As we celebrate Martin Luther King Day, it is fitting to reflect upon the tortured experience of blacks in this country. Looking back upon four centuries of African-American history two things are undeniably clear: for the greatest part of America’s history, blacks were grossly mistreated and the country has come a long, long way since the first slaves were brought to Jamestown in 1619.
Most astounding, in this latter regard, is the seismic shift in popular attitudes regarding blacks since the Civil Rights movement began. It’s hard to believe that Mad Men depicts a world that is less than fifty years removed from us.
Yet for all the progress the country has made—the abolition of slavery, the end of segregation, and the change in hearts and minds—not everyone draws inspiration from this admirable story of overcoming. The persistence of stark socio-economic disparities between black and white Americans, the extraordinarily high incarceration rates of black men, and the desolation in many inner cities have led many to “wallow in the valley of despair,” to borrow a phrase from Dr. King’s most famous speech.
Such despair in turn has fueled a radical critique of America that is increasingly prevalent among scholars and activists who deal with race relations. America, we are told, is founded on a racial contract that excludes all non-white males. As former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall explained: “the prevailing opinion of the Framers regarding the rights of Negroes in America” was, and here he goes on to cite approvingly the infamous Dred Scott decision “that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the Negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.” From there, it’s a straight line to the conclusion reached by John Hope Franklin, author of the standard history of African Americans, From Slavery to Freedom: “Racial Segregation, discrimination, and degradation… stem logically from the legacy that the Founding Fathers bestowed upon contemporary America.”