America Was Conceived in Racism | Opinion

There are no living pictures of Philip Reid. No sketches exist. No portraits that sit atop mantles and living room chimneys. No stained photos tucked or hidden away in a museum to be restored and viewed by hungry tourists looking to learn more about a shadow of America we seldom get to see up close. There are no statues of him. There are no monuments in his name. No schools or institutions named after him. No conference rooms, parks, university halls or public benches.

Generally, the conversations surrounding who built America are based on theorized summations of it—the Lincolns, the Washingtons, the Roosevelts of the world whose names echo in textbooks and government buildings across the states. Their building and construction of America speaks to the mythology of law, order, democracy and power that surrounds how the country was founded. The idea of American fortitude, the ideal that rests on hard work and diligence; that these and these alone—not inherited wealth, stolen properties or gender and class and racial biases—will get you ahead in life, is very much the groundwork for modern racism as we see it. An attempt to depart from race and racism as one of the governing principles in which America was constructed is very much racist itself.

The actual building of America—its framework and the manual labor involved, its marble and brick, plaster, soil and grain—cannot be discussed without a discussion about the Black hands that have their ancestral imprints ingrained on their surfaces. The irony that New York City Dutch settlers brought with them enslaved peoples, bodies that are now buried under the financial capital known as Wall Street, is not to be underplayed. America's financial freedoms, its sensibilities and growth are literally built on top of the bodies of Blackness. The Black labor force played a large part in the building of America. That labor force was enslaved. And they were enslaved due to a system that saw them as inferior, less than equal and not worth even being deemed fully human. These theories are not based on true science or metrics. They are based and steeped in racism. Racism not only built the conceptualized version of the America we know. Racism had a hand in its physical infrastructure.

"The true measure of a nation's wealth is not the size of its king's treasury or the holdings of an affluent few, but rather the wages of 'the laboring poor.'" - Adam Smith

America as we know it does not exist without racism. Furthermore, this America does not exist with colonialism, without imperialism. Adam Smith's theory of the market has been radically shifted by the powers-that-be to mean that in a free market, cheap labor is what will drive the economy, without regard to the inequities that exist when those with wealth fail to attribute that wealth to classism, sexism, gender bias and, above all else, racism. The Americas brought along with them indentured servants, both white AND Black, European immigrants and African enslaved peoples under a fancy title that still can be chalked up to modern slavery. It was also the early colonists who saw the potential uprising among poor whites and Blacks, who opted to create divisions between both, seeking to alienate Black "workers" and ensuring that poor whites would always see themselves as above their Black counterparts.

Racism, it turns out, is a religion.

Phillip Reid's hands helped to build the "Statue of Freedom" that sits atop the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. He was loaned out to the United States government by his then-slavemaster. Philip Reid worked seven days a week with no breaks, and was paid on Sundays only. The rest of his pay was given to his slavemaster. One could argue that this was a form of taxation. Except Phillip was not considered to be a part of the workforce per se. He could not be—he was property. "Nace," "Harry" and "Gabe"—these are some of the first names attributed to the enslaved peoples on bills listed whose services were used to help build the U.S. Capitol.

When we say slavery, that racism built this country, it is not a feeble attempt to help Americans recognize the sacrifice of limb and ligament that Black bodies made for the United States; it is not a poetic device or a fond way of describing the legacy of Blackness in America. It is the truth: This country's financial viability as a first-world superpower does not come to pass without racism and without one of the defining creations of American invention—the cotton gin. Eli Whitney created the process that helped to separate the seeds from the fibers of cotton, thus doubling the demand for cotton, which in turn increased the demand for a slave labor force. Needless to say, there was not a demand for white laborers to join already-enslaved peoples in the cotton field.

The institution of slavery does not exist without racism. And without racism, there is no America. We can look no further than the repealing of many Reconstruction-era mandates by then-President, and celebrated segregationist and racist, Andrew Johnson, who so eloquently stated, "This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am president, it shall be a government for white men."

"Make America Great Again" poses a question that many right-wing conservatives and libertarians fail to answer: Make it great for whom?

Juneteenth protesters in New York City
Juneteenth protesters in New York City Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

It is this perverted, new form of racism that is harder to track and nail down for those who, for some reason, require a more compelling argument that, due to affirmative action and welfare (a program that still assists as many whites as it does Blacks), racism is no longer an issue. The argument alone begets a clearer path for how racism comes to exist: By needing a more defined, tangible way to describe racism that lives outside of pejoratives and easily recognizable stereotypes, those whose arguments are grounded in racism get to see their stances as opinions—and not racism.

But racism is still here. We know this because racism teaches us every day. It teaches us that the foundation of American capitalism was constructed by the bootstraps of laborers and freedom fighters who laid their lives and blood on the line for the world we get to inhabit. That freedom was never meant for Black bodies. Racism has permeated into all that we do. To ignore disparities in the criminal justice system, in education, in health care, in wages, in police-sanctioned violence; to then blame those disparities on the lack of motivation or an unwillingness of communities to police themselves, misses the mark by not honestly historicizing the racist policies that have gotten us here.

The white supremacist system that is the U.S. has propagated the idea that racism has to be radical and overt—a cross burning, a lynching, a slur. However, racism is far more deft than that, and so much more nuanced. American law allow racists to operate in plain sight—micro-aggressions, not overt denial of employment and services using specific racist language, but in a, "you are too aggressive," "you are too loud," "I'm sure they were justified in the force used," "thugs" or "why were they jogging there?" kind of way. State-sanctioned violence that has found a home here, has always had a home here.

Racism is not just a construct—it is a disease, a poison. Its contents run rampant in the waters of these United States of America. Racism is not solely an American problem, it's just that America happens to be very good at it. So good, in fact, that we have adapted policy, created housing and school zones, defunded programming and reinvested law and order into it. Systemic racism does not live only in public institutions. It shows itself when people question kneeling during the anthem, when players are told "stick to sports," when a Black woman is lambasted for using her voice in a white, male-dominated arena.

‪If we are not constantly learning, unlearning and relearning, if we are not in a constant state of evolving and awakening, then the repeated offenses of this sordid history will continue to show itself throughout every fiber of the very system we have been tasked to decolonize and destroy.‬ ‪We all come from somewhere, from something. Until America truly reckons with their "somewhere" being systemic racism and slavery, this plight that burdens everything we say we hold true and dear to what we believe our concept of America should and could be, will never cease.‬

Joel L. Daniels is the author of A Book About Things I Will Tell My Daughter. Follow him on Twitter: @JoelakaMaG.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.