Ongoing legacy of original sin: pervasive racism in America
At the end of the 1960s it was possible to believe that the US was, at long last, serious about eliminating racism, the poisonous cause and legacy of chattel slavery. After all, segregation had finally been outlawed in the South, the Civil Rights movement was surging, and important voting rights for all citizens had recently been enacted into law.
Fifty years later, however, it is sadly clear that this hope was illusory. Indeed, in many ways, not only do racist attitudes seem as firmly entrenched as ever, but also the current president frequently fans its flames, effectively sanctioning such beliefs and behaviors.
This is, I believe, due in part to how distorted views of black people are so interwoven throughout our understanding of history, the operation of our economy, and the unconscious expectations we have of one another. It is also in part because racism can be very useful in keeping — and justifying — social order.
While the basis of racism in this country was economic — unpaid labor for the very labor-intensive crops of the American South, cotton and tobacco in particular — it was also made possible by a mind-set that, from the very beginning, regarded black people as inferior beings whose “natural” fate was to be exploited by allegedly “superior people.” America’s understanding of “race” is inextricably bound up with the chattel slavery of black people, and the ideological and emotional constructs of racism are, as a consequence, deeply — and, in many ways, invisibly — imbedded in our culture. Even though we now know that varied customs and behaviors are cultural in nature, many persist in calling their origin racial. Such biases are difficult to uproot or change because, for those who possess them, they are effectively indistinguishable from facts.
In their “Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life,” the two scholarly sisters Karen and Barbara Fields observe that racism “is first and foremost a social practice, which means that it is an action and a rationale for action, or both at once (and) always takes for granted the objective reality of race …”
The efforts of the 1960s did result in many positive changes, including much-needed legislation. But while laws can outlaw discriminatory policies, they are unable by themselves to change closed minds. Those who continued to believe that non-whites were, in some ways, inferior, and that intermixing of the races was undesirable, simply found new ways to discriminate, including restrictive housing covenants, stiff loan requirements, and new barriers to voting.
That decade’s accomplishments created a backlash from the political right and the entrenched privileged. As Southerners abandoned the Democratic for the Republican Party en masse following the 1960s civil rights laws, the Republican Party increasingly used whites’ fears about blacks to cement their electoral support, especially among rural, evangelical and Southern voters. Over the years it has also cultivated grievances against unions, “liberals,” alleged media elites and even urban lifestyles to create a state of semi-permanent fury among their base.
‘Wall of unknowing’
As a consequence, many white people today express dismay and resentment at minorities’ accusations of persistent racist attitudes and practices, and assert that not only are they “asking for too much,” but also that it is now white people whose beliefs and culture are imperiled.
Each of these books helps us better understand how so many aspects of racism’s continued presence can be effectively invisible to so many. Each attempts to break through this “wall of unknowing” by presenting the stark realities of racist thought, institutions and false narratives that need to be understood before they can be thoroughly eliminated.
Ibram Kendi, in “Stamped from the Beginning,” tells us at the outset that his goal is to narrate “the entire history of racist ideas, from their origins in 15th -century Europe, through colonial times when the early British settlers carried racist ideas to America, all the way to the 21st century and current debates about the events taking place on our streets.”
Kendi notes that while various ethnic and religious prejudices did exist in the ancient world of Greece and Rome, constructions of prejudice based upon race did not. “Race” is, rather, an invention of the early modern world that has served to justify the oppression of some people by others and serves to debase those who deemed “inferior” while inflating the virtue and status of those who consider themselves “superior.” For at least the past five centuries, alleged “natural differences between races” has been used to explain why the “white race” is both superior to and, therefore, justified in efforts to resist miscegenation while, at the same time, pursuing their “mission to uplift lesser races.”
“Racist ideas have done their job on us,” he writes. “We have a hard time recognizing that racial discrimination is the sole cause of racial disparities in this country and in the world at large ... No racial group has ever had a monopoly on any type of human trait or gene — not now, not ever. Under our different-looking hair and skin, doctors cannot tell the difference between our bodies, our brains or the blood that runs in our veins.”
Kendi shows how, time and again, racist views have been given a pseudo-factual veneer through theological or scientific interpretations by theologians, explorers, slaveholders, colonizers and all invested in maintaining existing systems of thought and behavior. Most of what these people thought about “race” and alleged racial differences — extensively explored and quoted by Kendi — would strike modern people as absurd nonsense. Yet, at the time they lived, these beliefs were as common as the air all breathed.
Chris Hayes, in his “A Colony in a Nation,” takes a different approach by attempting to show the majority of Americans how and why so many citizens of color experience day-to-day “normalcy” as far more threatening and isolating than most white people. His essential argument is that whites’ fear of “the other” — especially black others — has created a society in which that fear influences and shapes their perceptions of people whose only distinctive difference is the color of their skin.
For people of color, the result is that they experience an almost constant state of surveillance, even suspicion, from white neighbors, co-workers and — most threatening of all — law enforcement personnel.
Greg cusack is a retired US statesman from Iowa. He now lives in Oregon.