Smile Politely

On Racism. As Culture

In the past several years, there has been a heightened focus on the circumstances of the deaths of African Americans during altercations with the police. Social media, and the general news media, has found a new immediacy due to how capable smartphone and internet-enabled device technology have become. This has created a societal transparency, specifically within the African American communities, centered around the ongoing violence concerning the police and the people in the community. These interactions are now being recorded and reported in minutes instead of overnight. But there should be no assumption that this new ability, creating more visibility, is depicting something new or anomalous. There is a particular repetition. These negative interactions, between these two defining American cultures — throughout American history, seem to correlate, period to period. I would like to examine this.

As I stated, it should not be taken that these tragedies are uncommon or weren’t predictable. There is an unbroken historical, cultural, and social path, from where we were 400 years ago, to where we are, as Americans, today.
As an artist, I’ve always commented on and told stories through images of people. I focus on American history, either adjacent to, or directly concerning, the African American narrative. In this work, I often see correlations between now and the past. Recently, I have been doing work on and around the Civil Rights Movement, with a focus on Malcolm X. Seeing the racial division today, and seeing the latent racism still in Americans, I’m reminded of the things Malcolm said that were overshadowed by the mainstream movement of King and the NAACP. Malcolm ridiculed their focus on integration saying that education and economic issues were more important — that being able to eat at the same lunch counter should not be a priority. Today, the same economic gaps and disparity in the African American community that were second fiddle during the reform in the 60’s, are still prevalent today. And racism, as Malcolm suggested, did not just go away because certain federal acts were passed. Today it seems that saying racism has evolved is more apt than saying it changed or lessoned.
Partly sparked by this national attention on race, I’ve been doing research on the entire African American experience and condition, starting when the first English-owned slaves, with West African origins, came to America in 1619. Normally I don’t focus on current events. I don’t trust my eye in telling a fair story without retrospect. But because I’ve seen such a direct path from the 17th century to 2015, and that so much of it is unaddressed, I thought it clear enough and important enough to make something that represented my thoughts and this path.
This Saturday at the Independent Media Center gallery, there will be an art opening for a survey of my work, that will include a new project. Coinciding with this opening, I will be lecturing alongside historian, writer, activist, and Smile Politely contributor, Brian Dolinar. Dolinar will speak about the book he edited, The Negro In Illinois: The WPA Papers, published by the University of Illinois Press. Dolinar compiled the long-overdue volume from archives and collections across the country, bringing together for the first time the works of Black writers employed by FDR’s “Works Project Administration” in Illinois. This collaborative work was the first compressive African American history of Illinois up to its time, and covers the Black areas of Chicago, like Bronzeville, in the heyday of the Depression; Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, the first permanent settler and founder of Chicago who was African American; and William de Fleurville, AKA, “Billy the Barber,” famous for being Lincoln’s barber. Celebrated writer Richard Wright was a main contributor to the book, among other African American writers. It also discusses pioneering women, like renowned Ida B. Wells, or Maudelle Bousfield, the first African American woman to graduate form the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in the class of 1905. Bousfield went on to be a remarkable educator and academic administrator in Chicago, and in 2003 the newly built Bousfield Hall dormitory was named in her honor.
From watching and participating in the national conversations, unfolding on social media, and in person, I see the detriment that has occurred by not acknowledging our history. So much of our cultural past is directly connected to the continuing struggle. Ours is a culture built on White supremacy — the belief that white people are innately superior. To be clear and to not let this request for contemplation be dismissed — I do not mean “White Supremacy” as it is used, to dramatically describe the deepest hatred within organized people, who express their indoctrinated belief that they are inherently better than another or all races, that they have a right over their being, or the idea that they are not immoral if they violently subjugate or even kill people of a perceived lesser race. When I use the term “White Supremacy,” I mean it by its’ most basic defining form. And, to entitle the continuation of inherent racial discrepancies culture that today, whether consciously or not, systematically privileges White people because it was founded in a time when the belief was all encompassing, that Whites as better than all other races.
Was there a time in our collective American history, where we acknowledged, and had, a solid understanding of what racial supremacy was and what it could do to America. to this, directly, and try to fix it? To me, it seems like what we do is hide our unsavory history, and let it be forgotten. Which, in turn, impacts African Americans greatly.
The following is the most direct example of the old cultural standard, never fully scrutinized — that had existing at a level, not out of malice, ill will or punishment. But out of a perception and acceptance of a racial hierarchy, that had long been seen as morally right.
“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause] — that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied every thing.”
— Abraham Lincoln, September 18, 1858 — Minutes form the 4th Lincoln v. Douglas debate, 1858, Charleston, Illinois.
Lincoln’s humanity was remarkable for his time, but he still was a part of a culture, and believed in, an innate domination of White Americans over African Americans. This is White Supremacy. If we are not telling our history correctly, how do we know that a part of that belief system hasn’t traveled with us? That it doesn’t existing in us, in ways not comprehended to us yet, as wrong or immoral or oppressive. Like my emancipator’s belief, that there is relevance in the “…physical difference between the white and black races… ” 
