01/01/2013 09:09 am ET Updated Mar 03, 2013

A Letter to Frederick Douglass on the Occasion of the 150th Anniversary Of The Emancipation Proclamation

This letter is part of our "Letters to Our Ancestors" project. In celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, we've asked members of our community to share their own letters to our forefathers. With these letters, we hope to look back on the progress our community has made and give thanks to those who helped pave the way. You can see them all here.

To Frederick Douglass (born as property into a system of chattel slavery in the U.S. under the name Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey):

I begin this letter with the words you delivered in Chicago as a part of the World's Columbian Exposition on Aug. 25, 1893, thirty years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation:

"The real problem has been given a false name. It is called Negro for a purpose. It has substituted Negro for Nation, because the one is despised and hated, and the other is loved and honored. The true problem is a National problem.

It has been affirmed on the one hand and denied on the other that the Negro since emancipation has made commendable progress. I affirm that no people emancipated under the same conditions could have made more commendable progress than has the Negro in the same length of time. Under the whole heavens there never was an enslaved people emancipated under more unfavorable circumstances, or started from a lower condition in life...

... There is no Negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have honesty enough, loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough to live up to their own Constitution."

Today, 120 years after you offered testimony about black progress and an acute prognosis of America's condition, I wonder: Are the advancements of black people in this nation the best measures for "progress"?

Yes, the Emancipation Proclamation functioned as a de jure policy -- an executive order as opposed to a law ratified by Congress, undeniably -- that named enslaved black people in the Confederate territories free. But it was limited in its power to end the de facto rule of racism or, rather, what scholars Moon-Kie Jung, João H. Costa Vargas, and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva have named the "[s]tate of white supremacy."

White racial supremacy is a national problem, indeed. We have only to search our legal annals as evidence of the ways that racism birthed myriad laws. In fact, the condition of white supremacy (and desire for capital) made the transatlantic slave industry possible and the need for political intervention inevitable.

The Emancipation Proclamation was a measure designed to protect the Union, after all. It was not specially developed to end the project of human enslavement because politicos thought slavery was brutal and inhumane. It was not enacted solely to diminish the ideological and psychological force of white racism and capitalism that made possible the Emancipation Proclamation's creation. As President Abraham Lincoln noted in response to an 1862 letter written by Horace Greeley, the editor of The New York Tribune, "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that."

Mr. Douglass, you were right. The "Negro" problem was not the real problem in 1863 or 1893. And, therefore, black advancement should not be the sole measure of progress in 2013. Progress is signaled by the alleviation of the problem(s) that stunt forward movement. It seems to me that structural racism -- the very force that made it necessary to actually proclaim emancipation for black people who were otherwise imagined as property -- is still very much a problem.

For example, you would be surprised, or not, to know that the number of black and brown people imprisoned in state and federal prisons in the U.S. is staggeringly high and connected to a range of structural inequalities and practices of institutional racism, which scholar Michelle Alexander documents in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

You would be surprised to know that the rate of unemployment of black people in the U.S. in November 2012 was nearly double that of the national rate of U.S. citizens in total. And in 2010, the number of black people living in poverty (27.4 percent) was nearly double the amount of the national poverty rate (15.1 percent) according to the U.S. Census. And I could go on...

Without a doubt, there was and is a national problem, namely, a system of white supremacy that still organizes the social, political and economic life of the U.S. citizenry. And until we name it, the accounting of "progress" for the black and brown will be incomplete.


Darnel L. Moore