Part I of this series offered perspectives on the history of racism in the United States. While the perspectives themselves can certainly be critiqued and disagreed with, slavery, the Civil War, segregation, and the Civil Rights Movement all undeniably happened and so there is a shared basis of understanding for the discussion.
A legacy is different. The events that drive legacy become less and less important as they fade into history. They are replaced by personal perspectives that are affected by, build upon, and pass forward the meaning of those events. Legacies are important because they explain the part of who we are that results from who our ancestors were. In my experiences the two most important components of America’s legacy of racism involve identity and opportunity.
As a biracial African-American male born in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement, I can tell you that I’ve personally experienced the best and worst of the legacy. Most of those experiences can be summed up with my perspectives on Black and White identity, as well as the opportunities both have gained and lost as a result of racism in America. As a professor I always start my courses with the same introduction, and I think it applies here as well: “People don’t learn from those they don’t trust, and people don’t trust someone they don’t know. So, I guess if you’re going to learn from me, I should start by telling you who I am.”
In 1970 my 17-year-old black mother became pregnant by her white Italian high school boyfriend. The legislative victories of the Civil Rights Movement were only a few years old and the culture of racism that had led to the protests and marches of the 1960s was still very much alive and kicking. Introducing his pregnant black girlfriend to his family was apparently more than my father was able to bear, so he left the picture before I was born never to be heard from again.
By the time I turned three my mother had married a peaceful and religious white man from an upstate New York farming community and I now had a sister. Even before I knew why it was a thing race was much more than just a ‘black-and-white’ (pun intended) issue for me. I knew my mom was black and my dad was white, but that fact had no significance or meaning for me until I started school and realized it had meaning for just about everyone else.
It was only much later that I started to think about growing up in the Corlies Manner Projects in Poughkeepsie New York with my dad being the only white man in the entire development. I started to have similar thoughts once I realized I was too often the only black student in a class or at a job. I often searched for the best (i.e. most politically expedient) answer when others asked me about what it felt like to be darker than all my white friends or lighter than all my black friends. And it was only after endless moments like that when I began to consider the legacy of racism in America.
The first and most important component of America’s legacy of racism is its effect on identities: Whites, Blacks, and America as a society. Too many Whites and Blacks in particular assume the other group is monolithic when it comes to understanding race in America. Even more directly, too many Americans make the critical mistake of believing everyone in the other group generally represents the worst of that group’s racial perspectives or stereotypes. As a result, a liberal, blue-collar, and race conscious white person becomes as much of an anomaly as a well-educated, well-off, conservative black person. Trust becomes difficult to develop simply because the few individuals that can help build it are seen by all as the exception rather than the rule.
These blanket assumptions regarding identity and race relations in America also affects how we see and are seen around the globe. I have taught students from around the world and have even traveled to a few foreign countries myself. Whatever Americans think the legacy of racism is, I have often been shocked by how Chinese, British, and Nigerian citizens (to name a few) view race in America. Slavery is long dead, segregation has been over for about 50 years, and the existence of systemic racism has been all but wiped out. Few know the real origins of the KKK, the Confederate flag, or neo-Nazi white supremacy movements. But all these things have left an indelible mark on how we define ourselves and each other. So, to define America’s legacy of racism we must begin with how it has defined us.
1) “White people are the problem… and the solution”
The simple truth is that the history of racism against African-Americans has been driven solely by White-Americans. The complex reality of that truth is that applying and/or accepting this sort of responsibility as an entire group is impossible. This is because the definition of the group itself encompasses a vast set of ethnicities and historical relationships to America. The most critical issue in assessing or accepting blame amongst white Americans for racism is the reality that for every white slave-owner there were dozens of white abolitionists, and for every member of the KKK there are hundreds of white civil rights activists. Racism in America has been maintained by a group white Americans who have corrupted political and legal systems in order to discriminate against African-Americans. But in every single instance of the advancement of civil rights there has been a significantly larger group of white Americans who used the same systems to advocate for change.
Everything from slavery to segregation would’ve continued much longer and most likely in even more extreme forms if not for a consistently large group of white Americans fighting against it. We must always remember African-Americans like Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King as symbols of the black struggle in America from slavery to the Civil Rights Movement. But it is just as important to remember people like Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson as individuals who used their power to change America itself in recognition of that struggle.
