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Anti-racism activist and writer urges frank discussion of slavery’s bitter legacy

Image: Noted anti-racism activist and writer Tim Wise signs books following his presentation in the Gallaudet University Kellogg Conference Center's Swindells Auditorium.

Noted anti-racism activist and writer Tim Wise signs books following his presentation in the Gallaudet University Kellogg Conference Center's Swindells Auditorium.

There is no topic in the history of the human race that is more shameful or repugnant than slavery. Why then, should slavery be discussed today? Shouldn't it be treated as a taboo subject that is better buried and forgotten?

Tim Wise, a noted anti-racism activist and writer, made a case before a Gallaudet audience on November 13 that, as painful as it is, slavery should be openly and honestly addressed to ensure that its legacy of sorrow and degradation is never again repeated. The question is particularly germane this year in Washington, D.C., as the city commemorates its sesquicentennial of the Compensated Emancipation Act, signed by President Lincoln, which freed more than 3,000 slaves in D.C. Slavery in the United States, however, was not officially banished until after the Civil War ended in 1865.

Wise's visit to campus to present his talk, entitled "Slavery, Emancipation, and the Residual Impact of Slavery on the African American Community Today," was one of the events Gallaudet has planned in collaboration with the District of Columbia to celebrate this milestone in the city's history.

The reason we must talk about the past, said Wise, is that it has direct bearings on the present. For example, the current economic plight for many people of color in the United States, compared with their white peers, is not an overnight occurrence. Inertia, a fundamental principle of the physical sciences where an object resists change in motion until it encounters resistance, has social and political implications as well. Wise said that laws rooted in white privilege, such as the Naturalization Act of 1790 mandating that only whites could be U.S. citizens, and only citizens could hold property; and the Homestead Act of 1862--ironically the year that slavery was abolished in D.C.--giving millions of acres of land to white people, has heavily skewed the economic landscape in favor of whites. Although today these and other government programs are moldering in a dusty history book, their impact lives on: Wise said that approximately 50 million whites at present in this nation have benefited from their largess, said Wise, giving the typical white individual 20 times the net worth of the typical African American person--not because he is smarter, not because he has worked harder, but as the result of racial and unethical treatment.

Civil rights and other social advancement issues have slowed this inertia, but the inequities are still present, said Wise. Desegregation of schools in this country, one of the hallmarks of the civil rights movement, achieved racial integration in the classroom, but he said that it also ultimately resulted in the unfair practice of using testing and evaluation methods that favor whites, leading to low expectations and a cycle of failure for people of color.

The more insidious evil behind these injustices, said Wise, is that many white people become indifferent to the suffering of others. They somehow view the high rates of unemployment, imprisonment, drug and alcohol abuse, and other social maladies, as normal, and therefore they feel little compassion.

"If we continue to suffer these inequalities as though they don't matter or they can't be changed, we'll be in serious trouble as a country," said Wise. That trouble is already present: Demographers project that within the next 25 years, 50 percent of the population of the United States will be people of color. This should serve as a wakeup call to the nation to seriously address these disparities if America is to prosper. If we fail to heed the warning, he feels, "We are not going to survive; it is a recipe for the destruction of a nation."

Following Wise's talk, an awards ceremony was held to recognize the winners of essay, multimedia, and poster contests on the issue of slavery in D.C., hosted by Gallaudet for students enrolled in the Clerc Center's K-12 program, as well as university level students: POSTERS--first place, Charice Cole, second place, Marika Howard, third place, Yolanda Ford, honorable mention, Miguel Brehm; VIDEOS--first place, Yesenia Garcia, second place, Eliyas Assefa, third place, Zen Cheng Chen; ESSAYS--first place, Jennida Willoughby, second place, Diana Mendez-Leon.

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