#HispanicHeritageMonth – Celebrating Afro Hispanic Identity

Every year I get excited about National Hispanic Heritage Month, which lasts from September 15th to October 15th. As an African Studies enthusiast, I learned a long time ago that the overwhelming majority of enslaved people brought from Africa during the Trans Atlantic Slave trade ended up in Hispanic colonies throughout the Caribbean and South America. So for me, Hispanic Heritage Month represents another opportunity to celebrate and uplift black history on a national scale, similarly to how it’s done in February for African American History.

One of the ways I like to promote Afro Hispanic heritage is by sharing episodes of my favorite miniseries on my social media pages. I discovered the Black in Latin America series from PBS on Youtube a few years ago and fell in love.

In the series, host Henry Louis Gates travels throughout the Caribbean, Central and South America to uncover what it means to be black, i.e., of African descent in places like Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, Brazil, Mexico and Peru. Growing up between California and South Carolina, visiting family on the Gulf Coast and having studied abroad in both Spain and France, I have had the opportunity to get to know people from all over Latin America. One of the things that always struck me, particularly after I became more aware of the lasting impact of slavery/white supremacy, was the level to which anti-blackness permeated the Hispanic community.

I’ve met a number of black people from Spanish speaking countries who completely deny having any relationship to Africa or being black, in fact they found the idea insulting. In my experience, black people in Latin America tend to identify themselves by their nationality, e.g., Panamanian or Dominican, rather than their ethnic origins or race. I’ve had Afro Hispanic people say to me, “In my country you’d be considered white.” This was so difficult for me to understand as an African American who grew up accepting the “one drop rule” as fact.

In the United States, if a person has one drop of African blood, said person is classified as black. Though we too have internalized negative perceptions of Africa and blackness as a result of living in white supremacist society founded on slavery, African Americans still recognize that we are members of the so-called black race and we come in all shades, from blue-black to light-bright, damn near white and everything in between. Having been socialized this way, I didn’t understand how a black person in Latin America, who looked just like me or someone in my family, could be classified as anything other than black. Apparently, Dr. Gates wanted to get to the bottom of this as well.

In episode one of Black in Latin America, Dr. Gates explores the Dominican Republic where there is also a “one drop rule.” Like many former Spanish colonies in the Caribbean, the Dominican Republic had a relatively small white population throughout history. Yet, according to the racial hierarchy of the times, whites citizens were needed to monopolize administrative positions in the colony. However, due to the shortage of whites on the island, ethnically mixed people were encouraged to identify as white in an effort to keep the upper echelons of society as white as possible. Therefore, in theory, having a drop of European blood meant one could identify as white and if not exactly white, there were a variety of other terms adopted by mixed blacks, all of which were meant to promote one’s non-African ancestry. Thus, the term black or ‘negro’ was reserved for those of (mostly) pure African descent who occupied the lowest rungs of Latin American society. Understanding this concept helped me make sense of the many arguments I had with Afro Hispanic associates and Hispanic people in general about race/ethnicity over the years.

Despite the fact that people of African descent have made and continue to make significant contributions to Latin American society, Afro Hispanic identity is rarely celebrated for what it is. For many people, when they think about a Hispanic/Latino person, whether from Puerto Rico, Panama or Peru, the image they have in their head is of a white person or even an indigenous person, but rarely a black person. The more I explore Afro Hispanic history, the more I have come to realize that people of African descent in Latin America experience the same type of marginalization and oppression as their African American counterparts.

Mexico, for example, had an enslaved African population nearly equal to that of North America, yet black Mexicans have been all but ignored by Mexican government. To this day, Afro Mexican communities are some of the poorest in the country, lacking infrastructure, basic sanitation, and educational and professional opportunities. Black Mexicans also face blatant discrimination when they leave their communities. There is a widely held belief that there are no black people in Mexico. As a result, black Mexicans are often harassed by police who assume they’re illegal immigrants. Often they’re forced to show proof of citizenship or even made to recite the Mexican national anthem. As a result of this type of treatment, black Mexicans choose not to venture outside of their communities much. Many suffer in silence.

