What will we accomplish in our Year of Douglass?

By Mary Anna Towler


What would Frederick Douglass say if he were living in Rochester today, publishing his newspaper, making speeches, pushing for change?

We might want to think about that this year as we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the date Douglass picked as his birth date.

A broad coalition of people and organizations have put together a year of activities to honor Douglass. But if, after we go to the exhibits and plays and other commemorations, we relegate him to the history books again, we’ll be doing a great injustice, to Douglass, the causes he worked for, and the Rochesterians who continue to suffer from our failure to live up to his vision.

We could use this year, at last, to attack the serious problems we face. And we could use it to fess up to the racism that is at the root of so many of those problems.

In a series of articles during the year, in a partnership with Open Mic Rochester, CITY will be focusing on Douglass and his legacy. As part of that effort, we’ll point out books and other material that shed light on both him and the causes for which he fought.

One is a contemporary book I think should be required reading for any American: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “We Were Eight Years in Power.” And for the Rochester community, it’s especially important – and especially appropriate as we spend the year focusing on Douglass.

The framework for Coates’ book, the “Eight Years,” is the Obama presidency, and, as context, the nation’s devastating swing from electing its first black president to electing Donald Trump. But that about face was nothing new, Coates notes. During Douglass’s life, northerners in the US progressed from embracing slavery to fighting a war to end it. And, by 1876, writes Coates, “the country returned to its supremacist roots.”

And so in 2008, the country reached “for the better part of itself, ” Coates writes. And then it “promptly retrenched in the worst part of itself.”

Coates’ book is wonderfully written, but it can be a tough read for white Americans, regardless of how aware we are of the persistence of racism and its effects. White supremacy, Coates argues, has been part of the backbone of this country since its beginning. It may be comforting to believe that the families who live in poverty in Rochester’s Crescent are poor because they haven’t worked hard enough, or that the children who are failing in Rochester’s schools have no one to blame but themselves. But Coates lays out in stark detail the actions by government and private businesses that have led to this.

The suburban racial segregation, the failure of blacks to build up personal wealth through home equity, the concentration of blacks in deteriorated urban neighborhoods didn’t happen by accident. All of it has been brought about, deliberately, by a combination of law, government policies, and business policies.

From the Roosevelt New Deal era through the 1960’s, Coates notes, “black people across the country were largely cut out of the legitimate home-mortgage market through means both legal and extralegal.”

The Federal Housing Authority “graded” neighborhoods, and those with large black populations were considered risky and usually couldn’t get FHA-insured mortgages. The federal Home Owners Loan Corporation required a restrictive covenant for homes it insured, prohibiting the sale to anybody but white people. Public housing authorities put subsidized housing in poor neighborhoods. Banks, insurance companies, real estate agents: all were complicit in creating segregated neighborhoods.

That was all in the past, of course. But you don’t have to look far to see racist actions and attitudes today, and not just in Washington. They’re shaping criminal justice, health care, housing, and education policies around the country. And this community is far from blameless.

Is it too much to hope that that could change? There aren’t many better ways to honor Frederick Douglass.

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