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Race is an issue in
America today. Race has been an issue in America for four centuries and it will
be an issue in the twenty-first century and beyond. The race issue is so deeply
rooted and is such an inexorable part of American culture because, on many levels,
America was created and built on a foundation of racism.
Racism has been defined as “the belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” And although racism is antithetical to the “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal,” racism was a fact of life when Thomas Jefferson included these words in the first sentence of America’s Declaration of Independence in 1776.
Racism is the explanation for 157 years of Slavery prior to 1776 and 89 years of Slavery after 1776. Regardless of any and all other factors, Slavery could not have existed without boundless racism as a basis. Were it not for racism, the most important race issue in America today might well be the date or the route of the “Crispus Attucks’ Day Parade.”
This is not to say that all the founding fathers or the vast majority of Americans who lived in 1776 were innate, unyielding, soulless racists. It is to say that there was more than enough racism for Slavery to be permitted in the new republic. Even those who clearly saw the evils of Slavery had their own reasons and rationales to compromise their principles.
First and foremost, there was the need or desire to form a nation. And if Slavery had not been permitted within the new Union, it would still have existed in those colonies that would have responded by not becoming a part of the Union. Other justifications for the continuation of Slavery ranged from economic considerations to the logistical problem of what to do with the nearly one million slaves who comprised almost one-fifth of the total population of the colonies.
Beyond the rationales and justifications, it should also be noted that most white Americans were not directly involved in Slavery and were busy pursuing their own agendas. For them, slavery had very little impact on their daily lives and was, at most, a philosophical argument. Moreover, by 1776, Slavery had been an integral part of America for more than a century and a half. If Slavery was a problem, what did it matter if the problem was resolved now or resolved at some point in the future?
The Institutionalization Of Racism
While the rationales and justifications for the continuation of Slavery may explain a lot, they do not explain how America came to be, and continues to be, one of the most racist countries in the world. After all, unlike the older European nations, the countries of origin of the new Americans, America was founded as a Christian nation and based on ideology that proclaimed that all men are created equal, with liberty and justice for all. America was the country where people came to escape the inequities and the oppression of an autocratic world. America was a country without class and caste barriers. It was a country where, supposedly, success was determined by hard work and talent and not merely by the circumstances of one’s birth.
The American Revolution was fought to break away from the injustices and tyranny of Great Britain. And yet, in what can only be regarded as a case of paradoxical irony, in 1833, Great Britain peacefully outlawed slavery. On the other hand, it took America another thirty-two years to make Slavery illegal, and only after a bloody four-year civil war that almost destroyed the young nation.
The explanation for America’s enduring bitter core of racism is also a case of paradoxical irony. From the very beginning of Slavery in America, there were those who were vehemently opposed to it. It just did not sit well with many of the early Americans who had come to the so-called New World to escape class, ethnic, and religious oppression. Nor did Slavery sit well with those who truly believed in equality and justice for all and the other principles upon which the Union was founded.
In response to those who were against Slavery, there was only one possible argument to be made by those who were pro-Slavery on principle or those who benefited or hoped to benefit from Slavery. Their argument was that “race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” Therefore, although anti-Slavery arguments may have been quite compelling, such arguments would be applicable only if slaves were white. Since slaves were black and blacks were inferior beings, for a dyed-in-the-wool racist, the anti-Slavery arguments were all irrelevant.
There were a number of specific racist rationales and justifications used to dismiss those who would destroy the lifestyle and the economy of the South by eliminating Slavery. In the beginning, it was the contention of those who favored Slavery that the “all-wise Creator” had perfectly adapted the black man to the labor needs of the South. Whereas whites could not survive the hostile labor conditions, blacks would thrive in the swamps and under the hot sun raising the cotton and sugar crops that were necessary for the prosperity of the South. It was also argued that, because of the uncivilized, barbaric nature of blacks, they needed the “training” of plantation life for a generation or two in order to understand American laws and customs and to be successfully assimilated into American society.
However, as these and other rationales became more and more untenable, doctors, scientists, and pseudo-scientists argued that there was a physiological basis for supposed temperamental and intellectual differences between whites and blacks. Many carried racism to an even further extreme by arguing that blacks were not Homo sapiens, that they actually belonged to a completely different species than whites.
These and other racist arguments were being made by those who favored Slavery for more than 150 years before the American Revolution, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and the ratification of the United States Constitution. The harder anti-Slavery forces pushed for the abolition of Slavery, the more entrenched pro-Slavery forces became in their racist justifications and rationales. Ultimately, by the start of the Civil War, racist arguments had been made for the continuation of Slavery for almost two and a half centuries.
The longer Slavery endured the more it become interwoven into the fabric of America’s agricultural and commercial life. Indeed, many of those who were in favor of the continuation of Slavery believed themselves to be on a mission to save the economy of the South and, therefore, the economy of the entire nation. Of course, after the Civil War, America’s agricultural and commercial life easily survived without Slavery.
