Abraham Lincoln is remembered for a lot of things, the most notable of which is his consistent stance against what he saw as the injustices of his day. A lawyer by trade, Lincoln was staunchly opposed to slavery, which he referred to as a “monstrous injustice” and a “moral, social, and political evil.”
Before the Civil War, however, most of Lincoln’s policies and positions on slavery were designed to contain its spread, preferring instead to preserve the Union. It was the Emancipation Proclamation, issued 2 years into the war on January 1, 1863, that marked a hardening of Lincoln’s position on the matter — and cemented his place in the history books as a generational fighter against injustice. The executive order did away with slavery once and for all, freeing each of the 3 million enslaved persons of the southern states.
Of course, at the time, the proclamation was seen as mostly symbolic, since the war was still ongoing, and the Confederacy was not about to cede authority to the government it was in open rebellion against. Nonetheless, the decree asserted the inherent dignity of the individual – regardless of one’s color – and reconciled the fundamental hypocrisy of our nation’s founding document: the Declaration of Independence, which stated “all men are created equal.”
The Legacy of Our Nation’s 16th President
Today Lincoln is celebrated as one of the nation’s greatest presidents, and his birthday (February 12) is recognized as a legal holiday in several states. Given its confluence with Black History Month, it seems as good a time as any to address Lincoln’s legacy when injustices — both cultural, racial, and systemic — are still brought against African Americans.
Like the torment of slavery in the pre-Civil War south, many of these injustices go unseen, but their impact is sure to reverberate through culture, society, and history. We’ve already seen responses to the epidemic of police shootings and brutality in the form of the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as countless protests and acts of civil disobedience against what many see as the civil rights issue of our time.
Injustice Permeates Our Entire Workforce
In the workplace, African Americans face discrimination that is impossible to overlook.
In Paris, Texas, a recently concluded federal investigation found that black employees at a Sara Lee baking plant were wrongfully discriminated against and purposely exposed to asbestos, black mold, and a variety of horrifying working conditions.
Specifically, the workers were subjected to racial slurs as a form of intimidation, and they were disproportionately assigned to duties that would expose them to asbestos and other toxic materials. The workers filed a lawsuit, and rightfully so, but justice in that case is still pending.
Several states northwest of Texas, in the rolling hills of Ambler, Pennsylvania — a place often referred to as “the town asbestos built” — former employees of an old asbestos factory have suffered inordinate levels of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases. Why? Because employers who operated prominent manufacturing plants that utilized asbestos knew the dangers that asbestos posed to workers, but chose to conceal those dangers from employees. Many of those former workers are African American, and while justice in Ambler has been delivered on a case-by-case basis, there remains an all-encompassing, nationwide culture of prejudice and intolerance towards an entire race of people. And it has to stop.
The present day status quo would be one that president Lincoln would be ashamed to witness.
Modern Injustices & Discrimination
Of course, none of these problems can really compare to the widespread issue of police brutality against African Americans, which has become the primary motivator in the creation of protests and movements like Black Lives Matter. As the organization states on its website:
“Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.”
The movement cites the death of Trayvon Martin as its foundational cause, and lists the countless other unnecessary deaths of African Americans at the hands of police officers as the defining struggle of this generation.
Some may disagree with BLM’s methods, but it’s hard to deny the pervasive violence perpetrated against people of color in the United States, particularly when it comes to law enforcement.
But the issue of racism and racial violence does not stop and start with the justice system — just as the question of slavery in Lincoln’s time did not stop and start with vague ideas about economic necessity. These ongoing issues of racism, discrimination, and workplace injustice are all part of a larger, cultural way of thinking for which a majority of us are guilty — a problem perhaps best summed up by the prominent African-American writer and advocate Ta-Nehisi Coates in his memoir Between the World and Me:
“You may have heard the talk of diversity, sensitivity training, and body cameras. These are all fine and applicable, but they understate the task and allow the citizens of this country to pretend that there is real distance between their own attitudes and those of the ones appointed to protect them. The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority… The problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs but that our country is ruled by majoritarian pigs.”
History is nothing if not a guide. We can look to figures like Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King as shining examples of the kinds of people we should strive to become. Whether we form into groups like Black Lives Matter or commit each of ourselves to renouncing those inevitable racist tendencies, the goal is the same: understanding and respecting the equality of all.
As with any negative habit, addiction, or state-of-mind, the first step toward treatment is admitting we have a problem.