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History has been a powerful tool in shaping our values and our behavior. Yet, quite often what many of us consider to be history is a significant distortion of our complex past–a biased amalgam of truth, half-truth, and outright distortion. In his book, First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of American Indian History, Professor Colin Calloway argues that American history has been “written and taught as a single story, a narrative of nation building and unending progress that united diverse participants. . . .in a single American experience”. Calloway continues that our history, if we accept the perspective of the great majority of historians, has been the “triumph” of a society “based on the principles of liberty and equality”. In recent years in particular Calloway and others have oncluded that this “narrative has generally ignored or dismissed people whose experiences and perspectives did not conform to this perceived epic of nation building”.
Nowhere has this been truer than in the way our society has dealt with race and racism. For those of us who are white, our perceptions about all people of color, their cultures, and their homelands, were indelibly and negatively impacted by racist “history”. “History” was often used to justify violence against people of color, vicious stereotypes, and the withholding of basic political, economic, social and intellectual rights and opportunities. Just as often it was used to deny that violence, stereotypes,
and inequities occurred or existed. The great majority of people of color, despite efforts by their families and institutions to provide an alternative perspective, were exposed to the same distorted “history”. While for whites history justified white supremacy and white privilege, people of color had to struggle to maintain a sense of identity and
worth in the face of a racist onslaught. Racist “history” was one of the factors that caused people of color in the United States to wrestle with the powerful impact of internalized oppression–the pressure to identify, in subtle and overt ways, with the judgments that the dominant society made about them. Clyde Warrior, a Ponca activist in the 1960′s spoke to this point in noting that American society makes Indian children feel unworthy. He went on to say “as you know, people who feel themselves to be unworthy and feel they cannot escape this unworthiness, often turn to drink, crime and self-destructive acts”. Warrior added that the great majority of Indians were poor, but perhaps ” our lack of reasonable choices, our lack of freedoms, our poverty of spirit, are connected to our material poverty”.
African, Hispanic, Asian, and Indian children had to wonder to what extent the continuous barrage of propaganda called history was true?* If not true, where was the evidence to refute it? When people of color and some whites provided evidence–both historical and from there own lives–to refute the established “history”, the dominant culture refused to acknowledge any revisions that challenged prevalent stereotypes and paradigms and threatened white supremacy and white privilege. A recent study noted that in the past fifteen years increased knowledge about DNA has convinced over 90% of
all scientists that “race” is a social construct and there are no significant differences among people with different skin color. Yet, the study also noted that most white Americans did not accept that.
History, as a Tool to Divide and Conquer
The history of the United States is full of examples of how white society has utilized simplistic and distorted historical interpretations to denigrate one or more populations of color , and to intentionally foster hostility and misunderstanding among people of color. A fairly current example is the myth of the “model minority.” According to the “model minority” thesis Asian Americans are gaining educational and financial success at a far more rapid rate than Indian, Hispanic, and African Americans. Why? According to the “model minority” mythology Asian Americans are working harder, saving their money, maintaining stable families, etc. The clear implication is that similar results could be obtained by other non-white populations if they emulated the “all-American” behavior of Asians. When the “model minority” idea emerged in the mid-1980′s politicians and the media alike, jumped on the bandwagon. In 1986 alone, Fortune, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, and the McNeill/Lehrer Report, among others, applauded Asians as “America’s Super Minority.” The term “model minority” quickly became ammunition for those who blamed African, Indian, and Hispanic Americans for their “failure” to take advantage of the opportunities supposedly available to everyone in the United States.
