At last we come to an end of this series on the origins of White Racism. Not wanting to lay waste to years of dedicated research by scholars such as St. Clair Drake, we simply have not the time to give a more detailed evaluation and critique of each of the texts we have covered or those that remain. In this final installment of Behind the Veil, we end our journey where slavery comes full circle and appears as a particular typology of racism. A type known as White Racism, that often results in the killing of unarmed young black men in America and the continued racism that black Americans continuously face. The literature that follows will outline a systematic process in which European merchants and governments used slavery (both African and Native American) to enrich themselves and their governments. After the American Revolution the United States government assumed control of a system of plantation slavery that Laurence Mordekhai Thomas called Vessels of Evil (1993). As profits from cotton and other cash crops began to make America wealthy the denigration of Africans as an inferior being was necessary to justify the type of brutality that would be required to maintain control and profits. The U.S. Constitution was written and a Bill of Rights added, not with the intent to give all Americans liberty, but with the intent to provide a system of checks and balances that would provide a small number of alave owners and their supporters to maintain the most profitable industrial system ever devised under the guise of American freedom.
We begin with Laurent Dubios’s Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (2004). Dubois’ book chronicles the methods authorized by Columbus to secure a foothold in the New World. Avengers is a detailed analysis of the policies that led to horrific genocidal violence the transition of the island of Hispaniola (Haiti or Ayiti) into a plantation economy. Dubois wrote, “slavery was at the heart of the thriving system of merchant capitalism that was profiting Europe, devastating Africa, and propelling the rapid expansion of the Americas.” Hugh Thomas reminds us of the co-mingling of church, state and private property became intertwined as European merchants began to look for New World labor. The process of bringing this New World labor (slaves) to the New World developed by aligning logistical, religious, defense and financial networks that laid the legal and moral arguments for the greatest forced migration of humans; an unprecedented theft of raw materials and the forced purchase of the same materials through a world-wide network known as the Triangular Slave Trade.
By the date of Systema naturae’s publishing the Taíno population of the island was already decimated by Columbus. In 1503 the colony began to import African slaves, as a substitute for Indian slave labor. According to Dubois, the Italian Cristobal Columbus’ cruelty along with the introduction of new infectious diseases, to which the Taíno had no immunity, had genocidal ramifications for the population. In just twenty-two years Columbus and the Spanish government had, through colonial policies, reduced the native island population from an estimated initial population of 500,000-700,000 in 1492, to only 29,000 by 1514. By 1650 the Spanish conquest had wiped out through violence and disease nearly 90% of the Indigenous population throughout the whole of the Americas with an estimated population of 30 million. As indigenous populations throughout the Americas were subjected to slavery they died from disease and cruelty. Stephen F. Cook asserts that at least 90% of California’s Native American population was decimated by the end of the 19th century through European contact. By the 18th century, British colonial slave owners began a process of Christianizing Africans as a means to strip away African cultural values. This of course took on a different complexion in the other parts of the Diaspora. In Spanish and French Caribbean the Catholic Church was willing to allow African indigenous religions to syncretize with African religions. This allowed some comfort for Africans as they struggled to adjust to the conditions of slavery. This, in part, allowed Africans in Haiti and elsewhere to hold onto their native mythologies and religions. The Haitian Revolution confirms the importance of retaining one’s cultural heritage. However, in British North America, European Protestants understood the necessity to destroy and denigrate black gods and black skin in the minds of the enslaved to ensure that blacks would be unable to live on life sustaining mythologies necessary for proper psychological health; and naturally they would be less likely to rebel. The destruction of African religious life undermined the spiritual mythologies that offered Africans life sustaining community values. There is comparative data to suggest the the number of American slave rebellions in the Americas (Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, et.al) reminds us of the influence of African spiritual advisors in giving these Freedom Fighters a moral compass.