For these reasons and more, I take Hispanic Heritage Month as an opportunity to shed light on the stories of Afro Hispanic communities, their contributions to society, and their struggles therein. In the era of black lives matter I believe it is important to bridge the gap between communities in the African Diaspora and expand our understanding of the black experience. History has proven that if we don’t share our stories and uplift each another, no one will.

The Failures of US Public Schools

The current state of public education in the United States is appalling at best. In her 2013 book Reign Of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, Diane Ravitch points to the overreliance on standardized test scores and an emphasis on charter schools as a quick fix for struggling schools as major impediments to the school system and the communities dependent upon it. Ravitch cites the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCBL) and the Race to The Top (RTTT) initiative of 2009 as the root causes of the current educational failures. The NCLB, for example, declared that students be tested in math and reading every year from grades three through eight; 100% of students were expected to pass these tests. Schools that didn’t meet this mark would be classified as failing. Failing schools risked closure, privatization, or being converted into a charter school, among other potential penalties. RTTT, on the other hand, appropriated billions of dollars for schools during a period of deep economic depression. Access to the funds, however, hinged on standardized test scores. Faculty and staff pay also became linked to standardized test scores as a result of RTTT. According to Ravitch, the schools that benefitted most from RTTT were those that already had considerable resources with which to meet NCLB standards. Such schools were more likely to win access to RTTT funds than schools in need the most help (i.e., those serving primarily low-income students, African Americans, Hispanics, and students with disabilities). Ravitch goes on to add that those schools who were awarded the funds often invested the money into private companies (e.g., standardized test preparation consultants, rather than the students and schools themselves). In this way, RTTT was more effective as an economic stimulus than as an educational reform measure. Both NCLB and RTTT were widely adopted without proof of their efficacy or consideration for their impact on the most vulnerable and underserved school populations. What is certain is that in the years following their implementation, public schools have deteriorated rapidly, the impact of which is felt by students, teachers, administrators, and the community at large.1

On April 1 of this year, 11 educators based out of Atlanta, Georgia, were found guilty of bolstering tests scores. According to court documents, the guilty party’s jobs were threatened if their students did not meet target. This, they say, was the motivating factor behind the falsified scores. Not only have the unrealistic goals of NCLB and RTTT contributed to an atmosphere of dishonesty among faculty and staff, but so much emphasis is placed on standardized testingthat children are losing valuable class time. US schools have routinely fallen behind the schools systems of other developing and emerging nations. In US schools, children are busy memorizing outdated and often times irrelevant information rather than learning to think critically about and preparing for the world around them. This realization led to the emergence of the Opt-Out movement. Opt-Out organizers demand an end to high-stakes testing, economic and racial segregation, and privatization of public schools, to name a few.

On May 19, 2015, organizers in Charleston, South Carolina, rallied together in support of Burke High, the last traditional public, historically black school in the city. Burke has been under increased scrutiny due to the pervasion of NCLB/RTTT rhetoric. According to Burke teacher Kara Keale, the pervading idea that the school is failing is a myth, and when compared to schools with similar demographics, Burke students routinely out-perform their peers on standardized tests. So why are negative stereotypes and rumors constantly circulating about the school? According to Ravitch’s logic, NCLB and RTTT opened the door way for the privatization of education in that schools like Burke that are labeled “failing” face the threat of being closed, rebranded, and reopened as charter schools. Charter schools are sold to the public as “the salvation for poor minority” students, yet evidence suggests most of the children enrolled in charters are white and well off.

Charter schools “are deregulated and free from most state laws” typically governing schools. This means charters are free to “establish their own disciplinary policies and their own admission rules.” They’re also free “from the financial oversight that traditional public schools receive,” though they accept federal funds. As such, charter schools represent lucrative business opportunities for entrepreneurs who recognize that millions in federal funds are appropriated to them, and they’re free to spend their money how they see fit. With the overreliance on standardized testing, this often means spending money on educational consultants who instruct teachers on how to “teach to the test,” rather than investing in what may be best for students. According to Ravitch, charter schools are “on average, no more innovative or successful than [traditional] public schools.” Those in attendance at the meeting on Burke’s future made it very clear they do not want the school closed and converted into a charter. Instead, they demanded “a more diverse and broad curriculum and more funding for technology and trades.” They also denounced the idea of Burke being a “failing” school. The parents, students, teachers, and community members rallying to support the future of Burke High and those organizing against standardized testing in schools recognize the importance of quality education and the positive impact it can have on communities. It is also equally important to recognize the connection between the history of education, particularly in the African American community, and the current wave of activism in the US.

