By MOHAMED HAMALUDIN
The almost daily news stories of racially motivated assaults and bigotry – 867 incidents in the first 10 days after the Nov. 8 elections, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center — outraged me enough to write an angry column asserting that I, for one, will not be cowed and that I fully expect the institutions of the state and the president to protect my rights as an American citizen, though a Muslim and foreign-born.
But I held the column back, believing that my country needs not further diatribe but healing as the antidote to those who sow seeds of hatred.
If I needed vindication for my change of heart, I found it when the resistance of the beleaguered Native Peoples at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in defense of their birthright produced a glorious moment in American history. A group of military veterans in solidarity with the protestors took part in a forgiveness ceremony. They knelt before tribal leaders and “collectively asked for forgiveness for the genocide and war crimes committed by the United States Military against tribal nations in this country.”
That astonishing development finally thrust to the forefront the horrific history of how Native Peoples have been treated that has been kept from the national stage for more than 200 years. It can be the start of a fresh engagement with these victims of genocide dubbed “Indians” – a misnomer created when Christopher Columbus set sail for India but ended up in this part of the world so the inhabitants had to be “Indians.”
If familiarity with their history is limited just to the tragedy of “The Trail of Tears,” that is enough to know their epoch suffering.
But there is another terrible chapter in our history, one we have failed to keep under wraps only because of the militancy of the oppressed: slavery and the sustained efforts to maintain the subjugation of African Americans. For those needing more information, a good starting point is the seminal books The New Jim Crow – Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by The Ohio State University Professor Michelle Alexander and Just Mercy by the Equal Justice Institute’s founder Bryan Stevenson.
“During the terror era,” Stevenson writes in his 2014 book, “there were hundreds of ways in which people of color could commit a social transgression or offend someone that might cost them their lives. Racial terror and the constant threat created by violently enforced racial hierarchy were profoundly traumatizing for African Americans. Absorbing these psychosocial realities created all kinds of distortions and difficulties that manifest themselves today in multiple ways.”
Alexander, who in her 2010 book documents the gross biases in the criminal justice system that lead to wholesale imprisonment of young African American males, asserts: “If we continue to tell ourselves the popular myths about racial progress or, worse yet, if we say to ourselves that the problem of mass incarceration is just too big, too daunting for us to do anything about and that we should instead direct our energies to battles that might be more easily won, history will judge us harshly. A human rights nightmare is occurring on our watch.”
The problems that beset our country’s race relations require an acknowledgement of these wrongs and asking forgiveness which should be pursued by ordinary Americans, as the veterans did at Standing Rock, not the “leaders.”
There will be strong opposition. Those who perpetrate acts of racial hatred are coming into the sunshine and gloating about access finally to the corridors of power. They have never accepted that wrongs have been committed and are unlikely to seek forgiveness.
At a wider level, instead of extending the hand of friendship to those who do not look like them, worship like them or dress like them, more and more Americans are arming themselves, with more than 100 million guns in the hands of civilians. The weapons include various versions of the Armalite Rifle, the AR-15, the killing machine originally designed for the military; some 8.5 million assault rifles are owned by five million people.
But guns and racial bigotry will not solve our problems. Accepting the truth, seeking forgiveness and reconciling with those seen blindly as the “enemy” will exorcise the demons that haunt us and hopefully lead to racial and religious tolerance. A symbol of such exorcism can be Crispus Attucks, the first American to die at the start of the Revolutionary War.
The martyr of the Boston Massacre was born to an African slave father and a Native mother. Uniting his heroism with the achievements that have been made by the nation he gave his life to help found will send a clear signal that, while we continue to struggle to realize a “more perfect nation,” we also accept that there are existential issues that we must face on the path to that perfection.