Peniel Joseph

Deep historical context precedes recent racial violence

Peniel Joseph.
Peniel Joseph.Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff/File 2014

The apparently racially motivated killing of nine people at one of the nation’s oldest historically black places of worship, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, reflects an ongoing national crisis of race and democracy in America. The common denominator connecting the latest shooting in Charleston with recent events in Baltimore, Ferguson, Mo., and North Charleston, S.C., is racial violence, but the historical context runs deeper.

In his 1903 classic, “The Souls of Black Folk,” W.E.B. Du Bois explained that between African-Americans and whites existed a question that went unasked: “How does it feel to be a problem?”

The so-called “Negro Problem” presented black people, and not the institutions, policies, and practices of white supremacy, as the root of that era’s historic violence, denigration, and demonization of African-Americans.


Contemporary racial pro-gress, embodied by America’s twice-elected African-American president, exists alongside the mass incarceration of black men and women and a seeming epidemic of videotaped police shootings of unarmed black victims that have inspired a #BlackLivesMatter movement that, at its best, continues the heroic work of the modern civil rights struggle.

The Age of Obama, therefore, is also the Age of Ferguson and Baltimore, where the kinds of racial poverty, residential and public school segregation, and public policy neglect commonly associated with America’s shameful Jim Crow past bump squarely into our highly digitized present.

The racial tragedies and milestones of the 1960s, from the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing to the era’s racial uprisings before and after Martin Luther King’s assassination, are being updated in front of our disbelieving eyes. Every Baltimore, Ferguson, and North Charleston incident echoes racial struggles and controversies long thought to have been, if not outright cured, greatly diminished.

Our collective racial amnesia has made it difficult to confront the way in which legacies of slavery and Jim Crow shape contemporary American race relations. Fair access to the criminal justice system, voting rights, education, health care, housing, and employment for African-Americans continue to be shaped by the nation’s long history of institutional racism.


As we celebrate and commemorate a spate of 50th anniversaries connected to the Civil Rights Movement’s heroic period (March on Washington, Civil Rights Act, Selma, Voting Rights Act), the irony is the way in which we distance the racial oppression of that era from our own. Too many African-Americans reside in an America where their options are as constrained today as they were in the 1960s, perhaps more so for those who find themselves caught in the net of mass incarceration.

The greatest sufferers are young people of all races who have received a dizzying array of mixed messages surrounding race from their elders. America’s unearned celebration of a “postracial” era in the aftermath of Obama’s election has made acknowledging growing racial disparities lag behind a narrative of racial progress.

Ultimately, we need to have not just a national dialogue about racial equality in America, but comprehensive and far reaching policy solutions that promote a depth and breadth of racial justice that would, once and for all, definitively prove to the world that black lives do matter.

Peniel Joseph is professor of history at Tufts University and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @PenielJoseph