Racism in predominantly Black cities: when a white minority tries to hold control by intimidation and racism
April 30, 2018
By Nick Douglas*, AFROPUNK contributor
America’s “City of Brotherly Love,” Philadelphia, is in the news. Two black men were handcuffed, detained and arrested for sitting in a Starbucks coffee shop without ordering anything as they waited for a friend. One day later in a Torrance, Calif. Starbucks a black man was denied the access code to use the bathroom while a white man who also had not ordered anything was given the code. When the black man confronted the Starbucks manager about this she refused to answer his question and told him to stop recording the encounter.
There is a long history of a large black community living in Philadelphia. Two cities with similarly historic black communities were in the news just last year highlighting the racism and intimidation that still exists in America. Black citizens of Charleston, S.C. and of New Orleans, Louisiana (and whites of goodwill there) protested and pressured their cities to remove symbols of the Confederacy and racist remnants of slavery. The city of New Orleans took down its last four remaining Confederate statues amid protests and celebrations. In Charleston (and elsewhere in South Carolina) the conflict was overriding public spaces of the Confederate flag.
Charleston and New Orleans share a unique past. These two cities can serve as a cautionary tale in the long history of racism that still is felt by black Americans, even in cities with large vibrant black populations.
Both cities demonstrate the turmoil that takes place when a white minority tries to hold control over a black majority by intimidation and racism. Charlestown and New Orleans were home to two of the largest populations of free people of color before the Civil War.
These two cities were essential to the economic development of the South. Both were important ports before and during the Civil War. Cotton and rice, the lifeblood of southern wealth, flowed through these two cities and helped make them prosperous. Commerce turned Charleston and New Orleans into two of the largest slave trading centers in the South and also made their free people of color prosperous.
Both cities share historic, social and psychic connections to Europe and the Caribbean. Both were places where white, gens de couleur (free people of color) and slave refugees ended up after the Haitian Revolution. Both were sites of major slave uprisings (in Charleston the Stono Rebellion of 1739 and Vesey Conspiracy of 1822, in New Orleans the Slave Uprising of 1811).
It is no surprise that emotions have run high in these cities. Before the Civil War, when you combined the free people of color population with the slave population, whites were the minority throughout South Carolina—43%, and a small majority in New Orleans—just 53%. After the Civil War there were pitched battles over who would be in control: A black majority or a white minority.
During Reconstruction Louisiana and South Carolina had active black communities that elected the first black congressmen, John Menard from Louisiana in 1868 and South Carolina’s Robert Smalls America’s longest-serving black congressman until Harlem’s Adam Clayton Powell. Louisiana elected America’s first black lieutenant governor Oscar James Dunn.
But laws in both states guaranteeing equality enacted during the Reconstruction era were quickly overturned during the Jim Crow era. Most of the Confederate monuments in Charleston and New Orleans were erected at this time. These symbols of the Confederacy were on constant display to intimidate people of color and reinforce white domination.
A massive amount of legislation was passed affecting Charleston and New Orleans, designed to restrict and control the majority black population. This partial list of laws, passed before the Civil War, during Reconstruction (1866 -1876) and after, shows how fearful the white population was of blacks exercising their rights as Americans.
These two cities can serve as a cautionary tale. Their systemic slavery, racism and discrimination crippled their entire populations. By spending tremendous amounts of time, money and energy to try to hold back blacks Americans, white Americans have harmed and held themselves back. U.S. News and Reports ranked South Carolina and Louisiana 48th and 49th among 50 states in education and 42nd and 50th in overall well-being. In per capita income South Carolina and Louisiana rank 43rd and 44th out of 50 as of 2015. Americans need to wake up and realize that racism and discrimination has and continues to hurt each and every American both economically and psychically.
To black Americans what happened in Philadelphia is nothing new, but more white Americans of goodwill now need to get involved. The dismantling of racist monuments, symbols of oppression and intimidation, upheld the credo of brotherly love in Charleston, in New Orleans and beyond. Resilient and unforgotten, the credo “City of Brotherly Love” resurfaced in Philadelphia when some white Starbucks customers confronted the police and filmed the shameful incident.