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It is often argued that the main cause of Africa’s poverty rates is mainly related to the lack of pro-growth derived from either the colonial system or the period of slavery. (Jerven, p.77) This argument has recently been applied to the United States’ social scene in order to explain the existent and continuing problems of income and economic inequality especially within the African American race. In fact, the phenomenon is so troubling that several campaigns have been recently launched to combat the problem.
Among these is the Campaign to Reduce Poverty in America whose aim is to accomplish a decrease of 50% in poverty rates by 2020. (Catholic Charities USA) The problem of poverty is thus present and confirmed in the high rates of unemployment, the social disparities and the various and different attempts to deal with the problem whether by private, religious or governmental organizations. However, what is especially interesting to analyze further in this discussion are the causes of this social and economic problem.
The origins of poverty are for example drawn upon by Gunja SenGupta in his book From Slavery to Poverty: The Racial Origins of Welfare in New York, 1840-1918, in which he argues that the historic roots of the problem run deeper than the present which consequentially implies the need to reflect on historic events that could be a determinant and influential factor in the continuance of contemporary social dilemmas. (NYU Press) This author is not the only person who perceived a link between poverty and historical problems such as slavery.
In fact, although slavery was abolished over a hundred and forty years ago many people believe that the enslavement of humans has continued in the less direct but similarly hash and cruel form of poverty; a belief that challenges the notions of slavery itself. In short, the current problem of African American poverty is intrinsically related to the long history of subjugation, oppression and racial segregation that were in their turn caused by the slavery system.
Poverty is indeed a reality in America, a country that is considered to be among the richest and most progressed nations in the world. According to the US Census Bureau, 35.9 million people live below the poverty line in America, a number that includes also around 12.9 million children. The statistics are in fact shocking when gathered together. For example, according to the Bread for the World Institute, 3.5% of U.S households experience hunger which means that some members within these families skip meals or eat less than required to sustain a healthy lifestyle. (Siddiqi) The facts are more troubling when applied to the African American community. In a country where 12 percent of the population is black it is also noted that approximately a quarter of African Americans are classified as poor, a problem that has been part of the American social scene for many years. Poverty is thus very common among the members of this particular race. Poverty among African Americans is deeply connected to many issues among which is the lack of proper education that many African American children still do not receive. This decreases the chances of good employment and increases the possibility of experiencing poverty. There are other reasons through which to understand the problem of poverty among African Americans. However, what is interesting to reflect on further is the relationship between these high rates of poverty among African Americans and the problems of race and inequality that are still found socially and do impact the quality of life of the blacks in America. As Jonathan Alter, a writer for Newsweek, pointed out: “Poverty is caused by a tangle of financial and personal pain that often goes beyond insufficient resources and lack of training, wage stagnation, social isolation, and a more subtle form of class-based racism.” (Green) This quote affirms the existence of deeper rooted cause as an explanation of African American poverty. The link between racism and lesser opportunities and chances to advance are clear and hardly require any further elaboration. Since racism is related to the institutionalized system of slavery it is hence important to draw further on the significance of this system in the continued existence of poverty among African Americans.
One of the most famous statements in the Declaration of Independence that has come to be part of what being an American means is: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This sentence is one that stipulates the basic human rights of every American citizen which is freedom, equality, safety and equal chances to realize their dreams of economic prosperity. This sentence has been quoted during the era of the Civil War and the Civil Rights movements to argue against the injustice of slavery that the black people were subjected to. However, equality for all was never part of the social reality even after the abolition of slavery. The perception of white people regarding the blacks was one of superiority that minimized and trivialized the importance of any contribution that could be possibly made by African Americans. For this reason, blacks were denied the same education opportunities as white people which only added to the poverty rates. The fact is that African Americans still lag behind in education attainment compared to white or other minority groups such as Asian Americans. African Americans attend college at half the rate of white citizens. (Kozol, p.26) The historic problem of segregation is deeply linked to these current statistics. Since education empowers an individual to compete in the work force it is hence evident why over a quarter of African Americans continue to experience poverty.
Slavery expanded quickly from the time of is introduction until the beginning of the Civil War that lasted from 1861 to 1865. By the time the war started, nearly 4 million slaves were part of the southern society. Their work was diverse but was founded mainly on the principle of sustaining and enhancing the agricultural economy. They picked or planted cotton. Some other blacks worked within the house. There were slaves trained in the art of blacksmiths or carpentry among others. Slavery was a diverse system that was spread across different sectors of society in the South. Yet, what all types of work had in common is the deprivation of all black people from their rights of choice and ability to earn anything dignifying, materialistically or emotionally, from their work.