There is another end to this (if this isn’t troubling enough). That is the opposite end. The Southern whitewash. the suggestion that evil wasn’t that bad or can’t still be bare. Soon, Texas schools will implement new revisionist History books. These texts will not mention the KKK or the Jim Crow era. A time in America, a span of only 73 years, where almost 3,959 lynchings were committed. But, with more irony in play, the books will also say slavery was a side issue during the Civil War, and “states rights” were main the cause. In 1863, Texas’ Confederate Governor, Francis Lubbock, declared, that he is of the opinion that any state, wanting to be of the Confederacy, must have “Negro slavery.”
While researching on Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, I thought I’d check out his official state bio. Stephen, if anything is known for the “Cornerstone Speech.” It is not called a White supremacist speech, because it fits the description of one. It, by its orator, is identified as such.
“Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.”
No where in the “New Georgia Encyclopedia” bio for the vice president of The Confederate States of America, does it mention the “Cornerstone Speech”. This is not simply an omission of an embarrassing fact. This is the single thing Stephens is most notable for. Stephens was making an attempt to indoctrinate, or reiterate, evil. And an official state online encyclopedia is erasing it.
Continuing on this racial domination — And questioning current odd societal structures — Last Wednesday, an African American horse trainer, Jonathan Sanders was strangled to death by a White police officer. This occurred in a small town in Mississippi, with just over 1,000 people. The town is called Stonewall, after the Confederate General. The situation is still being investigated. 
In 1860, 55% of Mississippi’s population were slaves, the majority. In Stonewall, the 2013 census has African American population at 77%. But, the police force, made up of 10 officers, has 9 White officers and only 1 Black officer. Imagine if Madison, Wisconsin, with a population that is 79% White, had a police force that was 90% Black.
I won’t go as far to suggest that this disparity is a direct result of the institution of slavery. Whether they have to do with racial superiority or not, at the very least, this uneven racial scale between the public and the police is historically and symbolically reproductive. It must create a level of significant frustration and offense, within a black community. The people with the power and the authority over a predominately African American community, are virtually all white. Could this not be an example of unintentional, unconscious, contemporary White Supremacy? Where no one is actively trying to make it happen. But is able to continue it’s centuries-long-pervasiveness. Because it is not addressed, and when it is, it impact is easily dismissed. Because there was no purposeful ill intent. But still, regardless of any intent, in the eyes and minds of people living in these communities, it’s got to be hard to ignore, that the ratio of Black and White bodies — and structure of power, directly mirrors a southern plantation.
** [UPDATE: Please see Editor’s note at the bottom]
Another questionable reality in America is the disparity between the percentage of White police officers and the amount of African Americans in the communities they work in. In 1860, out of all the “deep” south states, Texas was the only state that’s slave population had less than 40% of over all population(30.2%). South Caroline and Mississippi were the two states where slaves were the majority (57.2% & 55.2%).
It would be unscientific to out-right say that this is a direct correlation to the population ratio during slavery. But it is an unsettling mirror image, in how the division of power has been historically laid out in the United States. To me there is a lack of awareness and an overall acceptance of police departments with officers who are predominately White, working in an area they do not live in and a culture they are not a part of. Imagine if Madison, Wisconsin, with a population that is 79% White, had a police force that was predominately Black. Shouldn’t we wonder why the opposite is common and isn’t perceived as strange?
We pathologically forget or won’t admit to, how telling and relevant our past is, in creating problems today. Chief Illiniwek supporters harped on “honor and heritage”, which to many of us living in C-U, were reminded of, when defenders of the Confederate flag spoke. In 1926 when the Chief was created — although they could attend the university as students — African Americans were not allowed on campus. The U of I was White only outside of the classroom. Erma Bridgewater, who passed away in 2013 at 99 years old, was a pillar in Champaign’s African American community, graduating from the U of I in 1937. In a News Gazette interview, Ms. B recalled her time at the U of I, when she would have to hide and eat lunch in the bathroom on campus because she couldn’t get home and get back in time. This is the era that bore The Chief. This is a prime example of not acknowledging our history. Whether Ms. B’s story is known or not. We should know ourselves, our cultural history enough to not trust the racial respect and awareness of segregationists in the 1920s and 30s.
Right now, the state of Illinois has the 7th highest number of African Americans in the country and Chicago has the 2nd largest number of Black people out of all the cities in the United States. Yet the U of I, a state school, has only 5% of it’s over 43,000 students represented by African Americans.
We can attribute things, solely, to current events or situations. But why not look within? Our knee-jerk perceptions for these things are often ignorant of the way history is not confined to the past. Shouldn’t we check whether or not these issues are a part of our inherent cultural surroundings, built over and over again through time? Resolving deeply embedded issues of injustice is daunting, but the true acknowledgement of how we got here will help us know how to respond when stories like the death of Jonathan Sanders are told. In my experiences, talking with White people about these things, the question comes up: What am I supposed to do?
Pay attention, question, and be ready to admit to the worst in us. So it can be known and corrected. We should, by all means, never think the Civil Rights movement created a perfect cultural lends for us to look through. The movement was one of the greatest achievements in our history, but going through roughly a decade, beginning a certain comprehension, is not going to erase 350 years of cultural and racial indoctrination.
I choose to look at this history through my work, Brian Dolinar is looking at this history through the writings of Black authors, and we hope that our lecture on the these projects this Saturday will help continue the conversation.
IMC Gallery offers monthly shows to artist.
This section on police and policed communities demographics was replace to due to a research error. The population statistics for Stonewall, MS, concerning the death of Jonathan Sanders, were misread and an opinion was formed from that misunderstanding. The population of Stonewall is actually 77% White. Here is the original text based on incorrect facts.
All images of artwork Jason Patterson.

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