There has always been a struggle for quality education in the African American community. Two reoccurring themes in this history include the high value African Americans place on education and the adverse impact of white America’s economic and political interests on black educational pursuits. Reaching back to the slavery era, Africans and African Americans sought education as a means of social, personal, and, in many cases, economic elevation in society. Yet, wealthy, influential slave owners saw the education of blacks as a direct threat to their wealth and power. They understood that educated Africans and African Americans would be more likely to demand improved quality of life and working conditions. South Carolina was the first to enact slave codes (1740) outlawing the education of enslaved people. Colonial South Carolina—like its sister colony Barbados. from which it adopted its slave codes—had a majority (enslaved) African population. Thus, the decision to deny blacks education meant poor whites, who neither owned land nor enslaved people, had no access to education either. The majority of white America fell into this category as other slave holding territories (and later states) took their lead from South Carolina. Education in the white community was left up to individual families and private organizations, a trend that persisted through Reconstruction, the brief period of black enfranchisement immediately following the war. However, though slavery had formally ended, black education still remained a controversial topic. Former slave states were forced to spend money on African American children and black schools and, as a result, felt the need to do that much more for the previously educationally neglected poor white population. Many black schools emerged during this time. Some were funded by freed people, but the majority were funded by both public and private white organizations who saw black education as another means of exerting control on black lives. For example, the American Missionary Association, which funded numerous black schools throughout the South, printed a series of teaching materials for freed people and, more specifically, their children. The materials, aimed at maintaining the status quo, showed black people in positions of subservience and promoted notions that African Americans were inherently inferior culturally, mentally, and even morally. This type of education was actually quite successful in that little changed for most African Americans after slavery. Black lives across the South, in particular, were controlled by whites at every level in society. Their education was a reflection of this. However, though black schools were also overwhelmingly underfunded, poorly staffed, overcrowded, and under-resourced, the subpar curriculum was something they shared in common with their white counterparts. White students and the white community at large suffered from white supremacy in education and the tendency to inflate European contributions to society and the world.2

By the early 1940s, a movement for quality education in the black community took shape. In Charleston, South Carolina, African American community members, activists, educators, and parents worked together with the NAACP to improve conditions in area schools, for students and educators, by equalizing salaries and demanding access to better resources. White officials in the city resisted their demands. Ahead of the Brown v. Board of Education decision that overturnedPlessy v. Ferguson and the concept of “separate but equal,” whites in Charleston came up with more “sophisticated…rational, legally defensible, and durable” ways to maintain the status quo of “white supremacy in education.” In The Paradoxes of Desegregation: African American Struggles for Educational Equity in Charleston, South Carolina, 1926-1972, R. Scott Baker sheds light on the roots of current trends in education. Baker explains that standardized tests were adopted as a covert way “to restrict black access…to white institutions and the profession. This form of exclusion, he goes to add, was also meant “to confine the overwhelming majority of African Americans to separate, if increasingly equal, schools and colleges.” He argues that many other southern states followed South Carolina’s lead. After the Brown decision, conditions in schools across black America deteriorated significantly as the government turned its focus toward enforcing integration rather than improving educational quality. During the civil rights movement, community-based alternative schools emerged to meet the needs of the African American community.3

