Thursday, April 13, 2017

Race and Politics in the United States: White Racial Dominance as Policy

Many of the world’s nations have at one time approved of slavery within its borders.  Many have also participated in slavery as a commercial activity by selling or buying slaves for use in enterprises in what might generically be referred to as colonies.  The United States was unique in the extent to which it based its political structure and its economy on the institution of slavery.  In so doing, it created a situation that it has struggled to deal with for the last 150 years.  The inevitable end to enslavement for millions of black African Americans left a white-dominated society with a need to incorporate all of these new citizens.

From a current perspective, it looks as though little progress has been made given the 150 years.  Although legal discrimination has been mostly eliminated, discrimination in practice does continue.  It may be difficult for those under the age of about 50 to appreciate the progress that has been made because it might be difficult for them to realize how bad things were for the first 100 years of black “freedom.” 

People who enslave others must produce a moral justification for themselves.  If one chooses to make slaves of members of a race, then that race must consist of people who are deserving of subjugation.  If whites are humans, then blacks must be subhuman in some way or another.  It was as simple as that.  And that belief, imprinted over centuries, did not disappear with the end of the institution of slavery.  In fact, it persisted throughout much of the twentieth century.

Several recent books have shed light on the beliefs and political machinations that have defined this history.  In Race and Politics in the United States: The Revolutionary War, we discussed how our founding fathers decided that the British were not a sufficiently frightening enemy to compel the various colonies to join together against them.  Consequently, our founders chose to scapegoat black slaves and Native Americans.  Even though free blacks and Indians fought with the Revolutionary Army, they were portrayed as savages who would willingly join the British in murdering white men, women, and children.  This produced an augmented enemy worth defeating, but did not contribute to the consideration of either of the two races as “men created equal.”

David S. Reynolds produced an article for the New York Review of Books, Our Ruinous Betrayal of Indians and Black Americans, which reviewed a book by Nicholas Guyatt: Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation.  The point of Guyatt’s book is that while white citizens had long experience with blacks as both free and slave and may be adamantly opposed to the institution of slavery, that did not mean they considered blacks as their equivalent in society.  The feelings that the races, both black and Native American, would not be tolerated by whites led to the continual suggestions that racial separation was the only path forward.

“Guyatt provides much evidence of what Edmund S. Morgan called ‘the American paradox’—the conflict between the nation’s egalitarian ideals and its unjust treatment of ethnic minorities.”

“Guyatt reveals new dimensions of this paradox by tracing early efforts by politicians, reformers, and clergymen to remove free blacks and Native Americans to areas distant from white Americans.”

In fact, those we hold in great respect for their roles in our nation’s history were firmly committed to the goal of permanently segregating the separate races.

“Indeed, as Guyatt makes clear, the founders themselves were among the strongest supporters of racial separation. Only a few years after he wrote the nation-defining words ‘all men are created equal,’ Thomas Jefferson proposed that the gradual emancipation of slaves should be accompanied by the deportation of blacks because of deep-rooted prejudice, innate racial differences, and the probable ‘extermination of the one or the other race’ that, he said, integration would cause. Later, as president, Jefferson explored relocating African-Americans to various places, including the Caribbean, South America, Louisiana, the American West, and the African country of Sierra Leone. James Madison, the chief architect of the Constitution, proposed sending blacks to the ‘interior wilderness of America’—a scheme, Guyatt tells us, that had wide acceptance among colonizationists.”

“The most dogged advocate of colonization among the founders was James Monroe. As the governor of Virginia from 1799 to 1802, he tried to persuade both state and federal officials to carry out programs of racial separation. When he succeeded Madison as president in 1817, Monroe supported the American Colonization Society. He was a principal backer of the expedition in 1821 that led that year to the establishment of Liberia, the name of whose capital, Monrovia, paid homage to his contributions to the cause.”

Even Abraham Lincoln was a firm believer in the need for segregation.

“….in a speech of 1854, Lincoln said that ‘if all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do’ about slavery. His first impulse, he continued, ‘would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia,—to their own native land.’ But high costs and limited shipping made such a plan impracticable in the short run. The alternative, freeing the slaves and making them ‘politically and socially, our equals,’ was also impossible, for ‘the great mass of white people will not [admit of this]’.”

“Guyatt writes that Lincoln, ‘in the first years of his presidency, did more to secure government support for black emigration than any politician since James Monroe.’ Lincoln saw Central America as the optimal place for black relocation. Although after 1862 abolition and emancipation replaced colonization as his highest priorities, much of his popular appeal lay in the moderation of his antislavery arguments, which initially called for separation of the races in order to avoid the problems of an integrated society.”

By modern standards, whites in the United States were deeply racist.

“Racism was visible everywhere in pre–Civil War America—so much so that the black reformer William J. Watkins insisted that the ‘prejudice at the North is much more virulent than at the South,’ an observation seconded by the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who declared, ‘The prejudices of the North are stronger than those of the South’.”

