Racial Justice Action Advisory Council is a recently formed community group with the goal of fostering dialogue about racial injustice issues that arise in the community and institutions of Los Alamos. In response to Tom Wright’s June 24 letter and other commentary in local news and social media, the undersigned council members are writing to express our opinion and engage other people in the community who may be sympathetic to Mr. Wright’s arguments. Racism is real, and we have a responsibility to better understand and eliminate its continued effects on people of color in our community.
For a person who claims to care deeply about the history of the United States, Mr. Wright seems unaware of important facts about that history. Black slavery in what is now the United States began in the 17th century. Early opposition to slavery by groups such as the Quakers did not stop it from becoming increasingly codified in law and enmeshed in the regional economy, lasting for a total of more than two centuries until the end of the American Civil War and the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865. This was followed by a brief 12-year period known as Reconstruction. Reconstruction had not yet ended in 1870 when the first law segregating Black and white school children was passed in Virginia, sowing the seeds of what would become the Jim Crow era, which lasted until 1965, a full hundred years after slavery’s official end in the United States and a mere 55 years ago. (This knowledge is not hard to come by, but for the reader interested in learning more, Ferris State University has many materials from its Jim Crow Museum available online.)
Once again, turning to our nation’s history is instructive. Black lives have built our country’s economy and structures, yet they have been systemically excluded from having access to the same resources as white people. This can be seen in our school systems, in housing, in physical and mental healthcare, and in our justice system. The school-to-prison pipeline continuously funnels black lives into slave labor in for-profit prisons. Black people make up 13.4% of the population, yet in our prison system they make up 38% of the population and are significantly more likely to be killed by police. Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow and the documentary 13th, available on Netflix, are good places to start to further explore the direct connections between our country’s past and the racial disparities of the present. Thus, when Mr. Wright claims that “racism is real, but not abundant”, and that it is only “an excuse to the thugs and looters,” we know that he is wrong. Racism is both real and abundant, but Mr. Wright doesn’t experience racism on a daily basis as a white person. Historically, not just Black Americans but Native, Asian, and Latinx Americas as well have been subjected to racist policies and institutions that create and maintain racial disparities– an outcome that is known as systemic racism and does not depend on the prejudiced attitudes of individuals to maintain itself.
Mr. Wright also seems to ignore facts about the present day that contradict his commentary. He claims that about 70% of Americans oppose removing, “statues of historical figures.” This is wrong according to recent polls, and this wording carefully skirts around the issue that nationally, many of these “historical figures” were associated with acts we now know to be not “imperfect”, but reprehensible. In the case of the Confederacy, these acts include waging war against the United States in order to maintain the institution of slavery. More locally to New Mexico, this includes a figure tried for and convicted of acts of cruelty by the Spanish Crown.
Of course there are cases where painful remnants of history can and should be maintained for educational purposes. Tours of concentration camps in Europe are one example. Within the United States, individuals are able to tour the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana and learn about the institution of slavery and the lives of the slaves who built the plantation, much to the chagrin of many white visitors. But historians recognize that the purpose of these statues is not to educate, it’s to memorialize. We find it incredible that anyone could argue otherwise in good faith.
Most egregious is Mr. Wright’s claim that the India Palace vandalism, currently being investigated by Santa Fe Police and the FBI as a hate crime, does not reflect white supremacist activity but is rather the work of “professional activists sent to divide us on ethnic lines.” This and other baseless claims are damaging and inflammatory. In recent years, this “professional activists” claim has been frequently made, and often has anti-Semitic roots.
We respect what may have been our local news media’s desire to represent a diversity of opinion, but we feel that perhaps Mr. Wright’s baseless claims should have made Mr. Wright’s commentary ineligible for publication by trusted news sources. We urge our local news media to adopt these sorts of standards for commentaries submitted in the future.
If you would like to get involved in the Racial Justice Action Group, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Heidi H Rogers
Sara Ann Mason