Consider the United States in world history. One of the primary lessons of the first republic established in North America is that unintended consequences abound. Take, for example, John Wilkes Booth and the conspirators who plotted the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The Confederacy had lost the military struggle. Desperation drove its fanatical adherents to stage a strike against the Union that they thought might reverse the course of history. As a reward, they empowered their worst ideological enemies — the Radical Republicans who favored the harshest terms for Reconstruction. By assassinating Lincoln, Booth and his supporters forever tarnished the ideology of states’ rights in the minds of most Americans. This damage was so profound that it opened the door to national industrialization as implemented by nineteenth century Republicans and ultimately the expansion of federal authority under Democratic Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt. Not only was the Confederacy vanquished, but their worldview became toxic.
In a different sense, the Civil Rights / Black Power Movement of the twentieth century illustrates a similar lesson. Against impossible odds and the will of millions of committed segregationists across the United States, an interracial coalition of activists and intellectuals laid the legal and political foundation for a multiracial democracy between 1909 (the founding of the NAACP) and 1968 (the passage of the Fair Housing Act). Unlike Booth, the movement for racial equality relied on nonviolence and steadfast reform. Still, these profoundly democratic organizations missed their ultimate mark. De facto segregation survived the legal and judicial reforms of the era. In fact, segregationists became more sophisticated about the methods of maintaining racial inequality in every area. The emergence of the global service economy relied on the continued use of assumptions from the origins of industrial segregation. By the end of the twentieth century, nearly every accomplishment of the movement had been limited or reversed to support the concentration and isolation of African Americans and anyone who drew inspiration from their example. Racial inequality remained intransigent because the movement settled for killing white paternalism instead of white supremacy.
The death of white paternalism is most obvious in the politics of western civilization. As European leaders decry the failure of multiculturalism, moderate, white capitalists — the foundation of the nineteenth century Republican Party — have completely abandoned any connection to the principled pursuit of racial equality. Perhaps more than even the former southern segregationists, midwestern and northeastern white men have led the charge in dismantling equal opportunity for all. The clearest example of this benign neglect is the rigid segregation of communities across the United States based on credit ratings that are thinly disguised racial covenants. The Civil Rights / Black Power movement did not sufficiently dismantle the private sector financial techniques for expanding racial segregation. Worse, the movement alienated three generations of potential allies among mainstream, white industrialists who sometimes supported civil rights initiatives dating back to the Reconstruction period. De facto segregation expanded. Equal opportunity declined. Trayvon Martin is dead.
Ever since the first efforts to abolish slavery and assert racial equality occurred in the eighteenth century, people of African descent have had to settle for a status of ‘public property’ instead of full equality. In the nineteenth century northern United States, segregation was the tool to maintain white authority over black lives. The Jim Crow system became a formal way to organize multiple, local, northern systems into a regional, southern system (and eventually, a national system after Plessy v. Ferguson). This authority was never explicitly and repeatedly revoked in the twentieth century. Western Civilization has never taken the time and effort to undo the colonial and segregationist approach to people of African descent anywhere in the world. The scrutiny, suspicion, and sanction available to any individual who claims authority over a ‘black person’ remains public. George Zimmerman is not unusual or unique. His claim to authority is well established with approaching six hundred years of precedent. As a world society, we can only undo this damage — we can only honor the life of Trayvon Martin — by committing to destroy every remaining policy and cultural norm that maintains this ‘public property’ status for people of African descent worldwide. This moment is an opportunity for all of us to finally do the greatest work of freedom and democracy in our homes, communities, and nations. Let us make human dignity the unintended consequence of this horrific tragedy.
Dr. Walter Greason is the author of The Path to Freedom: Black Families in New Jersey. His next book, Suburban Erasure: How the Suburbs Ended the Civil Rights Movement in New Jersey, is due for release later this year.