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Past And Present: Declaring America As A Post-Racial Society Is Premature

Jamelle Bouie
Wikimedia Commons

Protests stemming from recent grand jury decisions related to Michael Brown and Eric Garner have featured the refrain “black lives do matter.”

Sadly, one of the unsavory aspects of American history is that there are innumerable documented instances of where it was apparent that black lives, indeed, did not matter.

For instance, severe overcrowding in the holds of slave ships resulted in an astronomical number of African deaths during the horrific “Middle Passage.” Yet, because slave traders profited enormously from those that did survive, high black death rates were casually dismissed by those engaging in this sordid business activity.

More recently, during the early-to-mid twentieth century, when the American South witnessed an upswing of the phenomenon described in Billie Holliday’s immortal song as “Strange Fruit,” Congress repeatedly refused to pass anti-lynching legislation.

Yet, another related historical episode was the infamous “Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment” coordinated by the U.S. Public Health Service between 1932 and 1972. During this period, hundreds of illiterate rural black men in the late stages of syphilis were allowed to die, even after the introduction of penicillin in the 1940s. Their autopsies revealed how syphilis affected blacks as compared to whites.

In the end, the cases of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and others indicate that declarations of America being a “Post Racial Society,” which has transcended historic anti-black sentiment, are a bit premature.

Robert E. Weems Jr. is the Willard W. Garvey Distinguished Professor of Business History at Wichita State University.