Where race comes from
The concept of race is not rooted in science.
- Many people over the past few hundred years have tried to use science to add legitimacy to racist beliefs (e.g., by measuring the skull sizes of whites and non-whites). But nothing has stood up under scrutiny (claims about people of color having a smaller brain size or lower intelligence due to a high percentage of Neanderthal DNA have been soundly debunked).
- The Human Genome Project revealed that all humans are 99.9% the same, genetically. There’s more genetic diversity in a flock of penguins than in humans of different races
- There is no single genetic variant that all people of African descent have and all people of European descent do not, and vice-versa. In fact, Stanford and Harvard studies have shown greater differences in genetic diversity among some groups of white people than between groups of white people and people of African or Asian ancestry
- Why then do people from some areas have light skin and people from other areas have dark skin? It's a surprisingly complex answer, even with the latest research in genetics at our disposal. Bottom line: Sarah Tishkoff, a Unviersity of Pennsylvania geneticist who specializes in this field, says, "One of the traits that most people would associate with race—skin color—is a terrible classifier"
- This belief that different races are fundamentally different is not only dangerous in creating negative biases and stereotypes, but also in less obvious ways too. For example, cystic fibrosis is underdiagnosed in people of African ancestry because it’s thought of as a “white” disease
Race is a social construct (i.e., it was invented).
- The practice of slavery goes back thousands of years. It's been common throughout human history for groups of humans to look down on other groups that were different
- But, there was a distinct shift when the concept of "race" was invented. Before then, humans looked down on other groups not by hereditary (genetically inhereted) traits like skin color but rather by where they were from
- For example, the ancient Greeks called anyone from outside Greece a "barbarian," but that label included people with both light skin and dark skin. It wasn't about what they looked like but simply that they were from a different area and weren't Greek
- There was no concept of "whiteness"—you were a Dutchman, an Englishman, etc. but not "white" or "non-white"
- That all changed when the idea of race was invented
- Note: Race might have been invented, but it still has very real consequences today. The point here is not to be color-blind. Rather, it's to notice that people of different races have very different experiences in this country, but it didn't have to be that way. It was designed that way. More on this below
The concept of race was invented by Europeans specifically to justify enslaving other groups of people.
- The concept of race was invented in the 1450s by a Portuguese writer, Gomes de Zurara
- European slave traders had a problem when they began collecting slaves from Africa: They wanted some way to be able to treat them as a fundamentally different and inferior type of human so that slavery could be morally justified. The problem was that there was a lot of physical variety among Africans: for example, some had lighter skin tones and some darker. So, how could these slave traders group them all into the same category?
- Gomes de Zurara decided to describe the Africans as a bestial race of humans lacking God, and he came up with the idea of calling them "black." His story would be that the traders were merely enslaving them in order to introduce them to God
- While this was the invention of the term "black" to describe a group of people, it wouldn't be until the 1600s (nearly 150 years later) that the term "white" would be commonly used in relation to race
It’s not that people were already racist, saw black people, and decided it was ok to enslave them because they were inferior.
Rather, the Europeans were specifically looking for people to enslave. They chose Africans. And they made up a story to justify enslaving those people.
Then, Europeans (and European-Americans) growing up in a culture where that was normalized couldn’t help but develop racist attitudes.
Voyages like Columbus' weren't about discovery but about conquest. They didn't enslave the locals because they didn't understand them but because they wanted slave labor to gather resources for them.
Back in colonial America, rights were systematically taken away from people of color because the rich white plantation owners needed a consistent labor source.
Crucially, it wasn’t that whites were simply bigoted against people who looked different from them.
Rather, it was an intentional step-by-step strategy to take power away from non-white people to prevent them from escaping slavery.
- In the early 1600s, people of non-European descent in America weren’t treated much differently. But that changed in Virginia in 1640 when three indentured servants ran away together (an indentured servant was someone bound by a contract to work for someone else for a certain period of time). The two white runaways were given 4 extra years of servitude as punishment. But, for the very same crime, the black runaway was assigned "perpetual servitude"—i.e., full slavery for the rest of their life
- This was the first time that people of different races were explicitly treated differently under the law
- From then on, more and more laws were passed to cement non-whites into slavery and remove any loopholes they could use to escape the system. For example, it had been against the law to enslave Christians, but Virginia changed that law in the 1660’s to prevent people of color from getting baptized to escape slavery
- White women were also banned from having relationships with men of African or indigenous descent, while white men were free to have “relationships” with anyone they liked (including raping their slaves)
- In 1705, people of color were banned from owning weapons, and their masters were explicitly given permission to “correct” bad behavior through beatings. It was even considered acceptable for masters to beat their slaves so badly that they died
- In 1790, people of color across the entire country were banned from being citizens, meaning they couldn’t own land, vote, or have access to fair treatment under the law
Rich white plantation owners used the strategy of racism to trick poor white people into focusing on their race rather than their class.
