Maybe It's Time for White People to Admit the U.S. Was Founded on Racism
Contradiction, Justification, and the Birth of a Nation
When the United States' Constitution was drafted, perhaps the most poignant and pertinent portion of it was the line that reads: “…all men are created equal.” These words are the very basis of what is generally understood to be the philosophy of the United States. Except, there was a problem with the statement. Many rights and privileges were not actually extended to all men or people. In fact, only white men could own land, vote, or hold political office. How could the government justify what appeared to be a great contradiction between what was supposed to be and what actually was?
At that point in history, legally supported inequality was justified by scientists. Research was conducted to yield conclusions that served to “explain” why non-whites were excluded from the rights that were supposed to belong to everyone. Scholars posited that, through cranial measurements and other similar forms of research, it could be deduced that people with skin tones other than white were both physically and mentally inferior.
So, “all men” is a statement that could not apply to people of color (PoC) because they were not considered to be valid in the same ways as white men. Based on this so-called research, it seemed that white domination and the inferiority of all other people was a scientific or evolutionary inevitability. By this doctrine, white people were merely expressing the inherent traits of dominance, intelligence, and strength that had been given to them by God.
The Dred Scott ruling of 1857 also served to refute any claim of hypocrisy in the constitution by declaring that people of African ancestry could never become U.S. citizens. Therefore, they did not have to be treated with equality because they didn’t “count” anyway.
The first World’s Fair assisted in further perpetuating this idea of white superiority with its "evolutionary progress" display. The exhibit compared various cultures and societies around the world by placing them in order of advancement. Those cultures in which people had dark skin were placed at the beginning and white people were placed at the end, suggesting that white cultures were superior from an evolutionary standpoint.
Throughout the 1800’s, immigrants from several different countries flowed into the U.S. How would these new and differing people fit in to the framework of white superiority that had been established? Many baseless and unsubstantiated scientific claims were created to respond to the increasing variety of immigrants, and to answer such questions.
A biologist named Davenport claimed that as the blood of U.S. citizens mixed with the blood of immigrants, Americans would gradually become darker, smaller, and more prone to undesirable behaviors and criminal activities. Around the same time, a group known as the American Breeder’s Association made similar claims. According to the ABA, non-white races had inherent genetic tendencies toward criminal behavior.
After the Civil War, Black people were given citizenship eligibility, but they still were not allowed to vote, and they were not afforded the same rights as white people. In order to enjoy the full array of the rights and rewards that come with citizenship, one needed to be white. The line between who was white and who was not became less clear as people of all shades continued to arrive in the U.S., so courts began to hand down more specific rulings to differentiate who did and didn’t qualify as white.
In 1923, an Indian man by the name of Thind brought before the Supreme Court the very same “scientific evidence” that had classified whites as superior to prove that Indians were included in the Caucasian race. The court then moved the goalpost by ruling that whiteness could not actually be determined through science, but was a subjective thing that the “common man” could see. They claimed that while he may indeed be Caucasian, Thind was not white.
The repercussions of this verdict included the stripping of citizenship from Asian people who had already been naturalized. By law, people of Asian descent could not be Americans. These people were forced to bear the label of “foreigner,” no matter where they were born, what they accomplished, or how they behaved.
Fueling the Fires of Division and Inequality
What happened after World War II further cemented the idea of separation and inequality. Thousands of soldiers returned home to President Roosevelt’s Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (which was casually known as the "G.I. Bill"). The bill provided, among other things, easily accessible mortgage loans for servicemen.
Entire towns were constructed in speculation of the returning soldiers taking advantage of the bill. Many of the people who served in the war were Black Americans who rightfully expected to enjoy the benefits of the new legislation. These people all but ran into a brick wall.
Not only were homes in these neighborhoods sold exclusively to whites, but it was highly unlikely that a Black person could even obtain a loan in the first place. Of course, the lack of access and denial of benefits to Black people was considered to be a basic aspect of running a business. At the time, national home appraisal guidelines stated that allowing Black people to reside in white neighborhoods would decrease the property values.
During this time, the government spent $120 billion on new housing, of which only about 2% went to non-whites. Home ownership became just another aspect of “whiteness.” Black people, however, did qualify for housing in urban projects, a.k.a “vertical ghettos.” If a Black family did manage to procure a home in a white neighborhood, the typical reaction of their new white neighbors was to relocate, which eventually opened up space for more Black families, which actually brought down property values in the area.
It is not hard to see where the “there goes the neighborhood” attitude that white people held towards PoC originated. It certainly wasn't due to some inherent deficit in the character or behavior of PoC. It was orchestrated by the powers-that-be. It was deliberate, and it was systematic.
Once combined, the bunk science, the prejudiced policies and laws, and the intentional exclusion fed into the creation of an environment where “we” are separate from “them,” and depending upon which group you belong to, your experience living in this country will vary greatly.
It is not surprising to hear an elderly white person speak of PoC in a negative manner as if it is just common knowledge that “those people” all behave in a certain way. These ideas were purposely planted and cultivated so that the illusion of true democracy could be sustained, and so white people wouldn't have to think too hard about racism. This also enabled white people to assuage any guilt for benefiting from a rigged system.
Author Ruth Wren, in “Everywhere I Go I’m White: Facing the Responsibility of White Privilege,” shares an excerpt from an article by Gary R. Howard that pierces the heart with its truth. He says, “…whites have had the power and the privilege to write our own versions of history… and…have institutionalized our ignorance in the name of education.” If you are a white American and that doesn't hit you in some kind of way, read it over again and again until it does.
© 2018 Arby Bourne