Several years ago, I participated in a reading group at the Hudson Area Library that worked through a range of writings by James Baldwin. Since he is an author I had not read in several decades, I was intrigued at how resilient and on target his comments about race and America remained. A big take away for me was the observation that racism is white people’s problem.
More recently, I have been reading Richard White’s Railroaded: the transcontinentals and the making of modern America. Early on, it is noted that the Pacific Railway Act of 1862 gave thousands and thousands of square miles to private railroad companies, land largely occupied by indigenous Indians. There did not exist even a fig leaf of treaties between the Federal government and the tribes for much of this land. The Federal government was giving land to private companies that it did not have rights to.1
This roused some memories of the stories I have received since my earliest education of the “discovery” of America, it’s settling by brave, energetic people who turned a wilderness into a civilization. The Pilgrims coming to Plymouth to build a society where they could practice their religion in peace. The emergence of freedoms, enterprise, speech, religion, and boundless opportunity in the spreading settlements as Manifest Destiny swept across the continent. Then, in my lifetime, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”.2
It seems clear that if we are ever going to overcome the bonds of racism, we first must look back to the stories we have been telling ourselves about America for hundreds of years. White Supremacy persists as a fundamental element of our (speaking here of white persons) world view. We’ve been selling ourselves a pack of lies. Here are a few that come to my mind.
“Contrary to the Thanksgiving myth, the Pilgrim-Wampanoag encounter was no first-contact meeting. Rather, it followed a string of bloody episodes since 1524 in which European explorers seized coastal Wampanoags to be sold into overseas slavery or to be trained as interpreters and guides. The Wampanoags reached out to the Pilgrims not only despite this violent history, but also partly because of it.
In 1616, a European ship conveyed an epidemic disease to the Wampanoags that over the next three years took a staggering toll on their population. Afterward, the Narragansett tribe to the west began raiding the Wampanoags. To answer this threat, Ousamequin wanted the English to serve the Wampanoags both as military allies and as a source of European weaponry. His use of Squanto (or Tisquantum) as a go-between with the Plymouth settlers also stemmed from the Wampanoags’ history of being raided by Europeans. Squanto knew English because he had spent years in captivity in Spain and England before orchestrating an unlikely return home shortly before the Mayflower’s arrival. Such dark themes are hardly the stuff of Americans’ grade school Thanksgiving pageants.”3
This is just the tip of the iceberg of truth about the Pilgrims. Enslavement of Indians ensued with many sold off to the burgeoning slave economies of Jamaica and other islands under British control. Numerous military conflicts followed, most significant being King Phillips War (1675-1678).4 In the end most of the few Indians who survived disease and war moved out of the region.
Trail of Tears
Beginning in the 1820s, white people began to agitate to force the five Indian nations of what became the American Southeast move west. This to facilitate the emerging expansion of the cotton economy built on enslaved labor. Under President Andrew Jackson The Indian Removal Act of 1930 was passed by Congress. Over 8 years roughly 60,000 people were forced to march some 800 miles to Oklahoma.5Many people died en route from starvation and disease. This policy of Indian removals was applied regularly throughout the entire first century of our republic.
The Failure of Northern Whites During Reconstruction
At the close of the Civil War the victors were faced with an obvious opportunity to distribute the lands of the defeated Southern secessionists to the broad mass of people. Instead of distributing the land to those who had actually made it productive, both the formerly enslaved and poor whites, Northern white elites instead rewarded their Southern class and White Supremacist compatriots with continuing ownership. This set the table for the peonage system of share-cropping that dominated the lives of the formerly enslaved and poor whites for the next 80 years or so. Here is a brief video, Sharecropping as Slavery with Douglas A Blackmon, author of Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to World War II. New York: Doubleday, 2008.
Turning a Blind Eye to Jim Crow
With the end of Reconstruction in 1877, after the Republicans agreed to the ending of Federal efforts to enforce Reconstruction-era laws and remove the last of Federal troops from the South in return for Rutherford Hayes becoming President, Southern Democrats began to build the legal structures of Jim Crow oppression throughout the South. This system of racial apartheid continued in force into the 1960s. Northern whites supported this White Supremacist regime directly and indirectly. The formal end of this collaboration between Northern Democrats and their Southern Democrat compatriots (usually referred to as Dixiecrats) can be marked by President Lyndon Johnson’s push for civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s.
