For the first 150 years of the nation’s existence slavery and the racist culture that supported it represented a critical weakness in America’s foundation. The Civil War was fought to remove the cancer of slavery and by association reject those components of the racist culture that were recognized as contrary to our founding principles. While the victory against slavery was complete, America’s culture of racism evolved and was incorporated into an expanding federal system of government producing systemic racism. For the next 100 years racism against African-Americans was formalized through legal, economic, and political oppression represented by Jim Crow and segregation. It was through a long and difficult fight that the Civil Rights Movement all but eliminated systemic racism, symbolized most by the election of Barack Obama to president in 2008. But once again the culture of racism has evolved, adopting symbols and narratives of the past in order to try and stay alive.
America’s Culture of Racism
America is not unique in its racism. Every country in the world today, and just about every civilization throughout history, has suffered from discrimination against one or more of its own minorities due to racial or ethnic hatred. In some instances (e.g. contemporary America) it is driven by a small group within the ethnic majority, while in other cases it is a national sentiment (e.g. Nazi Germany). In all cases racism is a cancer with its potential for death and destruction determined by 1) the level of extremism within the racist philosophy, and 2) the amount of power available to the racists themselves. Where America is unique is how much the first 200 years of the country’s oppression of African-Americans included the highest levels of both characteristics.
While the country was not the only one to engage in the Atlantic slave trade during the 17th and 18th centuries, the level of hatred and inhuman treatment exhibited towards Africans by colonial Americans was more sustained and brutal. At the same time White English colonists had absolute power in all economic, political, and social areas of early American society. Both components of the early culture of racism in America must also be understood in the context of the country’s geographic isolation. Individual colonists as well as the country were isolated from outside influences that might lead to questions about the morality of slavery. Before the expansion of the federal government at the end of the Civil War, this translated to a highly personalized understanding of racism based on customs and traditions. It was not yet the framework of systemic racism that was erected in the decades after Reconstruction and dismantled by the Civil Rights Movement in the second half of the 20th century. It was the exchange of personal narratives, family traditions, and community norms developed across generations of Whites and Blacks. America’s culture of racism began with thoughts and ideas carried by the earliest English settlers to the New World. It then evolved to fit the realities of America’s growing reliance on, and fear of, African slaves. Finally, it was able to set and harden in isolation for the first 150 years of the country’s history. Thus, as America grew and expanded so did the cancer of racism all but ensuring the reckoning that would come in the form of the Civil War.
The incorporation of racism into American culture relied on dehumanization as an essential component of the early American colonist’s ability to enslave Africans. It is like the need of soldiers to dehumanize an enemy in order to then kill them without remorse. The demonization of the Japanese by Americans during World War II for instance allowed soldiers to fight using methods that were then outlawed as inhumane after the war. America’s ‘hatred of convenience’ carried with it a guilt that lingers to this day in the form of Japanese internment camps and atomic bombs. No matter how necessary or temporary hatred of the enemy may be during war, there’s almost always some sense of lingering guilt over what individuals and societies do to each other as a result.
In the case of the relationship between early White settlers and the first African slaves the dehumanization had to be developed much more deeply and completely. It was not about the suppression of ethics, morality and national conscience in order to defeat an immediate threat. It had to be the complete omission of those concepts to allow the long-term enslavement of generations of Africans by generations of European-Americans. Like the soldier at war, it was the only way for an entire society to rationalize the daily requirements of violence, injustice and inhumanity that was American slavery. Unlike the soldier at war the behaviors had to be viewed as morally good, or at least acceptable, in order to ensure both the current and future generations would continue the tradition. The children and grandchildren of the earliest American’s had to be just as free of guilt as their forefathers had been when slavery was started. In this way racism not only became a leaky basement corner in the foundation of the country, it assured that at least part of the house above would eventually collapse.
America’s System of Racism
Northern victory in the Civil War marked a new stage in the evolution of racism in America. Without slavery the culture of racism had to find other ways to justify hatred against African-Americans. Throughout the Jim Crow era racial discrimination against Blacks would be justified through a variety of means including biological, intellectual and religious arguments. The culture of racism that had been associated with slavery would be replaced by a more formal and institutionalized form of racism embedded within the federal government. The brutal oppression that symbolized the system of slavery increasingly became part of America’s history. Africans would no longer be imported or smuggled into the country and enslaved. With the end of the Civil War they would now be allowed to marry, hold property, patronize businesses, and even start their own. They would be allowed to worship God as they wished in their own churches, they could learn to read, hold political office, and begin to pursue their own versions of the American dream. The 4 million Africans who had been slaves five years earlier were suddenly free and the African-American citizen was born.