In other words, they made their servants feel like it was better to be poor than to be black.
- Back to the 1600s again. Groups of indentured servants of different races kept banding together to revolt and try to escape. One example was Bacon's Rebellion in 1676
- They saw each other as a united group according to their class, so they weren't focused on some being white and some non-white
- The rich white plantation owners came up with a deliberate strategy to stop this from happening: They turned the servants against each other by giving the white ones small privileges so that they would start to think of themselves as better than the non-white ones
- Over time, instead of thinking "we're all in this together," the white servants began shifting their allegiance and seeing themselves as fundamentally different and superior to the non-white servants
- The rich landowners successfully shifted the divide to be by race rather than by class. This gave all white people—rich and poor alike—a group of "others" to look down on together
- This strategy continued to be used over the years. John C. Calhoun (who would later become vice president) delivered a speech in 1848 saying that the great division in society is not between rich and poor but between white and black. Calhoun even claimed that poor whites belong to the upper class and are treated as equals. All of this was a deliberate strategy to give poor whites a group of people to look down on as even worse off than themselves so that they would be less likely to rebel
These racist laws were specifically about power, and the idea of dividing people by race was simply to keep power in the hands of rich whites.
- This wasn't just about bigotry. It was about power
- If it were only about bigotry, the laws would have focused on removing power from people of African or Native descent. But that's not quite what happened
- In the 1600s, non-whites weren't allowed to own land. But, that was problematic for John Rolfe, the white plantation owner who married the historical Pocahontas. Their children became wealthy, powerful landowners, but the problem was that their mother had been Native American. So, a law was passed in 1680 known as the "Pocahontas exception" that literally said that no one with Native American blood was allowed to own land except descendents of John Rolfe and Pocahontas
- That law was even upheld again in 1924 when it was said that people with 1/16 Native blood (the amount held by these descendents by that point) could be considered white for legal purposes
- Again, this wasn't about one race being superior to another race. It was about one group having the power
- We'll be getting more into this later, but it's worth pointing out here that a power imbalance is part of the modern definition of racism used by scholars in the field (and many people in the social justice world)
- To understand why, consider again that the creation of race wasn't just about bigotry or misunderstanding but specifically about taking power away from people of color so that they could be controlled and used as labor with no chance of escape
- That's why it wouldn't be considered racism if, say, a black person said something to another black person that would be offensive if it had been said by a white person (because there's a power differential between white and black people that isn't present between two black people; and, that power differential is based not on something that was earned but on something that was inhereted and completely outside their control)
You might imagine that racist ideas and stereotypes were born out of negative patterns that white people noticed in other races.
The reality: Throughout American history, people of color were oppressed, negatively labeled, and actively forbidden from pursuing any opportunity to better themselves (or even to be their true selves).
Then, racist ideas and stereotypes came about based on white people only seeing people of color in those roles and circumstances.
- It might be tempting to imagine that racist stereotypes exist for a reason—perhaps that people of color tended to share some small negative attributes that were then blown out of proportion
- The truth is that many stereotypes did grow out of some perceived truth, but in a completely unfair way that was forced on people of color
- Throughout America's history of slavery, white people oppressed people of color in a myriad of ways. By dressing slaves in ill-fitting tattered clothes, limiting their freedom to improve their own lives in any way, taking away their dignity, and assigning them demeaning tasks to perform, it made it extraordinarily difficult for any person of color to ever present themselves in a positive, respectful light
- In other words, people of color in that era were systematically prevented from ever achieving anything beyond the most menial of jobs, and they were prevented from the dignity of feeling like real human beings with rights and options in life
- So, because white people were only ever exposed to people of color in those roles and circumstances, they began to unconsciously associate them with low status, and they developed racist stereotypes that people of color were dirty, stupid, or incapable of amounting to anything worthwhile
- Remember too that slaves typically received little or no education. At first it was merely discouraged, then it was eventually made illegal in much of the South because literate slaves were seen as more dangerous
- In short, it's not that a stereotype of people of color being "stupid" arose because many of them could only handle menial labor jobs, but rather that they were actively forbidden from getting better jobs or education, so menial jobs were the only option available to them—and white people stereotyped them anyway
Many of us are misinformed about some important facts of American history.
