How Are We Driving the Trolley Car Forward?

“What set slavery in the U.S. apart?” asked my eighth-grade History teacher. My peers and I fell silent. The 13-year-old “we” only knew slavery as a relic of the past, never questioning if it still persisted.

We may come under the illusion from history textbooks that racial problems are frozen in time. African Americans continue to be targets of systemic oppression. Arthur Lubow’s photo-commentary, “A Portrait of America That Still Haunts, Decades Later,” explores this theme, zooming into a microcosm in New Orleans. 

The 1959 photo depicts a segregated trolley car. Yet, as I gazed from left to right, each window frame of this “step-down hierarchy”–from the ambiguous white man to the affable black lady–screams the familiar but tragic truth: racial inequity prevails. 

The commentary answers my teacher’s question: White supremacy was the cornerstone of slavery and the system. In the picture, the white boy, though young, had the “assurance of someone who knows his birthright,” while the black man’s hand, dangling, as if  “there’s nothing for him to hold onto.” These two hands are enough of a glimpse into the drastically different worlds that they still live in today.

Although we no longer use different bathrooms, racial discrimination, like the bars on the car, holds firm today, as thousands of blacks die from ingrained systemic racism. It is time to dig up the oppressive roots of the past to solve the problems of the present. Let us all answer the desperate question: How are we driving the trolley car forward?

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