Ronald Takaki, a Japanese American historian at the University of California, has been one of several scholars who have challenged the “model minority” mythology. Takaki argues that Asian American success has been exaggerated and distorted. He notes that while some Asian Americans have been successful, many more are mired in poverty and are the victims of racist institutions and attitudes. Takaki, further states that the proponents of the “model minority” thesis have distorted the history of Asian Americans. He argues that the “model minority” argument incorrectly assumes that all people of color in the United States have had the same history. It ignores differences in experiences and
culture. Even if it can be successfully argued that a larger percentage of Asian Americans have had more success economically than Latino/a, Indian, and African Americans, it is unreasonable to attribute that success simply to harder work and more ambition. Complex historical factors, if taken into account, provide a very different analysis. That point is extremely important because European Americans have systematically ignored the significance of differences in culture, experience, and
history when making judgments about “others”. The results are distorted and simplistic
generalizations like the “model minority”. An additional, and in some cases intended result, is the development or continuation of conflict between and among people of color
Another dramatic example of how distorted history contributes to internalized oppression and conflict among peoples of color can be found in the powerful documentary the Color of Fear. In the documentary about race and racism in America, several men of color discuss negative stereotypes that their communities hold towards one another. The men also acknowledge that skin color is still (in the 1990′s) an issue in their communities–often lighter skin color is still highly valued. By the end of their discussion the men are unanimous in the belief that their communities (African, Hispanic, Indian, and Asian American) have been manipulated by attitudes that to a substantial degree come from the
dominant white society. They conclude that “when we are hostile to one another we bring all of us down and we strengthen white people and white supremacy”. The articipants in Color of Fear also express their concern about having their discussion about conflicts with one another and attitudes about skin color, in front of white people. They are very clear that historically whites have used conflicts among people of color, conflicts that whites have created, to rationalize white racism. The idea being that if it can be shown that people of color have ‘racist’ attitudes towards one another why blame white people for their beliefs?”
In recent years yet another way in which “history” as written and taught in the United States, has created problems for and among people of color has been the competition for the “margins” of American history–that small space allotted to address the lives and experiences of those that do not fit the “master narrative”. Since the 1950′s the history of African Americans slowly began to be included in history books and classes to a greater degree than before. Black history and the black experience filled up a good part of the “margin”. Still more recently, Indian history has begun to emerge from invisibility. That has been less true for Asian and Hispanic populations in the United States. This has become another divisive issue among people of color and among anti-racist whites as well.
American Racism: Does Acknowledging the Centrality of the Black Experience Diminish the Impact of Racism on Other People of Color?
I saw this issue emerge during a project with which I was associated several years ago. One aspect of the project involved study circles to discuss race and racism. The content of the study circle discussions focused on the African American experience. A number of participants supported that focus, arguing that while all people of color have been victimized by racism in the United States, black people have been the most visible victims of racist oppression and stereotyping. They expressed their strong belief that in order to understand racism in America the centrality of the black experience had to be acknowledged and understood. Others just as emphatically argued that if the discussion centered on the oppression of black people it would detract from the experiences of Indian, Asian, and Hispanic Americans and the ways in which racism has devastated those communities. They feared that any efforts to understand racism that makes the black experience central cannot accurately reflect the reality of American racism. For them, any discussion of racism had to be inclusive. How do those of us who want to understand race and racism in the United States deal with this issue? It’s that question
that I want to focus on in the remainder of this essay.
Balancing the Centrality of the Black Experience and the Importance of Inclusiveness When Examining Racism in the United States
Racism in the United States has never been only a black-white issue. Racism helped to determine government policies and individual behavior toward Indians early in this nation’s history–policies and behavior that were catastrophic in its impact on Indian land and culture. People from Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America, the Middle East, China, Japan and Southeast Asia have all experienced the destructive impact of racist values, behaviors, institutions and policies in more than a century and a half of this nation’s history. Even some white Europeans were affected by attitudes and behaviors that were, for a time, racist in nature. Any serious effort to understand racism in the United States must include all of these stories and how they intersect.
