The Legacy of White Supremacy

NOT a contradiction

is his lifeI came across an article in Foreign Affairs magazine from January/February 2018 called America’s Original Sin. It is subtitled Slavery and the Legacy of White Supremacy.

It’s a useful article, written by Harvard professor Annette Gordon-Reed, describing historical inequities. It’s all knowable stuff but given the misinformation and disinformation out there, it was clarifying.

It starts off with the discussion about the taint of our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence, composed by slave-owner Thomas Jefferson and “released into 13 colonies that all, to one degree or another, allowed slavery.” The Constitution, in addition to the 3/5 compromise, “prohibited the abolition of the slave trade before 1808.”

“The most significant fact about American slavery, one it did not share with other prominent ancient slave systems, was its basis in race. Slavery in the United States created a defined, recognizable group of people and placed them outside society. And unlike the indentured servitude of European immigrants to North America, slavery was an inherited condition.

“As a result, American slavery was tied inexorably to white dominance. Even people of African descent who were freed for one reason or another suffered under the weight of the white supremacy that racially based slavery entrenched in American society… ” White supremacy was codified in both slave and so-called free states.

NOT a contradiction

I think this observation is most significant: “The historian Edmund Morgan… argued that racially based slavery, rather than being a contradiction in a country that prided itself on freedom, made the freedom of white people possible. The system that put black people at the bottom of the social heap tamped down class divisions among whites.

“Without a large group of people who would always rank below the level of even the poorest, most disaffected white person, white unity could not have persisted. Grappling with the legacy of slavery, therefore, requires grappling with the white supremacy that preceded the founding of the United States and persisted after the end of legalized slavery.”

Why we STILL talk about race in America

“The ability to append enslaved status to a set of generally identifiable physical characteristics — skin color, hair, facial features — made it easy to tell who was eligible for slavery and to maintain a system of social control over the enslaved. It also made it easy to continue organized oppression” – in both the North AND the South – “after the 13th Amendment ended legal slavery in 1865.”

Annette Gordon-Reed notes that Reconstruction “was seen as a nightmare by many white Southerners… Rather than bring free blacks into society, with the hope of moving the entire region forward, they chose to move backward, to a situation as close to slavery as legally possible…

“In a reversal of the maxim that history is written by the victors, the losing side in the Civil War got to tell the story of their slave society in ways favorable to them, through books, movies, and other popular entertainment. American culture accepted the story that apologists for the Confederacy told about Southern whites and Southern blacks.”

You should read the whole article if you can. It addresses Irish immigration, Confederate statues, and Dylann Roof, among other topics. I’ve become convinced that America needs to look more at that century AFTER the Civil War, when many of the most egregious acts of bigotry occurred.