Racial Freedom Matters:
the effective solution, legally, morally, socially.
Copyright 2018, John Manimas Medeiros
Is it possible to achieve racial equality and racial justice in American society? Can we really make the "two Americas" -- one segregated, one integrated -- into one America? I believe we can, by paying homage to the single value that unites us all, the value of personal freedom. As though worshipping freedom in a religious sense, we can create an environment of racial equality and racial justice in our political and social life. All we have to do is turn our attention from the concept of equality of the categories that we call "race" and to the category that we call "ethnic group," and to American history, and to the concept of equal rights for both segregationists and integrationists. All we have to do is make America safe for racial integration and continue the de facto freedom for ethnic groups to create ethnically or religiously segregated organizations and even communities. The reason for permitting ethnically and religious de facto segregation is because it has always been with us and is imprinted on our history. Since the colonial period, Americans have asserted their desire and their right to live among others of like mind and similar background. We cannot change history and we cannot change the past. But we can change our way of coping with ethnic, religious and racial differences, and we can change our future history to be harmonious in our shared freedom to live in selective groups and to live in mixed groups. This is the choice that all Americans want and can have, if we demand it of ourselves.
What is racism, really? What is a racist society?
If some people believe that one "race" or ethnic group, or culture is superior to others, is that racism? If some people believe that light-skinned people are superior to dark-skinned people, or vice versa -- dark superior to light, is that racism? Or is it just racist thought? Is racism embodied in belief or attitude, or does there have to be some kind of action, behavior or implementation of the racist viewpoint in the law or social structure? I once asked that question in a political science class. The professor, whose name I do not recall here at this time, gave me the response I would never forget: a society is a racist society when economic roles are assigned by race. This definition makes sense to me, and I believe it is a proper way to define racism because it is not practical and not consistent with freedom of thought to argue that the solution to racism is that we have to change the minds of millions of people. We may think that is a suitable goal, but it obviously takes time, and is not necessarily a promising enterprise. We know from experience that the belief in race and racial character or racial genetics is deeply engrained and held onto with the same tight grip that people hold on to their religious doctrines. Our history tells us that for a great percentage of the population, racial differences are great and they are as unchangeable as the laws of God. It makes more sense for us to attack the practice of racism, the assignment of economic roles by race. And this we have done to some extent. This is why we have an Office of Equal Economic Opportunity; and this is why it is illegal to refuse to hire a person for a job if they are qualified but are a member of a racial group the employer does not like. This is why the racism of racial slavery was so obvious when Christopher Columbus returned to Hispaniola in 1494 to collect slave labor for the Spanish colonies and plantations. This is why the racism in North America took root as early as 1620 when African slaves were brought to the English colonies to work on the English plantations. The Africans were stripped of their identities, and any hope of equal treatment. They were soon regarded as less than human and mistreated by a level of cruelty that was unique in world history. This also we have addressed not only with our Civil War but also through continued struggle with the legacy of unequal treatment and racist beliefs. And the assignment of economic roles by race is not the only form of unequal treatment that is practiced in American society. We have always had de facto racial segregation -- white people in white neighborhoods and brown people in brown neighborhoods. Even when the brown people escape rigid economic rules, when they become lawyers and doctors and professors and bankers and business owners, they still live in a segregated neighborhood and go to a brown or Negro church. Wherever I go and look around at people gathered in a restaurant or store, I often discover that everyone in that restaurant or store is white. How does that happen? Even when I know for a fact that an African American would not be denied service and certainly not asked to leave, no African Americans are present? Why is that? Because much of our actual racial segregation is sub-conscious. We don't have to think about it, that is, we white people probably don't think about it. But African Americans usually think about it, because they need to know, for both their safety and convenience, where they "belong," where they are truly welcome and where they are outside of their designated territories. If you doubt this, get and read The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, and your mind will be opened. Our social problem is not only educational and employment opportunity. We have de facto segregation everywhere. It occurs automatically, by habit. We need to address this ongoing conflict between integration and segregation, and between two groups of people: integrationists and segregationists. Many Americans grew up going to integrated public schools, and that has helped. Black and White learned that they are both human and have common problems, common challenges in our culture and social life. There has been some worthwhile progress. But we need more.
I propose to describe how one solution is right legally -- according to law -- as well as morally sound and fair socially. There is one solution that satisfies these three requirements, and that is the solution of equal rights for integrationists and segregationists. All we have to do is treat freedom of racial association similar to our freedom of religion embodied in the First Amendment. The government is required to not favor any religion and to not favor religion over no religion. Therefore, we can address our racial conflicts and frustrations the same way. We can evoke and enforce a similar principle: the government, our laws, and our society can neither favor racial segregation over integration, nor favor integration over segregation. THE PEOPLE must be free to choose which ways they choose to live in relation to different religions and different ethnic groups. The people must be free to choose segregated neighborhoods or integrated neighborhoods, schools affiliated with a religion or an ethnic group, and workplaces that are either integrated or segregated, and public places such as stores and restaurants may be segregated not by law but by de facto practice, because de facto segregation has always existed in America regardless of the local, state or federal laws. The key to this solution is clear and mandatory: there must be no legal or social obstacles to the choice of ethnic, religious or racial integration. The people must be entirely free to plan, create, and maintain integrated neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, and public places by any reasonable means. There must be no law that forbids or hinders integration by choice, no objections to practices referred to by such names as "quotas" or "affirmative action." Called by whatever name, there must be no obstruction to individuals or groups who choose de facto integration, whether of religions, races, or ethnic groups, or any combination thereof. Adoption of this principle could bring the two Americas together in celebration of freedom and mutual respect. Why, many will ask, is this solution fair and practical? Why should we endeavor to address this seemingly intractable problem in this manner? Let me explain. It is a lotus germinating and rising out of the muck of our history.
