Suppression: A Common Thread in American Democracy

A statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee is removed from Lee Circle Friday, May 2017.

Recently, Mayor Mitch Landrieu (D) ordered the removal of several Confederate monuments in New Orleans, forever stripping these symbols of suppression against African Americans of their reverence. In a speech following his order, Landrieu spoke candidly and honestly, saying that the goal in erecting these monuments was “to rewrite history to hide the truth … These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.”

Throughout the life of this nation, we have consistently rewritten truths and operated in a foggy dystopia. This selective recognition and understanding of historical events has allowed the perpetuation of suppression—a root cause blocking our attainment of President Abraham Lincoln’s transformative vision of a “more perfect union.” From the moment European travelers landed on American shores, suppression tactics were employed—first against the Native American population but soon duplicated against the slave population. Suppression became a critical tool in building the current structures and systems of American democracy and has taken both physical and psychological forms throughout our nation’s history. Defined as “the conscious intentional exclusion from consciousness of a thought or feeling,” suppression has allowed white supremacy to become the baseline for all American structures, institutions, and policies. To truly reach the goal of a “more perfect union,” all Americans must attack suppression in all forms.

However, that can’t be accomplished because of our craven tendency toward collective denial and selective ignorance. It is incumbent that people of conscious standup and lay bare the lies, as Landrieu did when he removed monuments to an ugly past. He refused to let the lie of “a lost cause” to continue unchallenged. He made clear during his speech that the Civil War was not about the revisionist fiction of “states’ rights” but the maintenance of the brutal institution of slavery. He quoted the words of Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, who made clear their goals were centered around the “subordination to the superior race” and that their “new government” would be “the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

Failure to recognize our nation’s entire history, the good and the bad, only inhibits us from fully realizing the dream where are all men are created equal. This dangerous combination of psychological and physical suppression began at the inception of our country’s founding. It has provided extremely potent and effective tactics in rewriting American history by allowing the persistence of white supremacy.

Cross burnings; Klan marches; government funded false research; systemic rapes and hangings; and the stripping of cultural identities were all deployed to instill fear in black communities and suppress their efforts to demand equality. Furthermore, Jim Crow laws, which blocked access to voting booths, government funding, housing, and benefits, only reinforced the fact that the premise “all men are created equal” was only rhetoric and not reality. Hiding these truths instead of shining a light on the full picture perpetuates a false American narrative.

The recent incidents in Washington, D.C., of nooses hung around the city, including the African American museum, as well as the torch bearing march in Charlottesville, Virginia, led by a resurgent white supremacist movement, are vivid reminders of a time not that long past. Without understanding the context of history, the suppression efforts of today are easy to miss and even easier to deny. Most have taken shape in our government policies and are embedded in our institutions. Passage of laws and policies, which consciously and intentionally excluded African Americans and other people of color from reaching true equality, continue to persist. Whether it’s voter suppression tactics; disinvestment in minority communities; government sanctioned policies to disadvantage one group over another; or a criminal justice system run amok, these efforts continue to harm our nation today.

It’s important to understand the context for these actions. When we only celebrate the passage of the 13th Amendment but fail to recognize that it did nothing to protect African Americans from state sanctioned violence for decades, we don’t acknowledge our history. If we only celebrate the passage of the 15th Amendment but fail to recognize the bravery of those who fought, bled, and died for a right that still remains fully unrealized, we aren’t telling the whole story.

To attain the “more perfect union,” Americans must admit the union is imperfect. Our nation was founded on suppression, which is weaved throughout structures and institutions to maintain white supremacy. Failure to put that history—our shared history—in context and expose the ugly truths only ensures we will continue to fall short to the disadvantage of us all. As Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” It takes courage and an honest commitment to take ownership of our complete American history.

As Mayor Landrieu made clear in his speech, the “Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity.” As we deal with the great issues of our day, each of us—from the highest office to the most-humble station—must make a conscious choice and decide on what side of humanity we are.

Danyelle Solomon is the director of Progress 2050 at the Center for American Progress.