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Keystone Essay – Racism in America – White Supremacy

There are two original sins in US history – the virtual elimination of Native Americans from the continent and the enslavement of millions of Africans. The former is largely invisible and unacknowledged in our daily lives. The latter, racism against African-Americans, continues to be pervasively present in many ways into the present. Neither is acknowledged in a truly meaningful way. White supremacist ideology was present from the very earliest foundations of the country, embedded in our founding documents and governmental institutions and continues to this day in a multitude of manifestations. Much of our history revolves around the unresolved issues that flow from white supremacy.

Only liberal whites could ever think that we had entered a post-racial phase with the election of President Obama. Most whites continue to deny the existence of racism or are active racists. And even in using this word “white” we encounter the shifting sands of racism in American history. Just a hundred years ago many of the people who now identify as white were not considered white by the ruling white elite. People of Irish, Italian, Greek, Slavic and other European backgrounds not from the preferred northern European countries were excluded.1

Even in the aftermath of the Civil War white supremacist thinking prevented northerners from taking the actions that could have set the table for a transformation. Instead of implementing land reform that would have given former slaves the means to earn their own living northern whites caved into the very southern whites who had revolted against the country. They allowed the southern plantation class to retain ownership of the land, the land cleared and made productive by slaves. This established the conditions for the new slavery of share cropping and Jim Crow totalitarian control over black people.

The focus here is on white supremacy with particular attention to the creation of segregated America from the 1930s forward.

From the New Deal into the mid-1960s the Federal government was essentially captured by Southern Democrats in the areas of social policy. Northern liberal Democrats caved into the political expediency of their generation. Every major piece of social legislation sustained and reinforced the Jim Crow system of segregation and oppression of African Americans. This system created the white suburbs of the post-WWII boom with their white public schools and white middle-class jobs. African Americans could not join white America in home ownership which became an essential wealth building tool. Public education enjoyed a similar boom during the post-WWII era, especially higher education through the gigantic expansion of public universities. Again African Americans largely could not participate.

In the post-Civil Rights era following the Federal legislation of the 1960s, the Federal government has persisted in taking no responsibility for creating the segregated America that we now live in. The official line is that the segregation is the result of  natural forces of selection and not the structures of segregation built into housing construction and the real estate industry. Similarly, public education has remained as segregated as ever following similar lines of self-justifying thinking. White America needs to face up to its history and demand that the government, rich and corporations take concrete actions to end white supremacist policies.

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  1. see Jacobson, Matthew Frye. Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race. New York: ACLS History E-Book Project, 2005.

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