Racial injustice has left its mark on every region and state across the nation, and this history cannot be confronted and dismantled simply by taking down sculptures, argues Brian Purnell, who is Bowdoin’s Geoffrey Canada associate professor of Africana studies and history.
In a recent Washington Post article, Purnell and co-author Jeanne Theoharis specifically address the history of racism in New York City. “The first step is to understand the history of racism outside of the South, in the regions of the United States we call the Jim Crow North,” they write. “Jim Crow segregation and racism had a strange and robust career outside of the South, especially in that supposed bastion of liberalism, New York City.”
They argue that while the recent events in Charlottesville have focused urgent attention on white nationalism and supremacy in the south, these events should not “obscure the long and sordid history of racism in the North.”
The authors remind us that Donald Trump’s father was arrested at a Ku Klux Klan parade in Queens 90 years ago, and that 55 years ago, more than 10,000 white mothers marched in the city to protest a school desegregation program. As recently as 2013, a federal judge ruled that the city’s stop-and-frisk policing strategy was unconstitutional and a form of racial profiling.
“When racism is portrayed only through spitting and screaming, tiki torches and vigilante violence, many people rest easy, believing they share little responsibility for its maintenance,” they write. “But systemic racial discrimination has long existed across the country and worked through multiple means: through language that disguised it, through government bureaucracy and the leveraging of political power and law enforcement that enabled it, and through arguments about cultural dysfunction that justified inequity and the need for punitive approaches.”