Origins of Modern Racism in America

There are moments, which place a nation at a crossroads. We are living through one of them. The Donald Trump Administration is a symptom. So was the presidency of Barack Obama. The latter is a reaction to the fear and status loss of the dominant sector of American society. Trump gave permission to many people to engage in the type of open racism that was acceptable even a generation ago. These days it seemed to have been rejected. This open embrace of the ugly underside of American life was allowed when Trump was a young man in New York City. Trump has engaged in it all his life. Whether it was housing discrimination or the Central Park five. We live in a society that is hardly post-racial. Trump is a symptom of it. His election was a reaction to the election of the first black man to the office.

Until the election of Barack Obama, a black president could only happen in a Hollywood script. It was a hard glass ceiling. One that in 2008 was seen as the moment. we overcame race. It was as if we were about to deep-six four hundred years of history. This is a bad habit that Americans have. We are such a forward-looking nation that even the recent past is best not spoken off. Let alone how we got here as a nation.

The State of Virginia is showing how pernicious this history of racism is. Her governor did just that. And so did Congressman Mark Meadows who showed immense lack of awareness by using a token during a hearing. This showed how independent of political party this is.

The first scandal to explode was with the Democratic Governor Ralph Northam. A photograph was released of his yearbook page. The photo shows one man in Blackface, the other in KKK garb. His explanations have shifted as he tries to survive the scandal. And at this point, he admits to wearing blackface for a Michael Jackson dance context that same year. That alone was jarring.

Then there is Democratic Governor Mark Herring, who apologized for doing this as a 19-year-old in 1980. In his case, it was a costume party. As we know, about one-third of Americans still do not get it why blackface is offensive. However, there were no shifting stories. He just got ahead of it and issued an extensive mea culpa after demanding the resignation of the governor. It was classic damage control.

Then there is Republican Virginia Senate Leader Tommy Norment. He was at the Virginia Military Institute in 1968. He was one of the yearbook editors. The book had…you guessed it, students in Blackface. There were some confederate flags and a few racial slurs as well. In other words, the book was not uncommon for the late 1960s, even if at the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement.

Americans might like to pretend that it is a post-racial society. The nation elected a black man to the presidency after all in 2008, but the country reacted to that in a very negative way. The successor is a white nationalist for all intents and purposes, who has embraced a part of the nation that is threatened by this. We are seeing a classic reaction to status loss as a society changes into something where one group is no longer the majority. What happened in Virginian is the end result of a long history. Americans will have to confront that past and realize that national myths are not necessarily healthy. They are at the root of many of the current crisis as well. Blackface and other forms of open and coded racism are a present reality. They are not in the far part of the 1980s, or 1980s. They exist now.

We have made progress, but we are far from a color-blind society. And the worst offenders of race, are those who say, “I don’t see color.” Granted, for Stephen Colbert that was a comedy routine, but for somebody exploring a presidential run that is a problem. This is precisely what the former CEO of Starbucks told an audience at CNN. Howard Shultz said that he grew up in the projects, and he never saw color, and still does not. He is not capable, (which is not rare) of seeing and understanding his own racism.

To understand why this is happening, we need to take a dive into American history. Why? The roots of our present condition are deeply encoded in the history of the country. Why we need a little survey. Mind you, books could, and have, been written on the subjects at hand. There is no way to cover this beyond a survey form in a short article. However, I do hope this whets your appetite to search for more on your own.

The Colonial Period and Slavery

The beginnings of slavery in the colonies started with one simple need…cheap labor. And this was needed in large amounts. In the beginning, the source of that cheap labor were indentured laborers that fell into that trap either willfully, or most likely not. Elizabethan laws trapped many people into a system that required their shipment to the colonies.

The Poor Laws were the basis for this, but the indenture system went to the depths of medieval England. It allowed, either the government or a person, to enter into a contract. Service was sold for seven years, sometimes more, always ins events, to pay off debt, or a minor criminal offense. It was a way to deal with minor crimes or personal debt in a society that lacked prisons. In modern day international law, indenture is considered a form of slavery.

Indentured servitude was the earliest form of bondage, and it was quickly followed with the arrival of a Dutch slave ship in 1619 in Virginia. The earliest African slaves were not submitted to chattel slavery and indeed could become free men at the end of a term of service. There was also a smaller contingent that was native and was also enslaved. This is part of the story, and usually, it is ignored.

