Joel Wentz

contending for thoughtful Christianity

You Probably Weren't Taught This Stuff in School

Or, Why White People Can't Talk About Race (part 3)

This is part 3 of a series called “Why White People Can’t Talk About Race.” In the first post, I argued that rampant individualism makes it impossible for most White people to engage honestly with the idea that race-ism is a socio-cultural problem in America. The claim that America, as a society, is “race-ist” then needs to be backed up by history, and the second post was a brief survey of the frequently-overlooked racial components of our history up through the Civil War.

Again, my goal in all of this is to help us White folks understand how deeply racialized our own history is, not to senselessly “send people into a guilt trip,” but to help us all have better conversations about one of the most divisive topics of our time.

I ended the last post by taking on the common lie that the Civil War “wasn’t really about slavery.” Unfortunately the parts your history teacher probably skipped don’t end there…..

Slavery Didn’t End With Emancipation

We all know and love Abraham Lincoln. His life and presidency is a cornerstone of most history curricula, particularly focusing on moments like the Gettysburg Address and, especially relevant to this discussion, the Emancipation Proclamation, which famously freed slaves across the country.

Except that it didn’t.

Stop and think about this scenario: a country is founded and forcibly occupies lands on the basis of the settlers’ self-perceived racial-ethnic-social-religious superiority over the indigenous population. Very soon (around 1619) this country then begins forcibly importing slaves from Africa and building a robust economy on the free labor supplied by them. The less-than-human status of Africans was legitimized both by politicians who argued that the best social role for Africans was that of slaves, and by the dominant religious institution, who argued that the “race” was “cursed by God.” The government-shaping documents preserve the less-than status of African people. They cannot vote and are considered 3/5s of one person. The institution of slavery grows in power and social influence for 200 years, shaping the culture and economics of the country for all that time. Internationally, slavery is made illegal (1807) but this country continues to practice it. There’s simply too much money tied up in crops like cotton, which depend on the free labor of the now-millions of slaves in the population, and the institution still continues to grow. The inhuman and brutal practice of racialized slavery is not without controversy and dissenters, and this all reaches a fever pitch. A president is elected on the basis of his promise to fully end chattel slavery, and the country tears itself in half because the Southern states refuse to give up the practice. A brutal civil war ensues, in which more than 600,000 people are killed, and upon the Northern victory, the elected president issues a proclamation in which every slave is declared free.

Do you really think, especially from the perspective of the Southern states, after multiple centuries of building an economy and culture, all the while collectively easing your socially-shared-conscience with the understanding that African people were sub-human, then seceding from your country and going to war explicitly to perpetuate this racially-stratified society, then losing in this very war and being told by the winning President (whose election is part of the reason you left in the first place) that you had to immediately free the more-than-3-million slaves whose free labor formed the backbone of your economy and way of life, that you would just salute and say, “Ok, Mr. President! Whatever you say!”????

No, you wouldn’t. And unfortunately the South didn’t.

Instead, they set up systems like “sharecropping” and “debt peonage,” in which White business owners would “offer” to pay for the upfront fees for a Black person to work for them (equipment, transportation) under the promise that this worker would be free when they could “work off the debt.” Usually, though, through the “magic” of accounting, which, of course, the employee never had access to review, the debt just never seemed to get smaller.

Or, worse yet, were the “vagrancy laws,” that Southern states “coincidentally” passed in the years immediately after the Civil War. According to these laws, Black men could be walking home from a job at night, be stopped by police without reason and charged with “vagrancy.” The individual could be jailed and go to court on this charge, and even if they were found “not guilty,” they could be indebted for the legal fees incurred by the court system. And here’s where it gets really disgusting: this innocent person would be required to work off the debt under the “peonage” system briefly explained above, sometimes being sent under “convict leasing” laws to work in mines for the booming Southern coal industry.

In these mines, overwhelmingly filled with Black “convicts,” the workers would be shackled to their beds, worked tirelessly for obscene numbers of hours, and whipped and flogged by White bosses if they didn’t get the share of their work done. And yes, many men died in these situations.

Question: what’s the difference between “slavery” and the situation described above? Answer: nothing.

So, Emancipation was certainly a step forward. But let’s not kid ourselves, slavery absolutely, tragically, did not end with Lincoln.

It Gets Worse….

And, believe it or not, we haven’t yet hit the worst part of our racialized history as a country. The late 1800s and early 1900s are labeled the “nadir (lowest point) of race relations in America” by historians. Frankly, it’s at this point that our past can get a little overwhelming to take in as a White-Euro person, so if this is at all hard to read, remind yourself that it’s better to understand these things than to blindly ignore them, even (especially?) when it’s uncomfortable. Time and space don’t allow as much detail as I would like, but here are some of the reasons this is called the “nadir:”

Jim Crow Laws

For a period of time after the Civil War, federal troops occupied the formerly-Confederate states to facilitate a period of redevelopment and “reconstruction.” Some progress was certainly made during these years, but to appease frustrated Southern governments, a political deal was struck between Republicans and Democrats called the “Compromise of 1877,” which resulted in the removal of Federal troops from Southern States and ultimately a massive backwards leap in race relations, embodied by the so-called “Jim Crow Laws” that took hold in these same states, popularly understood as the legal reasons for “colored only” restaurants, train cars, and drinking fountains.