European expansion necessitated the need for cheap labor. The large white labor supply in Europe proved unwilling to sacrifice comfort for the hardships that awaited them in the Americas. Without an adequate supply of labor there would be few if any immediate financial gains. Therefore, European investors and merchants tuned to the enslavement of Native Americans. As Native Americans began to die in a genocidal process of disease, starvation, rape, and murder the population quite nearly vanished from the Americas, along with–their languages, customs and religions. When Native American slavery proved unworkable Europeans turned to African slavery. Africans survived and proved more than adequate for European needs. As the English and later Americans took control of the North American continent African slavery was passed down from one successive government to the next; from British colony to American statehood. The United States of America was born with the institution of slavery already centuries old and with it came the accompanying pseudo scientific racial attitudes toward both Native Americans and Africans. This is why the comments of Danny Ferry, General Manager of the Atlanta Hawks are so offensive. De-valuing a person on random stereotypes feeds into a continuing history of white denigration of Africans.
American institutions were born of the compromises between Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist and Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican factions during the Constitutional debates (1787). The compromises between these factions were viewed then and now by historians, as necessary to obtain southern support for the proposed U.S. Constitution (See Massachusetts Compromise). A read of the Federalist Papers indicates the duress the Hamilton-Jay-Madison pro-constitutional faction was under. Hamilton believed that without a strong central government with the ability to nurture commerce the American Revolution would have been, in his view, for not. The compromises necessary to gain the Southern states approval of the Constitution would prove ultimately detrimental to human rights for both black and white free men and women, but more disastrous to black slaves and Native Americans. American institutions eventually outlined in Federalist Paper #45 and later written into the U.S. Constitution worked hand in hand with the formation of an American racist ideology, i.e. White Racism. American slavery, in all of its brutality required scientific support to justify the type of genocidal conditions necessary to break black and Native Americans into submission. Without science American slavery would have been vulnerable to the nascent but growing voices advocating emancipation on humanitarian grounds. The Jefferson Southern slave-holding faction understood the necessity to maintain both local governmental control and some form of veto power in the national government in light of the wrong that slavery was and the growing but silent abolition sentiment among many Northern Convention delegates. One such Northern delegate was Gouverneur Morris (1752 -1816) a Founding Father of the United States, and a native of New York City who represented Pennsylvania at the 1787 Constitutional Convention.
The main issue of the Convention and would ultimately be the single greatest political maneuvering in world history was the Southern push to get slaves counted for constitutional purposes. This was called the 3/5th Compromise. The Compromise reached between southern and northern Delegates during the Convention was to decide whether slaves would be counted when determining a state’s total population for allocating Congressional seats and ultimately Electoral College votes. Southerners lead by Thomas Jefferson attempted to mislead the debate on the Compromise by claiming it’s purpose was for the allocation of tax purposes only. This was a rube. The main goal of the Jeffersonian faction, as Morris understood deeply, was to forever secure Southern (i.e, white) representation in the Electoral College and Congress. The compromise unfairly negated small non-slaveholding states in the North while given sparsely populated states in the South more Congressional representation. The effects of this “covenant with death” were soon apparent to many observers at the time. This line of thought is detailed in the powerfully persuasive and damning work, The Slave Power: The Free North and Southern Domination, 1780 -1860 (2000). Leonard L. Richards’ argument is simple: from 1780 to 1860 a slave oligarchy (Known then as The Slave Power) powerfully controlled both Federal and State governments through bribery, threat of secession, coercion, and later black and poor white voter suppression and when necessary genocidal violence: rape, lynching, shootings, burning of churches and homes and the killing of women and children.
Morris was correct when he attacked the 3/5th Compromise for what it was rather than the Southern characterization that the compromise was only intended as a means for direct taxation. Morris understood well that the Southern slave holding contingent’s argument was a smoke screen aimed to misdirect attention way from their ultimate goal-the spread of slavery across the Continent of the United States. To secure this, Southerners won filibuster power in the Senate and additional and disproportionate representation in the Electoral College and Congress. Alexander Hamilton and his Federalists, seeking to spread their economic vision across the Continent, sought compromise rather equality for all. As Hamilton envisioned the U.S. Constitution was purposely designed to embrace British capitalism, which would quickly be seen as a disastrous move by many in the 19th century. It also would be the vehicle to embrace a racist ideology of black inferiority, and the destruction of Native American culture and civilization for the sake of economic gain.