One of the places we have the clearest views of that “terrible transformation” is the colony of Virginia. In the early years of the colony, many Africans and poor whites — most of the laborers came from the English working class — stood on the same ground. Black and white women worked side-by-side in the fields. Black and white men who broke their servant contract were equally punished.

All were indentured servants. During their time as servants, they were fed and housed. Afterward, they would be given what were known as “freedom dues,” which usually included a piece of land and supplies, including a gun. Black-skinned or white-skinned, they became free.

In the beginning, slavery followed European laws and traditions, and Elizabethan principles. Therefore it was not yet the special institution that would become so special and horrific. Early on both slaves and indentured servants signed contracts, for a term of service. At the end of this term, they were freed and given a land grant and some tools to start a new life. Suffice it to say conditions for all indentured servants were very harsh, so most did not survive to freedom. This was not to remain. As time passed, a new way of looking at people started to emerge. It was one based on skin color with another element that existed in medieval Europe: Religion. Slavery was a human construct.

This new concept was one of race. It was not the 19th-century ideology, that in time would lead to eugenics and modern principles of white supremacy. But it was the beginnings of a toxic idea. Blacks it was believed came from inferior cultures and whites were superior with a superior way of life and culture. It was the beginning of imperialism, even if the form it took was not the same as it would, in time, take. While at it, blacks had their cultures stolen from them. They were also forced to take on Christianity, which in a strange way returned some of their humanity. However, indentured white workers and black slaves were kept at times in the same quarters and allowed to work together. Segregation was still in the future.

However, with the beginnings of chattel slavery, there was a need for justification. After all, the earliest slaves were treated the same way as indentured workers and had a hope of freedom. After roughly two generations those born into slavery were to remain slaves. While those who became indentured servants had a hope of freedom and a return to citizenship. Both institutions were to survive until the 19th century. Both were also common in the Caribbean, which was British Colonies. In all areas, both came from a need for labor.

It is quite obvious that within two generations indentured servitude and slavery diverged, with the latter taking a form that was horrific. One that lay the basis for the racialized context of American society. This remains to this day, with minorities still seen as inferior by white supremacists, in open ways. But with structural barriers to wealth, education and jobs placed on these minorities.

The 1676 revolution, Bacon Revolt

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Then came the year 1676. Nathaniel Bacon rose in rebellion against his cousin (by marriage). Whether it was a struggle for power, with his cousin Governor Sir William Berkeley, or the earliest attempt at independence matters in the bigger picture. And there is an open discussion about this among historians. However, the rebellion was joined by indentured servants and slaves alike. It was a shot across the bow of the leading classes of Jamestown. It required troops from the mother country to put down.

Over the next several years, British soldiers defeated Bacon’s forces, (killing Bacon and others), and restored Royal rule over the Virginian colony. When it comes to black history, however, the main effect was the end of indentured servitude. The ruling class in Virginia was terrified of white and black servants uniting and changed the hardened the slave policy along racial lines. No more would white and black people serve together on the lowest rung; from now on black labor would be the only stolen labor.

The hardening of racial labor occurred across British North America. Bacon’s Rebellion was the most famous event, but uprisings occurred throughout the colonies. From Massachusetts to Georgia by the end of the 17th-century black men and women were the only people officially enslaved.

The upper crust could not abide by both blacks and poor whites uniting,. This literally terrified them. This is the origin of the fear of slave revolts, but also the system of racial division. This is why the poorest of whites was always taught that he was better than the best of blacks. It was the beginning of a system of apartheid that would survive until the present day, at least in some structural ways. For example, blacks face harsher policing than any other group in this country.

While the civil rights movement of fifty years ago chipped away at a lot of it, we still have systems of social control that can trace their roots to the early years of the colonies and this revolt. Many whites, whether it is conscious or not, still fear a race war. Never mind that some actively want one and work towards this situation. Why? They see this as a way to return the social order to what it once was.

A hundred years later, it was an example for the Founder generation as well. Many of the founders admired the Baconist who rose up against the state.

Independence and the compromises to preserve slavery

The founders had a problem. They just fought a war to make all equal. However, they did not mean all people, just wealthy landowners, who happened to be white. This is why initially the franchise was extended to only landowners. The franchise excluded women, indentured servants, non-land owners, and slaves. Abigail Adams wrote extensively about her wish to have a voice, but that was not to be. Women would not get the franchise until early in the 20th century.

However, they had another problem. Some states were slave states, some were not. Moreover, there were more people in the southern states than in the north. This, of course, included slaves, With the mandate to do a decennial census to set representation in the House, the founders needed to compromise. Ergo, a slave counted for three-fifths of a person. Slavery was protected and it was one of the seeds of the civil war. This was to remain until after the civil war with the 13th and 14th amendments.

