Over the last two weeks, the issues of law and race surfaced while board members were traveling in the Deep South (Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi). Previously these states were frontier regions, territories exchanged frequently among European nations, and heavily populated by Native peoples and Africans. To this day, their histories and even current conditions are based on race relations over centuries.

On an estate in Albany, Georgia, once the largest plantation in Georgia in terms of acreage and enslaved people and now owned by African Americans, we encountered a young man of European descent who offered his view that race does not exist. He argued it is an arbitrary and non-essential social construct which should be ignored or eliminated. Those of us, much older than he, adamantly resisted and were dumbfounded by his opinion. He stated that he would rather label people “oppressed minorities” than place them in racial categories. The question is, then, how these disadvantaged groups and persons became oppressed and/or minorities. What was most disconcerting is that this young man is applying for a job at the Southern Poverty Law Center. This is akin to going on the battlefield blindfolded!

This discussion triggered a post theme, obviously. Two groups of people, since the Europeans’ arrival in 1492, have been legally, socially, economically and culturally marginalized and deliberately disenfranchised. They are defined by their racial status of “non-white” – Native, black, or brown. A gentleman in Florida coined the phrase, “ the first and the forced,” which describes indigenous people and the black enslaved. To this day, their descendants are experiencing the effects of what began in 1492. Resistance to systematically affecting or changing the system through quotas, affirmative action, Title I, War on Poverty, AIM, NAACP, and Head Start has been vehement, long standing, and on-going.

The United States is exceptional because it is a “nation of law.” There is no rebuttal except to admit that the laws were made and interpreted by a powerful minority for whom equality and justice were not always the objective. Below are three examples of laws that set the course of history in this country to the disadvantage of non-whites. There are many more.

Native Americans’ first experience with the supreme law of the land was around sovereignty and land ownership. As defined by the Supreme Court in the decision Johnson v. McIntosh, 1823, the right of discovery became the measure of sovereignty. Justice Marshall stated that precedence supported that by being European and Christian, the discoverer held the exclusive title to the land; occupation and use do not guarantee or determine ownership. In other words, to the conqueror go the spoils. Now we can better understand why October 12, 1492, is so ingrained in our culture as the date that Christopher Columbus discovered America. Much more than simply his stumbling on a group of islands is conveyed in that observance. African Americans can site Dred Scott v. Sanford, 1857, in which it was decided that people of African descent, slave or free, were not protected by the US Constitution and were not US citizens. Although that was reversed by the 14th Amendment, challenges exist until today, especially in reference to the definition of citizen and immigrant. Recently, in more than 25 states in the US, the Castle Doctrine popularly known as “Stand Your Ground,” “Line in the Sand,” and “No Duty to Retreat” laws justify use of force, most often against non-whites. The Florida Public Law 776.013 (2005), which allows the use of “deadly force by an individual when necessary to prevent death, great bodily harm or commission of a forcible felony,” has been cited as justification for black teenager Trayvon Martin’s killing. Not only does the conqueror or controller determine the historical narrative, but the rules as well.

We are determined to challenge that symbolically. Along with honoring our African ancestors, the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project acknowledges this history of Native people and is committed to incorporating them into the remembrance ceremonies we sponsor at each Middle Passage port site in the Americas. We ask Native people to grant us permission to hold our ancestral activities on their territory – a joining of the first and the forced. We do this as a matter of respect. As Thanksgiving Day approaches, this is something to consider.

[This blog usually provides historical background and commentary on the African Diaspora, but two books on Native people are worth reading. Both are set in modern times but reflect outcomes of history. Along with Trayvon Martin’s story, all these narratives can be considered coming of age narratives in the Margaret Mead tradition. We recommend The Boy Kings of Texas, A Memoir by Domingo Martinez and The Round House by Louise Erdich.]