The Civil War was not fought by the South to preserve states' rights, nor was it fought by the North to free slaves for ethical reasons.
- First of all, the Civil War wasn't fought over the morality of slavery
- The North did not go to war to free the slaves in the South. Lincoln explicitly said that he had no desire to interfere with the institution of slavery in the South
- The Emancipation Proclamation was a tactic of war—it applied only to the Confederate states that were rebelling. In other words, Lincoln was "freeing" the slaves in the areas he didn't actually control hoping to seize enemy resources and subvert them from within
- For the first year of the war, the only stated goal was the preservation of the Union. With the Emancipation Proclamation, the focus shifted to make the war more about slavery. What was the benefit to the North?
- First, it paved the way for over 200,000 African-Americans to join Lincoln's army
- Second, it kept Europe out of the war. Britain and France had been considering supporting the Confederacy. But, since many Europeans were anti-slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation caused them to back off
- Why did the Confederate states originally want to secede? Were they fighting to preserve states' rights (as nearly half of Americans believe)?
- Yes, but in the opposite way that modern Confederate "apologists" claim and many people believe: The South seceded not because they wanted the right to make their own laws but because they disagreed with the laws that the Northern states had passed for themselves. In other words, the Confederate states actually opposed states' rights
- The Northern states had abolished slavery already and—even though Lincoln said he had no intention of interfering with the institution of slavery in the South—the Southern states were still worried because Lincoln had stated that he was personally against slavery
- Also, the South was upset that their slaves were able to escape to the North. The slave-owners weren't allowed to go after them to retrieve their "property" since slavery was illegal there. Similarly, slave-owners couldn't bring their slaves along with them (e.g., as cooks) when they visited a Northern state since the slaves would have to be freed
- In other words, the Southern slave-owning states went to war specifically to defend their right to keep slaves (and, the Northern states fought in order to keep the country together—Lincoln saw that as his sacred constitutional duty)
The Civil War didn't end as neatly as you might believe either.
And, the lynchings that began after that messy period were much worse than you probably realize (content warning: this section includes a couple of sentences describing the torture that occurred; it might not be pleasant, but I think it's important to read).
- After the Civil War, history might have unfolded along a more promising path for the newly-freed slaves (Lincoln had even been considering giving some African-Americans the right to vote); but, Lincoln's assassination changed everything
- Andrew Johnson, a Southerner and former slave owner, became president. He was more lenient toward the former Confederates, offering pardons and allowing Southern states to elect new governments. This allowed the Southern states to enact "black codes" which limited the freedom of African-Americans in the South and effectively forced them to return to work on the plantations
- After the war, Federal troops were meant to remain in the South to protect newly-freed people of color. But in 1876, only 11 years after the end of the war, Congress allowed those troops to be removed from the South
- This effectively allowed paramilitary white supremacist groups to terrorize people of color in the South through thousands of lynchings
- In the 1890s, the black codes evolved into the Jim Crow laws, which continued to revitalize the ideas of white supremacy and formalized the racist ideas that white people and black people were fundamentally different
- The Jim Crow laws were in place until 1968. They included rules about keeping black people separate from white people in terms of requiring them to attend separate schools, go to separate hospitals, sit in separate areas of buses, use separate bathrooms, etc. They also made it impossible for black people to vote or be on juries
- This institutionalized racism was also closely linked with lynchings (and not just of black people, but also of Asians, Mexicans, and Native Americans)
- When many white people today hear that word, they tend to associate it with hangings. That alone would be bad enough, but lynchings actually got much worse than that. For example, the lynching of a man in 1893 drew a crowd of 10,000 cheering spectators and involved nearly an hour of torture with red-hot iron brands and burning him alive
- It's important to point out that many lynch mob participants celebrated their participation. This typically wasn't something done in secret. Rather, many participants would take pictures of them and their friends smiling in front of dying and tortured people of color, and they would even send them out as postcards
- Even if lynchings themselves weren't technically legal, fewer than 1% of lynch mob participants were ever convicted, and even those were rarely even brought to trial
- In fact, the police would often actively assist in lynchings by leaving a black inmate's jail cell unguarded so they could be taken. Many police would even go further by actually participating in the lynch mob themselves (shortly, we'll go into more detail on why it's very reasonable that many people of color still fear the police today)
- Finally, it's important to note that lynchings still occur even in modern America. For example, in 1998, three white men offered to give a black man a ride and then proceeded to chain him to their truck and drive until he was torn to shreds
- And, even if lynchings are no longer as common as they once were, remember that 1968 wasn't very long ago. The Jim Crow era wasn't the distant past—it was well within the lifetimes of people who are alive today