Race represents an intricate paradox in modern day America. No one can dispute the extraordinary progress that was made in the fifty years between the de jure segregation of Jim Crow, and President Barack Obama’s inauguration. However, it is equally absurd to refute the prominence of institutionalized racism in today’s society. America remains a nation of haves and have-nots and, unfortunately, race continues to be a reliable predictor of who belongs in each category. Nevertheless, it is difficult to balance the contradictory realities of an African American President and a society filled with systematic prejudice.
This paper analyzes the prevalence of modern day racism by examining the historical precedent of institutionalized oppression in America. Instead of discussing how Europeans have systematically oppressed multiple ethnic groups throughout history, I focus upon the relationship between white power holders and citizens of African heritage. First, this paper examines how European colonizers systematically dehumanized African slaves, a phenomenon which I define as the white supremacist caste system. Second, I examine how this caste system reinvented itself following the Civil War, refuting the myth that blacks were truly liberated by the Emancipation Proclamation. Finally, this paper examines the paradoxical nature in which the Civil Rights Movement was and was not successful in deconstructing institutionalized racism. This section discusses whether the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960’s truly liberated blacks from their dehumanized, subordinate role within America’s white supremacy caste system.
This examination also discusses the influence of black leaders who spread the ideology of Afrocentrism. Throughout the eras of Slavery, Jim Crow, and Civil Rights there were Afrocentric leaders who challenged the racial caste system by affirming the full humanity of blacks, effectively refuting the omnipresent dogma of white supremacy. The more successful these leaders were in promoting Afrocentrism, the greater the response was from the white supremacist power structure. Throughout history these leaders have consistently been neutralized through incarceration, assassination, and other tactics of repression. Most importantly, the Afrocentric message of these leaders has been suppressed in the process, leaving analyses of Eurocentrism and white supremacy to be few and far between. Although this paper does not undermine the extraordinary racial progress that has been achieved since the Civil Rights Movement, it offers a broad perspective on how America continues to be plagued by its racial caste system.
I How was the original white supremacy caste system (WSCS) created during the slavery era?
The ideology of white supremacy arrived in the United States with the first European colonizers in 1492. This doctrine was a guiding force as Europeans conquered the native inhabitants of North, South, and Central America. In order to claim territories occupied by natives, the Europeans claimed that these were not equally dignified human beings. Rather, they were savages.12
At first these European colonies were relatively small. However, as the farming of tobacco, cotton, and other products increased so did the demand for additional land and labor. After conquering additional Native territory, the modest population of indentured servants became insufficient and the Europeans searched for additional sources of free labor. Native Americans were generally well organized and familiar with the land, making them poor candidates for slave labor. The European indentured servants were also incapable of meeting the labor demand, as they were in too short of a supply, and, more importantly, would not continue to voluntarily migrate to the New World if they were powerless slaves.3 Ultimately, the European plantation owners identified Africans as the ideal source for slave labor.
Although these African slaves were the most disenfranchised group on these plantations, the social status of European servants was not much better.4 Furthermore, the majority of free Europeans were also severely impoverished. In general, it was only the small population of plantation owners that prospered above the African and European workers.5 A laborer’s skin color had yet to become the all-important dictator of one’s social status.
In the late 1600’s the elite power holders began to utilize the concept of race as a tool for maintaining their elite status. The most significant event that caused this shift was Bacon’s Rebellion. In 1675 Nathaniel Bacon, a European property owner in Jamestown, VA, organized African slaves, European servants, and impoverished whites to overthrow the wealthy plantation owners. Although Bacon’s Rebellion was exterminated by the ruling class, its legacy spread by word of mouth throughout the colonies. As similar rebellions followed, it became clear that a multi-racial alliance between indentured servants and enslaved Africans posed a great threat to the prosperity of plantation owners.