Rather than gradually acquiescing to the newcomers in their society, work continued on the justifications for the inequality of the races and the need for separation.

“…..the racist arguments of antebellum American figures like the surgeon Josiah Nott and the Egyptologist George Gliddon….prepared the way for later American ethnographic science, which predicted the extinction of supposedly inferior races and was among the causes that led to lynchings, KKK raids, and other ethnically driven atrocities of the 1880–1950 period.”

We tend to think of history as a collection of facts, but history is really a story being told by people who uses their understanding of the present to interpret what happened in the past.  History is a malleable thing that can be used as a powerful force in political disputes.  Nowhere in our history has historical bias been more important than it has been in defining the path we have taken in our racial history.  E. J. Dionne visits this topic in his book Our Divided Political Heart.

During the Reconstruction period following the Civil War, the Republicans, then the party of Lincoln, essentially occupied the South and imposed equal rights for the blacks. The Democratic Party, then the home of the southern racists, fought back politically, and the southern whites fought back by instituting a reign of terror aimed at disarming blacks so they could not defend themselves and ignoring any voting rights the blacks had been granted.  Eventually, the federal authorities withdrew and left the field to the southerners to do as they wished.

The historians who told the story of Reconstruction in the first decades of the twentieth century had been captured by notions about the superiority of whites.  Any attempt to raise blacks to the same level could then only be viewed as a misguided or corrupt political maneuver.  Dionne reminds us that these were respected historians working out of some of our most highly-regarded universities.

“It is strange to our ears now, but the whites who overthrew the Reconstruction governments, imposed a color line, and stripped African Americans of their rights were known, proudly, as ‘redeemers’.”

“The scholars who wrote the history of Reconstruction from the turn of the last century into the 1920s saw the foes of Reconstruction just that way in accounts offered when the nation’s inclinations turned conservative (one could also fairly say racist) on matters of civil rights.  Works by James Ford Rhodes, William Dunning, John W. Burgess, and their students painted Reconstruction as a disastrous interlude.  They described the Reconstruction governments as dominated by corrupt ‘carpetbaggers’ and ‘scalawags’ and accused them of imposing misrule on the South, partly by granting power to ‘ignorant’ freed slaves.  Southern whites who used violence and fraud at the polls to overthrow the Reconstruction governments were defended, not condemned.  Burgess called Reconstruction ‘the most soul-sickening spectacle that Americans had ever been called upon to behold.’  Rhodes called the work of the Radical Republicans ‘repressive’ and ‘uncivilized’ and cast them as politicians who ‘pandered to the ignorant negroes, the knavish white natives and the vulturous adventurers who flocked from the north’.”

Dionne recalls encountering this picture of Reconstruction as an elementary school student.  I also heard the same tale as a child and can still recall an image provided of a rather nasty looking individual carrying a carpetbag and meant to represent the “carpetbaggers and scalawags.”

“Their accounts became the conventional wisdom of American history—and they were still affecting the presentation of the period in American history textbooks I first encountered in elementary school in the 1950s and early 1960s.  These approaches to Reconstruction, in turn, reinforced racial attitudes that undergirded southern segregation.”

Another era, and a century of learning that blacks were quite capable of determining their own future, led to the issuance of books and articles reconstructing Reconstruction and placing it in the context of well-meant, if not always wise, attempts to both rebuild the southern economy and to provide civil rights to blacks who were demanding them. 

Dionne refers to a massive study by Eric Foner, Reconstruction, issued in 1988 as being representative of these efforts.  Ironically, Foner produced his history at Columbia University which had been at the forefront in producing the original picture of Reconstruction.  Dionne quotes Foner’s description of the power of (bad) history.

“For it was at Columbia at the turn of the century that William A. Dunning and John W. Burgess had established the traditional school of Reconstruction politics, teaching that blacks were ‘children’ incapable of appreciating the freedom that had been thrust upon them, and that the North did a ‘monstrous’ thing in granting them suffrage.  There is no better illustration than Reconstruction of how historical interpretation both reflects and helps to shape current policies.  The views of the Dunning School helped freeze the white South for generations in unalterable opposition to any change in race relations, and justified decades of Northern indifference to southern nullification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments”

The racial beliefs propagated by nineteenth century historians carried over well into the twentieth century as the need for arguments for subjugation of inferior races became critical during the period of colonization by wealthy white nations of African and Asian regions.  Robert Vitalis provides us some perspective on events during this era in his book White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations.  Vitalis is a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania.  His main interest is in forcing the high-minded practitioners of “international relations” today to recognize that their field began as an intellectual effort designed to maintain the racial and economic supremacy of the white nations as they subjugated darker-skinned natives of various regions to the modern form of slavery known as colonialism.