However, it is also true that, for a variety of reasons, white Americans made black Americans the central minority in the United States and that has had important consequences. When the Europeans first encountered Indians and Africans they had similar reactions. Europeans and American colonizers were very aware of the differences in culture between themselves and these “others.” Whites, particularly the English, were also affected by differences in color. Slowly, between the mid-sixteenth and the mid- nineteenth centuries, differences in culture and skin color would justify a doctrine of white supremacy as Europeans, and later Americans, increasingly sought to rationalize conquest, control, and enslavement of people of color. During this period both Indians and Africans were considered inferior races and both were exploited to satisfy European and American objectives.
Yet, with regard to racial attitudes and perceptions, Africans and African Americans began to have a central place. There are a number of reasons for suggesting that this occurred but I want to emphasize two of them. First, beliefs about skin color had a dramatic impact on the English, the European culture that would come to dominate in colonial America and the United States. In Shakespeare’s time the dictionary defined the color black as : “deeply stained with dirt….foul…dark or deadly…sinister…malignant ….wicked”–twenty-six negative connotations in all. Much later a descendant of Scotch-Irish immigrants wrote “….the first difference that strikes us is that of color….and is this difference of no importance?….Are not the fine mixtures of red and white preferable….to that immovable veil of black that covers the emotions of the other race?” In that statement, Thomas Jefferson, reflected the 18th century perspective of the great majority of white Americans, North and South. In Notes on My Native Virginia he described blacks as inherently less beautiful than whites. (It is no less significant that Jefferson also stated his belief that black people were less intelligent than whites or Indians). By Jefferson’s time color had become a major determiner of status in the United States. Dark skin was considered a sign of inferiority and the darker the complexion the more critical the judgment. Indians were not white, but they were not black either. Also many white people, like Thomas Jefferson, came to believe that Indians could be Assimilated-that with “proper training” they could become “white”. The sons and daughters of Africa
Second, while anyone reading an honest version of our history between 1600 and 1890 cannot doubt that many white Americans believed Indians were “savages” and felt intense hatred towards them, interactions between Indians and European Americans occurred in a very different context from black-white interactions. Indian peoples were separate nations in the Western hemisphere and for a long time many of them were strong enough to hold off the Europeans, American colonists, and after the American Revolution, the United States. At times debates took place over whether the Indians
were actually nations with the right to self-determination and the right to the land they occupied. Despite the debates, colonial and US policy were consistent and Indian nations were exterminated, dispersed, or removed from their lands and forced onto reservations. Racist rationales to justify this country’s “Indian policy” continued to exist, but by the 1830′s, for most Americans East of the Mississippi, Indians became a small, nonthreatening, population. By the end of the 1880′s a similar conclusion can be drawn about much of the area West of the Mississippi. Unquestionably, Indians in the United States would continue to be faced with a powerful and systematic effort to destroy their
culture and their identity and to exploit and occupy their resources and land. Policies by federal and state governments, almost always in collaboration with private business interests, would exploit Indian land and resources in violation of treaty and human rights. Those efforts continue to the present. I think it is fair to say that no population within the United States has been treated more appallingly than the first inhabitants of this continent. Yet, as each successive wave of settlers and the American government moved westward, the Indian presence and the Indian as an adversary diminished in more and more of the United States. Indians did not exist for most Americans or they were not perceived as a threat or an obstacle to others. In time they were even romanticized and idealized by many whites.
The African American experience has been dramatically different. While Indians diminished in number and were increasingly isolated, African Americans increased in number and lived among whites. As early as the 1640′s slavery was evolving in colonial America. By the early 19th century enslaved people had become “property” in the eyes of the white South and most white Northerners agreed or at least acquiesced in that judgement. At a time, the mid-19th century, when the remaining Indian populations comprised several hundred thousand people, the African American population was
approaching five million. Increasingly, white society and white Americans felt the need to dehumanize black Americans in order to “prove” that the growing enslaved population was in fact no better than property “that black people had no souls and were meant by God to be a “mudsill” population whose menial labor was essential to support the efforts of the superior white culture. White America also had to justify a totalitarian system of physical and psychological control and abuse by arguing that enslaved African Americans were a recalcitrant and potentially rebellious population. That took a great
deal of effort since slavery was in every conceivable way the antithesis of the values expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the values of a “democratic” system that supposedly characterized the nation’s belief system.
