Why White People Can't Talk About Race (part 2)
The Parts of Our History Your Teacher Skipped*
The previous post in this series ended with a bold claim: that America is a race-ist country. This needs more space to be unpacked, and we White folks, especially, need to wrestle with it.
Please understand that this isn’t meant to be a tirade against America. The goal of this entire blog series is to highlight the reasons I believe White Americans have serious difficulty engaging in the topic of race, and I’m convinced that one of the biggest factors is that we simply don’t understand how racialized our own history is.
Some of the paragraphs below may be surprising, controversial, or even angering to you. I will do my best to cite and link to sources, and there is a reading list at the end, so you can chase these ideas down on your own.
Just remember, something that happened in history isn’t “your fault.” But like I said in the last post, that’s not the point. Rather, the point is this: is it possible that America, as a whole, has “believed in” race as a way to categorize people? Will an honest look at our history give us an answer to that question?
To that end, here are some parts of our history that I’m willing to bet your teacher skipped:
1) The Part Where Our Founding Ideals Were Racialized
Did you know that the phrase, “merciless Indian savages” was written in the Declaration of Independence, right below the more-famous phrase “All Men are created equal?” It’s hard to understand how Native men could be truly considered “equal” if they are defined as “merciless savages.” From the very beginning, Native Americans were considered less-human than the White-Anglo settlers. And do remember, this document was written by Thomas Jefferson, and painstakingly reviewed by the “Founding Fathers” before being signed by everyone and sent to King George. They, apparently, all approved of this phrase.
Have you ever considered the subtle arrogance smuggled into the phrase “Columbus discovered America?” It’s hard to “discover” something that’s already occupied. Did you know that this term comes from a document issued by the Pope in 1493, called the “Doctrine of Discovery?” Did you know that this doctrine made the permissible (on the basis of the church’s authority) that lands occupied by non-Christians (ie. “barbarous peoples;” ie. “Indians”) could be “discovered” and “claimed” by those in the Christian-Catholic church (ie. Europeans)? This document propped up the assumed superiority of Euro-Christian culture, and was even cited by the Supreme Court up through the 1800s as a proper basis for continued American Westward expansion.
So, to start with, “our” lands were certainly “discovered” well before 1492, and we would do well to change our language accordingly, lest we continue to subtly perpetuate the idea that America wasn’t occupied by “real” humans until the Europeans colonized.
2) The Part Where American Chattel Slavery Was Indescribably Brutal, And Built the Foundation of Our Economy
American slavery is certainly covered in most history textbooks and curriculum, and there is a general awareness that it was a “bad thing.” But an intellectually honest look at this chapter of our history leads to a few inescapable conclusions that are not emphasized enough: 1) while slavery existed in other societies, ours was a particularly heinous and de-humanizing version; 2) it was unique in its dependence on recently-created racial categories; 3) it built the foundation of American capitalism.
It bears repeating that this exploration is not simply to make White people feel guilty. I can’t emphasize this enough, because when slavery enters the discussion, White folks inevitably shut down and defend themselves with, “I didn’t own slaves! I can’t do anything about the past!” So if you’re feeling that urge right now, just identify it and remind yourself that you aren’t individually guilty for this phase of our history. But, again, that's not the point.
Yes, slavery has existed throughout human history in various forms, but in terms of the humane-ness of practice, American chattel slavery is easily near the bottom of the list.* Abuses were rampant, slave-rape was common and overlooked, and families were devastated (which, incidentally, is why many African-Americans today cannot trace their family heritage beyond a few generations, an experience that many White-Americans cannot relate with). We need to be honest: American slavery was bad, worse than most.
Second, American slavery relied on racial categories in a way that didn’t truly exist before. Yes, other societies, like the ancient Greco-Romans, did consider some tribes (not "races") to be more barbaric than others, but such people groups were never pre-emptively ascribed the rigid social role of “slave” based solely on their “racial grouping.” No previously-existing, institutionalized, slave-owning system relied on the now-familiar “White” and “Black” categories to determine status.