Unfortunately, 246 years of relentless and unwavering racist arguments also survived. And, for the past century and a half, these racist arguments, along with racial anecdotes and racial stereotyping, have been passed down from generation to generation of white Americans. It is even more important to understand that, although racism is deliberately taught, in fact, the preponderance of this generational racism is unknowingly passed down as part of America’s history and cultural norms.
Racism: Is White America Still In Denial?
For almost four hundred years, racism and issues resulting from racism have been the most consistent, contentious, and divisive issues that America has had to face. Before it was abolished, Slavery was the subject of states and national debates and a deciding factor in most presidential election. During the westward expansion of the country, an agreement or a compromise had to be reached to resolve whether Slavery would be permitted or not be permitted in each new state or territory. And, of course, one of the most tragic and costly results of Slavery and the racism that was used to justify it was the American Civil War. More American lives were lost in this four year struggle than the sum total of every American war before or since.
Black America has long criticized white America for what it sees as white America’s failure to come to terms with racism and race issues in America. One of the most conspicuous examples of this unwillingness or inability to see the truth about racism is how the American Civil War is explained. American history books still list the causes of and reasons for the Civil War in terms of states’ rights, economics, Northern versus Southern lifestyles, climate, natural resources, regional differences in general, and, of course, Slavery. Many history books list and explain the reasons for the war based on some type of hierarchy or assign relative significance to the causes. However, few of them definitively state that Slavery was the principle cause, perhaps not the only cause, but certainly the root cause of the Civil War. It is more than a reasonable proposition that that the American Civil War would not have occurred if Slavery had not existed in America.
None of the other factors by themselves or in any combination would have resulted in the Civil War. Indeed, a number of factors would not have existed or been as consequential if it were not for Slavery. How could the South not have developed a “different way of life” with a population of eight million whites owning four million slaves? The differences in the economies of the North and South would not have been as pronounced if Slavery had not allowed the South to develop a system of extensive plantations to support “king cotton.” And, of course, if Slavery had never existed in America, the most important states’ rights issue would not have been whether a state had the right to choose to be or to not be a slave state.
Even Abraham Lincoln was reluctant to admit that his war to save the Union was being fought as a result of Slavery. It took him until 1863 to issue his Emancipation Proclamation, which freed very few slaves, but made it clear to the nation and to the world the war was being fought to end Slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation was issued to boost moral at a time when Northerners were beginning to question why they were fighting such a prolonged and bloody war. And, even though the South was the world’s leading supplier of cotton, the Emancipation Proclamation made it virtually impossible for France or Britain, having abolished slavery decades earlier, to side with the slave owners of the South.
Many black Americans believe they know why white America will not or can not fully come to terms with racism and race issues in America. The explanations range from white guilt to it being human nature to avoid unpleasant issues whenever possible to do so. Another possibility is that white Americans simply can not comprehend or fully appreciate racism and race issues because they seldom directly affect white Americans.
The vast majority of white Americans can and do live their lives without having to, on a day to day basis, deal with or even think about racism or race issues. Black Americans do not have this option. As the racial minority, they must deal with the realities of racism each and every day of their lives.
Black Americans may have historically been known as Colored, Negroes, or African-Americans, but they will always be, first and foremost, “black” Americans.
The Future Of Racism In America
Fortunately for today’s black Americans, they rarely have to deal with overt racism. During the Slavery era, racism was the norm. A minimum of ninety-five percent of what black Americans could or could not do in America was dictated solely by their race. During the Jim Crow era, black Americans lived in a distinctly racist society, but they did get their first taste of freedom and opportunity. Depending on various factors, between forty and sixty percent of what black Americans could or could not do in America was based on their race. Now, during the Equal Opportunity era, black Americans have their first real chance for success in America based on their knowledge and skills. Today, less than ten percent of what black Americans can or can not do in America is dictated by race.
It would be foolish or disingenuous for anyone to argue that racism no longer exists in America. Most black Americans would argue that somewhere between twenty-five and seventy-five percent of all white Americans, on some level, harbor racist beliefs about black Americans. And because racism is a belief that is fueled by ignorance and hatred, as long as there is ignorance and hate in America, there will be racism.
Black Americans can live with racism. They always have and, undoubtedly, they always will. They can detest racists and deplore racism but they need be genuinely concerned only when racists or racism threatens their civil rights. In the meantime, black Americans have a much more important and formidable task ahead of them. They must find ways of dealing effectively with the issues that have resulted from more than three and a half centuries of government-sponsored or government-tolerated racism.
The current generation of white Americans should not be proud of their racist history, but it is not a requirement that they be ashamed of it. Black Americans need not be proud of their history of Slavery, but they certainly have no reason to be ashamed of it. After all, it is history and the current generations of black Americans and white Americans had no part in creating it. It is simply a legacy that today’s black Americans and white Americans inherited.
What should be important to the current generations of black Americans and white Americans is how we are conducting our personal lives and where we are leading our nation. After all, we are in the process of making the history and creating the legacies that our descendants will one day inherit.
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