With the capitulation by the Federalists slavery could be secured, its profits maintained and a form of White Southern Racism could be secured throughout the newly formed governmental “democratic” institutions. If one has doubts one should consider that of the first five presidents four owned slaves (John Adams did not). The White House and nations capital and grounds were built by slave labor. The election of Thomas Jefferson, Adams successor, could be characterized as the first “black” presidential election as the 3/5th compromise aided his ability to secure an electoral victory over his adversary Adams. Subsequently, Presidents Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James K. Polk, Zachary Taylor all owned slaves. Slaveholders dominated the U.S. Congress, Senate, and the Supreme Court until their walking out of Congress after the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860.
We now turn to the last phase of our discussion to put together a coherent thesis of the current state of White Racism, as understood by Drake. It is the White Racism of Donald Trump, Danny Ferry, Bruce Levenson, Paula Dean, Donald Sterling, Trent Lott, The Tea Party, Riley Cooper, and the kind that killed Michael Brown and Ahmadu Diallo. American White Racism has always represented a threat to the lives of blacks was formed out of 19th century pseudo-science primarily through the polemic attacks on blacks via the writings of Louis Agassiz (1807 – 1873). Agassiz was a Swiss-born and naturalized American biologist, geologist, physician, and a prominent innovator in the study of Earth’s natural history and Harvard Professor. After immigrating to the United States in 1846 Agassiz became a prolific writer of scientific racism. Agassiz was a staunch believer in polygenism, an idea that races came from separate origins, and were endowed by God with unequal attributes (In recent years, critics have assailed Agassiz’s racial theories, arguing that these views tarnish his scientific record). In order to build his scientific arguments Agassiz and later his student disciples manufactured, distorted, lied, and when necessary fabricated data in order to justify his crude racial theories. While we can quibble whether Agassiz was a man of his time, one would be hard pressed to argue away the overt deceitfulness of his work, even in his own time.
Agassiz became not only a well-respected “scientist” but also a highly regarded and fully embraced member of the upper-class white, liberal society of Boston, racism and all. The degree that his children married into some of the most well known Boston families is an indication as to the degree Agassiz and his opinions were accepted by Boston’s finest. Agassiz’s work, ultimately supported slavery and later segregation by giving Northerners, slave owners and Southern politicians the scientific basis by which to build and maintain institutions that kept blacks as second-class citizens. For example, blacks were repeatedly subjected to voting qualifications based upon the false claim that blacks were less intelligent than whites. Agassiz work justified this nonsense. Fore example, he advised:
We ought to beware how we give the blacks rights by virtue of which they may endanger the progress of whites…Social equality I deem at all times impracticable. It’s a natural impossibility, flowing from the very character of the negro race…They are incapable of living on a footing of social equality with whites, in one and the same community, without becoming an element of social disorder.
When pressed Agassiz claimed his views had nothing to do with politics. Unfortunately, we don’t have any evidence as to why Agassiz took this position. We can only speculate that he, as were many whites, simply racist. Agassiz’s writings on black intellectual inferiority became the mainstay of writings and teachings in a series of lectures known famously as the Lowell Institute Lectures for nearly 100 years after his death. All one needs to do is read the writings of Thomas R.R. Cobb (1823 -1862) to see the influence of Agassiz on Cobb’s virulent racist attacks on blacks. Cobb was one of antebellum Georgia’s foremost legal minds and most outspoken advocates of slavery and of secession. He fought for the Confederacy as a brigadier general and was killed at the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862. Cobb’s arguments were laid out in an eloquent and imposing, An Inquiry into the Law of Negro Slavery in the United States of America (1858). An Inquiry remains the only legal defense of slavery produced by a southerner. Cobb’s thesis was that slavery was good for blacks and formed the foundation of all great civilizations. Cobb argued, in respect to the natural history of Agassiz, that it was the will of God for the white race to dominate the African just as the red ant dominated the black ant. African slavery was acceptable in practice because God intended for blacks to be inferior to whites. Enslavement allowed whites to “improve” their slaves by bringing them closer to civilization. In a post war Illiterate society where almost no one could read Cobb and his ilk relied on pseudo-science as justification for slavery.