Slavery is one of the most well-documented, well-known yet not most pride igniting phases of American history. It has effectively managed to leave its impacts on society, racial integration and ethnic tolerance throughout the centuries since its abolishment and up to the present day. African Americans were enslaved for centuries beginning with the time the United States came into existence in the 17th century until after the Civil War when slavery was officially declared to be unconstitutional. The War itself was mainly caused as a result of the differences in opinion about the issue between the Northern states, the abolitionists, and the Southern states, that depended on the slave system for the maintenance and growth of their agricultural economy. The history of slavery in the United States is however more complicated than a simple time line can serve to shed light on. The institution did not simply start for one obvious reason at one specific time and the same thing can be said about the way it came to an end after the Civil War. Though the war’s purpose was the liberation of slaves and the provision of equal rights for all, slavery did not stop right after the war and continued to be part of the social picture, though to a lesser extent, especially in certain Southern regions. Southern states did especially not desire to completely eliminate the institution of slavery, which was an integral part of their economy, leading with that to the development of a complicated pattern in how the issue came to be dealt with right before, during and after the Civil War. All this implies that slavery was based on the exploitation of individuals for profit; an aspect of the system that served to dehumanize the black population to grave extents. This dehumanizing dimension of slavery served to complicate the integration of African Americans and led to problems of racism and deep-rooted rejection of their integration in American society. This rejection has on the other hand impacted the economic conditions of the blacks as it extended over all areas of life including work and education.
It is no secret that there was a sharp division historically between the Southern and Northern states about the subject of slavery. What is however pertinent in this fact is its application to the economic conditions of blacks in the North versus the South during the 19th century. Racism was more prevalent in the South where many states refused to loosen their harsh racial policies that restricted African Americans to working mainly working in the fields. Though racism was also present in the northern states it was less severe and allowed the black population the opportunity to prosper culturally and intellectually; a growth that is for example evident in the Harlem Renaissance. However, despite these periods of flourishing, the history of African Americans is especially characterized by inequality; an inequality whose main cause is directly related to the centuries of enslavement. As noted before, racism is one of the main causes of the continued economic disadvantage of many African Americans. When slavery was ended, notions as “natural rights” were socially introduced and impacted the perception of blacks of their own role in society. Blacks started becoming aware of the extremely suffocating environment that they were part of and which desperately attempted to keep them in the dark about their rights a human beings and citizens of a nation based on the principles of equality for all. (Mcpherson, p.39) It are these aspects and perceptions of oppression, cruelty and savageness of treatment for the mere promotion of selfish economical gain that continue to generate feelings of freedom and oppression which has managed , and continues, to make the greatest difference nowadays in the interaction of black and white people.
Though theoretically slaves were no longer slaves after the Civil War, they continued to be treated as an extremely inferior race. This was of course different from area to another. In the south, ex-slaves were treated with the same attitude as before the Civil War while in northern states, where the bitterness was more directed towards white southern Americans rather than African-Americans, ex-slaves were treated better than slaves yet not fully as citizens. Emancipation had become a reality with the end of the war but it remains obvious that the place of African-Americans in society was far from being either resolved or clear. The questions that arose consequentially about race served to define the discourse and the relationships between the two different races and are still traceable in the many sensitive taboos that characterize certain racial subjects and words. In the aftermath of the Civil War, practical problems arose in the south in regard to the manner of integrating slaves within society. Whether the freedmen ought to be regarded as citizen and be granted rights as the ability to possess property was central to the debate. Voting rights were another concern as they gave significant importance to the freedmen enabling them to contribute and impact society and their level of prosperity within it. The most important question of all seemed however to revolve around the possibility or impossibility of the peaceful co-existence of blacks and whites together which is a question history has managed to answer so far. (Tallant, p.5) The rise of intolerance, the problem of segregation and the prevention of blacks from voicing their economic or political needs through the democratic voting system have all led to the enhancement of sentiments of antagonism among both sides which led to the blacks’ desire to create their own defensive and distinct identity that was at the core resentful of white people’s influence, and led the white population to adopt on the other hand a segregated and superior outlook. This shows how the history of slavery and the subsequent rise of the problems of racism distanced the two groups from interacting and mutually benefitting from the same opportunities. In short, because of slavery and racism many blacks did not and do not get the chance to benefit from the same opportunities as white people which complicates the chances of finding a good job later on and increases as a result the chances of poverty.
Blacks continued to work mostly on lands owned by white farmers due to the aforementioned complications that arose when they desired to purchase a piece of land for themselves. Neither the federal government nor the local people seemed to support that and the final choice they were left with in the post war era was to keep working for the white planters. There was of course a difference in the way they lived compared to the period before the war. The freedmen exercised now more control over their lives and could not be treated with the same inhumanity as before. They did not have to work before sunrise and continue until after sunset. They could determine their workload more favorably compared to their previous working conditions. They could also determine whom of their family members they wished to be part of the plantation work. Previously, their children were forced at an early age to do the work and this could be prevented with the choices they had after he Civil War. This does of course not mean that the situation changed dramatically to the better including complete freedom and equal rights. To claim that is to dismiss the fundamental aspect about social change: it happens gradually. The living conditions had simply significantly improved from the completely intolerable to the harsh and challenging. Overcoming the social challenges caused by their racial status proved to be a long and trying process that spanned over many years and continues until the present day in the form of the continued attempt to decrease the problems of the black community such as a high level of crime, poverty and a lower rate of educational degrees among the youth. The fact is that blacks have been perceived to be inferior for a long time in America which is a prejudice that affected the opportunities available for this particular race and hence impacted their current economic social position.