In order to protect their economic and social position, the white elite adopted a strategy known as the “racial bribe.”6 They deliberately granted additional privileges to poor whites in order to divide them from black slaves. These privileges included granting white servants to police blacks through slave patrols and militias, and guaranteeing that their labor would not be jeopardized by the supply of slave labor.7 As a result of this racial bribe, impoverished whites now benefited from this race-based slavery system, persuading them to protect this caste system rather than to participate in an alliance to destroy it. White supremacy had already been the catalyst for terrorizing indigenous populations and transporting African prisoners to the New World. Now this ideology was being embraced and defended by the large population of middle and lower class whites. Whites rationalized that the enslavement of blacks was due to their racial inferiority. One Alabama plantation owner epitomized this doctrine stating that: “We have the power to pass stringent police laws to govern the Negroes—this is a blessing—for they must be controlled in some way or white people cannot live among them.”8 Through this racial bribe, blacks became systematically dehumanized by elite and working class whites.
This white supremacy caste system (WSCS) was thoroughly entwined with the founding of the United States. First and foremost, a large percentage of the Founding Fathers were beneficiaries of slavery. Of the twenty three most prominent Founding Fathers, fifteen were slaveholders, including Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington.9
Like most slave holders, these Founding Fathers used the ideology of white supremacy to rationalize their ownership of African slaves. The best example of the Founding Fathers’ white supremacist ideology is Thomas Jefferson’s writings about the inferiority of Africans. Published in 1781, Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia display his commentary on the differences between the white and black race. The former President commented on the supposed inferiority that Africans displayed in reasoning, in perceiving the nuances of the world, and in articulating these aspects of their environment.10 Jefferson concluded that, “Whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.”11 For Jefferson and other Founding Fathers, the dehumanization of black slaves was second nature.
Six years after publishing Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson and the other fifty-four delegates signed the Constitution of the United States. Delegates from Southern colonies had achieved their goal of institutionalizing the white supremacist caste system into this foundation of American society. Under Article One, Section Nine of the Constitution, Slavery would be fully protected as a legal institution until 1808, with the Federal Government permitted to tax ten dollars for each slave imported to the US.12 One of the most revealing aspects of the U.S. Constitution was its stance on whether blacks would be counted as persons in the census, and therefore represented by additional state delegates in Congress. Serving as a bargaining chip between northern and southern states, the Constitutional Delegates would eventually compromise that, for congressional representation, blacks would be counted as three-fifths of a human being.13 With African slaves being officially viewed as inferior to whites, it’s clear that the founders of the United States did not envision a future where Blacks would live freely as equal citizens among whites.
One of the most significant developments of the WSCS was the Supreme Court decision of Dred Scott v. Sanford. The court case judged whether Dred Scott, born into slavery in Missouri, was free as a result of traveling to the northern state of Illinois where slavery was illegal.14 The Supreme Court ruled against Dred Scott. Seventy-nine-year-old Chief Justice Roger Taney declared that blacks Americans did not have any rights and:
Had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order; and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.15
Although the Dred Scott decision would spark much controversy and help instigate the Civil War, it clearly described the white supremacist dogma of the south, which would continue to reinvent itself for generations.
Suppressing Afrocentrism during the Slavery Era
In the midst of the WSCS existed black leaders who comprehended the rigidity of this caste system. These leaders advocated for the full acknowledgement of their humanity, their right to defend themselves, and the importance of education. One of the earliest examples of such a leader was David Walker, a free Black man and abolitionist. In 1827 the thirty-one-year-old Walker moved to Boston and became heavily involved in the city’s growing abolition movement.16 He was active within several black organizations that protested discrimination among free blacks, criticized colonialism, and called for the destruction of slavery.17 Moreover, Walker became a bold leader who presented public speeches lobbying against white supremacy and slavery. In 1829 Walker published his book, David Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World.18 Through his Appeal, Walker diagnosed the symptoms of the WSCS, argued for the righteousness of abolition and self-determination, and prescribed the path to liberation.
