Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., recently proposed "saving American history" by refusing to tell the truth about our past. His legislation would limit federal education funds for schools adopting or adapting the New York Times's "1619 Project" in history courses. To justify his objection to truth-telling, Cotton claimed he was honoring the Founding Fathers' view of slavery as a "necessary evil." As the coronavirus pandemic worsens and protests continue across the country over racial injustice, Cotton is proposing both bad history and bad policy.
Cotton's remarks and his proposal to revise history obscure the violence, death and displacement that slavery caused in both Black and Indigenous communities. Reclaiming shared histories that are forgotten or misremembered is essential to the success of systemic reform. Too often, we discuss Black and Indigenous histories separately, when in fact an honest reckoning with American history demands recognizing the shared history of slavery and the other structural forces that have shaped and constrained both groups. Filling incomplete narratives of the past requires amplifying the voices and experiences of Black and Indigenous communities.
European conquest of the Americas brought violence, displacement and deadly epidemic disease that not only decimated Indigenous people but also people of African descent in the Americas. But the spread of epidemic disease among Indigenous and African-descended people was a result of policy as much as biology. Their societies had carefully adapted to epidemic diseases, and their ripple effects, before Europeans arrived in North America or Africa. Healers could remove contagions through medicine and spiritual practice. They imposed successful quarantines. They managed food systems despite seasonal uncertainty, redistributing food and other goods to sustain communities.
European colonizers' disruption of these societies and these healing practices brought on the first genocides of native people and the widespread deaths of African peoples, both in the Americas and during the Middle Passage. Warfare and enslavement disrupted these communities and then prevented healers from doing their work and people from accessing medical and spiritual care. Displacement and famine followed. Death from disease was not inevitable. Rather, specific colonial policies — notably those that encouraged theft and used stolen resources to develop systems that valued property over people — made strong communities vulnerable and then, when disaster struck, denied those same communities their own means of recovery and revitalization.
Biology was then used by colonizers to justify such policies, as historian Ibram X. Kendi has shown. Observing the genocide that flowed from infectious disease, Spanish lawyer Alonso de Zuazo wrote in 1510, "General license should be given to bring Negroes, [a people] strong for work, the opposite of the natives, so weak who can work only in undemanding tasks." Biological justification for the enslavement of Africans and the elimination of natives paved the way for later settlers to rationalize their conquest.
In the wake of a devastating epidemic in New England in 1633, English settler John Winthrop wrote that "the greatest part of [the natives] are swept away by the smallpox . . . so as God hath hereby cleared our title to this place . . . those who remain . . . hath put themselves under our protection . . . and freely confined themselves . . . within certain limits." Colonizers used a logic of biological, religious and cultural inferiority that they imposed on people from both continents. That logic dictated that the victims deserved what they got or that the outcomes were just natural extensions of Europeans' self-proclaimed superiority.
Blaming victims for such deadly outcomes then paved the way for militarized violence against these communities in the United States. As the U.S. expanded across North America, its militias treated Black and Indigenous people as hostile enemies or outside agitators unfit for belonging in the United States.
This shared outsider status was reinforced in the Declaration of Independence. In the final listed grievance, Thomas Jefferson accused the British crown of fomenting the aggression of the "merciless Indian Savages." And here's the thing: In the 1750s, when George Washington served as a colonel for the Virginia militia, he and other would-be American patriots allied with native nations to achieve their goals against the French. But when those same patriots wanted to revolt against Great Britain, native communities became merciless, savage outsiders. In the same sentence, the declaration also accused the king of inciting "domestic insurrections" — a reference to Lord Dunmore's War (1775), a conflict led by the British royal governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, who promised to free enslaved people who joined the British army.
During the Civil War, racist violence became an enduring part of battles for American unity. For example, in 1864, 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho men, women and children were massacred at Sand Creek in Colorado by Union army units that had been functioning as a state militia since their return from fighting the Confederacy. In Colorado, the territorial governor, John Evans, consistently issued inflammatory proclamations against Cheyenne and Arapaho inhabitants, accusing them of preparing for war against White settlers, all while Evans and the settlers under his jurisdiction flouted federal law to bring about a war with Indigenous people. With a militarized police force that treated Cheyenne allies as enemies, Evans went on to seize Cheyenne land without negotiating at all.
African Americans experienced similar violence in 1898 in Wilmington, N.C. Between 60 and 300 Black men, women and children were massacred by 2,000 White men who gathered in the city to eliminate the threat of Black prosperity and political organizing, both of which had expanded since Reconstruction. Thousands more Black Americans were forced to flee their homes and businesses, leaving them to the mob to loot and raid. The informal militia — really a mob that held the tacit approval of the highest officials in North Carolina — was organized and led by senators and future mayors, congressmen, business executives, a newspaper editor and the first woman to serve in the U.S. Senate. In the end, property worth millions of dollars was transferred to White owners in this illegal coup, motivated by Black voters simply exercising their rights as citizens.
Time and time again, in both the history of epidemics and state violence, White leaders have targeted communities of color and then blamed them for this theft of life, labor and property.
Black and Indigenous histories are intertwined, and the structural racism that both groups face now was planted and took root in the past. Such outcomes, however, were not inevitable or accidental. White people in power fabricated stories about biological superiority, war, and law and order to justify violence and maintain those structures against what was inevitable — the resistance of Black and Indigenous people to the violence committed against them.
That is why unmasking such narratives is so important now. In fact, when we grasp Black and Indigenous histories together, we see that white supremacy is its own virus, one that alienates Americans from one another and blinds us to the culpable parties. When we take responsibility for this past, acknowledging its hypocrisies, we begin a new world of living in relationship to one another, instead of in opposition.
Lowery is the author of "The Lumbee Indians: An American Struggle." This piece was written for The Washington Post.