Guest Column: The golden rule must remain our guide

Published 8:45 pm Friday, February 19, 2021

Guest Column by Joel Erickson

Race is a human invention. That statement surprised me until I saw the evidence. In her recent book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent,” Isabel Wilkerson notes, according to the results of the Genome Project, “analysis of the human genome established that all beings are 99.9 percent the same.”

Joel Erickson

As concluded by Ashley Montagu, an anthropologist, the idea of race perpetuated a systematic plan via slavery to subjugate a group of people for the sake of profit. Slave owners forbade educational opportunities, limited the amount of food intake, required slaves to work 14-15 hour per day, whipped slaves who fell short of production targets and separated families with impunity. Conveniently, the South sustained the caste system after slavery ended.

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Wilkerson tells us “In the first 246 years of what is now the U.S., …slaves…lived under the terror of people who had absolute power over their bodies and their very breath, subject to people who faced no sanction for any atrocity they could conjure.”

Dehumanization was the cornerstone for the caste system given birth by slavery, segregation and Jim Crow laws literally written down. To keep Blacks in their place, the white community suppressed wealth accumulation, voting rights, educational opportunities, access to public libraries and access to health care. As Wilkerson reminds us, “Caste in the South is a system for arbitrarily defining the status of Negroes and of all whites with regard to the most fundamental privileges and opportunities of human society.”

Bull Connor, living in Birmington, Alabama, upholder of the caste system, changed an election in 1961 to favor his preferred mayoral candidate. He paid a Black man to shake a candidate’s hand. A photographer captured this handshake guaranteeing the white candidate’s election demise. The mayoral candidate violated the rules of caste.

The caste system caught the attention of the Nazis in Germany. Nazi leaders took time to study the methods used by Southern leaders to subordinate African-Americans, methods such as lynching, torture and maming used to this end. “Hitler especially marveled at the American ‘Knack for maintaining an air of robust innocence in the wake of mass death.’ ” A troubling quote offered by Wilkerson.

By default and in actuality, our American culture is still immersed in the caste system.

White privilege is something I, as a white person, don’t even think about. I never had to have a conversation with my son about how to act around the police. Neither did my Dad have that conversation with me. I have never been followed or scrutinized while walking around in a department store. Why was Obama the first president to have his birthplace questioned? Why are so many Black men and women dying at the hands of the police?

We, those of us who are white, might ask ourselves, how can we dismantle this caste system? We should be motivated not out of guilt but by the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Most religions teach, “love your neighbor as yourself.” Just to be clear, African-Americans did not create the caste system. Slavery lasted 246 years, 1619 to 1865, over 12 generations.

Ariela J. Gross, an American historian, reminds her readers that no other place in the world matched this pervasive form of slavery. Wilkerson points out, “For the first time in history, one category of humanity was ruled out of the ‘human race’ and into a separate subgroup that was to remain enslaved for generations in perpetuity.” We, in the white community, must look within to find courage to create a new day and a new tomorrow.

Isabel Wilkerson, makes this startling observation. “It is a measure of how long enslavement lasted in the United States that the year 2022 marks the first year that the United States will have been an independent nation for as long as slavery lasted on its soil.” This nation paid a horrendous price to end slavery: the Civil War with a loss of 600,000 lives, assassination of Lincoln, giving birth to the Thirteenth Amendment, the abolishment of slavery. We continue to pay a price when groups of people seek to perpetuate elements of the caste system.

Of course no one today was a creator of slavery, the Jim Crow laws, including the actions of terror: lynchings, beatings and burning of crosses. Even so, the caste system still lives. If it was possible, no one would volunteer to be Black. The golden rule must be our guide. It was very heartening to see Blacks and an equal number of whites demonstrating in the streets following Floyd’s death.

The picture of the policeman’s knee on a Black man’s neck until he died is seared into this nation’s conscience. For our nation to persevere with freedom and justice for all, systems of dehumanization must not be allowed to exist, neither in actuality nor by default.

Joel Erickson is an Albert Lea resident.