As a young child, I was unfortunate enough to have a trace of reddish hair and relatively pale skin for a Black person – remnants of an interracial rape three generations distant in my family tree.
While I measured my misfortune in personal terms – being taunted by my elementary schoolmates as “a little white boy” – the greater dilemma my physical appearance evidenced was the catastrophe of white supremacy that has plagued the entire world over the past four centuries.
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The rape of my African American great-grandmother by a white man was ignored by law enforcement authorities in the western North Carolina county where the crime was committed because it was not that unusual an occurrence. The rape of Black women by white men at that time and in that part of our nation occurred frequently.
On the other hand, any suspicion of rape of a white woman by a Black man produced howls of rage and an execution, usually by lynching after torture.
The lynching of Black folk was almost always done in the name of “law and order.” Something of value to the white community had to be protected. It was this way during the days of slavery. It is this way today. And to clearly understand how this was able to take place all these years, we must understand what law is.
Law is a process of authoritative control, where certain empowered community members establish and maintain a particular public order.
In the 1880s in North Carolina, that particular public order allowed white men to rape Black women with impunity while dealing a death sentence to any Black man who was believed to have assaulted a white woman.
The laws were not written in the books that way, but neither are today’s laws that allow armed white murderers to be taken into custody alive, while unarmed Black men are summarily executed by police for selling cigarettes without a license. Law is more than the written statutes and the constitutions. It is also the implementation and execution of written and unwritten notions of public order.
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If a police officer or a judge deems it in the best interest of public order to treat Blacks one way and whites another, then that is the law unless and until a higher authority steps in. That is the law, but it is not justice.
Americans usually are not taught the difference between “law” and “justice,” and by conflating the two, we are blinded to the injustice of many laws and the manner of their execution. When the Nazis were empowered to establish and maintain their public order, it was “legal” in Germany to do the horrific things they did to Jews and members of other minority groups. But after World War II, the Nazis were no longer empowered, and under a new law of that land, their acts were declared criminal and several were hanged.
Many laws in America are unjust, and many more are executed in an unjust manner. Until we confront this and acknowledge it, we will live in a land plagued with injustice.
Race-based laws reigned supreme in the American South until the federal government developed the will to strip Southern states of their powers to allow the rape, murder, robbery and dehumanization of African Americans. But this was low-hanging fruit. The segregationists and race haters were so disgustingly vile that America could not hold its head up in the global community if it allowed their crimes to continue unchecked.
Unfortunately, it took tragedies like the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till for America to stop and reflect on what was happening. But once the low-hanging fruit was plucked and the Ku Klux Klan and segregationists like Alabama Gov. George Wallace were driven back into the shadows, the cancer of white supremacy was left to fester and metastasize throughout the body politic of this nation.
Today, we have the murder of George Floyd, yet another unarmed Black man, by yet another white police officer and there is a new awakening of the American conscience. Floyd’s murder is a clear symptom of the out-of-control cancer of white supremacy in this country. The whole world sees it and their protests let us know that they do not like it.
Americans who claim to be law-and-order advocates can now be asked: What law? What order? What justice? Why do those elected officials who claim to champion law and order go silent when a police officer breaks the law and murders a Black victim?
I do not expect the “law-and-order politicians” to respond to these questions. However, fair-minded Americans should weigh those hypocrites on the scales of justice, and if they find them wanting, remove them from office.
Oscar H. Blayton is a former Marine Corps combat pilot and human rights activist who practices law in Virginia.