According to Cobb and many of Agassiz supporters if science said it was so then it must be so. Historians Steve Nash and Matthew Bailey argue that while most of these types of proslavery defenses were discredited after the Civil War (1861-65), some of its legal components continued to influence judicial (SCOTUS) decisions more than a century after emancipation. We see the foundation of racism working in 1857 when Roger B. Taney argued in Dred Scott v. Sanford that the authors of the U.S. Constitution had viewed all blacks as “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” These judicial decisions such as Plessy vs. Ferguson (1898) gave American institutions built after the Civil War license to develop discriminatory practices specifically designed to exclude or to segregate blacks. Take for example the American Medical Association (AMMA), largely seen world- wide as a paragon of healthcare virtue. The white dominated AMMA used segregation to not only to discourage and exclude black medical school aspirants but also to exclude black physicians from obtaining necessary hospital privileges. This was all done based on the pseudo scientific work we have been discussing here. Even when the AMMA had real scientific and anecdotal evidence that supported something contrary to the beliefs of the racists the AMMA continued its racist policies at a cost of black life.
One of the most heartbreaking books on the subject is Sick From Freedom by historian Jim Downs. According to Downs, life for slaves and later free men and women was so heinous that between 1862 and 1870 at least 1 million out of 4 million blacks (many of them now free due to emancipation) died of malnutrition and disease. Downs recounts one example that is representative of thousands. (I have quoted liberally here for clarity from: “Downs reconstructed the experiences of one freed slave, Joseph Miller, who had come with his wife and four children to a makeshift freed slave refugee camp within the union stronghold of Camp Nelson in Kentucky. In return for food and shelter for his family Miller joined the army. Yet union soldiers in 1864 still cleared the ex-slaves out of Camp Nelson, effectively abandoning them to scavenge in a war-ravaged and disease-ridden landscape. One of Miller’s young sons quickly sickened and died. Three weeks later, his wife and another son died. Ten days after that, his daughter perished too. Finally, his last surviving child also fell terminally ill. By early 1865 Miller himself was dead.
“A Snapshot of U.S. Physicians: Key Findings” from the 2008 Health Tracking Physician Survey, Data Bulletin No. 35 reported that three out of four physicians identified themselves as white, non-Hispanic, while just 3.8 percent were black, non-Hispanic, 5.3 percent were Hispanic, and 17.2 percent were Asian or other races. However, among physicians under age 40, about two-thirds were white and 33 percent were minority—black (4%), Hispanic (5.4%), and Asian or other race (24%). The AMMA as an inherently American institution is culpable in creating genocidal conditions with black health care. The report found the number of black male applicants proportionate to all medical school applicants decreased from 2.6 percent to 2.5 percent from 2002 to 2011, while both Asian and Hispanic male medical school applicants increased. Black female students are having very similar issues. Not only did the proportion of African-American female medical school applicants drop from 5.2 percent to 4.8 percent but also the proportion of matriculates went from 4.5 percent to 3.8 percent.
The AMMA officially apologized in 2008 for excluding black physicians from membership, for listing black doctors as “colored” in its national physician directory for decades, and for failing to speak against federal funding of segregated hospitals and in favor of civil rights legislation. The end result of this is blacks suffer from health related diseases and death at far greater numbers than the general population. Blacks are more likely to die of cancer than whites, have the highest death rates of heat disease and strokes and are least likely to see a physician, or have health care. While the apology is appropriate, the cost of black lives, suffering and humiliation is untold.
The Civil War abruptly ended the grip of the Slave Power in American life but not the lasting work of Agassiz and Cobb. During Woodrow Wilson’s Presidency (1913- 1921) blacks were viciously segregated and regulated to low-level employment in government offices. The justification?–Blacks were inherently inferior to whites and to keep both races pure and undiluted they would need to be separated. The Ku Klux Klan became not just a domestic terrorist organization bar none. Membership became a necessity for many white politicians. Outed and known U.S. politicians and members of the KKK: President Harry Truman, Senators Robert Byrd, Theodore G. Bilbo, James Eli Watson, R. W. Means; Governors Bibb Graves (Alabama), Edward L. Jackson (Indiana), Charles Morely (Colorado), Clifford Walker (Georgia); Rep. George Gordon; Mayor John Clifton Porter (Los Angeles); SCOTUS Justices Douglass White and Hugo Black. These men had significant influence on American society for generations. Some like Congressman George Porter became Grand Dragons and even Los Angeles Mayor Clifton Porter was a senior member of the Klan. Without a doubt an ethos of white supremacy was vital to the continued domination by a new Neo Slave Power that emerged after Reconstruction.