How it (de facto segregation) all began.
It started from the very beginning in 1620. The first colonists came with the financial aid of British and Dutch corporations (such as the East India Company) who wanted to establish plantations in the New World to provide Europe with lumber and forest products such as turpentine and tar, fish, furs, livestock and crops to be grown on the vast areas of virgin soils. Many of the first colonists came not only to sustain that agricultural enterprise, as agreed, but also to enjoy "religious freedom." But it is essential to an understanding of our history to keep in mind that the religious freedom they sought was only for their own religious beliefs and not for religious freedom for everyone else.
The Puritans colonized the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Plymouth Colony and then more of the region that came to be known as New England. Their churches evolved to become the well-known Congregational Meeting Houses that eventually became the United Church of Christ in 1957. The Quakers followed the leadership of William Penn to create the colony and later the state of Pennsylvania. Catholics gathered and felt comfortable just to the south of Pennsylvania in a region that became known as Mary's Land. Lutherans also found a home to practice their religious ways in the mid-Atlantic colonies, and later in the north central states. Further south the Baptists and Anglicans found their home in the colonies that became the kingdom of cotton and institutional permanent slavery. The crucial deal-breaker with slavery in the American South was that there was no escape. None considered, none offered, none expected. If American slavery had become, after the Revolution, a form of bonded servitude that allowed for education and training, and achievement of freedom and citizenship after a designated time period, such as seven or even ten years, our history would be different.
Any meaningful study of the American colonial period reveals that the colonies did not provide religious freedom as we know it. They provided a safe haven for one religious group to the strict exclusion of others. In each region of institutional religious control, anyone who challenged the local religious authorities or tried to modify the belief system was regarded as a heretic. If a citizen made their disagreement or dissent public, they were at risk to be charged with heresy and could be imprisoned, tortured or executed. If the church leaders were in a generous mood, such a heretic might only be beaten and expelled, banished from the colony. Not actually a great chance of survival outside the protections of the colony, but better than being dead. Consider one of the most famous stories of a successful religious dissenter, Roger Williams. He opposed the doctrines of the Massachusetts colony and was expelled. He traveled south and founded the Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. Although he was independent in his religious thought, he still accepted the reality that a colony of Europeans in the New World, a dangerous and challenging world, had to justify their existence with an economic enterprise. What were the horrible religious heresies of Roger Williams? Well, he is justifiably famous and respected for his wild rebellion against the rigid Puritans. His sins were that he recommended separation of church and state, freedom for all religions, and better treatment of the Indians (First Nations). Outrageous in colonial times, but that religious freedom was later guaranteed by our First Amendment. The Virginia colony recognized a church supported by state law. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington attended worship services in those Virginia churches. Our nation began with legal segregation of people according to religion. It was real, and serious. And it was deemed perfectly normal. Why would anyone want such a thing as allowing people to believe whatever pleases them?
Throughout the 19th century the Americans made the transition from colonies to nation but only with some very painful trials. Not only the Civil War over slavery and economics, but also over the relationships between labor and capital. An alliance between private investors and government was the quickest way to take and subdue a vast and rich continent. There was a sense of urgency in the slogan of "manifest destiny" to build a free society of continental size. The history of Europe pursued the New World like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. America had to become strong economically and militarily fast in order to fend off the European pattern of invading, conquering and enslaving. The history of Europe's religious turmoil was known to American colonists: stories of sadistic popes and inquisitors, scientists burned at the stake, people blinded, impaled or stretched to death on the rack, because they disagreed. As paraphrased by the State of New Hampshire, an entire mass of escaped Europeans acted out their faith of "Live Free or Die." Sometimes it was more like "To be sure I live free I will kill you first." Therefore, although we did become the Wild West, we overcame our religious segregation habits with the First Amendment. But we still had ethnic and racial segregation, by fiat, through the 19th and 20th centuries. My mother, who was not a racist, said: "Birds of a feather flock together." We humans appear to need to belong to a relatively small, identifiable group. We like to know that we are in our own territory. We like to feel sure that we belong where we are. So, we segregate. We segregate by ethnic heritage and by economic class. Consider the following examples.