The primary motivation behind the expansion of the federal government after the Civil War was enforcement of the 13th amendment, protection of African-Americans, as well as the newly created concept of civil rights. The Department of Justice is the primary symbol of the expansion that accompanied Reconstruction and an increasing focus on the protection of minorities. While this focus would initially be on the newly created African-American citizen, civil rights evolved to protect other marginalized groups including women, Native Americans, laborers, the disabled, and children. The concept of government that had been created by the country’s forefathers had been used to protect slavery and the culture of racism in America for the first 150 years of its existence. With the elimination of slavery and program of Reconstruction the government was now being used to dismantle both, and in a very short period. The upheaval of the Reconstruction era cannot be understated as defenders of the new system and the old culture clashed violently throughout most of the United States. In the end, the extreme components of racist philosophy in America and the interests of white Americans as the dominant ethnic group recombined in the expanding government. The 150 years of American slavery had been firmly maintained through a combination of these two components to create a culture of racism in the country. The 100 years of Jim Crow and segregation that would follow Reconstruction was the result of these two elements finding a new weapon in the form of the federal government.
The culture of racism was based on tradition. It was okay for white Americans to treat African slaves the way they did because mom and dad said so, or you were just doing what your grandparents had done, or maybe even the preacher told you it was God’s will when you went to church on Sundays. Reconstruction represented an attempt to disrupt America’s culture of racism by replacing traditions with the rule of law. With the creation of civil rights, the government was now above your parents, the church, and even your own perspectives when determining how you should view and treat African-Americans. Many white Americans were now being told that the generations of traditions and customs that had been handed down to them were not only morally reprehensible but illegal. Further, there were being told this by a government that their grandfathers and great-grandfathers had built, but which was now controlled by the very individuals who had just defeated them in war. For many this was too much and whether it was to the creation of the KKK, protesting the more radical elements of Reconstruction, or simply being apathetic towards the plight of newly freed African-Americans, the country’s culture of racism found it easy to survive and evolve. As systemic racism in the country strengthened and evolved white Americans were now able to dominate the second era of national expansion into the West in the same way earlier generations had during colonialism and post-independence. Dominance of political and legal systems ensured that whites who didn’t move west still enjoyed almost complete socioeconomic advantage over Blacks as the concept of the suburb took shape.
The incorporation of racism into the newly formed state and federal systems of government was a process. It began with the nation’s exhaustion with the violence and corruption associated with Reconstruction. For whites in the South the elevation of African slaves to African-American citizens obliterated their culture, economy, and politics. Through violence, civil unrest, and the political process the South was able to force an end to Reconstruction, as well as a reversal of some of its more radical attempts to empower African-Americans. More important however was the reactions of whites in the North. Many in the North believed that ending slavery was one thing but making Whites and Blacks equal was quite another. While the country reveled in its reunification and the defeat of slavery, it also accepted that America’s culture of racism had evolved far beyond simply justifying slavery. 150 years of seeing Blacks as inferior to whites was not going to disappear overnight. While only about 5% of Americans owned slaves in 1860, the culture of racism that had developed to support it had become so ingrained in the broader American culture that it not only survived the end of slavery, it expanded.
The systemic racism that plagued American government from the 1880’s until just recently had a distinct and far-reaching impact on African-Americans and the legacy of racism in the country. Slavery was easily identified, shockingly violent, and quickly understood. It was something that could be seen by everyone for what it was which is why the argument between pro-slavery advocates and abolitionists centered on a very clear ‘right and wrong’ choice. Systemic racism on the other hand was (and at times still is) hidden behind bureaucracy, easily manipulated by those in power, with discrimination often being a mist you could see but never hold in your hands. For African-Americans it meant that racism had become entrenched across the entire society with everything from legal protections and economic opportunities to basic civil and political rights being undermined or missing altogether. At the same time, it became harder to clearly identify and thus more resistant to attempts to defeat it. For white Americans systemic racism created an opportunity for plausible deniability. For those who still subscribed to America’s original, culture of racism it was the most appropriate and efficient way to maintain white superiority within the country post-slavery. But for many white Americans systemic racism was hidden behind a curtain that they would only see behind if they really wanted to. It is in this time that many ‘unknowingly’ benefited from economic, political, and legal systems tilted in their favor. They certainly were not members of the KKK, they did not purposely or knowingly discriminate against African-Americans, and they may have even sympathized with civil rights and the black struggle. But for generations of white Americans beginning with industrialization, through settlement of the West, through the World Wars and most of the Cold War, just being white guaranteed all but absolute advantages in formulating and achieving ‘the American Dream’. For both Blacks and whites this reality is at the core of the most important question on race in America today: how much responsibility (guilt?) should a white person today feel about benefiting from their parents’ or grandparents’ enabling of systemic racism 50 or 100 years ago?
