NYU Black Renaissance Noire Fall 2015 Volume 15.2 - Page 87

An important aspect of American racial reality that has been overlooked has to do with the racial policies of the men who have been President of the United States. From George Washington to Barack Obama, each of the forty four presidents has played an important role in the national discussion on race. It is important that eight of the first ten presidents of this country were slave owners. And it must be important that although in modern America there is virtually universal recognition of the wrongs of slavery, the names and images of these presidential slave owners are on American currency, Mount Rushmore, universities, cities, streets, bridges, airports and countless other places of honor. Some presidents have exacerbated the situation, some engaged in willful ignorance and some engaged in efforts to promote change, sometimes on the margins, sometimes in a more substantive way. Five presidents have been chosen to provide a sampling of why it is important to understand that not only does race matter in this country. Race also has mattered to each president, and it is important to know what each president has done in this regard. BLACK RENAISSANCE NOIRE Yet during that same period of time the descendants of Irish immigrants who were despised upon their arrival have taken their place as full and complete residents in the American mainstream. The same transition can be observed with respect to Asians, Italians, Slavs, Indians and Jews. Members of all of these ethnic groups were treated poorly, were marginalized and were barely on the fringes of respectable American society. But there descendants are fully included in these United States, and when they sleep they are comforted by the American Dream. Whether we look at Ferguson, Missouri or Tulsa, Oklahoma or the sick and sad tradition of lynching black Americans over a period of one hundred years after Emancipation, we know that the condition of black Americans has been different from that of the members of any of the ethnic groups mentioned. Mass incarceration, inflated infant mortality rates, depressed life expectancy, inequity, inequality and the constant struggle with the faithless hypocrisy and denial of white America have all served to provide nothing less than the American nightmare for black Americans when they try to sleep. Race matters in this country. And because race has always mattered in this country, it is important to understand the history of this country in this context. If we are to understand the United States today, it is important to understand the attitudes and policies with respect to race over the years — how they have changed and, in too many instances how they have stayed the same. 85 The integration of peoples, races and creeds, the creation of a homogenous society, the development of a singular nation typically take place over long periods of time. America’s lukewarm and halfhearted efforts at the legal and cultural inclusion of black Americans only began after the Civil War so one could argue that not enough time has elapsed.