The British had offered freedom to any slave that joined them. And many did. Why the British do this is the same reason that Abraham Lincoln would do the same with the Emancipation Declaration decades later. It was an economic attack on the southern economy. Most Americans do not realize it these days, but the southern campaign was as intense, or more so than the northern front of the war. As the war came to an end, Americans gained independence. But they had two-time bombs, as perceived by Thomas Jefferson. The first were indentured servants. He saw them as a potential problem, never mind the practice remained late into the 19th century. The second were slaves. One way to control those slaves was religion.

The people who came to North America were Christian, emerging from the Middle Ages, the crusades and the 100-year war. For the first two generations, one way for slaves to escape their condition was to convert to Christianity, since under British tradition a Christian could not be a slave. Over time the teaching of Christianity among African slaves became widespread. However, the Bible used was not complete. There were a few large sections taken out of the document they had access too. For example, the book of the apocalypse was not part of the Slave Bible, and this took out the hope of eternal life. Moreover, slavery and becoming a good slave were important. So books that emphases this was included, including Joseph’s sale, and to a point the book of Exodus. This story, of Israel’s liberation, is still central in African American life, just as it is a central tenet of Jewish life.

Segregation came a century before, but with independence, it became harder in the South. So cartoons of what slaves and slave life started to emerge. It is in this environment that the minstrel show rises in the 1830s. These shows portrayed African slaves as dull, lazy and with sexual appetites that could barely be contained. If you are thinking, that sounds familiar…it should. This is the origin of a stereotype that survives in one form, or another, to this day. And it is in these shows that blackface first showed up. White actors, rarely black actors, put it on, to portray this stereotype.

Minstrel shows were our first cultural export. This is why blackface is also found abroad.

It is also in this era that the Underground Railroad emerged, and increasingly slavery became illegal in northern states. the nation was becoming increasingly divided in its views of the special institution. Most slaves went to northern states and Canada, with some going to Mexico, where slavery became illegal with independence.

Tensions North-South

The Civil War did not come as a surprise. It did not emerge from Zeus’s head Athena like. The road to war had an evolution, starting in 1820 with the Missouri Compromise. The tension came as the nation expanded westward. Northern states did not want slavery to expand west. The south saw this as essential. Most people in the modern United States are not aware, but the south was the wealthiest area of the country before the war. Cotton was the basis for that economy. Slavery was the cheap labor needed for this.

The rural economy of the southern states was the heart of the American economy, with a very large export market to Britain. Thus the moral dilemma for the British. While they banned slavery two generations before the Civil War, they were torn about supporting secession due to their dependence on this cotton. Britain was the strongest industrial nation of the age, and they needed that cotton for the textile mills.

To a lesser extent, so did the northern textile mills that started to dot the northeastern states. The northern economy started that industrialization in places like New Jersey. These are the same mills that closed in the 1970s and 80s and either moved to the south or abroad.

Slavery was the source of cheap labor. Virginia, in particular, developed a local aristocracy that set the cultural pace of the former colony. Slaves were not just a cheap labor source, but the concept of the race took on a new, quasi-religious, turn. It also started to take on the familiar themes of white supremacy that we are familiar with. This aristocracy saw itself as chosen by God to keep these lesser people under control, and to somewhat civilize them. Compete civilization, including reading and writing, was forbidden for slaves. Never mind that some masters did teach particularly talented slaves, who also ran the household and kept the household books.

The separation of the races was strictly enforced, while at the same time masters raped slaves regularly. It was a known thing, never mind that it was not publicly acknowledged. The products of these rapes were slaves, and most were sold as soon as possible. Some were kept as household slaves, and a few learned how to read and write. Even a lesser number were freed when their owners died. We know this was a common practice, and even today we have trouble admitting to this. Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson is a well-known example, even if Jefferson’s decedents finally welcomed the descendants of that union into the family.

The Kansas Little War and the Civil War

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Tensions between free and slave states finally exploded in Kansas. The southern States wanted it to be a slave state, but northern free states would have none of that. Kansas was a border territory. To make a long story short, clashes between the two sides that were committed to very different visions exploded in 1854. This series of clashes would continue all the way to the Civil War. I personally see this border conflict as part of the civil war, since the issues exploded less than a decade later at Fort Sumpter.