The system of racism in America was eroded away by the Civil Rights Movement. Beginning in earnest in the 1950’s the country began questioning and then rejecting the systematic discrimination against African-Americans that had become entrenched in all levels of government and society. Through increasing diversity, the development of modern media, and the accumulation of wealth and notoriety amongst African-Americans, the curtain hiding America’s systemic racism was increasingly being pulled back whether people wanted it to be or not. From the 1960s through the 1990’s the Department of Justice and the Supreme Court promoted and protected civil rights in a way they could not have done during Reconstruction. This is because racism like most forms of ignorance tends to evaporate under increased exposure. Not only were individuals less able to hide, they were increasingly more likely to be punished economically and legally for discrimination. As America’s system of racism was dismantled the culture of racism that had preceded and preserved it was also in retreat. America finally began to envision racism as neither a culture or system but a legacy as fewer and fewer individuals were being drawn to its stunted philosophy.
There has always been a culture of racism associated with the broader culture of America. It’s seeds were carried here by the earliest English settlers and grew in the fields and slave quarters of the southern plantation system. It was fertilized by the country’s isolation and the individualism of the first 150 years of America’s existence. As America’s culture of racism grew and evolved it became more than the English “white man’s burden” or a rationalization of slavery. It became an integral part of the relationship between Blacks and Whites in America that permeated every layer of the country’s social and economic existence. So much so that when slavery ended with Northern victory in the Civil War America’s culture of racism not only continued to exist, it strengthened and evolved.
Once released from the shackles of slavery America’s culture of racism was free to evolve new forms of rationalization and oppression. Some took the form of scientific explanations like eugenics, while others like the KKK were more violent and terrifying. The most important evolution of America’s culture of racism however was the development of systemic racism. By embedding itself in the expanding local and national systems of federal government, cultural racism was able to become much more pervasive in a quickly expanding America. Through Jim Crow laws and segregation whites in America were able to ensure they would receive almost all the benefits of America’s growth and advancement. From industrialization and settlement of the West to America’s victory in the World Wars and the tech revolution, systemic racism guaranteed white Americans the greatest opportunities to define and then achieve the American dream. This reality began to change significantly with the end of systemic racism, and subsequent economic and political empowerment of African-Americans. The recent decline in the acceptance of cultural racism has also allowed a much broader group of Americans to define and achieve the American dream in their own ways. What is left is an echo of the cultural and systemic racism of still reverberating through most of American society.
What is left is America’s legacy of racism. It is the narratives and history that explain how we’ve gotten to where we are as a country. It is ‘The Greatest Generation’ and segregation. It is celebrating Martin Luther King’s birthday and the white supremacists marching in Charlottesville Virginia, increased social equality and sustained economic inequality, Barack Obama and Trayvon Martin. It is the sustained effort to eliminate America’s culture of racism that has existed as long as the country has. But it is also the continued belief that “that there are good people on both sides” when it comes to the promotion of white supremacy and discrimination against African-Americans. To understand where we are it is essential to understand the eras of cultural and systemic racism in American history. To understand where we are going, we will need to more fully examine America’s legacy of racism.
Part II of “Understanding American Racism” will examine the key components of America’s ‘Legacy of Racism’. Some of the legacies of America’s cultural and systemic racism have been greatly overlooked. Others are generally understood, but often undervalued in explaining the contemporary relationship between black and white Americans. The conclusion however is that the legacy itself is real and continues to impact how the country is defined by others and ourselves.
Dr. Darius Watson, PhD is a professor of international relations, political theory, and security studies. He is also the primary contributor to the news and analysis website drillbitnews.com, as well as the senior consultant for Watson Consulting & Analysis, LLC. Dr. Watson is an active scholar, analyst, and instructor with a record of commitment to publication, professional presentations, and most importantly his students.