George Floyd’s recent death while in Police custody has sparked protests across the entire United States. While it did expose the way Black Americans are policed, it also initiated a much deeper conversation about the prevalent racism faced by Black Americans in almost all aspects of modern life.
Many symbols of the racist past still exist across the US, more so in the Southern states. The recent trigger of protests and the BLM movement has initiated a discussion about these symbols once again. While some argue that it is important to preserve these symbols owing to the American culture, the majority of the people seem to be agreeing that these are symbols of oppression and injustice.
In the mid to late 19th century, white actors quite commonly employed the use of black grease paint to depict slaves and free blacks on stage. The technique commonly known as blackface was more than just facial makeup. Rather, it was used as a symbol for mocking the African-Americans as inferiors in every aspect of life.
Blackface seemed to have disappeared in the 1960s thanks to the Civil Rights Movement. It however reappeared in the 1980s on college campuses in the wake of steps taken to bring more African Americans to campus. An old yearbook picture from Langley School resurfaced recently revealing the then-principal and vice-principal dressed as whiteface and blackface for Halloween. The current leadership of the school have issued apologies stating that the incident should not have happened.
Despite a racist history surrounding blackface, a recent survey by Pew Research Centre revealed that nearly one-third of Americans surveyed did not find anything offensive in blackface being used at Halloween.
Aunt Jemima, a 130-year-old syrup and pancake mix brand owned by Quaker Oats depicts a black woman named Aunt Jemima who was originally dressed as a minstrel character. The company has earlier made tweaks to the picture of the black woman in response to the criticism it received for propagating a racial stereotype. In June 2020, Quaker Oats announced that the brand would be rejuvenated to feature a new name and image.
Andrew Jackson, the seventh US president and his family employed hundreds of enslaved people in building their wealth. However, to date, Jackson still haunts Black Americans with his presence on the twenty-dollar bills in the wallets of these Americans. The Trump administration’s decision to not replace the bill featuring Jackson with one that would feature abolitionist Harriet Tubman as proposed earlier does not help the nation’s troubled history with Racism.
Similar symbols of the US racist past exist across the entire country, starting from streets named after Confederate officers to congested highways specifically designed to ensure isolation of Black neighborhoods. Football and baseball games in the country still feature the national anthem penned by Francis Scott Key, a person who used his power as district attorney to prosecute Black men.
George Floyd’s death was the perfect trigger for all the anger and frustration against the systematic injustice that has been meted out to Black people. However, it also served well to initiate debates over the omnipresence of these racial symbols across the country that serve as memorials to slavery and white supremacy.
As many as 800 Confederate statues and monuments have been removed ever since the BLM protests erupted in the country. A few of these racial symbols in the US suffered the brunt of BLM protesters who defaced homages and toppled statues of founding fathers who had profited from slavery.
Those against the removal of these symbols argue that these men merely failed in morality due to the socio-political environment they inhabited. Alvita Akiboh, an assistant professor of history at the University of Michigan, however, disagrees with the notion. “Just because slavery was accepted among white elites or even the broader white population at the time does not mean it was accepted by everybody, because everybody includes Black people who were enslaved, indigenous people who were pushed off their lands in order to expand plantation slavery,” said Akiboh.
Others, including US President Donald Trump, have employed the notion of removing these symbols as the equivalent of “ripping American history and culture apart”. To this Akiboh voices her opinion saying that the majority of these symbols were erected decades after the civil-war conflict ended. She argues that they are merely “a reminder for Black and brown people to remember their place”.
As the BLM protests gain momentum and support globally the scrutiny of the racist symbols in the US shall increase manifold. With the government not willing to push for major reforms and removal of these racist symbols and an adamant public demanding an end to the systematic discrimination based on race, the road ahead for the recial relation in the US is a difficult and complicated one.