I cannot unsee it

Reading “Stamped from the Beginning” by Ibram X. Kendi

August 4, 2023

When I know a gruesome scene is about to hit the TV screen, I close my eyes or look away. There are some things that I can’t unsee.

That happened to me as I was reading Kendi this week. He was writing about the Reconstruction Period – the 12 years after the Civil War which was a promising time in the south. Blacks and whites were trying to build a new society premised on equal rights.  

They were met with resentment and resistance. “Landless Black people were terrorized by landowners. Landowning Black people were terrorized by the Klan.” (Kendi at 249.)  From 1873 to 1876 the Supreme Court limited the effect of the 14th and 15th Amendments, and in 1877, the federal government withdrew military enforcement of Black’s constitutional rights in the south. That ended Reconstruction.

I was surprised to learn that the Supreme Court had helped to end Reconstruction.[1] Why was I surprised?  Because law students don’t read the cases that upheld enslavement or segregation or which shut down Reconstruction. They read the “good” cases like Brown v. Board of Education.  I decided to read what I knew was a bad case: Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857.)  I almost wish I hadn’t. It is a thing I cannot unsee.  

It’s available on-line. If you decide to read it, skip over the many paragraphs of antique civil procedure. If you want a restatement of the underlying facts, look here.

The Dred Scott case holds that Black people cannot be American citizens. The opinion is a long, vile example of the American anti-black racism which justified enslavement, ended Reconstruction, revitalized the Klan, exercised social control through lynching,  Jim Crow,  legal segregation and voter suppression. The same anti-Black racism which was behind the murder of Emmett Till and of George Floyd.  What Dred Scott v. Sandford shows me is how foundational this anti-Black racism is to America.  

A foundational defect is hard to fix. I am wondering if America can fix such a deep and foundational defect. Today’s Supreme Court has ended affirmative action. Republicans are unapologetically gerrymandering to suppress the black vote, and the presumptive GOP nominee doesn’t want a jury from 46% black Washington, D.C. He thinks only white people can fairly perform the citizenship duty of jury service. (West Virginia is 92% white.)

I don’t know if  America can fix its defect. I’m feeling pessimistic today, and pessimism can be paralyzing. So I will take a break from Kendi’s book and American history.  I’ll come back to Kendi, but I need a change. Something with some uplift. Stay tuned.

[1]  Holdings in the Slaughterhouse Cases, (1873) U.S. v. Cruikshank (1876) and U.S. v. Reese (1876) interpreted away the rights intended by the 14th and 15th Amendments, basically closing courtroom doors to Blacks wanting vindication of their rights.

Image by Michael Krause from Pixabay

P.S. I am still having some technical trouble with my blog’s platform which is why you may not have received this post in your email box. I have almost finished moving the blog to a different platform which will enable posts to go directly to your inbox again. Sorry for any convenience.