As black life became increasing perilous and the Neo Slave Power began consolidating white domination, a form of national black consciousness or nationalism developed as a means to address the slow but deliberate attack on black life. The more militant forms of Black Nationalism were attractive was not a sufficient mythology to carry African Americans across a (liminal) threshold from civil rights to a post civil rights era, and was ultimately doomed. For one, the humiliation of slavery both from the perspective of the slave owner and the chattel could only be maintained by the humiliation of both master and slave. Now that slavery ended and voting rights were extended to black males, local requirements were instituted to deny blacks the right to vote. Literacy tests, poll taxes, mass incarcerations, failing schools, lack of or poor health care, lack of meaningful jobs, beatings, murders, lynchings, were all employed to keep blacks from gaining political power. Federal, state, and local government institutions were used to reconstitute and maintain white supremacy. It wasn’t until white segregation was deemed an anathema to American society in 1954 with the SCOTUS decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, and the prohibition of the all white Democratic primary (Smith v. Allwright, 1944). But unfortunately, the foundation for American supremacy had already been cemented. This is exactly what the Black Panther 10 Point Program was created to negate domination or to put it another way White Power.
Today black Americans are faced with an ever-growing problem. The face of White Power has remained a constant in America and has been politically, socially and intellectual consolidated in various cities, counties, and states were black populations remain poor and marginalized. White Power has consolidated itself through various forms of grass roots organizing in the form of political organizations, gun clubs, all white communities, voting blocks in state and city council governments and the having judiciary. But its most formidable constituency is the American public. For this there are few options. Black Americans can choose to remain in the United States, to brave the future of a possible multicultural America as many on the Left envision. George Yancey’s most reveling work, Who is White?: Latinos, Asians, and the New Black/Nonblack Divide (2003), offers an entirely different view of the progress of whites becoming a racial minority. Yancey argues that white predictions of minority status are incorrect, in large part because they are built on faulty assessments of the growth of racial minorities. But even more sobering is the shifting definition of who is “white.” White has never been a static concept. Yancey argues as more non-black minorities come into the United States they will choose to categorize themselves as White in lieu of Latino, Asian or other. Surveys reveal that other minorities are more willing to allow their offspring to marry whites, live in white communities and declare themselves white than blacks. According to Yancey what we are facing is an America that is divided into Black and Non-Black. If Yancey is correct in his assessment White Power will find new support. The case of Latino George Zimmerman, who might have been targeted for deportation by the Tea Party, nevertheless was embraced by the white community because he ultimately stood in opposition to the black community.
The choices are never simple. But its my hypothesis that we may be facing the extinction of the African American community in the next century if African Americans don’t find a way to consolidate the community behind a set of shared values and purpose. This way the best possible solutions to our dilemma behind the Veil can be approached with reason and hope. A possible corrective action may lay in the idea of William McNeil, authored The Care & Repair of Public Myth, (1982). McNeil’s hypothesis is that mythology (not used in the pejorative sense) lies at the basis of human society. Myths are in fact statements about the word and its parts particularly nations and other human in groups, that are believed to be true and acted upon whenever circumstances suggest or common response required. It is man’s replacement for natural instinct. McNeil asserted that a people without an up to date mythology find it impossible for common action. Common action once bound those who believed in the idea of a public body, capable of acting in accord, whether it was the Self-Help philosophy of Booker T. Washington, the Talented Tenth of W.E.B. Dubois or even the revolutionary ideology of Black Power, these were at once viable African American mythologies.
The alleged gains of the Civil Rights movement pushed the African American community toward materialism and the quest for wealth. Black exploitation films illustrate the depth by which the community lost its focus and turned outward to find its full cultural patterns of expression. Without the development of a mythology to bind African Americans toward a greater purpose beyond material wealth but toward the preservation of the community will be the communities only chance for true liberation and self-preservation. I just hope this can be accomplished and the African American people escape the fate of the Taino.
This brings to and end the series on the intellectual history of racism in America.