There’s no getting around it. Jim Crow laws were put in place to perpetuate “second-class” status for Black people right after they had just been freed from institutional slavery. Incidentally, official segregation of government offices happened under Woodrow Wilson in the early 1900s, the first post-Civil-War-Southern-President, who was vocally supportive of segregation policies.

The point is this: we like to talk about Abe Lincoln and Emancipation, but we like to ignore what happened right afterwards. Jim Crow laws were simply one example of the fierce backlash to the Emancipation of Black people that happened in this era, and they would not be officially repealed until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

The “Great Migration” & “Sundown Towns”

So many African-American people moved out of Southern States to the North and Midwest in such a short period of time during the “nadir” that the phenomenon was labeled the “Great Migration.” Essentially, the realities of culturally-intense Southern racism and the lack of economic opportunities after the Civil War combined to make a move to another city an obvious solution for many, many Black people. But the “Great Migration” would show that race-ism was not only a Southern problem.

Sometime during the “nadir,” the term “sundown town” became common parlance for any all-white town that actively refused to allow Black folks to move into the neighborhood. The term simply refers to the reality that any Black person caught there after sundown would be killed (ie. lynched). While such towns obviously existed in the South, they also represent the backlash of the North and Midwest to the sudden influx of people of color. Even socially-progressive New England has a history with this, and recently Goshen, Indiana publically acknowledged this tragic part of its past.

These social realities shaped the lived experience for generations of African-Americans, pressuring them to cloister in lower-socioeconomic-urban centers and essentially giving our cities the “shape” they still have to this day.

Lynchings and the KKK

What do you call it when people groups are suppressed by fear? When this fear is embodied in mob “justice,” which is known to publically execute members of the marginalized group in horrific ways, without due process or any semblance of a trial, for the express purpose of striking terror into other members of this people group, so they will “remember their place” in society? In other words, what is it called when people “believe in” fear as the best way to exert dominance over others?

I believe we call that terror-ism.

And White people were rampant terror-ists during the “nadir.” Statistics on lynchings are notoriously hard to nail down, but they range between 4K and 5K lynchings between 1880 and 1950. The peak seems to have been 1882, in which around 230 people were executed this way. Such lynchings were either done by hanging, shooting, burning, or public torture, and the victim’s families and friends simply had to endure, knowing that no government intervention was coming.

Yes, it was horrible.

And is it really surprising that a people group who endured this for decades would not be so quick to trust the same government and criminal justice system that let it happen?

And finally, a major proponent of lynchings and violence during this period was the recently-formed Ku Klux Klan, founded by disgruntled Confederate soldiers after the Civil War who were adamantly opposed to the direction the country was moving in. Frankly, I don’t want to devote much space in this series to the KKK, as they are rightly, publically understood to be an evil, heinous blot in American history. However, I do bring it up for two reasons: 1) the second wave of the Klan (re-founded in 1915) exercised such influence in political discourse and public policy for decades that they cannot be ignored; 2) the KKK did not spring out of a vacuum, but were yet another ingredient in the vicious cocktail of anti-Black race-ism in the “nadir.”

Attitudes Towards the Chinese

An image capturing the anti-Chinese political propaganda at the time of the Exclusion Act of 1882.

An image capturing the anti-Chinese political propaganda at the time of the Exclusion Act of 1882.

Though conversations about race in America largely focus on relations between White and Black people, unfortunately the “nadir” was also the point at which tensions reached a new high between White-Americans and the Chinese. In 1882, the American government passed the “Chinese Exclusion Act” to prohibit any further immigration from the Chinese people. This is especially significant because it marks the first time the federal government made such a restriction along ethnic-racial lines. As with any landmark legal decision, there are a multitude of complicated factors, but much of the discussion revolved around the fact that Chinese laborers were willing to work for much lower wages than American citizens, the impact they were having on the availability of jobs, and the stress their immigration might have on government resources (sound familiar?!).

The unintended consequences of this law were profound, including (but not limited to) the negative social attitudes towards Chinese people and the ways the law actually incentivized human smuggling in the following years. But remember that this is all happening in the midst of the lowest point between White and Black people in America, and I believe it sheds light on the ways America has always determined “White-Anglo” person to be the “ideal citizen,” if not in intent, certainly in public action.

The next post will catch us up to today, making the case that all of this isn’t just “in the past,” but has actually built the foundation of the home we are still living in.


*Further Reading & Resources

Essential reading on the post-Civil War era is Douglas Blackmon’s “Slavery By Another Name.”

As referenced in the previous post, James Loewen’s works: “Lies My Teacher Told Me” and “Lies Across America” cover all these topics.

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 ways the “Great Migration” impacts us today, see Ken Wytsma’s book “The Myth of Equality,” especially the chapter titled “How Our Cities Got Their Shape.”