First, Walker charged America’s white supremacists: “for murdering our fathers and mothers …keeping us in slavery, and beating us nearly or quite to death to make us work in ignorance and miseries to support them and their families.”19 Second, he articulated the hypocrisy of America’s creed that all men are created equal and have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Walker wrote: “See your declaration Americans…compare your own language above, extracted from your Declaration of Independence, with your cruelties and murders inflicted by your cruel and unmerciful fathers and yourselves on our fathers and on us -- men who have never given your fathers or you the least provocation.”20 Walker continued by addressing the white supremacist ideology of Thomas Jefferson and its significance to the nation: “Have we souls in our bodies? Are we men who have any spirits at all? Unless we try to refute Mr. Jefferson's arguments respecting us, we will only establish them.”21
Not only was his Appeal revolutionary in condemning white supremacy and chattel slavery, Walker was one of the first Black leaders to argue for self-determination. His Appeal told the Black masses that they must strive not only to be emancipated from slavery, but also to govern themselves.22 Walker argued that America belonged to blacks more than it did to whites, because they had enriched its soil with blood and tears.23 His Appeal urged slaves to rebel against their masters, arguing that, “it is no more harm for you to kill a man who is trying to kill you, than it is for you to take a drink of water when thirsty."24 Walker understood that the greatest tool for mobilizing resistance and building a self-reliant Black community would be education. His Appeal stated that: “The bare name of educating the colored people scares our cruel oppressors almost to death” and urged black citizens to: “Let the aim of your labors among your brethren, and particularly the youths, be the dissemination of education.”25
One of the most fascinating aspects of Walker’s appeal is that, in spite of its passionate condemnation of the WSCS, it does not preach hatred towards the white perpetrators of slavery. Rather, his Appeal projects hatred towards oppression, proclaiming to whites that: “while you keep us and our children in bondage, and treat us like brutes, to make us support you and your families, we cannot be your friends. Treat us then like men, and we will be your friends.”26
After its publishing in 1829, Walker’s appeal was spread far and wide throughout the United States.27 In turn, Southern officials tried desperately to prevent the Appeal from reaching its residents. The governments of South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana declared that the Appeal was treasonable and they imposed harsh penalties for its possession and distribution.28 Georgia promoted an award of $10,000 to anyone who could capture and present Walker alive and $1,000 to anyone who would murder him.29 In 1830—one year after publishing his Appeal –Walker died in Boston. Although historians are not certain, most of the evidence suggests that the abolitionist was poisoned.30 Regardless of what caused his death, white supremacists breathed a sigh of relief since Walker could no longer mobilize blacks with the ideology of Afrocentrism.
II How did the WSCS reinvent itself during the Jim Crow Era?
Along with the Emancipation Proclamation in1865, arrived laws that promised to destroy the WSCS. In 1865 the Thirteenth Amendment liberated Blacks from slavery. One year later, the United States Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 which guaranteed all Americans the same rights: "Without distinction of race or color, or previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude."31 Between 1865 and 1867, each of the Confederate States enacted Black Codes, provoking the Federal Government to intervene with a series of laws that would become known as Reconstruction. The First Reconstruction Act of 1867 divided the South into five military districts consisting of Northern troops protecting the freedom of Southern blacks.32 Moreover, Reconstruction delivered Federal Laws protecting the rights of black citizens. Passed in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed citizenship to all individuals born within the United States, granting blacks and other races the legal protection enjoyed by white citizens.33
Reconstruction represents a fascinating chapter in American history, as it provided blacks with temporary relief from the oppressive forces of the WSCS. The most extraordinary aspect of Reconstruction was the emergence of black political leaders. During the first ten years of Reconstruction, 1,465 Black men held political office as Lieutenant Governors, representatives in the United States Senate and House of Representatives, representatives in State Senates and Assemblies, State Supreme Court Justices, State Superintendents, Mayors, Sheriffs, and Coroners.34 Nearly a century and a half later, the United States has yet to achieve a comparable representation of non-white minorities.
