The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 36.0°F | A Few Clouds


African-Americans and Other Myths

Philip Burrowes

Tom Joyner would have you believe that everyday Americans can celebrate Black History any month they well please, but he’s really kidding himself. Everyone knows Black History is meant to be packaged in sound-bites, and that there’s simply not enough material to last longer than a month in that form. Nevertheless, some issues are skirted in conventional discussion because of their controversial nature, creating an artificial shortage of topics which brings the festivities to an early close. All the more reason to revisit the subject here in March. Without further ado, here are the five greatest myths of Black History.

The Three-Fifths Compromise. When the Framers were debating the representation scheme of the United States legislature, they had to settle numerous population questions. As discussion of slavery itself was explicitly tabled until the nineteenth century, there was an issue with counting the numerous slaves. They weren’t going to be able to vote, so it wasn’t feasible to count them as full persons. Still, they would be administrative problems, so it was not wise to ignore their presence. Instead, each slave was counted as three fifths of a person.

At first blush, this seems horrible; black people were regarded as less than a person (although this did not institutionalize the slave equals black equation, but that is a discussion for another time). Without this distinction, however, the slave holders would have wielded even more disproportionate levels of power, maintaining considerable representation in the House by virtue of their slave-holdings. No other viable option existed.

Dred Scott Decision. Some states in the antebellum United States were “free” and some “slave,” and never the twain would meet (for considerably small values of “never”). The Scott family was brought by its masters from the slave state of Virginia to the slave state of Missouri, then into the free state of Illinois (and the free territory of Wisconsin), and finally returned to Missouri. Believing they had attained the right to freedom, the Scotts sued for their freedom, eventually appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in turn struck down their request and questioned the very idea of prohibiting slavery in territories.

Once again, this seems a very troubling settlement. Yet the fact of the matter is that allowing slaves rights as citizens would create all sorts of property rights quagmires. However unpalatable it was, slaves were property, and you couldn’t have that property declaring itself free on the basis of disjunctive national law. That was simply anathema to the American ideal of private ownership rights and government protection thereof.

Separate but Equal. Fast forward to post-Reconstruction America. Homer Adolph Plessy, an “octoroon,” sat in the white section of a Louisiana railcar, in open defiance of segregation law. Plessy challenged the law on the basis it violated the 13th and 14th Amendments. Without going too much into the argument, the Supreme Court held that racially separated accommodations were constitutional so long they were of equal quality.

Now let’s be frank about why segregation was opposed by black people. It was not that they desperately wanted to be included into white institutions; it was that the “colored” equivalents were invariably worse. Had the doctrine of “separate but equal” been adhered to, the incentive to integrate would have been heavily mitigated. Of course, as the NAACP evinced in its legal attack on segregated higher education, this policy is impossible to follow on several levels. Then again, desegregation hasn’t exactly been a cakewalk.

Jackie Robinson. Reintegration of Major League Baseball was a prime example of this problem. Until the death of Commissioner “Judge” Landis, it would have been outright impossible for blacks to play in the MLB. When former UCLA standout and Negro American League star Jackie Robinson was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers, it was believed to be not just some sort of token gesture but a genuine boon to the talent of the organization, and indeed his career would be prolific by contemporaneous standards.

His signing, however, heralded the demise of the Negro Leagues, as players not only wanted to prove themselves worthy but also gain more exposure. One of the few examples of a “colored” institution capable of rivaling white America’s products was squashed and not adequately replaced. To this day, black ownership, management, and attendance of MLB simply cannot compare to the levels achieved during segregation. None of this takes into account the complex experience of the black athletes themselves within white baseball relating to the media, and in black communities. Integration may have provided an uplift for the nation, but was a practical loss for blacks.

African-Americans. Make that a practical loss for “African-Americans.” “Colored” emphasized the difference between “white” people and everyone else, and as such did not just create an arbitrary distinction between people (because after all, what is race for if not distinction?) but played easily into white supremacism.

“Negro/black” connotes negatively, as any glance through a dictionary would tell you. First as “Afro-Americans,” later as full-fledged “African-Americans” black people merely sought to craft a word to describe themselves which would not be laden with historical and etymological baggage.

Assuming that there was some defensible notion of “black” people as a group with a shared African heritage, assuming that it was utile to perpetuate this notion, and even assuming usage of any new term within the sole context of the United States, the phrase is just incorrect. “Black” does not equal “African,” much in the same way “Oriental” -- in its incorrectly ethnic sense -- did not equal “Asian.” Nor does “black” equal “American” even in this country, as there are many black immigrants despite U.S. immigration policy. Quite simply, “African-American” is a misnomer on both counts.

Had you been doing this every week like you were supposed to, you would’ve covered significant portions of “Black History,” but that is a term with a parochial purpose. True historical study is not furthered by superficial analysis in the name of expedience, nor by euphemistic packaging for commercial use, nor by piecemeal integration into mainstream discourse. What seems like a case of “separate but equal” treatment may sometimes be the option most conducive to faithful exploration, but it must never be done in blatant ignorance of the greater context or in acceptance of its esoteric nature.