“But Why Are Protesters Destroying Property?”

Dearest Nani,

The stories we’ve been told about this country have left entire stories out.

Nothing is accidental about the violence against Black bodies that we have just now begun to take note of, nor about the fact that you ask, “but why do they have to destroy property in their anger?” It is not a new phenomenon to consider the destruction of private property and the ending of Black lives equally condemnable acts.

Not so long ago, there was no distinction between property and Black bodies themselves. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, 12 million humans were shipped across the ocean from Africa. On the other side of their voyage, 10.5 million of them disembarked in what we have come to call the United States. That 1.5 million of them cannot be accounted for is proof of the purpose for which they were sent: just as a garden tool you order online may break as it’s shipped in the mail, so the death of the commodities the early colonists were importing was but an inconvenience to their importers.

It’s on the backs of Black bodies that America’s wealth was built. From sugar to cotton, the toil of thousands of enslaved people laid the foundation for this country’s agricultural production. Far from being able to partake of the fruits of their labor, they were prohibited from even being in relationship with humans outside of their community. When a Black man, a Scottish man, and a Dutch man banded together to try to escape from slavery in 1640, upon being caught, the people with lighter skin received seven years of servitude as punishment; the person with dark skin was sentenced to servitude for life. This was before there was anything called “white.” At this time, the men would have identified themselves as an African man, a Scotsman, and a Dutchman. But their oppressors were afraid of the working class organizing together to “overthrow” the landed majority — so they intentionally created an identity called “whiteness” to drive a wedge between different segments of the labor class. By doing this, they ensured that they created a multi-class coalition based on the construct of race, stymying the growth of the multi-racial coalition based on class they saw starting to emerge.

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When enslaved people were given their freedom on paper (only 150 years ago) it’s not as though then they could reap the benefits of any of the seed they and their ancestors had sown. An entire set of laws was codified to ensure that almost any action taken by a Black body could be seen as “criminal,” for the 13th Amendment had abolished slavery, except as punishment for a crime. What better way to ensure the domination of a people who can only be enslaved if they are criminal than to paint their every movement as criminal? The police force we have in this country was actually founded for this purpose — established, resourced, and armed to check the freedom, mobility, political agency, and economic power of the Black body in America.

Since formerly enslaved people had been unable to own property for so many generations, it would seem only fair that the government support them to identify and acquire some land. It was just this that President Lincoln signed into order in 1865, promising 40 acres of tillable land to those who had cultivated it on behalf of others for generations. But when Lincoln was assassinated in the same year, his successor Andrew Johnson overturned the policy. What a different country we may have lived in from the one we currently inhabit where the median white family’s wealth is $171,000 while the Black family’s is $17,600! Author Kimberly Jones invites us to imagine playing a game of Monopoly where “for 400 rounds…I didn’t allow you to have any money, I didn’t allow you to have anything on the board…and then we played another 50 rounds of Monopoly, and everything that you gained, that you earned was taken from you.”

So for 400 rounds of Monopoly, you don’t get to play at all — not only do you not get to play, you have to play on the behalf of the person you’re playing against.

“You have to play and earn money for them and then you have to turn it over to them. So then for 50 years, you finally get a little bit and you’re allowed to play, and every time that they don’t like the way that you’re playing, or that you’re catching up, or that you’re doing something to be self-sufficient: they burn your game. They burn your cards. They burn your Monopoly money. And then…finally…they allow you to play and they say, ‘oh, now you catch up.’ How can you win?”

You may ask, Nani, why it has been so difficult for Black people to thrive in America when we look different from whites, too. The fact that we would ask that question is also by design. Vivek Bald writes, “Narratives of Asian-Americans as a ‘model minority’ serve to invalidate anti-Black racism in the U.S., claiming that if some immigrants have been able to ‘make it’ in this country, it must be due to personal failings that Blacks have not achieved the same level of success in America.” In fact, the way Asian-Americans were excluded in this country between World War II and the 1960s was much more similar to the way Black folks are marginalized today.

As the United States entered the Cold War, the country needed to manufacture an image as an open society, and the concession was made to Asian-Americans.

External pressure from a foreign foe raised the stakes for civil rights internally, and the concession was made to Asian-Americans, whom the government caricatured as “apolitical, quiet, uncomplaining.” At that time, the United States repealed immigration and naturalization exclusion laws against Asians, and actively desegregated housing, employment, and voting for Asian-Americans. This served to make the United States look more humane while establishing an intentional contrast between Asian-Americans and African-Americans.

If any of this seems shocking to you, you will find this level of intentional discrimination in every system — we have not even spoken about redlining in housing, fines and fees levied on formerly incarcerated citizens, and exploitative loans given disproportionately to people of color. We have not talked about the fact that Wells Fargo openly referred to those loans as “ghetto loans” in their internal conversations. We haven’t talked about the fact that Black students are twice as likely as their white peers to be suspended, and a child who is suspended is three times more likely to come in contact with the juvenile justice system. We haven’t talked about the father of modern gynecology who performed extremely brutal experiments on enslaved women and justified them by claiming that Black people do not feel pain.

I hope that this journey through how Black people in this country have gone from being seen as commodities to being seen as criminals provides some background for the generations of iterative trauma that have led to what the country looks like today. Until those of us with privilege and power don’t know that the oppression of Black bodies did not end 150 years ago, nor start when the protests outside came into our collective consciousness, it will be impossible to construct a society where everyone can be safe, fearless, and free.

Yours,

Ratna

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