From Citizenship Schools to Freedom and Liberations Schools, civil rights organizers took education of the community into their own hands. Charleston native and Avery Normal Institute graduate (1916) Septima Clark helped establish Citizenship Schools throughout the Charleston area beginning in the 1950s. The purpose was to teach literacy and self-sufficiency, and encourage voter registration by helping people to pass the discriminatory literacy tests, which was a mandatory prerequisite to registering to vote at the time. Literacy tests were a particularly large deterrent to black political involvement given the deplorable state of schools in black America. As an educator herself, Clark understood the connection between access to quality education and improved quality of life for blacks throughout the Charleston area. During the 1960s, Clark went on to establish the Citizenship Education Program, through which she trained other organizers to teach citizenship education in their communities, and in this way, her network expanded across the South. The Freedom Summer of 1964 saw the emergence numerous Freedom Schools in Mississippi, which had the lowest number of black registered voters at the time. In addition to the citizenship aspect, Freedom School teachers also taught an early form of black studies. That same year, Malcolm X’s Organization of Afro-American Unity founded a Liberation School. The school became a platform allowing OAAU members to teach African and African American history and culture almost exclusively. James Campbell, a founding member and educational director of the Liberation School, said the school was a natural outgrowth of Citizenship/Freedom School movement, though it varied significantly with regard to its political objectives. Campbell’s work in the Liberation School helped pave the way for his later work in helping to legitimize black studies as an academic discipline. The alternative school movement is an example of community taking action and filling educational voids not met in traditional school settings.4

As organizers continue to advocate on behalf of meaningful, measurable educational reform, it is important to keep in mind the historical context surrounding the movement, to recognize and understand the United States has a history of undervaluing and underfunding public education. Examinations of so-called educational reforms like NCLB and RTTT only drive this point home further. As unrest continues to grow in the community, inevitably other reform measures will be proposed, and it is up to the community to demand such measures be tried and tested before sweeping changes are implemented without real consideration of their impact. This process will take time, and understandably so. In the meantime, the organizers, activists, and community at large should feel empowered and inspired to take matters into their own hands. For example, Black Lives Matter Charleston recently met at the Avery Research Center for History and Culture for what they called a Liberation School planning meeting. During the two-hour long session, the history majors in the group answered questions on a variety of topics relating to African American studies. Resources were shared and plans were discussed for going into local communities and offering workshops centered on black history and culture, as well as the history of policing/police brutality and knowing your rights when interacting with law enforcement. The exploration of such subjects, they felt, were essential to improving the quality of life for, not just African Americans, but all Americans. As organizers continue advocate on behalf of the future of Burke High, to end standardized testing, and so forth, we must not only draw on the lessons of past movements, but the strength of those who carried these movements because history has shown us the fight for quality education is an uphill battle.


1 Diane Ravitch, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), 11-17; 158.

Carter G. Woodson, The Education of the Negro: An Essential Preface to Understanding the Mis-Education of the Negro (Brooklyn: A & B Publishing, 1998), 1; Michele Foster, Black Teachers on Teaching, (New York: The New Press, 1997), xxvii; xxiv; Heather Andrea Williams, Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 1; 5; 44; 78-79; 81; James D. Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 1-3; 30; 280; Eric Anderson and Alfred A. Moss, Jr., Dangerous Donations: Northern Philanthropy and South Black Education, 1902-1930, (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999), 9-11; Robert DeFina and Lance Hannon, “The Legacy of Black Lynching and Contemporary Segregation in the South,” Review of Political Economy 48 no. 2 (2011): 166

Edmund L. Drago, Charleston’s Avery Center: From Education to Civil Rights to Preserving the African American Experience, (Charleston: The History Press, 2006), 133-136; R. Scott Baker, The Paradoxes of Desegregation: African American Struggles for Educational Equity in Charleston, South Carolina, 1926-1972, (Columbia: The University of South Carolina Press, 2006), 125-138

Stephen Schneider, “The Sea Island Citizenship School: Literacy, Community Organization, and the Civil Rights Movement,” College English 70 no. 2 (2007): 153; LaVerne Gyant and Deborah Atwater, “Septima Clark’s Rhetorical and Ethnic Legacy: Her Message of Citizenship in the Civil Rights Movement,” Journal of Black Studies 26 no. 5 (1996): 577-578; William W. Sales, Jr., From Civil Rights to Black Liberation: Malcolm X and the Organization of Afro-American Unity, (Boston: South End Press, 1994), 120-121; Katherine Mellon Charron, Freedom’s Teahcer: The Life of Septima Clark,  (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 250-274; 302.

