Smearing Equity, Part I
Clever Racism and the Word Use that supports it
The innovation of American slavery was linking slavery to race, to skin color. We struggle with the consequences of that linkage to the present day.
I was taught in school that “everybody did it,” that slavery, although deplorable, was historically just part of the landscape, and that now we were past that. The Civil War had resolved the issue. The example given, at least the one that struck in my head, was of the Romans enslaving the Greeks—as teachers of Roman children. It took me decades to realize just how fatuous that example was. Mediterranean whites “enslaving” Mediterranean whites left open the promise of assimilation. The difference between the master and slave was cultural—it certainly was not based in any construction of inferiority of an identifiable group.
New World slavery was based on a different premise, the idea that slavery was acceptable because these dark-skinned beings brought to America in slave ships, stripped of their culture and separated from their families, were inherently sub-human. White supremacy over these inferior beings, this “other” identified by skin color, is a mental construct to justify American slavery.1 When we today recoil at “White Supremacy” we are recoiling at the doctrine that underlay the institution of our slaver past. White supremacy as a mindset was preached from pulpits, justified by passages taken from the Bible, and bolstered by some currents of what passed for “scientific” investigation (take phrenology as one example).
Many a Confederate soldier fought and died in the Civil War not just for the institution of slavery, but for the cause of inequality, of White Supremacy, that was imprinted in the minds of many Americans. Concepts die hard. The belief in inequality based on skin color did not suddenly evaporate with the end of the Civil War and the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment and its promise of “Equal Protection.” The underlying belief in White Supremacy, in racial inequality, fueled the Jim Crow era, both of the South and, more hidden, of the North.2
Meanwhile, public support for the maintenance of overt racial inequality was slowly waning. Lip service to racial “equality” grew into the concept of “separate but equal,” infamously upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). In Plessy the Court ruled that legally required racial segregation was consistent with the Fourteenth Amendment, as long as the segregated facilities could, by some stretch, be construed as “equal.” Plessy gave the White Supremacist conviction of inequality based on skin color new cover. “Separate but equal” allowed the notion that a doctrine of fundamental inequality was somehow transformed into equality. The meaning of words can twist and conceal the underlying mindset.
In 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court under Earl Warren ruled that racial segregation in schools was unconstitutional, even if the facilities were nominally “equal.” Brown v. Board was and is despised by those who believe in the inferiority of non-whites. The Brown decision led to the billboards I saw in my youth (and failed to understand) demanding to “Impeach Earl Warren.” The decision fueled the protests of “judicial activism” still heard today. Arguably, backlash against Brown fueled Goldwater’s and Nixon’s racist “Southern Strategy,” re-aligning many white southerners from the Democratic to the Republican party—and setting the stage for the dog-whistling racism of the Republican Party of Donald Trump.
Many white Americans remain conflicted about race, still subtly influenced by our forebears’ convictions of inherent white superiority that was the foundation of American slavery. Even so, few Americans today openly preach inequality in the form of White Supremacy, even as a belief in fundamental racial inequality may linger. The cultural needle has moved and word usage has changed since the 1950s. People who, in an earlier time, might have openly espoused white racial superiority or lobbied for overt racial segregation now insist they support “equality” and racial “colorblindness.”
Fueling a modern political campaign with calls for racial segregation and racial purity or openly suggesting that “equality of opportunity” should be scrapped would lose too many voters. The dog whistles need be sounded more quietly, so that only the “right” people hear them. Attacking racial justice and diversity training head on would be unpopular, so, instead, terms like “patriotic education,” “Marxism,” and “critical race theory” are adopted and used as code.
Stay tuned for “Smearing Equity Part II” on Wednesday. In the meantime,
Keep to the high ground,
Worries over, horror of, and laws prohibiting miscegenation, racial interbreeding, are a hold over of the need to maintain a class of supposedly inferior beings easily identifiable by their skin. The need to maintain the classification system, the othering, led, in the United States, to the “one drop rule,” by which anyone with traceable African heritage was identified with this inferior category of sub-humans worthy of enslavement.
That White Supremacy lived on as a mindset broadly through the United States is perhaps nowhere better exemplified than in President Woodrow Wilson’s screening in the White House of D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation (1916)”. The film glorified the Ku Klux Klan while fueling white fear by depicting Blacks as creatures of low intelligence and sexually aggressive against white women. If you haven’t seen that film and contemplated what it meant for Woodrow Wilson to watch it as the first ever film screened in the White House, I urge you to click the link. I can think of no more stark and ascendant example of the persistence of the White Supremacist mindset more than a half century after the Civil War.