Excellent commentary by Paula J. Giddings on the continuing problem racial violence, and blacks getting killed by police because they’re assumed to be thugs. She also touches on the issue of sexism, and how black men and women are treated today.
Although African-Americans have made unprecedented progress in terms of politics, business and access to elite institutions, other developments suggest that something else is going on. Voting rights are being curtailed, communities are deteriorating, and incarcerations for minor and even fabricated criminal charges are on the rise. Most troubling is the news of cold-blooded murders committed against them in the public square, too often with impunity.
It sounds as though I’m describing our current landscape, but in fact this is an apt description of the late nineteenth century, when African-Americans occupied political offices, accumulated wealth and held administrative positions that would not have been dreamed of a generation before. But this was also the era of the literacy test, congealing segregation and the convict-lease system, which provided the black labor forfeited by emancipation. By the 1890s, newspapers disseminated the details of two, three, sometimes four lynchings each week to a national audience.
As is true with the current generation, nineteenth-century black activists struggled against the complacency of those who believed that the progress of the few would trickle down to the many—not through agitation, but by the mere acquisition of education, wealth and middle-class values. When criticized by earlier generations, they—like Mychal Denzel Smith in his essay—pointed to the important and inspiring youth work that was being done, and touted their generation’s more progressive views of women, who were making gains in education, community “uplift” work and newly formed women’s organizations.
But it was also true that black women, who had wielded significant influence during Reconstruction, were losing political ground to men, who attempted to marginalize them in the separate sphere of women’s work.