Camp ToB 2019
Week 10: American Spy
This week, we wrap up our discussion of the first book in our August matchup: Lauren Wilkinson’s American Spy.
The 1619 Project from the New York Times Magazine.
A special issue of the New York Times Magazine, the 1619 Project, observes the 400th anniversary of American slavery, when the first enslaved Africans arrived at Point Comfort in the British colony of Virginia in August 1619.
You should read the entire issue, but here are three to get you started:
Nikole Hannah-Jones: Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.
Many white Americans saw black men in the uniforms of America’s armed services not as patriotic but as exhibiting a dangerous pride. Hundreds of black veterans were beaten, maimed, shot and lynched. We like to call those who lived during World War II the Greatest Generation, but that allows us to ignore the fact that many of this generation fought for democracy abroad while brutally suppressing democracy for millions of American citizens. During the height of racial terror in this country, black Americans were not merely killed but castrated, burned alive and dismembered with their body parts displayed in storefronts. This violence was meant to terrify and control black people, but perhaps just as important, it served as a psychological balm for white supremacy: You would not treat human beings this way. The extremity of the violence was a symptom of the psychological mechanism necessary to absolve white Americans of their country’s original sin. To answer the question of how they could prize liberty abroad while simultaneously denying liberty to an entire race back home, white Americans resorted to the same racist ideology that Jefferson and the framers had used at the nation’s founding.
Matthew Desmond: In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.
Slavery was undeniably a font of phenomenal wealth. By the eve of the Civil War, the Mississippi Valley was home to more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the United States. Cotton grown and picked by enslaved workers was the nation’s most valuable export. The combined value of enslaved people exceeded that of all the railroads and factories in the nation. New Orleans boasted a denser concentration of banking capital than New York City. What made the cotton economy boom in the United States, and not in all the other far-flung parts of the world with climates and soil suitable to the crop, was our nation’s unflinching willingness to use violence on nonwhite people and to exert its will on seemingly endless supplies of land and labor. Given the choice between modernity and barbarism, prosperity and poverty, lawfulness and cruelty, democracy and totalitarianism, America chose all of the above.
Jeneen Interlandi: Why doesn’t the United States have universal health care? The answer has everything to do with race.
Professional societies like the American Medical Association barred black doctors; medical schools excluded black students, and most hospitals and health clinics segregated black patients. Federal health care policy was designed, both implicitly and explicitly, to exclude black Americans. As a result, they faced an array of inequities—including statistically shorter, sicker lives than their white counterparts. What’s more, access to good medical care was predicated on a system of employer-based insurance that was inherently difficult for black Americans to get. “They were denied most of the jobs that offered coverage,” says David Barton Smith, an emeritus historian of health care policy at Temple University. “And even when some of them got health insurance, as the Pullman porters did, they couldn’t make use of white facilities.”
In the shadows of this exclusion, black communities created their own health systems. Lay black women began a national community health care movement that included fund-raising for black health facilities; campaigns to educate black communities about nutrition, sanitation and disease prevention; and programs like National Negro Health Week that drew national attention to racial health disparities. Black doctors and nurses—most of them trained at one of two black medical colleges, Meharry and Howard—established their own professional organizations and began a concerted war against medical apartheid. By the 1950s, they were pushing for a federal health care system for all citizens.