AHA Statement on the History of Racist Violence in the United States (June 2020)Historians in the News
tags: American Historical Association
The AHA has issued a statement urging a reckoning with the United States' deplorable record of violence against African Americans, a record that stretches back centuries. The killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers stands within this sordid national tradition of racist violence. It is past time for Americans to confront our nation's past, using insights from history to inform our actions as we work to create a more just society.
91 scholarly organizations have co-signed this statement to date.
Approved by AHA Council, June 2020
Everything has a history, including our nation’s deplorable record of violence against African Americans, committed either outside the law or in the name of law enforcement itself. George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers cannot be understood in isolation, as a tragic moment detached from a familiar narrative of “who we as Americans really are.” What happened to George Floyd stands well within our national tradition.
This sordid history stretches back centuries, from before Virginia’s first slavery legislation in 1662 through emancipation and beyond. Enslavers acted with impunity to punish and “discipline” enslaved people. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 extended the extreme violence of slave-owning by legitimating the hunt for human beings into states where slavery had been outlawed so they might be returned to their former owners. Reconstruction—the experiment that came after the violence of a Civil War—could not withstand the lethal combination of terrorism and voter fraud. Well into the mid-20th century, white supremacy was enforced by lynch mobs that murdered black men, women, and children on the flimsiest of pretexts or no pretext at all. In the late 19th century and beyond, convict laborers and peons, subject to whippings and other forms of physical abuse unchecked by either formal or informal codes of civilized conduct, had little recourse to the law and remained at the mercy of white sheriffs and landowners.
Deeply embedded cultural practices are difficult to change. Despite insistent calls for reform over generations, police departments and civilian review boards have largely sided with law-enforcement officers who violated norms not only of good policing but of human decency. What has changed is less the story itself than our ability to document and interpret stories with cell phones that generate immediate, previously unavailable historical records. Video footage of police brutality constitutes a new form of historical documentation and legal evidence with the potential to hold violent perpetrators accountable for their crimes.
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