Clearly separating a group and paying out reparations is not a solution and leads to eventual eradication from society, to be left as a bathroom visit to the local trading post on a school field trip to the Grand Canyon. We stop in, look at a few trinkets, maybe buy a few, use the bathroom and leave.
On the other hand, another example of American bigotry and racism with different result is reflected throughout the account of the Irish immigration to America that began with the great famine Ireland in the early 1800s. Though there were many groups of immigrants coming to America seeking the dream of freedom, success and lack of persecution, the Irish were the first wave of poor refugees to arrive on American soil. Largely they came through the port in New York and although they came in legally they were immediately outcasts and quickly learned that conditions in America were not what they were expecting. To say living arrangements were harsh would be an understatement. They were thrust into the lowest rung of society and every day was a fight for basic survival. These Irish immigrants were unwelcome and when they found housing the landlords were charging Irish families up to $1.50 a week to live in a single nine-by-eleven foot room with no water, sanitation, ventilation or daylight. This was much higher than any other accommodation but many landlords refused Irish immigrants all together so options were limited. There was no enforcement of any sanitary conditions, building or safety codes. These immigrants were not socially acceptable; they were deemed dirty, unhealthy and uncouth. They worked for less than any other laborers and quickly moved into servant and hard labor positions for little to no compensation and many times worked for food and/or housing. This group was discouraged at every turn yet they worked hard, banded together and pulled themselves up and out of poverty. It was not easy and it didn’t happen instantaneously but now, years later there is no remaining stigma, no racial or religious bias. The descendants of the Irish immigrants now make up 10.1 percent of the American population. These immigrants on their own through hard work, perseverance and the unwillingness to fail became a contribution to American society and even produced a president, John F Kennedy.
Not the only bias and injustice but one of current issue is that of the African American community. Being a resident of Baton Rouge, the current epi center for the great divide between black and white citizens, the conflict at hand forces me to look deeper into the racial issue and what brought us to this current conflict. Living in a city racially divided for the past 40 years I now realize that we have lived most of our lives apart and while those of us living on the southern side of the city have been chastised for being unfair, for enslaving a population, for abusing that population, for holding that population down and taking their opportunities, a large group of the other population has been festering an animosity, not just towards a system that they feel is unfair, but animosity towards white people in general. Yet all throughout school we have read books like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Twelve Years A Slave”, we have been indoctrinated into a culture of guilt and shame for actions for which we took no part, and really know nothing about. We see disturbing images of white masters beating black slaves, leaving scars all over, both physically and emotionally. We feel guilty and have some sense of responsibility for actions we did not partake or have any involvement. All this time we have been taught how to make life easier for the black population, that we need to make accommodations and give back for our wrong doing. Up until last week I honestly thought we had made tremendous progress. I thought we were more unified and when the rest of the country was predicting race wars and a rift driven by race I genuinely thought, “not in my city, they don’t understand where I live and how intertwined we are as a community.” I am now realizing after seeing that we, as white people, are not welcome at BLM events; that it makes people uncomfortable. I am now discovering that true harmonious blending is not the goal. To say the very least it is upsetting and I feel slighted. What sort of psychological effect will this have on our generation? It can’t be good.
Let’s take this one step further, take into account continuing affirmative action and opposite racial bias that has taught white children self-loathing and fear to speak truth and ask honest questions. The children are taught they cannot say words that their black friends can say; it would be racist for them to use the EXACT same words in the EXACT same situation because of the inherent perceived racism that all white Americans are supposedly born into. Our children watch and learn about BET, Black Entertainment Network, see the NAACP, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, BLM, Black Lives Matter, African American Planning Commission (AAPC), The Association of Black Psychologists, National Association of Black Accountants, Inc., National Association of Black Journalists, National Black Chamber of Commerce (NBCC), National Black Justice Commission, National Black MBA Association, National Black Nurses Association (NBNA), National Council of Negro Women, Inc. (NCNW), National Coalition of 100 Black Women (NCBW), National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), Organization of Black Designers, United Negro College Fund (UNCF), 100 Black Men of America and all of the other organizations and functions designated for African-Americans only. What are the white children to think? Why is the world punishing them for being white? Where are the clubs to support their growth?
We all know the truth a child seeks. We all know children young enough not to know any racial or other bias. They ask questions. They are trying to determine the guidelines for the world around them. What happens when you tell a child they cannot say certain words, go to certain clubs, be involved in certain organizations and participate in certain activities that others can? We then tell them of the past injustice that happened 400 years before they were born. In most cases the injustice that happened in this country and at a time that their own birth lineage prevents them from having ANY involvement whatsoever. They are just grouped into that participation in the injustice because of the color of their skin. The harsh fact that they were born white. I am not here to say that racial bias did not exist in America. In no way can any justification be made for the enslavement of any man, woman or child, but the hard truth that it did exist all over the world, including the United States of America is a fact. Originally the right to free slaves, the abolition movement and the suffrage movement, the movement to grant women the same right as man was planned to be addressed as one. With the southern states in a position of upheaval over the abolition of slavery, the issue of womens rights was dismissed and left for a later period of time. Although the abolition of slavery was passed by the 13th amendment, the right to vote did not come until 1870, but the right to vote for women did not occur until 1920. The comparisons between the bigotry and bias against African Americans and women have some similarities and many differences. I can personally attest to any bias felt as a woman. Although the average man makes more income than the average woman, I see this as a challenge, and take it in stride knowing that I possess valuable skills needed and that I will force my own pay. All of the rest I disregard as negative, useless noise I don’t need or even acknowledge.
As I can only imagine life after the abolition of slavery with the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1835 and I do not know what it was like to live as a freed slave thereafter. I can only imagine the disparity. I imagine some disparity in the impoverished exists still today but I don’t think that is necessarily correlated with race. What many fail to take into account is that all white people aren’t born into wealth or privilege. Many of us face the exact same struggles today. The laws are biased and show favor towards those with money. The laws are color blind. The restrictions on opening a business, registering a car, maintaining insurance, getting inspection stickers and registering for a sales tax number and sales tax reporting, business license fees and the like grossly affect all poor people, not just black poor people. These restrictions need to be changed and lessened and laws changed to make all businesses easier to open, all vehicles easier to obtain and make compliant on the road, and all petty, non-violent and control based laws eliminated so real opportunity is an option for all.
The bottom line is that although initially differences seem to result in bias and bigoted behavior, over time, integration and hard work break these differences down and the accomplishments of people stand for themselves. Groups that continue to allow exclusivity based solely upon race will do nothing but continue to point out and bring forward differences rather than similarities. The fact is that the Irish immigrant descendant population is near that of the African American population and that number of African American descendant of the slave population would be even less. We don’t even recognize the Irish American population as disadvantaged. We barely even teach Irish immigration and the hatred they experienced in school. To continue to discuss reparations for deeds done 400 years ago by people not even present today is archaic and promotes a sentiment of the inability to achieve. Let’s all work together for positive reform to make businesses easier to open, education readily available, workplace training at all schools mandatory and recognize the achievements of all as they are accomplished. If we need law enforcement reform lets address that together, by appreciating those doing a great job with better pay and more time off and by removing those that don’t or can’t serve and protect. Let’s stop breaking down the constitution and giving our rights back for the ever growing government to dole out as leaders see fit. Let’s use groups to teach civil rights and how to assert our rights to ensure they are not violated. Let’s fight poverty by farming large plots of government owned land, use the unemployed to farm that land, build roads and schools and tear down the notion that hand outs fight poverty and blight. And most importantly of all, we must do that together, as one solid nation.