My personal experience with this paradox quickly leads to a key realization. While I am certain I’ve been held back at times in my life by racists, I must give credit to the white people in my life for almost every major opportunity for advancement I’ve ever had. Except for my mother, every role model in my life has been white. My stepfather’s family has done infinitely more to help me as a family than my mother’s family who all but disowned her as a child. Almost every opportunity for professional advancement, economic gain, and professional growth has come from relationships with white family, friends, professors, and employers.
Much of who I am is the result of being lucky enough to be identified as “gifted” in elementary school at a time when students were ‘tracked’ for most of their primary education. Between this and my attending Vassar College preschool on my white dentist’s recommendation, I received significant opportunities early on to advance myself. I’ve always had confidence in my own abilities and future, even if my decisions and behaviors as a young man didn’t always demonstrate that. But after 20 years in the restaurant business overlapped with more than twenty years as a professor the impact of NEVER having had a black mentor, boss, manager, department chair, or chief administrator has understandably led me to conclude that at least in my life, white people are the source of opportunity. Even in writing this series of articles with the hopes of being ‘discovered’ it only recently occurred to me that I was writing for anyone other than a white liberal audience.
So, what is being white? From a legacy standpoint it is more than just a group of people some of whose ancestors were racist. It’s more than Abraham Lincoln, David Duke, and trying to figure out how Donald Trump fits in between the two. It’s about an incredibly diverse group of individuals who have been split between the ideas of racism and equality since the country’s founding. Periodically throughout our history there has been talk of ‘race wars’ and inevitable conflicts between blacks and whites. In truth I think America’s race war has always been within white people themselves, a battle for their own identity that has shaped the history of the nation.
It was not Blacks versus Whites during the Civil War or facing each other down during Reconstruction. It was predominantly white Americans arguing on the floor of Congress during passage of the Civil Rights Act, just as it has been mostly white FBI agents combating the KKK. In each instance it was white Americans versus white Americans fighting over who they wanted to be and what that meant for the rest of the citizens in the country, most directly African-Americans.
This legacy of American racism continues to this day. The Yanks versus the Rebs has been replaced by liberal Democrats versus ‘Trump’s core supporters’. There are still white people in power who believe “there are good people on both sides” when white supremacists march and are met by Americans continuing the fight against the culture of racism. But the counter protesters are almost always white as well. The young activist who tragically lost her life during the Charlottesville violence was white, as was the white supremacist driver of the car that hit her. Whites throughout America’s history have used both racism and activism in their defining of the African-American. What’s often overlooked is that those things also came to define them as well. As a result being white in America is just as complicated as being black, just for different reasons.
#2 “African-Americans are a unique American identity”
As white colonists and immigrants from Europe came to America, they brought with them a wide variety of ethnic, cultural, and national heritages that served as their identities. Whether British, Irish, German, or Italian, these identities played an essential role in helping successive generations transition from ‘The Old World’ to the new. A practical result that continues to this day is the proud use of hyphenated identities to signify pride in where your ancestors came from, as well as your own status as an American.
The internal bonds between groups like Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans, along with their more general connections to Anglo-Saxon whites who were already here, served to partially insulate them from America’s culture of racism. The ability to come together through shared language, religious expression, or common history predating the group’s arrival and integration into American culture has been essential not only for European Americans, but Asian and Latin American immigrants as well.
African-Americans are the only ethnic group whose identity was all but created after they arrived in America. This statement begins with the obvious but essential understanding that of every ethnic group in the United States today African-Americans are the only one that did not initially immigrate here of our own free will. Second, there was a determined effort to eliminate the familial ties of newly arrived slaves, as well as broader connections to their specific cultures. Throughout successive generations of slaves key aspects of identity including specific regions of origin, language, and history were erased and forgotten so that being from Congo, Senegal, Cameroon or Sudan no longer mattered.
For the first 150 years the only identity that mattered was being an African slave. The most important component to understanding the impact of the eradication of pre-existing African identities was the primary reliance on oral tradition amongst African societies. For European-Americans a key component to maintaining the non-American component of their hyphenated identity is the ability to go back through the historical record to learn about who their ancestors were.