Consider the famous American musical drama West Side Story. Two street gangs in the city of New York are in conflict, but similar to the classic Romeo and Juliet, a boy and a girl from each of the separate gangs fall in love. In this west side story, as with most American street gangs, the gang is your family. The gang gives you your place to belong and protects you from the injustices of the outside world. One gang comprises Puerto Ricans. It would be an educational experience to explore whether the play could have been called "American Story" or "Puerto Rican Story." It is a story that embodies the American tradition of birds-of-a-feather flocking together: for identity, for control, for defense, for belonging to a group and having a group that belongs to you. Could we, or would we, pass a law that forbids the formation of gangs? Or of clubs for children and adolescents? Have we all heard of the Polish American Club? The Italian American Association? How many American cities have a Chinatown like New York and San Francisco? Do we all know about the experience of Irish Immigrants? Of Italian and Greek immigrants? In my city there is a neighborhood called "Little Italy." In Boston there is a neighborhood in the North End known for its Italian residents, restaurants and traditions. When Boston is new to a visitor, a person familiar with the city might recommend "You should visit the North End." Why? Because European-Americans preserve their European roots and enjoy their European traditions. They form organizations that segregate, support their distinct identity and desire to identify themselves as not other kinds of people. This is true of the country clubs created by our wealthier white citizens. The traditional or classic American country club is populated by whites only, often wealthy whites only. The Masons are a group that separate themselves from others. There has been a separate Negro organization of Masons associated with a Negro Mason named Prince Hall. I attended a Roman Catholic elementary school that was built by a Polish Catholic parish. Irish immigrants, Jewish immigrants and Italian immigrants all have a colorful history of living in impoverished ghettos before they pulled themselves upward through employment and the self-discipline of learning English and keeping your old-country habits at home. African Americans have a unique history in America of course, but they have the common experience of "flocking together" in Negro churches and restaurants (with one entrance) and night clubs.
When and where were the Boy Scouts of America racially integrated? We have consciously and unconsciously gathered ourselves into clubs, organizations and associations throughout our history, by ethnic identity, by religious identity, and by racial identity. No one has ever suggested that this natural social behavior should be against the law, or even that it is morally wrong. Racism is morally wrong only when racial discrimination is used to assign economic roles by race. Forming a Scottish club, and organizing a celebration of Scottish food, tartans and "Highland Games" is not intended to oppress anyone. We are and have always been free to create an organization of people with a similar ethnic or religious background. We cannot make that kind of "segregation" against the law. Even if people want a restaurant and bar to be segregated, they can do so by forming a club instead of opening a restaurant to the public. The many locations of the Veterans of Foreign Wars perform many functions, but one of them is to provide a bar and restaurant that welcomes those who both enjoy and carry the weight of the real battlefield experience. You cannot "join" or become a veteran if you do not share that experience. But the purpose of the VFW is not to oppress those who have never been on a battlefield. You just don't share that experience.
We Need to Change Our Laws in Order to Assure the Freedom to Integrate
We cannot make this kind of innocent self-segregation, de facto segregation, into an illegal or immoral act. But what we must do is recognize that there are no legal obstacles to this accepted form of "flocking together" for the innocent purpose of social identification and emotional comfort. For decades, African Americans lived and socialized in Harlem on the north end of Manhattan Island, famous for their music, literature, night clubs and even a basketball team. No one would argue that their African ethnic neighborhood was illegal.
In order to treat racial integration as equally valid as racial segregation, we need to remove all legal obstacles to deliberate, planned racial, ethnic and religious integration. We need to do something to address this problem, because there are legal obstacles to conscious, planned integration. Our legal history includes court cases where judges have ruled that some forms of affirmative action or racial quotas are an illegal form of racial discrimination. One of the most sensitive areas of racial segregation is in the field of real estate development and sales. How often do real estate agents guide a white buyer toward de facto white neighborhoods and black buyers toward black neighborhoods? I believe there are laws on the books that imply real estate agents are supposed to show all properties that a buyer is financially qualified to purchase, but is that the real practice? It is my understanding that there is clear evidence of discrimination against African American buyers from their first step in applying for a mortgage loan. Also, what would happen if a group of white homeowners in a white neighborhood told the agent handling a home for sale that they wanted the new owner to be a member of a brown-skinned minority? An African American family, or Hindu family from India, or Mexican or Puerto Rican? The agent would probably say that they could not do that because it is deliberate discrimination against white people, BUT WE SHOULD HAVE LAWS THAT PROTECT THE RIGHT OF A NEIGHBORHOOD GROUP TO CREATE ETHNIC AND OR RELIGIOUS DIVERSITY IN THEIR NEIGHBORHOOD IF THAT IS WHAT THEY WANT. That is what freedom means. Freedom means choice. Freedom means you can choose the people with whom you live and associate. That is what segregationist people have done and are doing all the time when they choose to segregate themselves socially. Therefore, the legal principle I am advocating here is "freedom to integrate." Those of us who wish to live and associate in groups that are ethnically and religiously integrated should have that choice without any legal obstacles in our way. This is, I believe, the most practical and rational solution to the issue of racial conflicts in our society. If we remove all legal obstacles to deliberate integration, it will happen, and we will all be free to live and grow under the torch of liberty that we claim as the sign of who we are.
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