Early on in an effort begun by a Star intern to document the history of slavery in East Hampton, one of the project’s advisers said he could draw a direct line from omission of enslaved people of African heritage from the American founding story to police killings of Black men today. Not understanding the multicultural nature of the first decades of our collective history has allowed white America to mistakenly think of anyone not like them as an “other,” someone to fear, someone to shoot in the back or kneel on the neck of for eight minutes and 46 seconds. As we celebrate the conviction of the white police officer who murdered George Floyd on a Minneapolis street, it is crucial to understand how we got to this point to begin reversing our four-centuries-long history of oppression
Not understanding the multicultural nature of the first decades of our collective history has allowed white America to mistakenly think of anyone not like them as an “other,” someone to fear, someone to shoot in the back or kneel on the neck of for eight minutes and 46 seconds.
Enslaved Black and Indigenous children, women, and men were essential to the economic success of the colonies. Slavery was practiced on Long Island and across New England from as early as the 1630s and lasted two centuries. Primary source records show clearly that nearly every moderately well-off head of household was also an enslaver. Today, one way to understand how ubiquitous slavery was is to realize that if you had a street named after you, odds were that you held other human beings in bondage. Buell, Huntting, Osborne, James, Dayton, Hand, Barnes, Loper, Rysam, Halsey, Howell, Miller, Gardiner, Albertson — all were enslavers, but we chose to forget. The records did not, and they are there if you simply look.
The line back from George Floyd’s killing is long but can be traced to the very beginning. If white settlers built the towns that became the colonies that became the states that became the United States, and, if Black and Indigenous people worked side by side to build the towns that became the colonies that became the states, then they, too, built this country. The line travels back through the fantasy of the Black “superpredator” of the 1990s, through a mind-numbing stew of racism, white-only water fountains, redlining in housing, lynching, and to the ultimate dehumanization of slavery.
Conversely, it is our myth of an original white nation that plagues us even now and can explain why a violent Caucasian mob could storm the U.S. Capitol, meeting minimal resistance, but that peaceful Black protesters are met with massive displays of police power.
By even the most generous standard, police violence is protected by law. All an officer has to say is, “I thought he had a gun” to be absolved of a shooting of an unarmed civilian. As crazy as this sounds, the headspace of the officer matters, whether this is based on irrational fear or racist tropes. Police violence is not limited to Black victims, but they are killed and injured at rates that exceed their portion of the population. Could it be that by recognizing that they were here at the beginning and acknowledging their essential role in creating this country, we could move the needle a little toward a world in which police violence against people of color also becomes part of the past? By reckoning with how slavery and forced labor were essential in creating the United States, perhaps.