The lack of a long and detailed written historical record for African societies has made it all but impossible for African-Americans to try and recapture lost heritage in the same way. The African part of the African-American identity has been loosely defined by geographic connections and the recent advent of genetic testing services. But as a group we lack the clear heritage and cultural history that is a source of pride for so many Americans of European descent. For most Americans, white, black, or other, the African part of the African-American identity denotes color and not much more.
So, what then is the African-American identity? It is not the endless list of great men and women who built Western civilizations long before the first settlers arrived. It is not the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the coming of Jesus or Mohammed, or the building of the Great Wall. Oddly enough, it is not even the building of the Great Pyramids as long-ago North Africa was deemed to be more European than African when it comes to world history. It is not Shakespeare, Kant, Marx, or Buddha. The African-American identity did not begin with what the ancestors of Africans had done or accomplished, but with the perception of white American slaveholders who were purchasing them to work on plantations.
African slaves were a commodity, an investment, an object to be used towards an end with the expectation that eventually it would wear out and need to be replaced. The idea of giving sympathy and human decency to African slaves made about as much sense to supporters of slavery as having sympathy for a hammer. It was a perversion of “the White Man’s Burden” where the racial elitism of the philosophy was divorced from any sense of social responsibility. The “burden” became the primary focus of many in white America, for some it came to define the African-American identity itself.
So again, the question is asked, “what is the African-American identity?” From my own perspective the answer begins with acknowledging that it is not a singular identity. Just as people mistakenly believe that all white Americans are essentially the same, history and lingering stereotypes convinced many that there is a single identifiable culture amongst African-Americans. This is one of the tools of the small group of white Americans who are currently working so hard to keep the legacy of racism in America alive. They have been thwarted by increased success and advancement of African-Americans across almost every aspect of American society. Thus, it is the second component of the African-American identity, struggle, that most widely affects how both Blacks and Whites view the group.
Whether it is the white racist spewing narratives about laziness, drugs, and parenting, or the white activist who honestly strives to improve education and professional opportunities for Blacks, the concept of African-Americans as inherently struggling is implied in many white American’s understandings of our identity. Similarly, African-Americans have consistently had an internal struggle between its own socioeconomic groups over how much the concept defines being black in America. As much as African-Americans in general may feel that white America has held them back, African-Americans who “make it” without bringing along as many other African-Americans as they can are often just as vilified. This two-level issue with black identity (How do Whites define Blacks versus how do Blacks define themselves?) was perfectly captured in the recent motion picture Black Panther.
Absent a clear identity pre-existing our arrival in America, the only thing available for beginning to build the African-American identity was slavery. Regardless of whether you were a slaveholder or an abolitionist, a slave or a free black, the origins of the African-American began with struggle against unfairness, indecency, and mistreatment. The result is that African-American success is the anomaly, something to be marveled at and applauded no matter how much it may betray racism’s legacy. This is true to the point that it becomes difficult for African-Americans who succeed to keep their “blackness” unless they are artists, actors, or athletes.
It is especially true for African-Americans who pursue academic or professional paths of success which require changing how they talk or dress in order to fit into the “white professional world”. I have only met two bigots in my entire life who were brave enough to spew racist garbage to my face. I have however had numerous instances where African-Americans felt the need to inform me that I was not black enough. The legacies of racism in this country have affected how both blacks and whites define themselves. The difference is that until recently only white Americans really had the economic, social, and political power to define themselves regardless of what others thought.
For me the greatest impact of America’s legacy of racism has been the missed opportunities. I am convinced that right up to my last job I missed out on opportunities for reasons that included racism. Those stories may be one of the very few things that every African-American can claim to have in common. But the most tragic aspect of America’s legacy of racism is that there are very real and lingering echoes of cultural and systemic racism that we seem to have accepted as ‘just the way things are’.
Our current president has on several occasions touted the fact that African-American unemployment is at historically low levels under his administration. But we are not supposed to ask why it seems that as a society have accepted the idea that black unemployment will always be at least twice white unemployment? Now that most systemic racism is gone and all Americans are theoretically running the same race with the same rules, we are supposed to ignore the reality that the average white family is worth 10 times what the average black family is worth! By pointing these things out I am not calling anyone racist. I’m not even arguing that contemporary America itself is racist because of the statistics. What I am arguing is that they are two of hundreds of data points that could be used to indicate the continuing impact of the legacy of racism on African-Americans.
