Racism Essay, Research Paper
Racism, as defined in our class, is the belief that one race of people is humanly superior to another race of people due to a feeling of superiority that gives them the right to dominate the other group. Throughout the semester, the material we have studied shows the significance of racism in American history, specifically during the time surrounding the Civil War. Also important is the way that racism is presented in American history textbooks, as these textbooks are the primary source by which young Americans will learn their history. The book, Lies My Teacher Taught Me by James Loewen, addresses the issue of oppression and white racism and the ways in which these topics are virtually ignored by American history textbooks. He starts by describing the underlying theme of American history which he says is “the domination of black America by white America.” (Loewen 2) This theme is shown by relating events in history such as the formation of the Republican Party, the first override of a Presidential veto, and Reconstruction, to slavery and racism. The relationship between such events and racism are not addressed in American history textbooks and Loewen shows the importance of understanding this relationship in his book. Chapter five of Loewen’s book is entitled “Gone with the Wind.” In this chapter he uses the novel Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell as a model for the present day interpretation of slavery by many Americans. This novel views slavery as “an ideal social structure whose passing was to be lamented.” (Loewen 4) Loewen maintains that until the Civil Rights Movement, this was the basis of our history textbooks. Today there has been an increase in the discussion of slavery and even an admission that slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War in many American history textbooks. However, when the issue of slavery is addressed in history, the emotion portrayed is that of sadness and not anger over the evils done to an entire race of people. Slavery is covered as a news story, simply giving the general facts of the practice and not the details of exactly who is responsible for this atrocity or its effects on the American people, black and white. The textbooks also tend to ignore the participation in slavery by the northern states, such as the fact that the first colony to legalize slavery was Massachusetts and that Wall Street was initially a market place for slaves. (Loewen 6) The authors of American history textbooks also refuse to acknowledge that some of our own American heros, such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, were some of the main players in the institution of slavery and that this practice by government officials was openly accepted by society at that time. Just as important than the actual history itself, is the impact of slavery on America today which is also not included in American history textbooks. Loewen notes that the results of the practice of slavery lead us to believe that it is appropriate and even natural for whites to be on the top of the social and economic ladder and blacks on the bottom. (Loewen 8) This is due to the fact that history currently tells us that Europe was able to dominate the western world because they were smarter and more advanced than the Africans that they enslaved. This is what created the whole notion of racism towards blacks which increased throughout history. Some of the other material that we studied this semester showed how white racism played a significant role in the existence of slavery. One book in particular is a primary source of the institution of slavery and its relation to white racism. This work is the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, written by himself. In one part of this book, Douglass talks about a mistress that he had in Baltimore who was welcoming to him at first, even teaching him how to read and write. She later became more brutal in her treatment towards him. Douglass appears to attribute this change to the effects of the institution of slavery. It is the institution and its affect on society which corrupts people because there were no constraints. Racism is able to prevail at this time because there is no one or nothing able to enforce otherwise. It is the influence of racism in society that transforms this once nice mistress into the evil slave owner that she later became. Racism is what allows slavery exist with virtually no moral boundaries in the south. Racism is the primary factor for the extreme brutality, inhumane treatment, emotional abuse, destruction of families, and removal of the rights of slaves at that time. This is because it is racism that allows the white people to believe that it is their God given right to dominate blacks in any way that they see fit. The role that racism played in slavery is also seen in the various articles we read this semester. An important one is “The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858.” In these debates, Senator Douglas repeatedly refers to blacks as “inferior” and says that because of the inferiority of the black man, that “he ought to be a slave.” ( Lincoln-Douglas 46) Another article is from the book Slavery: Opposing Viewpoints. This article points out two clauses in the Constitution that separate “the Negro race as a separate class of persons, and show clearly that they were not regarded as a portion of the people or citizens of the government.” (Slavery 227) This reference is a justification for the existence of slavery and is a result of the racist attitudes of that time. White racism also plays a significant role in the northern response to the existence of slavery during the period of 1830-1860. This is shown through the political history of the United States since the framing of the Constitution. During the Constitutional Convention, many compromises were made to accommodate and accept slavery as a legal practice in the United States. One of these compromises was the Three-Fifths Compromise which recognized slaves as three-fifths of a person for census purposes. Later compromises, such as the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, at first appear to show that the north wanted to abolish slavery (which is also taught in high school textbooks). These acts only show the racism by both the north and the south in the area of slavery. The general northern response to slavery was not to abolish it, but to keep it in the south due to economic competition, fear of slave revolts, anticipated rise in the price of land due to the high demand of slave oweners, and the unwillingness of many white people to live near slaves. Another important instance in which white racism played a significant role was in President Lincoln’s handling of the Civil War. It