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On The Mark: Racism: a persistent American crisis

You may have heard that some school boards and communities in our state are fighting over the oddly named “critical race theory.” Oddly, because if you read what some of the theory’s protagonists are writing and saying, I wouldn’t call it a theory. Rather, it’s a respectable commitment to considering, probing, understanding and debating the origins of racial inequality in our country and its persistence over many decades, even centuries.

I’ve been reading widely about racism in our nation’s history. It’s an interest I’ve had since I was writing my first book, “Regions: the Economics and Politics of Territory,” published in 1987. I read and researched why the fortunes of the north and south diverged after the Civil War. I discovered several excellent sources written by other economists. One, Roger Ransom and Richard Sutch’s “One Kind of Freedom: The Economic Consequences of Emancipation,” explains why freed African Americans became sharecroppers rather than independent farmers. With few exceptions, freed Blacks had no resources to buy land. Yet their former slave owners required a labor force to continue cultivating cotton. Ransom and Sutch explain that this was an impoverishing solution for both plantation owners and sharecroppers: neither had an incentive to improve the land, which over time became increasingly depleted.

Meanwhile, the industrial North was booming. Its cities sprouted steel and rail mills for the great transcontinental railroads. Mass-produced autos and farm equipment poured out of factories. Poor whites and blacks alike migrated in droves to northern cities and factories clamoring for work. Discriminatory policies shunted African Americans into the worst neighborhoods and the dirtiest and lowest-paying jobs.

Native Americans faced a similar, sustained onslaught of militarized efforts, by the American government (and the southwest, the Spanish and the Mormons) to force them off their lands, undermine their tribal leaders, and, in partnership with the churches, indoctrinate them into the Christian religion.

It’s worth reading about this history, which I never learned in my Catholic grade school, high school, or college. My Jesuit university, Georgetown, I learned a few years ago, owned and worked slaves on lands they owned in Maryland. It’s hard to face the fact that your Christian university began its centuries participating in slave-working and in selling slaves south and west in subsequent decades.

If you want an astonishing history of African Americans, read “Four Hundred Souls,” edited by Ibram Kendi and Keisha Blain, offering short, one- to two-page accounts, based on historical research, of African Americans from the beginning of slavery to the present, recounted in their own voices. And for a beautiful account of civil rights leader Ella Baker — who worked for years with local African American people in the South to win the right to sit at lunch counters and on buses, contest their voting rights, and participate in electoral politics — read Joanne Grant’s “Ella Baker: Freedom Bound.”


Books to read

I’ve spent much of my Covid fall and winter reading books about Native American and African American history. Here’s a list — all of them remarkable — and there are undoubtedly many more. Send me your suggestions: [email protected].

Native American history:

Peter Iverson, “We Are Still Here”: American Indians in the Twentieth Century,” Harlan Davidson Press, 1998.

Charles Wilkinson, “Fire on the Plateau: Conflict and Endurance in the American Southwest,” Island Press, 1999.

David Treuer, “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present,” Riverhead Books, 2019.

African American history:

Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain, “Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019,” One World, 2021.

Joanne Grant, “Ella Baker: Freedom Bound,” Wiley, 1998.