BY GYASI ROSS Ross, Author, attorney, and member of the Blackfeet Nation and Suquamish territories
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Thank you for the opportunity to talk to you for a bit. I take this opportunity seriously. As a student and lover of black pop culture (just like 99 percent of America), and a recipient of nearly a quarter of African-American blood (I know that’s not a bunch, but I proudly claim and love what I have), I love the opportunity to communicate with my black family. I want to talk social justice a bit. Please hear me out:
There’s nothing new under the sun.
Historically, “divide and conquer” has been an incredible strategic tactic to keep oppressed groups from helping each other — make people think that their struggle is unique to them, that the answer is to only focus on their own individual battles. The truth is that most of those battles are related — Michael Brown is closely related to John T. Williams who is closely related to James Boyd — and blending forces, intelligence and resources in these battles will only help our own struggles.
That’s why Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about the racism against Native Americans — he understood the need to emphasize the interrelatedness of the racism that black folks and Natives experience. The DNA of that racism is the same and even though the appearance might be slightly different… it is eerily similar.
And with that, black folks’ genetic memory should recognize the racism that Native people are experiencing right now with the Redskins; it is the same racism that black folks experienced during segregation times.
Please allow me to make the connection for you.
The Redskins’ Relationship to Segregation
The Native American early experience with racism in the US is different from black folks. Whereas black folks experienced racism via forced exclusion (e.g., segregation, Jim Crow), Natives experienced racism by forced inclusion (assimilation, stealing Native kids, boarding schools). This racism wasn’t better or worse — just a different shade of ugly. Same DNA.
And this difference — racism against Natives doesn’t look like racism against others’ — means that Natives are left with the additional burden of justifying the racism we face to other people of color.
So, for example, when young black men today get brutally shot by white cops, the existence of a team called the “Redskins” seems relatively less pressing. Absolutely! But, as we learn from the infamous case Plessy v. Ferguson and segregation generally, psychic injuries can be just as painful and even longer lasting than physical ones.
In other words, someone doesn’t have to die to prove something bad happened.
Nobody’s life was threatened in Plessy v. Ferguson or by segregation generally. Instead, there was a black man who simply couldn’t ride in the white section of a train. No violence, just insult. Heck, it wasn’t even universally considered an insult by black folks — as many black scholars, including bell hooks and Derrick Bell have pointed out, there were many black folks who were pro-segregation. “Only a fool allows the enemy to educate his children.” In fact, Bell argued, in Serving Two Masters: Integration Ideals and Client Interests in School Desegregation Litigation, that the lawyers who led desegregation cases never sought local black folks’ opinions before embarking on lawsuits to desegregate schools and that, as a matter of fact, many black families did not want the schools integrated. bell hooks further explained WHY those black families didn’t want to integrate:
“Segregation enabled black folks to maintain oppositional worldviews and standpoints to counter the effects of racism and to nurture resistance.”