The rationale for all of this was the perceived inherent sub-humanity of Black-African people. The Christian church (a key culture-shaping institution) was, tragically, a key player in propping up these social categories, as preachers would commonly teach that Africans were descendants of “Ham” from Genesis chapter 9, who was cursed by his father, the famous Noah (a claim, it should be noted, that absolutely cannot be substantiated and is not taken at all seriously today). All this to say that American chattel slavery was racialized in a unique way, and the foundations of our society were built on the same assumptions that maintained the system: that Black people were inferior, incapable of a social role above that of “slave,” and it was therefore the best way to set up a society.
Third and final, we need to recognize that American Capitalism (which we all participate in) was birthed from the free labor that slavery provided, and this isn't just about the Southern states. In his important book, economist Edward Baptist (see reading list at the bottom) estimates that 50% of the American economic system was directly tied to chattel slavery, not only through the obvious crops generated directly from slave labor like cotton, but through the clothing, materials, and tools that the Northern industries generated to maintain the practice nation-wide. If he’s correct (and I think he makes a persuasive case) the implications are chilling.
So you probably already knew about American slavery, but it cannot be overstated how brutal the institution was, the de-humanizing impact it had on everyone in its reliance on racial categories, and the unique ways it created our economic system, the effect of which did not (could not) simply, abruptly end when slavery ended.
3) The Part Where the Civil War Was Really About Slavery
Then we get to the Civil War, another well-known chapter in American history. I was explicitly taught something like this: the war was primarily about “states’ rights.” The Southern states seceded because they didn’t like government over-reach, and simply wanted to keep their ability to maintain their own way of life. Sure, slavery was happening at the time, but the war wasn’t **really** about that.
This is a nice, neat, overview that helps us White folks romanticize the Civil War, and perhaps even give a measure of sympathy to the Confederacy. Even the movie Gettysburg, which I generally love, preserves this explanation. There’s just one problem: it’s a false and dangerous revision of history.
The irony of all of this is that, yes, there is a sense in which “states’ rights” and “way of life” are the bedrock of the Confederate secession, but it all inevitably gets back to slavery and social race-ism. The Southern states were adamant about their “rights” to continue the slave-owning practice, which is precisely what upheld their “way of life.” Not convinced? Just read the “Declaration of Causes of Secession,” the document written and ratified by the Southern states, laying out their reasons for seceding from the Union. Notice especially phrases like the “subordination and political and social inequality of the African race.” Take slavery out, and the whole thing falls apart.
Still not convinced? Read the “Cornerstone Speech” by the Confederate VP Alexander Stephens, so-named because he identified the “cornerstone” of the government they were trying to form as resting upon “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man.”*
The Civil War was about slavery. Full stop. The country was actually ripped in half over the belief that Africans were less-human than Whites, so we need to stop obscuring that truth with romanticized notions of “states’ rights,” “libertarian-small-government-ideals” and the “Southern way of life.” (Incidentally, this is why the Confederate flag should absolutely not be displayed outside government buildings.)
Unfortunately, despite the ravages and horrific death-toll of this war, the enslavement of Africans did not end with its conclusion and the famous “Emancipation Proclamation,” and we are actually still living in the ripple effect.
More on that in the next post.
*Further Reading & Resources
The title of this post is a not-so-sly nod to James Loewen’s work, “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” which I highly recommend, along with “Lies Across America.”
On how bad slavery really was, see “The American Slave Coast” by Ned and Constance Sublette.
A fictional, but extremely well-researched, story documenting the impact of the slave trade on a family from Ghana is Yaa Gyasi’s “Homegoing.” I highly recommend it.
On the constantly-changing racial category of “White,” see the illuminating “History of White People” by Nell Irvin Painter
On the economic implications of slavery, see “The Half Has Never Been Told” by Edward Baptist.
On the theological interplay with race and racial categories throughout history, especially an enlightening look at the colonization of the “New World,” see Willie Jennings’ “The Christian Imagination.” Note that this is a dense book!
On the reasons for the formation of the Confederacy, read Alexander Stephens’ “Cornerstone Speech.”