“This country was founded on the idea of concentrating wealth in the hands of a few white men,” Mychal Denzel Smith asserts in “We Built This Country on Inequality,” adding, “That that persists today isn’t a flaw in the design. Everything is working as the founders intended.”
Smith’s claim has two parts that challenge the Great American Myth of meritocracy: those two parts being then and now.
At the turn of the twentieth century, from 1899 until 1908, the buildings that constitute Clemson University in South Carolina were built by convict labor, as explained in Lyn Riddle’s report detailing the research of Clemson assistant professor of English Rhondda Thomas:
So far, [Thomas] has documented the names of 572 men, all but 29 of them African Americans.
They made a million bricks to build Tillman Hall. They built Hardin Hall, the oldest classroom building, and Trustee House, home to the first chemistry professor. They cleared the land and built dikes. The oldest was 67, the youngest 12.
“They made it possible for South Carolina to get back on its feet, to educate young men to make a contribution,” Thomas said.
They were but a step away from the sharecroppers and slaves who preceded them, Thomas said. Some likely were former slaves and most certainly the sons of former slaves.
“Their labor was valued but not their lives,” she said. “It is carrying on the slavery institution.”
In fact, she said, the convicts were legally known as slaves of the state.
Smith’s assertion about then is disturbingly grounded in stories such as this one—an American infrastructure and economy built on the backs of slaves, prisoners, and exploited workers. To deny that past requires ignoring the facts of history, a history not peculiar to the South but certainly prevalent here.
But what of Smith’s argument about inequity now?
It is 2014 and there are two Americas: one America inhabited by George W. Bush and another America inhabited by Neil deGrasse Tyson.
In George W. Bush’s America, the birth right of privilege creates a set of circumstances in which being white and wealthy equals a person having to try repeatedly to fail—and even then, the safety net of privilege is likely to work.
Bush himself has joked about his mediocre academic achievement at Yale, but few ever discuss how a C student from Yale eventually went to Harvard graduate school. Bush’s privilege powered him straight through minimal effort as a student (even though he enjoyed a legacy entrance to Yale virtually anyone would covet), his own personal struggle with alcohol, and (again by his own admission) a relatively unimpressive career until he entered politics. The son of a president and a child of an extremely powerful and wealthy family of “old” money suggest his successful runs to be governor of Texas and two-time president of the U.S. were inevitable.
To be blunt, George W. Bush had only to get out of his own way on his journey, one that is now being punctuated by his having an art showing that almost no one else would be afforded. In fact, the George W. Bush art showings are the ideal examples of the America that runs on privilege: It isn’t what you do, but who you are (and money doesn’t hurt). “That gentle, civilised art can wipe away a surprising quantity of blood,” Jonathan Jones muses.
I’ve never been female. But I have been black my whole life, and, so, let me perhaps offer some insight from that perspective, because there are many similar social issues related to access to equal opportunity that we find in the black community as well as in the community of women, in a white male dominated society, and I’ll be brief, ’cause I want to try to get more questions.
When I look at, throughout my life, I’ve noticed that I’ve wanted to do astrophysics since I was nine years old, my first visit to the Hayden Planetarium. (I was a little younger than Victor at the time, although he did it before I did.) And so I got to see how the world around me reacted to my expression of these ambitions, and all I can say is, the fact that I wanted to be a scientist, an astrophysicist, was, hands down, the path of most resistance through the forces of nature, the forces of society. Any time I expressed this interest, teachers would say, “Oh, don’t you want to be an athlete? Oh, don’t you want to”– I wanted to become something that was outside of the paradigms of expectation of the people in power. And so, fortunately my depth of interest was so deep, and so fueled, enriched, that every one of these curveballs that I was thrown, and fences built in front of me, and hills that I had to climb, I just leaped for more fuel and I kept going.
In this America, the momentum of privilege is replaced by the anchors of bias—racism, classism, sexism. Tyson continues:
I walked out of a store one time, and the alarm went off, and, so they came running to me. I walked through the gate at the same time a white male walked through the gate, and that guy just walked off with the stolen goods, knowing that they would stop me and not him. That’s an interesting exploitation of this — what a scam that was! I think people should do that more often….
So my life experience tells me that when you don’t find blacks in the sciences, you don’t find women in the sciences, I know that these forces are real, and I had to survive them in order to get where I am today. So before we talk about genetic differences, you’ve got to come up with a system where there’s equal opportunity, then we can have that conversation.”
And this America remains now, as Smith recognizes:
[T]he architects and gatekeepers of American racism have always worn neckties. They have always been a part of the American political system….
It’s easy to focus on the most vicious and dramatic forms of racist violence faced by past generations as the site of “real” racism. If we do, we can also point out the perpetrators of that violence and rightly condemn them for their actions. But we can’t lose sight of the fact that those individuals alone didn’t write America’s racial codes. It’s much harder to talk about how that violence was only reinforcing the system of political, economic and cultural racism that made America possible. That history indicts far more people, both past and present.
And this America is the world in which Ta-Nehisi Coates and his son live:
On Sunday, I took my son to see two movies at a French film festival that was in town. The local train was out. We walked over to Amsterdam to flag down a cab. The cab rolled right past us and picked up two young-ish white women. It’s sort of amazing how often that happens. It’s sort of amazing how often you think you are going to be permitted to act as Americans do and instead receive the reminder—”Oh that’s right, we are just some niggers. I almost forgot.”…
I think of that cab driver passing me by on Amsterdam. We are not on the block anymore. We are in America, where our absence of virtue is presumed, and we must eat disrespect in sight of our sons. And who can be mad in America? Racism is just the wind, here. Racism is but the rain.
There was a time in the U.S., then, when the criminalization of powder cocaine and crack were distinctly different, an ugly snapshot of the two Americas detailed above. Once that inequity became too much for political leaders to ignore, those same leaders used that inequity to make distracting and mostly symbolic efforts to address the race- and class-based differences in punishment.
But now? Now continues the two Americas because, as Michelle Alexander details in depth, the U.S. remains in an era of mass incarceration that disproportionately impacts African Americans, notably males:
Although rates of drug use and selling are comparable across racial lines, people of color are far more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, prosecuted, convicted and incarcerated for drug law violations than are whites. Higher arrest and incarceration rates for African Americans and Latinos are not reflective of increased prevalence of drug use or sales in these communities, but rather of a law enforcement focus on urban areas, on lower-income communities and on communities of color as well as inequitable treatment by the criminal justice system. We believe that the mass criminalization of people of color, particularly young African American men, is as profound a system of racial control as the Jim Crow laws were in this country until the mid-1960s. (Race and the Drug War)
Two Americas exist, but not as one of then and one of now.
Two Americas exist now, and as Thomas concludes about convict labor building Clemson University, “‘History is hidden in plain sight,’” and Riddle adds:
Consider that a building built by convicts is named for Ben Tillman, a former governor who as a U.S. senator in 1900 said in a speech in Congress, “We of the South have never recognized the right of the Negro to govern the white man, and we never will.”
I must add that the history of inequity continues in plain sight as a condition of now, although too many choose instead to gaze at the inadequate portraits of a privileged past president with too much time on his paint-stained hands.