“… That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.”
–The Emancipation Proclamation, Jan. 1, 1863
On Sept. 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln — as commander in chief of the Armed Forces — issued an Executive Order that changed the world.
Lincoln was inconsistent on his views on slavery and emancipation: He frequently rallied against the moral disregard of the practice and the power of the “Slavocracy,” but he did marry Mary Todd, the heiress of a major slave-holding family. In 1861, Lincoln pushed for the Corwin Amendment, which would have taken away from Congress the ability to regulate already-existing slavery, and he reprimanded and replaced Maj. Gen. John C. Fremont — who, as commander of the Union Army in St. Louis, proclaimed all Confederate-owned slaves in Missouri free. In May 1862, Lincoln reprimanded Gen. David Hunter for emancipating Confederate-owned slaves in Georgia, Florida and South Carolina, and forced a reversal of the emancipation, arguing that only the president has the prerogative to do this.
Despite the motives, the Emancipation Proclamation was the first nationwide piece of legislation that officially declared a disenfranchised population worthy of equal legal status. On Nov. 19, 1863, at the dedication and consecration of the national cemetery at Gettysburg, Lincoln said,
“… It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
The world has taken Lincoln’s words and actions as the first of many steps toward the dream of universal acceptance of all people, that — as the Declaration of Independence exclaimed — “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” On this, the 150th anniversary of the enactment of the Executive Order, it is important to look at and remember this dream; which, for many, is elusive and far from reality.
The American dream
“… In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men — yes, black men as well as white men — would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
“It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’…”
–Rev. Dr. Martin L. King, Jr., Aug. 28, 1963
In the United States, discrimination and racial stereotypes have been so pervasive for so long that few still recognize them at such. In a blog posting for Jezebel, Rebecca Carroll wrote:
“The receptionist at Tommy Guns had to ‘double check,’ but then came back on the line to let me know with great enthusiasm that ‘we actually have two stylists’ who can deal with black hair (with cuts starting at $95 a head) … the most perplexing response I got was from a salon that told me they could cut my hair, but only if I’d had it processed first. When I asked if they cut black hair, the receptionist answered: ‘Actually, not unless it’s straightened.’ So, basically, go somewhere else to make your hair the texture of white hair and then we’ll be good to go.”
This nation is far from color-blind. While most Americans would say that they are not racist, according to an October Associated Press poll, an astounding 51 percent of all Americans hold explicitly anti-black views. These views have spiked during the presidency of Barack Obama, in which the percentage who had racist ideologies against African-Americans held at 48 percent in 2008. Those who had implicit anti-black viewpoints also jumped since 2008 from 49 percent to 56 percent. While more Republicans (79 percent) have anti-black views than Democrats (32 percent) explicitly, implicitly, the divide is closer to even (Republicans 64 percent, Democrats 55 percent).
The same poll showed that Hispanics were seen negatively by a majority of all Americans, with 57 percent holding implicitly negative views on Latinos. This is reflected in the 2012 presidential election’s results: While 59 percent of all whites voted for Mitt Romney, only 27 percent of Hispanics, 26 percent of Asians and 6% percent of blacks followed suit. Many politicians have attributed this to the fact that Obama is black. Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) said that the president’s election “comes back to who he was: He was black.” Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said “as an African-American male,” the president received a “tremendous advantage from a lot of [government] programs.” It was Geraldine Ferraro, the late Democratic vice presidental candidate, who first floated that Obama was “very lucky” to be black and “if Obama was a white man, he would not be in [his] position.”
Obama replied to this that “anybody who knows the history of this country … would not take too seriously the notion that [being black] has been a huge advantage.”
While it is popular to deny the realities, the statistics are harder to disprove. In a 2011 Pew Research Center study, the 2009 median net household worth for whites was $113,149. For blacks, it was $5,677, or roughly 1/20 of that of the average white household. For Latinos, the average household net wealth is $6,325. This statistic measures the sum of all assets (home, car, equities, etc.) minus all outstanding debts (mortgage, credit card debt, student loans, etc.). This is the highest ratio of white-to-black wealth since the poll began in 1984.
A key component of this is predatory lending. As Times puts it:
“Pricing discrimination — illegally charging minority customers more for loans and other services than similarly qualified whites are charged — is a longstanding problem. It grew to outrageous proportions during the bubble years. Studies by consumer advocates found that large numbers of minority borrowers who were eligible for affordable, traditional loans were routinely steered toward ruinously priced subprime loans that they would never be able to repay.”
For the most part, the lenders did not care if the loans were repayable, as they were to be packaged as securities and sold. However, this practice of sub-prime lending did not just sink the global economy, entire minority neighborhoods were foreclosed against and simply disappeared. The banking industry has accused Clinton-era equal housing legislation for the rash of bad mortgages, but closer examination showed that applicants who qualified for affordable rate loans were ushered toward riskier loans based on gender, race or ethnicity.