is still debatable whether Lincoln’s actions, or lack thereof, were motivated by personal opinion or by public influence. From the various discussions in class on this issue, it is safe to conclude that it is a combination of both. Whatever Lincoln’s personal convictions on slavery were, as a politician his job was to serve the American people who he represented. With this in mind, one must remember the attitudes of the American people at that time. On the surface they appeared to be divided between slave holders, abolitionists, and those who opposed the spread of slavery. In reality, the opinions of these groups were all based on the same “logic” of white racism. Racism again being the belief that one race of people is humanly superior to another. All of the people at that time were influenced by this belief as it was the status quo of that time. If this were not the case, then there would have been a fight for the equal rights of blacks and not just the abolition or limit of slavery. Lincoln himself, claimed many times that he was not an abolitionist, but wanted to limit slavery to the south where it already existed. This statement alone shows the influence of white racism on President Lincoln. He recognizes his belief that he not only as President, but as a white man has the right to determine the future of black people due to his superiority over them. This plays an extremely significant role over his handling of the Civil War. Lincoln’s reluctance to even go to war over the issue of slavery, let blacks fight for the north, and issue the Emancipation Proclamation, show that he was heavily influenced by his own racist feelings and that of the racist American public of whom he was elected to serve. In Leon Litwack’s book, Been in the Storm so Long: The Aftermath of Slavery, Litwack looks at the racist attitudes that continued to prevail at the time that Lincoln finally did issue the Emancipation Proclemation. Litwacik shows these attitudes not only in the southern residents, but in the northern soldiers who came to the south to enforce Emancipation. Litwack points out that “the average Union soldier brought with him certain notions about black people, based largely on the racial beliefs and exaggerated caricatures with which he had been inculcated since childhood.” (Litwack 125) This shows that the racist notions of that time were not limited to the south as is widely believed, but were also instituted in the north for some time. This racist attitudes of the northern soldiers were even believed to have been increased because many people in the north blamed blacks as the primary cause of the war. Union soldiers also viewed blacks as “an inferior being with few if any legitimate human emotions-at least none that had to be considered with any degree of sensitivity.” (Litwack 128) This quote alone not only restates the fact that racism was prevalent in the north, but also describes the what the emotion of racism actually is. Of course, Litwack also shows the racist attitudes of the southern whites. This is shown not only by the refusal to give up their slaves, but through their lack of understanding in the whole issue of Emancipation. One southern white woman posed the question “If they don’t belong to me, whose are they?” (Litwack 179) The question referred to the racist belief that the “inferior race” had to belong to someone and could not simply be free. In the south they had no concept of what it was like to have free black people around. They did not even understand why the slaves would have any desire to become free because white people did not see any way that blacks could survive alone. Litwack’s point throughout the first few chapters of his book is to show the racist attitudes of both the northern and southern white people as seen by the blacks who were present at that time. His whole concept of portraying history through the eyes of black people is something that American history textbooks are lacking. This is why Loewen maintains that if “there is one issue in the present which authors should relate the history they tell, the issue is racism.” Racism can not be explained by the side that is racist. The only way that racism in history can be explained is through the experience of the oppressed, such as in Litwack’s book, Douglass’s narrative, and the articles written by former slaves and abolitionists. The social and economic inferiority that was imposed on blacks throughout history has been instilled in whites to this day. This proves wrong the misconception that simply because slavery is over, racism is also over. Loewen’s overall point is that in order to end racism, students must first understand what causes racism. It is not skin color itself that causes racism, but the attitudes and ignorance of people throughout history that does. The taking and destroying of land from an entire people and then enslaving another group of people to work that land causes racism. The knowledge that a one race of people was able to completely dominate another group of people without any intervention gives the illusion of superiority and supremacy. This is racism. Loewen also maintains that “as long as history textbooks make white racism invisible in the nineteenth century, neither they nor the student who use them will be able to analyze racism intelligently in the present.” By this he means that there is no way that students can understand or even define racism without seeing its history. This is because the very core of black and white relations lies in the racism that was prevalent as far back as our founding fathers. If students of today do not even know that the founding fathers of this very country were slave owners, how can they understand the racist notions that have been handed down from generation to generation? Loewen’s point is not only valid but is also a serious problem in America today. Racism is what is hindering the progress of America in every aspect because racism affects every aspect of American lives. In order for this country to move forward, racism must be abolished in our minds, not just in law. However, racism can not be abolished or even addressed if there is not a clear understanding of it’s definition and evolvement over time. This can only be attained through a clear, concise, and accurate account of American history that is told as everyone’s story, not just His-Story.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave. Bedford Books. Boston, 1993. Dudley, William, ed. Slavery: Oppossing Viewpoints. Greenhaven Press, Inc. San Diego, 1992. Litwack, Leon. Been in the Storm so Long: The Aftermath of Slavery. Random House, Inc. New York, 1979. Loewen, James. Lies My Teacher Told Me. “Gone with the Wind” (publisher, copywrite date, and exact pages unknown because it was a handout)