Rohingya refugees crossing the Naf river into Bangladesh. We see injustice born from a troubled past like in the troubled racial history of the United States, Russia’s Stalinism and the genocide of Rohingya in Myanmar. AFP PIC

A TROUBLED past creates prejudiced policies, resulting in injustice. The past of nations has to be processed.

The sins of yesterday — in the likes of genocide, slavery or political mass murder — are indeed tragic. Most times, these are unspeakable.

We see this in the troubled racial history of the United States, and other settler nations, like Australia viz their Aborigines, in German Nazi history, Russia’s Stalinism, the apartheid of South Africa, the genocide of Rwanda, and right in our backyard, the genocide of Rohingya in Myanmar.

The journal Foreign Affairs in its January/February 2018 issue (Volume 97, Number 1) features the theme of how nations confront the evils of history.

In “The Undead Past”, editor Gideon Rose referred to it as “coming to terms with the past”. It covers six essays — more precisely, six cases related to past crimes — two of genocide, two of political mass murder and two of enduring racial oppression. One article may serve to facilitate our understanding of the peculiarities of “race relations”, a feature much structured in the Anglo-Saxon world, and why we do not need the phrase in our national consciousness.

America, which proclaims itself as the champion of democracy, equality and human rights, has cast a group of its people as “inferior beings”. The most significant fact about American slavery, one it did not share with other prominent ancient slave systems, was its basis in race. Slavery in the US created a defined, unrecognisable group of people and placed them outside society. And, unlike the indentured servitude of European immigrants to North America, slavery was an inherited condition.

In her essay titled “America’s Original Sin: Slavery and the Legacy of White Supremacy”, Annette Gordon-Reed had strongly argued that American slavery was inexorably tied to White dominance: “Even people of African descent who were freed for one reason or another suffered the weight of the white supremacy that racially based slavery entrenched in American society.”

And, in the few places where free blacks had some form of state citizenship, their rights were circumscribed in ways that emphasised inferior status. Gordon-Reed, professor of American Legal History at Harvard Law School and professor of History at Harvard University, was referring to the existence of white supremacy. These conditions served as blueprints for the system.

In her study on the interplay between race and justice in American history, she found that blackness was associated with inferiority and a lack of freedom. In some jurisdictions, black skin created legal presumption of an enslaved status.

These explain American attitudes about slavery, freedom and race, and, indeed, American culture overall. White unity persisted because of it. Another argument forwarded was that race-based slavery in America made the freedom of white people possible: “The system that put black people at the bottom of the social heap tamped down class divisions among the whites. Without a large group of people who would always rank below the level of even the poorest, most affected white person, white unity could not have persisted.”

In that precise sense, America, in grappling with the legacy of slavery, therefore, requires grappling with white supremacy that preceded the founding of the US and persisted after the end of legalised slavery. Gordon-Reed compared this to the Irish chattel slavery in North America. In early America, the Irish also suffered pervasive discrimination and were subjected to crude and cruel stereotypes about their alleged inferiority, but they were never kept as slaves.

The enslavement of the Irish would have been a major historical fact had they been enslaved and then freed. But that would likely not have created a legacy so firmly tying the past to the present as did African chattel slavery. Descendants of Irish indentured servants and other immigrants, especially from central and southern Europe, blended into American society and today suffer no stigma because of their ancestors’ social condition.

Universities in America, ideally the site of inquiry and intellectual contest, have grappled with this new consciousness. Gordon-Reed observed that many of the most prestigious American universities have benefited from the institution of slavery, or have buildings named after people who promoted white supremacy. Some universities, like Brown, Georgetown, Harvard, Princeton and Yale, have started conversations on campus, carrying out programmes of historical self-study and setting up commissions. These have arguably contributed to the greater public understanding of the past.

Slavery as a system is meant as a social control over the enslaved. And that enslaved status is dependent on a set of generally identifiable physical characteristics, such as skin colour, hair and facial features. These made it easy to tell who was eligible for slavery. To this day, Whiteness still amounted to a value, unmoored from economic or social status. Blackness is devalued.

De jure segregation is dead, but de facto segregation is firmly in place in much of America today. The US had a black president, and a black first family. The emergence of Donald Trump as president expressed, in part, a backlash. It represents a lasting legacy. A long overdue reckoning with white supremacy is unavoidable.

Datuk Dr A. Murad Merican is a professor with the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies (CenPRIS) , Universiti Sains Malaysia

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