This is the eighth (8/50) installment in a new series of articles: "The Fifty Nifty United States." The series focuses on recent acts of racism in schooling, housing, and public life across the United States.
Delaware's nickname, "The First State," recognizes the fact that the small Mid Atlantic outpost was the first of the original United States colonies to ratify the Constitution. A somewhat less distinguished distinction, Delaware was one of the last three states to abolish slavery. Slavery began in Delaware in the 1600s, when Swedish settlers enslaved Native people. The practice of chattel slavery ballooned under Dutch colonial control, and by the time of the American Revolution, almost a quarter of all Delaware residents were enslaved people of African descent, a higher proportion than in any Northern state. When the state finally - and officially - apologized for slavery earlier this year (2016), the state's legislature acknowledged the broad sweep of institutionalized dehumanization:
Though Delaware lives beside New Jersey and Pennsylvania, its culture straddles North and South. Documented lynchings continued in Delaware into the twentieth century, and recent instances of violence against Black citizens in Dover have raised questions about contemporary extralegal executions. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a handful of White Supremacist organizations maintain chapters in Delaware, including the Ku Klux Klan, which may explain racist leaflets that circulated in Dover in December of 2011.
Identifying, and condemning, racist violence is not controversial. Sometimes, though, racism takes subtler, more bureaucratic forms, as Black leaders in Delaware alleged at the end of 2015:
Many black men and women employed by the state of Delaware do not feel comfortable in the workplace environment, religious and community leaders allege. They claim a culture of discrimination exists, where black employees are sometimes unfairly passed over for promotions, where they must endure racial insults, and where they are punished if they report improper treatment. To that end, leaders from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Interdenominational Ministers Alliance and Interdenominational Ministers Action Council have formed a committee to hear complaints of racism from state workers.
The NAACP of Delaware, in partnership with local pastors, conducted a more significant investigation of the state government, and the results offer a glimpse into how "diversity" is an important, but insufficient lens through which to consider workplace misconduct. Racial discrimination can take many forms, and the impact of such mistreatment is exacerbated when practiced by the state. State employees who are Black reported being passed over for promotions and subjected to racist taunts. Employees at the department of labor even described being assigned to racially divided work crews.
After the report was publicized, local leaders in the Black community applied pressure to the state. Earlier this fall, Governor Jack Markell announced a plan to address the complaints, including a massive overhaul of the state's approach to diversity and inclusion. These recent events in Delaware remind us that, while it's easy to condemn police when they practice violence against unarmed citizens, there are quotidian forms of bureaucratic racism that take places under our noses everyday.
"The Fifty Nifty United States" is a fifty part series, named for a children's song that lists all of the states in alphabetical order:
From the inaugural entry:
For each of the next fifty weeks, I will focus on a different American state, in alphabetical order. For every state, I will highlight an act of racism that occurred in the last decade. While I believe that prejudice in all forms is harmful, I will avoid sharing examples of prejudice that do not involve unequal power relationships, as racism emerges from a confluence of both prejudice and power ... Given the current political milieu, there is a tendency to ascribe racist tendencies to under-educated, less wealthy White people. The uncomfortable truth, however, is that the most pernicious acts of institutional racism happen when wealthier White people use their resources and political power to enforce segregation. The purpose of this series is to shed light on the pervasive nature of systemic racism in America, not to shame the individuals and institutions discussed.