Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice once observed, in a 2017 CBS interview: “We forget in the United States how long it has taken us to make 'We the People' mean people like me (black). And indeed, I do think that America was born with a birth defect; it was slavery.”
Slavery is an American Birth Defect. Pretty powerful. And I dare say accurate.
What is a birth defect after all?
It is defined by Webster’s Dictionary as a physical or biochemical abnormality that is present at birth and that may be inherited or the result of environmental influence. Rice’s observation hits home in a new way as we wake up to more headlines this week that Russia deliberately targeted African Americans in the 2016 election more than any other ethnic group or gender. According to an explosive New York Times article today:
Why the targeted focus on black voters and citizens?
It’s obvious, as this article written in the Daily Beast last fall so aptly outlines, that the Russians understand that white male patriarchy and supremacy still loom large in the American electorate. It was there in the #MeToo movement, which took on patriarchy and sexual harassment but also showed that women are still having to fight off these kind of unwanted advances. It was there in the way Hillary Clinton was vilified, attacked and demeaned while running for president, and how Donald Trump was given a pass for being caught on tape saying he would grab a woman by her genitalia.
The Russians read about it all. They also read about the horrific mass killing in the South Carolina AME Church in 2015. They read about the raucous fights over the confederate flag in 2015 and 2016.
They paid close attention to what we as Americans all have become numb to even as these uniquely American realities became a flashpoint in the 2016 primaries and subsequent election. Then candidate Trump was the perfect foil, speaking in frank language and harsh racial overtones that no presidential candidate since George Wallace had ever done before.
But the Russians weren't just reading headlines. They had history to inform them as well. After all, we Americans are still excusing and denying the reality of how our country was forged in 1607, and in 1619 when the first African slaves arrived near Jamestown, Virginia.
The latest example of this “denial” or revisionism is a controversial new play titled, “Slave Play” by Jeremy O. Harris which looks at slave life and sexuality on a Virginia plantation. The play has caused quite an uproar in the black community as it once again is exploiting black female sexuality and not taking seriously the vile and brutal institution of American slavery.
I can hardly imagine anyone making a play about the Holocaust and satirizing its horrors. And yet, when it comes to American slavery, we like to create this mythical reality that there were good slave masters and that slaves fell in love with their rapist masters or vice versa.
The most famous couple of course being that of Thomas Jefferson and his slave (concubine) Sally Hemings. The reality of what that relationship, of course, was quite different. And Monticello, Jefferson’s famous home in Charlottesville, Virginia just opened a new exhibit in June 2018 that helps dispel the often romanticized notion of what the Hemings and Jefferson relationship truly was.
Russia’s subversion campaign was proof that our notions of how we have dealt with issues of race are idealized at best and fictional at worst. What they did was attempt to break our society along its most prominent fissure point. It was an act of sabotage, to be sure. But it also said a lot more about us than it did about that.
We are vulnerable to cyber-attacks around race and gender precisely because we have never fully reckoned with the fact that we started in 1776 by proclaiming ‘”all men are created equal” all while enslaving and brutalizing thousands of Africans, and oppressing the rights of women. White supremacy still exists in parts of America for sure. But it is pernicious in subtle ways as well. It’s there when we celebrate a playwright who seems to suggest that black women somehow had agency over their own bodies when they clearly did not; or when we only now erect exhibits recognizing the people that our founding fathers enslaved.
I wrote a book last year, “E Pluribus One” about those “founding fathers”—Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Monroe, et al. All except for John Adams owned slaves. And twelve of our first 13 Presidents owned slaves all while proclaiming liberty, equality and economic freedom for America. The problem started at our beginning. It started with our birth-defect. Unless and until America comes clean about how we started and stops denying that we indeed have a “defect,” the Russians and everybody else will make sport of us for decades to come.