The sad truth is that such views are commonly accepted. In a 2002 letter to the editor of the Bowling Green Daily News, Rep. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) wrote:
“A free society will abide unofficial, private discrimination – even when that means allowing hate-filled groups to exclude people based on the color of their skin.”
He echoed that sentiment of the Rachel Maddow Show in May 2010.
While denialists point to the fact that the president is black, the reality is that African-Americans are farther away from social and economic equality than they have been in 30 years. The president, when he became the Harvard Review’s first black president in 1990, remarked, “It’s crucial that people don’t see my election as somehow a symbol of progress in the broader sense, that we don’t sort of point to a Barack Obama any more than you point to a Bill Cosby or a Michael Jordan and say ‘Well, things are hunky dory.’” Black unemployment is double what white unemployment is, and the average middle class white family makes 18 percent more than the average middle class black family. Ninety-eight percent of all judges are white, black men are eight times more likely to be given prison sentences than white men, and 74 percent of all death sentences go to black men. A study co-authored by Phillip Goff and Jennifer Eberhardt shows that many Americans find violence against African-Americans more acceptable than violence against whites and many still subconsciously make an association between blacks and apes.
In light of such commonly-held anti-social ideologies, it is easier to see where the disenfranchisement of other groups, such as Muslim-Americans, comes from.
America has been whipped into a heightened state of alertness. American has the highest number of privately-owned guns, the greatest percentage of gun-induced homicide and the highest number of self-defense killings — averaging 16,000 per year from 2000 to 2010.
Hermann Göring was attributed to saying in the Nuremberg Diary:
“The people don’t want war, but they can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and for exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.”
Politicians have used the power of crowd psychology — the notion that an individual will abandon individual thought and go with the crowd if the sway is strong enough — to cultivate fear and hatred in order to embrace controversial policies or simply for ideological reasons. George W. Bush — in order to justify going to war with Iraq — used imagery such as “war against terror,” “terrorist attacking our freedoms” and “axis of evil” to develop a culture of fear that could be manipulated and shaped.
Such actions have needlessly endangered the livelihood of Muslim-Americans. A Pew Forum study from 2010 shows that only 30 percent of all Americans have a favorable view of Muslims, while 38 percent have an unfavorable view. The actions of extremists — such as Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center, who posted a video on YouTube outlining his desire to “expose Islam” and encouraging others to burn the Quran, or Pamela Geller, whose blogs seek to “disclose the Muslim agenda to grind away at our liberties until America is under Sharia law” and who has posted public ads suggesting, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad” — have led to an outburst of violence against the Muslim community, including the death of a Hindu man by being pushed before an arriving New York City subway train.
Erika Menendez, the perpetrator of the crime, reportedly said, “I pushed a Muslim off the train tracks because I hate Hindus and Muslims ever since 2001 when they put down the twin towers I’ve been beating them up.”
Beyond the myth
In a letter to Horace Greeley, a founder of the Republican Party and the founder of the New York Tribune, Lincoln writes:
“I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored, the nearer the Union will be ‘the Union as it was.’ If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery … What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.”
The Proclamation Declaration was a military action designed to address two problems: 1) With the war continuing for as long as it had, there was a manpower issue. The Confederates started the war with a manpower advantage. The number of available Union soldiers were diminishing, and if the Confederates pushed its slaves into military service, the Union would be overrun. 2) The Confederates had more food and material resources and shorter supply lines than the Union. Unless the economic underpinning of the Confederacy was undermined in some way, the Union couldn’t win the war. In his letter to James C. Conkling, Lincoln writes:
“… There was more than a year and a half of trial to suppress the rebellion before the proclamation issued, the last one hundred days of which passed under an explicit notice that it was coming, unless averted by those in revolt, returning to their allegiance. The war has certainly progressed as favorably for us, since the issue of proclamation as before. I know, as fully as one can know the opinions of others, that some of the commanders of our armies in the field who have given us our most important successes believe the emancipation policy and the use of the colored troops constitute the heaviest blow yet dealt to the Rebellion, and that at least one of these important successes could not have been achieved when it was but for the aid of black soldiers. Among the commanders holding these views are some who have never had any affinity with what is called abolitionism or with the Republican party policies but who held them purely as military opinions…You say you will not fight to free negroes. Some of them seem willing to fight for you; but, no matter. Fight you, then exclusively to save the Union. I issued the proclamation on purpose to aid you in saving the Union. Whenever you shall have conquered all resistence to the Union, if I shall urge you to continue fighting, it will be an apt time, then, for you to declare you will not fight to free negroes.
“… But negroes, like other people, act upon motives. Why should they do any hing for us, if we will do nothing for them? If they stake their lives for us, they must be prompted by the strongest motive–even the promise of freedom. And the promise being made, must be kept.”