It is thus undeniable that slavery had an extremely malignant and negative influence on the development of African- American culture and identity. Being regarded as an inferior race, especially in the South where the idea was the main justification provided to legitimize the slavery institution, was detrimental to the enhancement of any sense of pride in one’s heritage. The change towards that began only slowly. The way they were treated, the destruction of any sense of belonging and attachment to their African heritage during the years of enslavement, the restriction of simple communication between slaves are all facets of slavery that significantly influenced the emancipation process and the development of the African-American culture in addition to complicating the nature of relationships and the form of interaction between whites and blacks. Slavery disrupted thus the sense of belonging to the African heritage and led to the emergence of a defensive attitude among blacks. Even after emancipation, slavery continued to play a role on African American’s future and chances of progress. This is evident in the themes of their music and art whether written or visual. These themes deal often with the idea of social inequality, oppression and economic disadvantage as a direct consequence of racial history. Slavery made blacks without doubt socially disadvantaged and led to the subsequent rise of the Civil Rights Movement in the 20th century. The racism and harassment that African Americans have had to deal with is still part of the race’s consciousness until the present day. This is nowhere signified but in the multitude of subjects that continue to rise a sense of sensitivity when brought up. It is thus no exaggeration to conclude that slavery has left a tremendous impact on the African-Americans as a whole. The resolution of such a problem had to be done, and continues to be struggled with, over the period of two centuries. Overcoming the past completely has proven to be impossible. The history of enslavement is part of what defines every African-American up to the present despite many people’s refusal to admit this. Though most blacks do not reflect on the period of enslavement, the impacts of it, in the form of social disadvantages still experienced through work and educational chances, are not easily dismissible and serve as a harsh reminder.(Healey, p.175) The removal of their culture, the limitation of their freedom, the oppression of their most fundamental basic rights for centuries, and the final negative development of social distinctions between blacks and whites in the period after emancipation, have all managed to impact the culture the African-American ethnic group has since then ‘created” a culture whose characteristics include for example less favorable economic conditions for millions of African Americans. Slavery has thus proven to be a very powerful institution whose impacts are hard to erase.
The discussion of poverty among African Americans in the present day is thus incomplete without an analysis of their historic journey that is characterized by a long period of oppression and segregation which impacted both white and black peoples’ attitude towards the other race. The fact that millions of African Americans live in poverty is hardly a random fact but is deeply rooted in the historical experience of this race. The historical experience of African Americans has already been drawn upon in detail. What merits however further analysis is the consequent question that rises in regard to the future. If slavery and the long history of racism and unequal opportunities in education and work, are among the main factors in the current high rates of poverty among African Americans then what is the solution? Does this conclusion imply that African Americans are destined for poverty?
Regardless of the present and continued rates of poverty and inequality, it is undeniable to note that African Americans went through different stages of progress that were not as successful or as fast as desired at all times but made the necessary advancement that enabled the country to be led by a black president for the first time in the country’s history. What was essential to the assurance of advancement was persistence and endurance, two characteristics of the African American long struggle for rights as freedom, dignity, respect and equality. The period from 1976 until the present marked the growing representation of African Americans in politics, arts and entertainment and academic disciplines among others. The larger opportunities enabled African Americans to be elected to legislative positions and work in the executive and judicial branch. This does clearly not mean that the situation is ideal in the present. Regardless of the election of the first black president and the increasing influence of this race in the United States, full equality is still a subject of heated debate and controversy. As noted, many African Americans continue to live in poverty and the ruling elite of the US is still predominantly white. While school segregation is officially over, facts point to the dominance of the continuance of the phenomenon in several public white schools where the presentation of white student exceeds 99%. (essay-911.com) However, regardless of these points that affirm the need for more progress despite the positive accomplishments obtained, the fact is that African Americans have endured a long history of oppression, pain and segregation and managed to rise above the many challenges to their current position. While the present situation requires progress advancement has been and will continue to be made while racial tension will continue to decrease. Affirming that the black race is destined for poverty seems therefore to be an implausible and pessimistic outlook on the future and history alike.
In conclusion, the history of African Americans has thus been long and complex in the United States. It is this experience that led to the formation of the present African American identity with all that that encompasses in terms of culture, art and literature. As mentioned before, blacks were largely denied opportunities for education and personal advancement until after the Civil Rights Movement. The fact that many blacks live still in poverty does however not mean that this movement was unsuccessful or that no advancement has been achieved. Continuous social change needs to be still made since the rates of unemployment among blacks compared to whites is relatively the same as it was in the early 1960s. Employment opportunities are still hard to obtain for black men while neighborhood segregation is still present in many areas in the United States. Research confirms also that blacks continue to be victims in the real estate market. (Friedlander) This all proves that blacks are still socially disadvantaged. However, as has been noted, racial segregation in public has been ended and more African Americans have come to contribute in elective politics signifying the slow but existent rise of this race from the dark impacts of slavery.
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