Thursday, June 10, 2010

Sins of American History

Last night my history book club discussed the suppression of blacks by whites in the Southern United States after the Civil war, based on reading of several books on the topic. The dozen people in the group were all reasonably well educated with an interest in history, yet we were surprised by what we had read.

The southern whites had used lynchings, beatings, rapes and other forms of intimidation on a huge scale, combining violence with election fraud to disenfranchise the blacks. Black schools and churches were burned in large numbers. A variety of techniques had been used to assure that blacks did not and could not own property, including systems of contracting labor with legal sanctions for those who would not contract or broke contracts, debt peonage, and frank involuntary servitude imposed by fraudulent arrests and convictions, contracts for convict labor, beatings to force work from those in involuntary labor, and hunting down those who escaped with dogs and guns to impose severe corporal punishment on the recaptured. These of course were combined with informal procedures to deny blacks opportunities to work in higher status or higher pay occupations. The result was to keep blacks as an underclass.

All of this was combined with the creation of a myth of a far more gentle antebellum slave society than actually existed and a myth that the brutality had been forced upon the south by the north through its reconstruction policies.

There was a discussion as to why our schools do not teach this history, as well as a comparison of experiences of the intense segregation against blacks that still existed in our lifetime, and indeed the discrimination that still exists.

Of course, American history has seen treatment of native Americans that was also truly horrible, and was denied in a mythical history of noble cowboys, frontiersmen, and settlers. American history has also seen racism against "white races" justified by pseudo science and racial myths, resulting in prejudice and discrimination against Irish, Italians, Poles, Hispanics, Asians, Catholics, Jews and other minorities. We are almost equally ignorant of these sins of the American past. This history is also not taught in the schools nor widely appreciated by the public.

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