The legacy of slavery remains 400 years after the arrival of the first slaves to America, in laws, policies, actions and attitudes, speakers said at a black law association luncheon Saturday.
“The people who believe themselves to be white show us where we can live, what jobs we will be qualified to hold, what our labor is worth and what our bodies are worth, and given that some of us can be shot down in broad daylight by the state without consequence, it is clear that for some of us who bear the mark of a slave, evidenced by our black skin, our life is worth nothing,” said V. Elaine Gross, president of Syosset-based ERASE Racism.
Gross’ remarks were in a speech accepting an award for her years of work fighting racism on Long Island from the Amistad Long Island Black Bar Association, which held the event, “1619: 400 Years of Slavery in America,” at Crest Hollow Country Club in Woodbury.
Cherice Vanderhall, executive director of the association and the Hempstead village attorney, said in an interview afterward that the event was aimed at connecting slavery with how black Americans are treated today.
She pointed to keynote speaker Gloria Browne-Marshall’s discussion of how a law passed in the Colonial era said it was not a felony to take the life of an enslaved person who was “resisting correction.”
Today, Vanderhall said, police use vague “resisting arrest” laws to disproportionately arrest and prosecute people of color.
Browne-Marshall, a professor of constitutional law at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan and author of "Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present,” said during her speech blacks have been given harsher treatment in the criminal justice system for hundreds of years.
“No one speaks about how law was a part of the oppression and remains a part of the oppression,” she said. “Law has played a pivotal role in every aspect of enslavement.”
She explained how in the 17th century a black indentured servant named John Punch and two European indentured servants ran away from the Virginia farm where they were forced to work. All were captured, but a judge sentenced Punch to lifelong servitude, even though the two whites were only given extra years of servitude.
Browne-Marshall said that for more than 400 years “these tentacles [grew] underground, growing stronger and stronger, until it’s finally taken for granted that Michael Brown lies in the street of Ferguson, Missouri, in the hot sun, [and] it’s taken for granted there is no conviction” in connection with the lynching of more than 4,000 people in the United States.
Gross said the recent Newsday investigation that showed evidence of discrimination by real estate agents against nearly half of black “testers” who posed as homebuyers on the Island was a powerful rejoinder to those who had claimed that cases of racist housing discrimination were outliers.
Addressing an audience primarily of black attorneys and judges, Gross said discrimination is across class lines.
“Remember that our suits and fancy dresses, our cars, will not guarantee that we will escape being victimized by housing discrimination,” she said.