A profound result of this effort was the creation of a vicious combination of stereotypes. One was “Sambo”– a childlike, lazy, shuffling, irresponsible, dishonest, untruthful, and hedonistic male. A second was “mammy”–the overweight, jovial, good-natured, and appreciative nanny and female servant for white folks. Third, another female image–promiscuous, passionate, exotic, seductive and dangerous-the reason so many white men raped black women. Fourth was the lustful, hard-drinking, and criminally inclined black male–a sexual threat to white women and to civilized society- a stereotype that would be a large part of the justification for the lynching of black men in America. Finally, there was the loyal and loving black person (glorified by Hollywood in movies like Gone With the Wind and countless others) who accepted, and even appreciated his/her situation and
would lay down his or her life for the master or mistress or boss–the white fantasy which helped to deny the vicious nature of slavery and Jim Crow. The documentary Ethnic Notions and Director Spike Lee’s recent film Bamboozled, provide detailed evidence of how common and universal the racial stereotypes defining black Americans were and how indelibly they were woven into the fabric of American thinking about race.
Consequently, by the middle and end of the nineteenth century when new immigrant populations entered the United States, black Americans had become the standard for determining ” inferior” races of people. American political leaders in the North and the South, the Supreme Court of the United States, and every important institution in the society participated in the creation of that standard and they would continue to do so for decades. Black Americans became the standard against which the racial inferiority or superiority of all would be measured.
The White “Others”
Other populations labeled “undesirable” by the dominant white culture began to enter the United States in significant numbers around the middle of the nineteenth century. The first of these groups, the Irish, had filtered in during the 17th and 18th centuries. However, between 1815 and 1920 about five and one-half million Irish entered the United States. A people who had been brutally conquered by England, many Irish saw parallels between themselves and enslaved African Americans and the earliest Irish immigrants often supported the abolition of slavery. In 1842 thousands of Irish immigrants signed a petition calling for the Irish to “treat the colored people as your equals”. Once in the United States, however, Irish immigrants found themselves described as “apelike” and “a race of savages” whose intelligence was at the level of blacks. They were often referred to as “Irish niggers”. Irish men and women provided labor for roads, canals, and railroads and worked in factories and domestic service. They found themselves at the bottom of the economic ladder competing for jobs against
enslaved and “free” blacks, and by the 1850′s, Chinese immigrants as well. As they competed with blacks and bristled at the stereotypes linking them with African Americans, the Irish began to emphasize their whiteness. Faced with nativist hatred towards them as foreigners they attempted to become Americans, in part, by claiming membership in the white race. Historian, Ronald Takaki, notes that “the victims of English repression and prejudice in Ireland redirected their rage against the people who were most victimized in the United States”. The once anti-slavery Irish became one of the most pro-slavery populations in America. Over time the Irish worked hard, became citizens, gained the right to vote and the opportunity for education. Slowly, they became integrated into the mainstream American culture. They could do so not because they worked harder than others but because they were white and they were European.
Other white, ethnic, Catholic, immigrant populations mainly from Eastern, Central, and Southern Europe would also face intense hostility in the United States. They too found themselves in competition with enslaved and “free” blacks, as well as Chinese, Japanese and Mexican workers. Jewish immigrants, many from Germany, Poland, and Russia, faced the same hardships and had to deal with a long history of anti-Jewish bigotry as well. Like the Irish, all of these populations were confronted with the fact that the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were times of intense racial identification. Pseudo-scientists were declaring racial distinctions not only between whites and
people of color but among whites. For a time Italians, Poles, Greeks, Jews, and other European populations were perceived as racially inferior and efforts were made to limit their access to the United States for fear that they would “mongrelize” the Anglo-Saxon race. Yet, despite the racist and ethnocentric hysteria that existed in the United States during this period, and despite the major hardships they faced, these white Europeans populations, they too worked hard, made gains, and moved forward. In time, the dominant society would distinguish between them and people of color–particularly African Americans. The negative stereotypes of these white immigrants disappeared
slowly and some did not always disappear but opportunities for political, economic and social advancement increased. They had the same powerful advantages that the Irish claimed–they were European and they were white. If you were white and European you could assimilate. If you were white you immediately had a degree of white privilege and you could aspire to more.