But to really understand the legacy we must dig even deeper. As is often the case with any analysis or argument, it’s the little things that really make the point. I think for instance the differences between opportunity and struggle as part of each group’s identity can be summed up by the continuing dominance of white families in the adoption of black children. I am happy for any child of any color who get an opportunity to succeed in life. I believe the white families who adopt black children fall into that larger group of liberal activist whites who have led the fight against American racism all along. But I also believe the enormous disparity in the ability of black families to provide (or be seen as providing) stable households for adopted children is a clear illustration of the historical impacts of the lack of economic opportunity for African-Americans.
The single greatest missed opportunity in US history to at least attempt to right race relations was World War II, and development of the G.I. Bill. I have studied and taught on this era of US history for most of my adult life. When doing so I have almost always left out how angry I am about not seeing more black faces. World War II in many ways made America what it is today. The heroes and successes of that time have reverberated down through the decades to this day. From a succession of US presidents to an explosion of global activity, World War II fundamentally altered America’s view of itself and the world. We threw off isolationism with the idea that if we were going to play the game of global politics, we were going to be the biggest and toughest on the field.
Because of segregation and broader systemic racism African-Americans were all but left out of the reinventing of America after World War II. There is a part of me that is jealous of white Americans who can trace their lineage with pride all the way back to the Revolutionary War. I look on with both awe and a little contempt when I’m asked to salute those who stormed the beaches of Normandy. I am frustrated when I conclude that there was no chance at all that the John F. Kennedys, Albert Einsteins, and Neil Armstrongs of recent American history were ever going to be African-American. America’s identity has always been greatly impacted by the wars it is fought in because it is where we have gotten our heroes and justified our truths. By being all but left out of American growth until the end of the 20th century, African-Americans are guaranteed a continuing disadvantage relative their white counterparts and the writing of American history into the 21st century.
When I think of missed opportunities, I think about the fact that I have never seen an African-American host of a nature documentary. No African-American has ever been to the top of Mount Everest or the bottom of the ocean. Until recently if you asked questions about the history of African-American entrepreneurship everyone would try to convince you that George Washington Carver and hundred-something uses for the peanut equaled the accomplishments of the Carnegies and the Fords. Consider for a moment that since 1790 more than 6 million patents and 2.3 million trademarks have been issued by the US government with less than 100,000 being held by African-Americans. African-Americans own less than 1% of rural land in America (approximately 8 million acres) with a combined value of $14 billion, while white Americans own more than 98% of private rural land (856 million acres) worth well over $1 trillion. According to the National Center for Education Statistics over 650,000 science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degrees were conferred in the United States in 2016. White Americans received approximately 53% of those degrees (358,000) while African-Americans accounted for only 7% (48,500). None of these statistics are indications of racism in America today. But they are clear illustrations of the legacy of the racism of the past, and they are certainly stark warnings about the continuation of that legacy far into the future.
It was impossible to try and write about the legacy of racism in America from an objective standpoint. I’ve been pondering this article ever since my first year of graduate school when my first mentor politely informed me, “race really isn’t a topic that will lead to your success as an academic.” It took me months to finish it after I first put pen to paper as I began to realize that I was more nervous about publishing this than anything else I had ever written. I am prouder of this work than even my PhD dissertation. But as I continue to await word on academic and government jobs a part of me is terrified that what I see as honest and open discussion may have just ended potential employment with a future white boss before I even got a chance to interview.
For me anxiety is probably the key result of my own interactions with America’s legacy of racism. As I wrote previously, the nature of systemic racism is ambiguity and thus I’ve often found that the adage, “just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you,” applies to my perspectives more than it should. But since publishing Part I of this series I’ve quickly come to realize just how far we really have come as a society when engaging legacies of racism. Although I unwittingly recruited my first online trolls, I’ve also connected with individuals and communities, black and white, that I didn’t know existed. In particular I’ve been contacted by a few white friends and coworkers who are now coming to understand who I was, and who I am now. And I’ve realized I’m not alone in my commitment to America’s eternal struggle to rid itself of the legacy of racism.
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.