I began writing this reflection on Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 2021, a national holiday created by President Lincoln in the hopes of healing the wounds following the Civil War. Yet for many the wounds still run deep. One of the most influential books on healing, The Big Book, inspired by the brilliant psychologist and philosopher, Carl Jung, begins with the premise that no healing is possible without acknowledging first that we have a problem. Subsequent steps are to make “a searching and fearless moral inventory” of ourselves before then making amends to anyone we have harmed.
As a nation we are quite adept at acknowledging the problems of other countries. In fact, what inspired me to write this was reflecting on President Biden’s declaration in April, 2021 that what happened to the Armenians between 1915–17 in the Ottoman Empire—now Turkey—was genocide. The Thanksgiving holiday, of course, highlights the still officially unacknowledged genocidal practices carried on against Native Americans, but here I wish to focus on another genocide that is both ongoing and invisible in national discussions: the genocide waged against the US African American community.
Not a Metaphoric Label of Genocide, but One Justified by Statistics
I gathered data on how many African Americans we kill every year. Initially I estimated that the combination of hate crimes, medical malpractice, massacres, and police killings would amount to enough to place the plight of US African Americans among the fifty most deadly genocides in world history. I was wrong—it’s much worse.
First, according to the United Nations, killing is just one of the many possible acts characterizing genocide: causing mental and physical harm with the intent to destroy a particular group of people is also a genocidal act. Acts causing mental harm, like the daily stress caused by living in a racist society, are hard to quantify, but even leaving out this form of genocide there is overwhelming evidence of explicit acts of violence against this community. Both the numbers of killings and the range of methods used to kill African Americans were higher than I expected.
- since 1990, approximately 500 African Americans have been killed by the police every year;
- more than 200 African Americans are killed by civilians every year—and in 2020 there were more hate crimes than there had been in a decade;
- disparities in health care kill thousands of African Americans per year: for example, African Americans are less likely to receive organ transplants and AIDS treatment than their white counterparts, and the rate of maternal mortality among African Americans is significantly higher than for white women;
- racist housing and zoning policies, often called redlining, result in thousands of premature deaths among African Americans from a variety of causes, including pollution, lack of healthy food, and contaminated water;
- what happened in the 1921 Tulsa Riots was just one of many massacres of African Americans in US history; others include Wilmington, NC; Springfield, IL; Slocum, TX; Washington, DC; Chicago; Elaine, AR; Ocoee, FL; Rosewood, FL; and Catchings, AR.
It turns out I didn’t have to do the math. The American Medical Association (AMA) recently found blacks suffered more than 74,000 “excess deaths” each year, when compared to their white counterparts. This confirms that what we’ve done to African Americans since 2010 ranks among the 25 most deadly genocides in history, ahead of Burundi (1972), East Timor (1975-1999) and Darfur (2003-present).
How Can We Address a Genocide We Won’t Acknowledge?
In the week leading up to Thanksgiving, the news cycle featured plenty about the Kyle Rittenhouse trial, the trial of the murderers of Ahmaud Arbery, and the exoneration of the black men sent to jail for the murder of Malcolm X. In Rochester, where I spent the holiday, the local news ran a piece on unsolved bombings of African American churches that occurred in this city in 1971. In interviews about these issues, some white citizens have indicated that they are tired of talking about race, and that neither they, nor their hometowns are racist. I understand that sentiment, just as I understand being tired of COVID-19. However, like alcoholics who hit rock bottom, if we are really tired of race issues, we need to accept responsibility and make amends. Specifically, we need to acknowledge the genocidal and racist practices that continue today. We need to do what’s necessary to eradicate those practices and end the genocide. In addition, we need to make amends in the form of substantial reparations. Only when we take these steps such that all Americans can say, “Civis Americanus sum,” will we approach the self-evident truths set forth in the Declaration of Independence, that all people are created equal.
Gordon Brown, Ph.D, is an educator and the founding director of the nonprofit A Place to Stand, which addresses homelessness and hunger. He moved with his family to Champaign-Urbana in 2020.
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