How I Spent My Cinco De Mayo: Researching Black History in Mexico

A lot of people I know view Cinco de Mayo simply as an opportunity to socialize and drink margaritas at their favorite local Mexican restaurant. When asked about the history behind the day, most shrug their shoulders or ramble something about Mexican independence. Really, the Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Battle of Puebla, fought during the French Intervention in Mexico. Every year I learn a little bit more about the day and share a few facts on my social media accounts in hopes of educating a few folks about the true meaning behind the celebration.

I read up a little on the battle of Puebla last Cinco de Mayo and this year I took my research a step further, delving more deeply into the French Intervention. The first thing that caught my attention were the Senegalese soldiers, also know as tiraillleurs, who fought in the French army. Throughout history, French colonial subjects routinely fought on behalf of France, sometimes willingly, sometimes not. The French Intervention in Mexico was no different. During my reading I remembered a time back when I was giving museum tours at the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture. One day I had the pleasure of meeting a Chicano Studies professor from California. At some point during our tour we began talking candidly about the tendency in Mexico society to deny or collectively forget the contributions of people of African descent to the Central American nation. Not only did we talk about the fact that nearly 400,000 enslaved Africans were brought to Mexico during slavery, but he mentioned how Napoleon III abandoned thousands upon thousands of Senegalese soldiers there after the fall of the French Intervention.

Thus, as I began my Cinco de Mayo research this year I thought about this and all the kinky haired Mexicans I encountered growing up in Los Angeles in the early to mid 1990’s. I did some more digging and came across of variety of informative documentaries (links below) on the history of Africans in Mexico as well as the current plight of communities of African descent in Mexico today. Not surprisingly, Mexico has a truly rich black history. Sadly, however, blacks in Mexico face similar challenges to those of their black counterparts in North America. Historically black communities throughout Mexico like Veracruz, Costa Chica and other areas are some of the most impoverished in the country. They suffer from unemployment/underemployed, substandard schools, they lack infrastructure and in many cases basic sanitation. Yet, when they leave their homes in search of better opportunities black Mexicans are often faced with routine discrimination . Racial profiling by police is a big issue. Many Black Mexicans are assumed to be illegal immigrants from Cuba, Dominican Republic and even Africa and are often threatened with deportation. Thus, Afromexican communities tend to be tightly knit and, as is the case with many diasporan communities, they have held on to an abundance of African cultural traditions, many of which have contributed to the significantly to Mexican cultural identity (though this is not alway acknowledged).

There are a variety of reasons behind the attempted erasure/denial of African contributions in Mexico, the pervasiveness of white supremacy being a large factor. There is also hope for a better future. There has been talk of plans to include a section for Mexicans of African descent in the 2020 census. Having a more accurate idea of the size of Mexico’s black population is a step in the right direction. The government must first acknowledge black Mexicans exist before it can work meaningfully to improve conditions in its black communities.

As we continue to organize around the concept of black lives matter, it is important to keep in mind that black communities suffer worldwide from the legacy of slavery and white supremacy. We must stand in solidarity with one another #BlackLivesMatter

http://youtu.be/uEktkb_Cts4
http://youtu.be/siYFg1rtlnA
http://youtu.be/KMWreKK-OiM
http://youtu.be/JIzHIRCBtdE
http://youtu.be/QygIji-rGbI
http://youtu.be/RR9rGDKqvwU

Black Lives Matter: A Moment Or A Movement

As someone who studied the modern civil rights movement rather intently as a graduate student, I’ve often found myself wondering what happened to it. This has been especially true with the emergence of a younger generation of activists centered on protesting racial profiling and police brutality, among other things. Interestingly enough, I wrote my master’s thesis on Charleston native and civil rights activist James Eber Campbell. Campbell was a revolutionary educator. During the 1960s, his work helped pave the way for the emergence of African American Studies as an academic discipline. So I’m not at all surprised that it was he who led me to my answer. Campbell remains very active in the Charleston community and, in celebration of his upcoming 90th birthday, has been leading a monthly discussion group on the 2010 book Climbin’ Jacob’s Ladder: The Black Freedom Movement Writings of Jack O’Dell. O’Dell and Campbell were roommates in 1960s Harlem, and both men were extremely active in the movement. For our first assignment, Campbell asked us to read O’Dell’s 1978 article “On the Transition from Civil Rights to Civil Equality.” O’Dell began by asking the very question I’ve recently been asking myself: “What ever happened to civil rights?”