“In the first decades of the twentieth century in the United States, international relations meant race relations.  This sentence is bound to strike many readers as both strange and wrong, just as it once did me.  The problem of empire or imperialism, sometimes referred to as ‘race subjugation,’ was what preoccupied the first self-identified professors of international relations.  They wrestled with the prospect that a race war might lead to the end of the world hegemony of whites, a future that appeared to many to be in the offing.”

We are here more interested in the racial beliefs being bandied about rather than any internal arguments between political scientists.

“As far as I have been able to determine….in the 1920s and 1930s no white international relations scholar argued on either principled or pragmatic grounds for the restoration of black citizenship rights, the dismantling of Jim Crow in the United States, and self governance, let alone independence, for the colonies.”

The emergence of the United States as a colonial power meant that its experience as a “subjugator of races” enmeshed domestic and international racial policies.  If blacks in the United States were deemed unworthy of full citizenship, then blacks worldwide were then unworthy of self rule.  If colonial blacks were deemed unworthy of self rule then domestic blacks must also be so considered.

“….on the Negro question in the U.S. South, where the proven unfitness of African Americans for the ballot was a key reason for believing that all the other less civilized races that were now American dependents would likewise be unable to govern themselves.”

The nineteenth century racism described by Guyatt had not subsided in the twentieth.

“The white social scientists who offered their expertise to the new imperial state and the handful of critics of the new expansionist wave all assumed that hierarchy was natural, and that it was biologically rooted, and that it could be made sense of best by drawing on concepts such as higher and lower races, natural and historic races, savagery and civilization, and the like.”

“All accounts of the winning side in the scramble to build an impregnable biological fortress around the native Americans (meaning the Teutonic, or Nordic, or Anglo-Saxon ‘race’ or ‘blood’ or ‘stock,’ depending on the particular analytical framework used) recognize the influence of Madison Grant, author of the best-selling Passing of the Great Race (1916) and his protégé, T. Lothrop Stoddard.  Grant wrote the introduction to Stoddard’s own most famous book, The Rising Tide of Color: The Threat Against White World Supremacy (1920), which made him the leading apostle of Nordic racial supremacy in the United States.”

Whites were outnumbered, and if they did not defend themselves they would be overwhelmed by the lesser races.  These were not ideas from an extremist fringe; they circulated freely in mainstream media.

“The largest circulation magazine in the country, The Saturday Evening Post, had exposed millions to Grant and Stoddard’s ideas.  Many other influential publications and specialists in world politics lauded The Rising Tide of Color.”

“When newly elected President Warren G Harding told a crowd of 100,000 ‘whites and colored people’ in Birmingham in October 1921 that ‘our race problem here in the United States is only a phase of the race issue that the whole world confronts,’ he cited Stoddard’s study.  He also evoked a second authority on the world race problem, Lord Lugard, the onetime governor general of Nigeria…..Lugard’s ideas about Africa held lessons for the South, Harding said, where political and economic rights might gradually be extended but ‘social equality’ was clearly impossible given the ‘fundamental, eternal, inescapable difference’ between the races.”

Stoddard would eventually become more optimistic about maintaining white supremacy and developed a concept of “biracialism” that was presented in Re-Forging America (1927).

“….defense of ‘white integrity’ or the color line drove Stoddard to propose the ‘experiment’ that he called biracialism.  In essence, he wanted to deepen, regularize, ostensibly upgrade, and extend the South’s ‘separate but equal’ Jim Crow order to the country as a whole.  ‘Under a perfected bi-racial system, the line separating the races would be straight and logical,’ he argued.  So, for example, all sexual contact across all racial groups would be outlawed everywhere instead of the piecemeal fashion found in the laws of dozens of cities and states.”

“Future Supreme Court justice and Alabama Klan member Hugo Black, who had just won a U.S. senate seat, said that every loyal American ought to support Stoddard’s white unity program.”

The presumed incompatibility of the races, meaning the fear of losing power by whites, perhaps in a racial war, was not an issue of long ago.  It continued to be prominent until the colonial era finally came to an end—about the time U.S. blacks demanded and obtained their civil rights. 

“Issues of Foreign Affairs in the 1950s and 1960s include matter-of-fact descriptions of the hatred for whites that drives decolonization and the psychological impairments that communists so masterfully exploit.”

“In the New York Times, foreign affairs columnist C. L. Sulzberger wrote repeatedly about race wars that were allegedly already underway, for example in Algeria, and were on the horizon throughout the 1960s.”

 It seems that U.S. blacks could not be granted civil rights until blacks under colonial subjugation gained political freedom.  Or, perhaps, it was the other way around.

One lesson from this long and sorry racial history is that gains in civil rights for subjugated races are generally not granted—they are demanded, and if necessary, taken.


The interested reader might find the following articles informative:




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