The election of Abraham Lincoln was the final nail in that coffin. The south could not abide to live under the rule of a man who was openly opposed to slavery. Less understood is that Lincoln and the Republicans were a splinter party from the Whigs. A party that became an ex-parrot in the course of less than ten years. In the twenty-first century the idea that Republicans were pro-civil rights and Democrats were a pro-slavery party, even in the deep north, is grating. The parties would not fully invert until the 1960s. This process is well understood by political scientists and historians, not most Americans. This is why Martin Luther King was a Republican.

With the end of the war, the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments put an end to slavery. They also made blacks full persons for the purpose of the census. They also guaranteed birthright citizenship to all Americans, except first people’s. This would not come until the 20th century. This is an issue that is hardly known. Racism and white supremacy affects many minorities.

The Post Civil War system

The Civil War destroyed vast amounts of southern wealth. It ravaged the economy and threatened the social order. Whites in the south had to deal with well-educated blacks running for office. Many were carpet baggers who came from northern states. Others came to teach liberated blacks to read and write, and to vote. This was a crisis for the former leaders of the states. Their goal, to return the south to a modicum of familiarity. The editorial cartoons of the era would be familiar to us as well. The racism was clear, and the portrayals included plenty of monkey faces. With Darwinism, blacks were portrayed as a less evolved form of man.

At the end of reconstruction, the social order was brutally reestablished. These years also saw the beginnings of two things. The first was the legend of the Lost Cause which claimed the civil war was lost, but the south would reemerge. The second was the foundation of the KKK. It was the origin of the modern system of social control and white supremacy.

Over the course of the latter half of the 19th-century ideas of race that included eugenics took form. They were pseudoscience. But they were used to justify a harsh system of social control. The stereotypes that emerged in the 1830s hardened and became more widespread. To make sure that these became self-fulfilling reality laws were passed throughout the South. In time these became collectively known as the Jim Crow laws. They kept the races separated and ensured blacks got a substandard education when they did. They were also kept away from the ballot box.

They enforced separation in all kinds of other institutions. These started first in housing, where towns were segregated. Some, which expanded from the south, forbade blacks after sundown. These became sundown towns. The justification, the supposed sexual appetite of blacks. Also their propensity for crime. These two stereotypes survive to this day and are extremely damaging. This is why black youth face more police violence to this day. These ideas are deeply ingrained in social biases.

King Cotton remained critical for the southern economy after the war. It led to recovery and growth. To make this work, the sharecropper system emerged. It essentially tied former slaves to the same land they used to work. They were never paid enough to be able to move. They were tied down and kept in deep poverty. Public education for their children was substandard, if at all. Because of school segregation is would remain this way until Brown v Board of Education. after that school choice emerged, which is code for segregation academies across the south. School choice remains to this day as an attack on public education. It's meant to weaken a system that now benefits minorities, not just blacks. Moreover, since education is financed through property taxes, it remains unequal even within school districts.

The Jim Crow system of social control would formally remain in place until the civil rights movement. As Michelle Alexander would tell us, this would be replaced by mass incarceration.

Black Face in Popular culture

This social system had to be enforced. Children learn racism in both the home and society at large. There are ways to enforce these standards. Popular culture is essential for this. Just like Minstrel shows were our earliest popular exports. Others came after the civil war. They relied on well-known stereotypes, which are shorthand for social norms.

One, in particular, is part of the Lost Cause that also believed slavery was not that bad. Some even said it was humane. This is how Aunt Jemima came to be. She portrays the old mammy, a house slave that many times helped to raise the children of plantation masters. The treatment these mammy figures got was never that good, perhaps with a few exceptions. However, the jolly old overweight gentlewoman became a thing and an image of the good slave. It was not just brilliant marketing, but amazingly good propaganda.

The other popular image was Uncle Tom. While it took a different meaning among the defendants of slaves, not unlike that of other cooperators for other oppressed groups, for white culture it signified a gentle compliant slave. These two were followed by blackface in the new medium of movies, and in Saturday Morning cartoons. We may look at these cultural artifacts as even funny, but they were extremely effective, and painful. They were essential propaganda.

Housing and school segregation served another purpose. When you do not know people you see in cartoons, it’s easier to keep those stereotypes. Separation of the races came with large amounts of propaganda. While this piece is concentrating on one corner of race, the era had stereotypes on first people’s and Mexicans as well. White supremacy at times included Italians, Irish and Jews as targets.