To answer this question, O’Dell first points out the importance of recognizing that the civil rights movement was a part of a longstanding social movement in America, the black freedom struggle, reaching back to the first organized forms of resistance to slavery led by blacks themselves, from the Stono Rebellion to the Denmark Vesey Conspiracy. O’Dell goes on to add that civil rights has many characteristics in common with other movements in the black freedom struggle. O’Dell points specifically to activism of the World War I era as a more direct root of civil rights. Black veterans played key roles in advocating for black enfranchisement and equality. As far back as the Revolutionary War, African Americans have used military service as a bargaining tool to achieve civil equality. So much so that in the aftermath of WWI, black soldiers and civilians became the target of white mob violence. Black veterans across the country were lynched en masse, many while still in full military uniform, because they were seen as a threat to the status quo. Black veterans faced similar obstacles during WWII, and again they continued to advocate for equality as racial tensions boiled over. It was out of this dire situation that the civil rights movement emerged.

O’Dell went on to point out that, as is the case with most grassroots movements, the success of civil rights was, in many ways, measured by the “legislative manifestation” of activists’ demands. For example, the Civil Rights Acts (1964–65) and the Equal Rights Amendment (1972). Yet, he goes on to add, there is a substantial difference between the achievement of civil rights and that of civil equality. O’Dell uses the landmark case Brown v. the Board of Education to make his point. The movement for quality education in black America was just that. Yet, aided by biased media coverage, the goal of achieving quality education for black children shifted to one of achieving “racial balance.” The sudden focus on integration versus educational quality, according to O’Dell, essentially undermined the success of the movement by distorting its original purpose and objective. In the case of the civil rights movement, the ratification of the laws mentioned above led to a widespread belief that racial problems in America had been solved when, in actuality, they continued to worsen. Black communities in urban centers across the US suffered from overcrowding, unemployment/underemployment, substandard housing and schools, and an overall lack of political voice. Instances of police brutality continued to rise during this time period as well, and black America became increasingly more disillusioned with civil rights. For many, the concept of black power became a psychological anecdote. An extension of civil rights, black power is often thought to be one of the “most important, politically active and successful periods” in the history of the African American experience. Though there has been a historical tendency to distort the meaning of black power, it represented the black community redefining the African American experience on their own terms. During this era, we see the emergence of black studies and the black arts movement, as well the development of Hispanic, women’s, and gender studies. Though its advocates successfully helped shed the legacy of white supremacy and patriarchy in US institutions of higher learning, like civil rights, black power also had its shortcomings. So what does all of this mean for the current wave of activism in America?  O’Dell warns us to stay on “offensive” and always maintain “clearly defined goals” because illusions are often created to confuse, mislead, and outright “deceive the public.” Thus, as we mobilize our communities in our efforts to hold our leaders accountable, it is important that we be vigilant and avoid being distracted by attempts to delay or deter progress. We must also be flexible and willing “to regroup around the definition of what the next stage of mass democracy is and move on to its fulfillment.”

Activists today are using social media to connect across a much broader base than ever before. They’re poised to help bring the United States, which continues to fall behind developed nations of the world, into the promises of the twenty-first century. As such, it is important to understand the difference between having the right to quality education, housing, and healthcare, to not be racially profiled, and so forth, and actually exercising those rights in day-to-day life. In 2015, African American men, women, and children have been killed in officer-involved shootings at a rate of about one every eight hours. Most recently, the highly publicized death of an unarmed African American, Freddie “Pepper” Gray, who died under mysterious circumstances while in police custody, has led to widespread uprisings across the city of Baltimore. As protests, rallies, and other forms of organizing across the country continue to take shape it is more important now than ever that activists and organizers learn from past movements, their strengths, and weaknesses. This is much more than just a moment of civil unrest, this is a movement—black lives matter.

