I believe I have a unique perspective on race and American Culture. I am a 50-year-old African American man who grew up in Huntington Beach, a largely white, Republican, a middle-class beach town in Orange County, California. My experience growing up in Huntington Beach has given me an inside interpretation of white conservative world views. As a retired Marine “Mustang” Officer with nearly 28 years of service, I have seen almost all our country’s ethnic, regional, and social-cultural variations. I have an advanced degree in business, and I am a history enthusiast, which allows me to view some of our country’s social ills from a cross-disciplinary standpoint. I hope that with time, education, and a commitment to our founding principles, we can create a greater republic. Trigger warning, I feel that solving American racism, and its accompanying privilege is fundamentally the responsibility of its inheritors, beneficiaries, and owners.
The author James Baldwin, one of America’s most prolific intellectuals, said, “white people are trapped in a history they don’t understand.” That was true in 1962, and it is true today. Most Americans’ knowledge of their country’s history is based on myths and events without context. In 2014 the National Assessment Government Board and National Center for Education Statistics found only 18% of eighth-grade students were proficient at history. In 2015 a McClatchy-Marist Poll found that 41% of Americans did not believe the American Civil War was over slavery. Clearly, none of the 41% had read Confederate States of America Vice-President Alexander H. Stephens’s 1861 Cornerstone Speech. Examples such as this one highlight the underlying issues of context and problem framing in our democratic republic.
James Baldwin also famously noted, “Ignorance allied with power is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.” Our government requires participation by a well-educated electorate. Average Americans have an enormous responsibility to make sound and fact-based decisions, which extend from electing officials to assessing the guilt of fellow citizens while serving as jurors. How can America function without a sense of its history? How can we identify problems and create policies to correct issues without fully understanding such matters? The answer is that we can’t, and it is apparent in our inability to solve some of our most fundamental problems.
African Americans have continuously suffered from ignorance of American history by our society’s majority. Few Americans understand the historical reasons for high levels of inequality between African Americans and the American majority. It is a combination of historic systemic prejudice and implicit bias that resulted in low multi-generational wealth accumulation, lower home appreciation rates in black communities, which resulted in food deserts, poorly funded schools, and depressed local economies.
While I have listened to many conservative intellectuals list the catalog of issues in many poor African American Communities, few would address the historical reasons for these issues. Moreover, none is willing to discuss, as did Dr. King, how many in the country’s majority were given a clear economic advantage over African Americans in the form of land grants as waves of migrants flowed to this country from Europe. Even fewer have pondered the damage caused to communities by the destruction of assets in thriving black communities such as the now-famous case in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
That now-famous district could have become a model for replication across the nation and a center for needed capital, allowing many African Americans to own homes and businesses in black communities throughout America, tapping financial markets free of racial discrimination. Virtuous cycles such as this are the creators of wealth in America. How many other African American economic engines were smothered in their cradles by American majority mobs and the indifferent application of laws? If natural law were applied, then Greenwood’s wealthy residents would have had the right and ability to take vengeance as was customary and expected to defend honor, life, and property in the Scottish Highlands. Only with Greenwood’s residents hamstrung by a twisted and unnatural form of Hobbes’s Leviathan could the majority residence of Tulsa feel privileged to massacre, loot, and burn the property of some of America’s wealthiest citizens.
During that same period, the Ku Klux Klan was established in Orange County, California and African American assets in the county were destroyed. The City of Huntington Beach was once the site of the Pacific Beach Club, which was to be an exclusive beach resort for middle-class African Americans living in Southern California. The Ku Klux Klan was active in Huntington Beach, as many white southerners, who came to work in the oil fields, settled in the city. The Huntington Beach and Newport Beach Chambers of Commerce opposed the construction of the resort, presumably driven by racism. Two weeks before the Pacific Beach Club was scheduled to open, two arsonists, suspected to be Ku Klux Klan members, burned down the resort.
America’s majority does not understand the true historical context of the African American experience, and this has led America’s majority to make many tacit assumptions about the character and nature of African Americans. These assumptions have led many otherwise fair-minded people tacitly to support segregation, discriminatory laws, police misconduct, and a justice system where some are more equal than others. It is at the individual level of the American majority’s actions that have caused the injury to African Americans. Moreover, the injury is often dealt more out of ignorance and indifference than of spite.
The solution to ignorance is education, and understanding the currents of our history is the first step toward a more enlightened future. If the United States of America is to heal and move on from its past, it must first face its history. There must be reconciliation as happened in Germany after World War Two. The Allies forced Germany to reconcile with its state-sponsored genocide and racism, which has led Germany to a more humane, open, and democratic society. Through truth and reconciliation, Americans must understand how events small and large have contributed to their current condition. Only then can we as a nation, heal and reach our full potential as the world’s shining city on a hill.
Erick M. Armelin served nearly 28 years, is a “Mustang” Officer and retired as a Major of Marines in 2016. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq, he served as a Fire Power Control Team Leader and liaison officer providing fire planning and terminal control of aircraft while embedded with the British Army’s 3rd Regiment Royal Horse Artillery.
In 2017 Erick was admitted to Pepperdine University’s Graziadio Business School, where he earned a Masters of Business Administration in 2019. Erick currently lectures on leadership as an Adjunct Professor and develops software applications to improve business processes.
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