The Civil Rights Movement

The civil rights era did several things. First, it opened the voting booths to blacks, and to a lesser extent, Mexican Americans in the Southwest. It theoretically it also closed discrimination at work, school, banking, and housing. It made it illegal to discriminate due to race or religion. This was critical.

Laws were implemented and ever since they have faced challenges in the courts. The idea of letting people vote was especially alarming in the old dominion. Keeping certain groups away from the voting booth was a way to maintain this very toxic social order. Many Southern Democrats could not let this happen, and they fled the party. This was a party that had fought to keep the social order in the south. It was them, the Dixiecrats, who Franklin Delano Roosevelt paid respect two generations before, why the New Deal did not fully penetrate the South. This is why the first right to work (for less) state was in the South.

Dixiecrats joined the Republican Party in droves. Among them was Strum Thurmond, who could no longer be a Democrat. He served the rest of his political career as a Republican. With the adoption of the Southern Strategy by Richard Nixon, the party realignment was complete. Before 1965 it made sense for African-Americans to be Republicans, especially in the Deep South. The party of Lincoln would fight, albeit in limited form, for their rights. After 1965 that same party was taken over by former Democrats committed to keeping them down. Incidentally, if you ever hear that Martin Luther King was a Republican, it’s true. It was not the modern Republican Party. This matters. In many ways, the modern Democratic Party is what the GOP was.

Republicans have been busy trying to reverse civil rights legislation and bring back the good old days. And by the old good days, I mean that age when civil rights were not extended to minorities. And by that, I mean all people of color, and quotas to prevent too many Jews, Irish and Italians from attending college. This includes the elimination of Title IX as well, which benefited women.

The Modern Period

This brings us to the present. The presidency of Donald Trump has brought our past to the fore. It has also given permission to many closeted racists to come out into the open. Why we have seen increases in hate crimes. Why we see an increase in open racism.

There are places where the old stereotypes and the Lost Cause survive. They are not limited to the south. Many Americans like to point out the deep history of the special institution in the south, without realizing how pervasive racism is across the nation. Many Americans were shocked by the wearing of Blackface by the governor of Virginia. Others dismissed it as, well it’s Virginia. This was in the 1980s. I have written elsewhere about this. However, let me point out to incidents within this decade.

A member of Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity member at San Luis Obispo apologized in 2018 for wearing blackface.

Then there is this from Sigma Alpha Epsilon in 2015. It was not blackface, just a racist song. We still have this issue with some very specific white fraternities that started life as racist institutions. And within these organizations, there is very little self-consciousness on the racism, which is structural. These organizations have faced very little back.adh over the years.

Mississippi Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves’ college yearbook showed members of his fraternity in what appeared to be blackface and dressed as Confederate soldiers and referred to him being “at the Robert E. Lee bar” at a time when the fraternity’s racism was a major issue on campus.

Reeves, the front-runner to become the Republican nominee for governor, was a sophomore at Millsaps College when he joined the Kappa Alpha fraternity in 1993 and remained a member through graduation, even as the fraternity came under scrutiny for its overt racism.

In the 1995 edition of Millsaps’ yearbook, a photograph of Reeves appears next to a photo of five other members in fraternity T-shirts and what appears to be blackface — three of them also wearing Confederate flags on their heads — and another showing dozens of members dressed as Confederate soldiers.

This was a fraternity, and fairly recent. It is high time the Greek system confronts this. The particular fraternity also celebrates the Lost Cause, and this is in the present tense.

Then we have Halloween and the yearly scandals of cultural appropriation and racist costumes. They are part and parcel of our concepts of race and how these concepts are reinforced. We have the code language, no longer code, from white supremacists. They complain that this is about the far left (code) and their determination to enforce politically correct language (code) or cultural Marxism. Again, this is code from the far right to weaken civil rights and diversity.

It is still happening. Denial (it does not happen where I live) is not going to make it go away. The only thing that will do that is awareness, education and a zero tolerance on these activities. Granted, this will be easier to do in some places than others. But just engaging in virtue signaling will not work either.

This means that we need to teach and confront this history. It is going to affect our politics as well. While there is no equivalency between both parties. Republicans want to go back to that glorious past, Democrats must stop just demanding resignations. (Incidentally, with the resignation of the Florida Secretary of State for Blackface, the GOP just got a little virtue signaling of their own.) we need education. We need a truth and reconciliation commission. And we need to stop pretending it’s not happening. We also need to stop pretending that this is mostly confined to one political party.

Written by

Historian by training. Former day to day reporter. Sometimes a geek who enjoys a good miniatures game.

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