Settling the West
The Homestead Act of 1862 and its successors gave away 10% of the land area of the United States to anyone over 21 years of age who had not fought for the Confederacy. The land in question was “public” land. In practice, this is land seized by white people from the indigenous Indians who had lived there for many centuries. The rush of homesteaders created further encroachment on the existing Indian nations and created conflicts, frequently armed ones. The herds of bison that were a primary food source for indigenous peoples were systematically killed off by the US Army and the expanding railroad companies. This was an explicitly genocidal practice:
“The Army wasn’t in the business of guiding hunting trips for soft-skinned Wall Streeters, but it was in the business of controlling the Native Americans in the area, and that meant killing buffalo. One colonel, four years earlier, had told a wealthy hunter who felt a shiver of guilt after he shot 30 bulls in one trip: “Kill every buffalo you can! Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.”6
The list of “removals” of Indian tribes is way too long to explore here.
Roosevelt and the New Deal – a Continuation of White Supremacy
The policies and laws of Roosevelt’s New Deal continued the pattern of support for Dixiecrat Jim Crow oppression in the South and extended White Supremacist policies across the country.
The Social Security Act of 1935 excluded almost half of the workers in the country. Significantly Dixiecrats supported the exclusion of farm workers and domestic labor. Not coincidentally, these were predominantly occupations held by African Americans. These people were excluded from coverage into the mid-1950s.
The National Housing Act of 1934 established the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC) to create more housing and support for home mortgages. These agencies, through the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, created maps of 239 American cities labeling neighborhoods by desirability. Those with predominantly African American populations were “redlined”. This meant that mortgages were essentially not available for these neighborhoods. Racial segregation was institutionalized. The patterns have persisted to this day.
Until the late 1960s White Supremacy was also enforced through the widespread use of racial covenants in real estate deeds. These forbade the sale, rental, or leasing to African Americans and many other undesirable non-White people. An early Minneapolis MN restriction proclaimed that the “premises shall not at any time be conveyed, mortgaged or leased to any person or persons of Chinese, Japanese, Moorish, Turkish, Negro, Mongolian or African blood or descent.”7 The real estate industry inserted these restrictions broadly to prevent White people from the embarrassment of living near undesirables. From a 1924 Code of Ethics of the National Association of Real Estate Boards: “A Realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood a character of property or occupancy, members of any race or nationality, or any individuals whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values in that neighborhood.”8 Although racial covenants were outlawed by the 1968 Fair Housing Act, the language still exists in 100s of thousands of deeds nationwide.9 Finally, the real estate industry continues to support White supremacy through their sales practices. For more on this, see an earlier post, Structural White Supremacy In Action – the real estate market.
White Supremacy Through Fancy Words – de jure & de facto
“De facto means a state of affairs that is true in fact, but that is not officially sanctioned. In contrast, de jure means a state of affairs that is in accordance with law (i.e. that is officially sanctioned).”10
In many legal actions concerning segregated housing and education, the cases are dismissed because the defendants, state, county, and local governments in particular, claim that the segregation produced and sustained by decades of legally promulgated racist segregation is somehow a natural condition. It just happened that way. After all, people like to live with their own kind.
For a full discussion of this version of White Supremacy, read Richard Rothstein, Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. (Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017). Or here is an earlier shorter article by Rothstein, “Modern Segregation“.
America Is Number One – Incarceration
Just a couple of charts will illustrate that we have used our so-called justice system to maintain White Supremacy over the last 40 years.
We achieved this global supremacy beginning during the Reagan presidency. During his two terms, we nearly doubled the prison population, from 329,000 to 627,000. This after we had many decades during which the prison population hovered around 200,000. One of Reagan’s greatest achievements.
The role of the incarceration machine in White Supremacy becomes clear when you examine the relative rates for African Americans and other minorities.
This really is just a hint of the overall impact of the incarceration machine on day-to-day life for minorities in America.
We’re Number One Again – Police Shootings
Just as a gruesome example, look at fatal police shootings.
It’s time to formulate a more accurate set of national narratives. Embrace our White Supremacy and deal with it concretely.
- This presumes that indigenous peoples even had the concept of ownership of the land they had lived on for thousands of years
- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” Sermon Given at the National Cathedral, March 31, 1968
- “The Vicious Reality Behind the Thanksgiving Myth” by David J. Silverman https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/27/opinion/thanksgiving-history-racism.html
- See Lepore, Jill (1999). The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity. New York: Vintage Books.
- This is close to the distance between Hudson NY and Chicago or just a bit less than a trip between Seattle and San Francisco.
- Phippen, J. Weston. “Kill Every Buffalo You Can! Every Buffalo Dead Is an Indian Gone.” The Atlantic, May 13, 2016. https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2016/05/the-buffalo-killers/482349/.
- What are racial covenants? – https://mappingprejudice.umn.edu/racial-covenants/what-is-a-covenant
- See this NPR story for more about this: Racial covenants, a relic of the past, are still on the books across the country