Although slavery had been legally abolished, the concept of race had become deeply engrained into the nation’s psyche. Historian Michelle Alexander notes that: “The notion of racial difference—specifically the notion of white supremacy—proved far more durable than the institution that gave birth to it.”35 White supremacists comprehended this tremendous threat to their racial caste system. Southern whites armed themselves with guns and began killing black politicians and Republican voters throughout the South. By the mid-1870’s the, Klu Klux Klan (KKK) and other white supremacist militias were effectively nullifying the progress of Reconstruction. Between 1868 and 1875 white militias assassinated dozens of black politicians in courtrooms, jailhouses, trains, and other public settings.36
As the demand for Federal protection grew, white Republicans in the north lost interest in defending the rights of Southern blacks. An economic crisis in 1873 helped conservative Democrats achieve a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, recapturing their congressional control for the first time since the Civil War.37 By 1877, conservative Democrats had reestablished control over every Southern State.38
The death of Reconstruction became inevitable. As racial violence increased and public safety deteriorated, outnumbered Southern Republicans begged the Federal Government for assistance. In 1855 President Ulysses Grant refused, stating: “The whole public are tired out with these annual autumnal outbreaks in the South…and are ready now to condemn any interference on the part of the Government.”39 The downfall of Reconstruction finally occurred as a result of the Presidential Election of 1876. Both Democratic and Republican candidates had claimed to have won in the decisive contests in Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina.40 A compromise was eventually reached in which Republican candidate Rutherford Hayes took office on the condition that he would withdraw all federal troops from the south.41 Following The Compromise of 1877, Henry Adams, a prominent Black leader in Louisiana, described the failure of Reconstruction: “The whole South—every state in the South had got into the hands of the very men that held us as slaves.”42 White supremacists had defeated attacks of military occupations, black politicians, and Federal legislation, and were poised to reinstate their racial caste system. Once again, the systematic dehumanization of blacks would be the status quo of the south.
Prior to the turn of the century, two major Supreme Court decisions strengthened the WSCS. In 1883 the Supreme Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment protected black Americans from discrimination by states but not by private businesses or individuals.43 Historian Douglas Blackman described this ruling as: “A de facto acceptance that white southerners could do as they wished with the black people in their midst."44 In 1896, the Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson concerned the critical question of whether the Equal Protection Clause permitted Louisiana to maintain racially segregated train cars. The Court ruled that this did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment because although public facilities were separate, they were not unequal.45 This ruling enabled Southern states and cities to enact hundreds of laws that instituted a widespread system of racial apartheid known as Jim Crow.
In the early 1900’s, racial violence, the convict lease system, and sharecropping forced Southern blacks back into their subordinate status in the WSCS. Prior to emancipation, white slave owners depended upon the labor and livelihood of their black workers and, as a result, usually did not punish them with murder. However, during the Jim Crow era there was an epidemic of blacks being killed. Between 1882 and 1968, an estimated 4,742 blacks met their deaths at the hands of lynch mobs.46
At the same time, the criminal justice systems of incarceration and convict leasing recaptured tens of thousands of Southern blacks to a condition of chattel slavery.47 Following Reconstruction, Southern states deliberately enacted laws to target emancipated blacks.48 These laws allowed for blacks to be arbitrarily arrested, charged with fines that they were unable to pay, incarcerated, and, finally, sold as forced laborers to coal mines, lumber yards, brick factories, railroads, and plantations.49 Decades after the Emancipation Proclamation, armies of "free" black men worked as uncompensated slave labor, were repeatedly bought and sold, and endured the physical torture of their new masters. This system of neo-slavery would dominate until World War II.50
Following emancipation, many blacks became trapped within the southern institution of sharecropping. As a result of having few employment opportunities, many black citizens were once again forced to work for white plantation owners. Not only were sharecroppers unable to earn respectable wages, due to illiteracy these blacks were systematically deceived and exploited by their white employers.51
Through lynch mobs, the convict-lease system, and sharecropping, Southern white supremacists had reinstated their racial caste system. Furthermore, whites had proudly recaptured Southern states and boasted their white supremacist ideology. Educator and racial theorist Thomas Pearce Bailey was one of the prominent southern leaders of white supremacy during the early 20th century. In 1913, Bailey published the following summary of the widespread racial creed among white supremacists:
Blood will tell.
The white race must dominate.
The Teutonic peoples stand for race purity.
The Negro is inferior and will remain so.
This is a white man’s country.
No social equality.
No political equality.
In matters of civil rights and legal adjustments give the white man, as opposed to the colored man, the benefit of the doubt; and under no circumstances interfere with the prestige of the white race.
In educational policy let the Negro have the crumbs that fall from the white man’s table.
Let there be such industrial education of the Negro as will best fit him to serve the white man.
Only Southerners understand the Negro question.
Let the South settle the Negro question.
The status of peasantry is all the Negro may hope for, if the races are to live together in peace.
Let the lowest white man count for more than the highest Negro.