African Americans and Police Brutality – A Historical Perspective

When Malcolm X founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) in 1964, he ended the group’s Statement of Basic Aims with the following quote, “Armed with the knowledge of our past, we can with confidence charter a course for our future.” Simply put, we (humanity, that is) must know where we’ve been in order to know where we’re going. The meaning of the phrase holds particular significance in light of the recent tragic shooting death of veteran and father of four Walter Scott. Sadly, Scott met a fate that is and has been all too commonplace for many African Americans when he was gunned down by the now former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, many people view Scott’s death as an isolated incident. They see Slager as just one bad apple. They don’t understand why people are continuing to protest after he was finally arrested. My challenge to them is to study their history. In doing so, they’ll find there has pretty much never been a time in the history of black Charleston when police brutality, racial profiling, and vigilantism hasn’t been an issue.

Charleston became the richest city in colonial America as a result of exploiting enslaved Africans to clear land, raise livestock, and cultivate labor-intensive crops, among other tasks. So many enslaved Africans were brought through the ports of Charleston that about half of black America today descends from someone who passed through here. White slave owners amassed great wealth in a relatively short period of time and soon found the need to protect their economic investments. This was especially true in the aftermath of the African-led Stono Rebellion of 1739. Numerous white plantation owners and their families were killed before a white militia gathered to quash the revolt. The following year, the infamous 1740 slave code, or “Act For The Better Ordering And Governing Of Negroes And Other Slaves…” was passed to severely restrict social and economic progress of enslaved Africans (and indigenous Americans). After slavery, similar laws were passed in the form of “An Act To Establish And Regulate The Domestic Relations Of Persons Of Colour…” otherwise known as black codes. Regardless of the name, their purpose was the same—to control the lives of the African Americans. South Carolina’s slave and black codes were of particular influence since Charleston had been such a major player in both the transatlantic and domestic slave trade. In many cases, states across the South took their lead from South Carolina and adopted similar laws to control the lives of blacks. Throughout history, slave patrols, all-white militias and terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, helped enforce legally sanctioned black marginalization and oppression through intimidation and unspeakable violence. What many Americans often do not realize is that these groups formed the basis of this nation’s first police forces. [1]

Thus, by examining the history of policing in the African American community, one quickly realizes that the issue of police brutality against blacks is by no means a new occurrence. What is new, however, is the way in which social media has allowed those seeking justice to shed light on an on-going issue that has not always has the attention or interest of the mainstream media or status quo. In 2015, a black person has died at the hands of police once every 8 hours. The statistics are appalling at best. The question is what are we going to do about it? Firing and arresting former officers like Slager is a superficial solution to a deep-rooted problem. Slager shot at and killed an unarmed African American, handcuffed his dying body, and proceeded to plant evidence and lie about what took place. What stood out to me about the situation was his initial confidence. It’s clear to me Slager was confident in the fact that the other officers on scene would either corroborate his story or consent with their silence. He was confident that his version of the events would be accepted as fact. This, in my opinion, must stem from a pre-existing culture within the North Charleston Police Department (NCPD) in which racial profiling and the use of excessive force against people of color is condoned and maybe even encouraged. Sacrificing Slager won’t solve this issue, though, on some superficial level it may appease the masses, i.e., those who are either too uniformed or blinded by their own privilege to actually care the issues before us. Body cameras are a step in the right direction, but they’re not a cure-all either. If meaningful change is going to come, there needs to be, at the very least, an investigation led by the US Department of Justice into the culture of the NCPD. Hopefully this will identify the root of the issues leading up to this tragedy and help reassure the public, particularly those impacted most by this, that serious measures are being take to address these longstanding issues. Last week, as the mayor of North Charleston, Keith Summey, stammered his way through a press conference immediately following Slager’s arrest, he said something very poignant—he looks at the officers in his city as his own children. Well, Mayor Summey, children learn intolerance and prejudice from their parents. It’s time to clean house.

[1] http://www.teachingushistory.org/pdfs/Transciptionof1740SlaveCodes.pdf; http://ldhi.library.cofc.edu/exhibits/show/after_slavery_educator/unit_three_documents/document_eight;

http://www.sagepub.com/upm-data/50819_ch_1.pdf