The experience for non-European immigrants was always different from that of the “undesirable” Europeans. Mexican people, the first Latino population in what had become the United States, were profoundly affected when the boundaries of Mexico and the United States were altered following the United States and Mexican war which ended in 1848. (While in this country we refer to the war as the Mexican-American War, the country that is considered the aggressor should be identified first.) Thousands of Mexicans had land in what became Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California and
chose to stay amid promises that their land would be safe and they would have opportunities to become citizens. Those promises were broken. White Americans already had a low opinion of Mexico and Mexicans prior to the war. Once Mexicans became part of this country the stereotypes hardened into racism. The first of many Hispanic populations that would emigrate to the U.S., Mexicans were characterized as “an idle thriftless people, who. . . lacked the enterprise and calculating mentality” of Anglo Saxons. The fact that Mexicans were a mixture of Indian and Spanish culture and blood (and African as well) was used to justify racist policies, attitudes and actions
directed against them. In 1849 the Anglo legislature in California passed an anti-vagrancy act called the “Greaser Act.” The act defined vagrants as “all persons commonly known as ‘Greasers’ or the issue of Spanish or Indian blood.” In the 1890′s Texas laws deprived Mexican Americans and African Americans of the right to vote by creating poll taxes and white primaries. Other efforts in California and the Southwest denied Mexican Americans their lands. Like white immigrants Mexicans worked hard
on farms, in mines, as domestics, and more. Entry into jobs that required more education and particular training would come far more slowly due to the impact of racism. They organized unions, on occasion with Japanese workers. As did the European immigrants and their children, they contributed in very important ways to the growth of this nation. But unlike white immigrants, Mexicans were linked to blacks and Indians. The negative stereotypes did not diminish. The “Jim Crow” laws that were created to exploit and control black Americans were often used against Mexican Americans. As hard as they worked, as much as they tried to “fit in”, they could not. They were, according to one white grower, “natural farm laborers” just as blacks were “natural slaves.” Other people of color—whether from Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Salvador, or elsewhere in the Caribbean, Central or South America—faced similar degrees of racism and the resulting violence, exploitation, and denial of opportunity. Their Spanish or Portuguese heritage, while European, was viewed negatively in Anglo-Saxon America. The opportunities eventually made available to white, non-Latin Europeans came far more slowly to Latino peoples. Only in recent decades has the prejudice against Latino Americans begun to diminish in
some ways. Yet, by no means have the great majority of Hispanic Americans gained the opportunities and privileges of the great majority of whites.
Asian entry into the United States began in 1849 when Chinese immigrants began to come in fairly large numbers. In part, they came because they were recruited to build the railroads. They also came to escape the harsh military, economic, and political conditions in China which resulted to some degree from Western imperialism. Early on the Chinese found themselves compared to African Americans. They were viewed as a threat to “racial purity.” A common depiction can be found in a cartoon published in a California magazine which depicted the Chinese as having “slanted eyes. . . .a dark skin and thick lips”. They were often described as “morally inferior, savage, childlike and lustful.” The editor of the California Marin Journal claimed that white America had won the West from the “red man”, why should it now be surrendered to a “horde of Chinese”. In 1879 President Rutherford B. Hayes warned Americans about the “Chinese Problem” noting that the American experience with “weaker races–the Negroes and Indians–is not encouraging.” The President favored discouraging the Chinese from coming to the U.S. Despite the fact that the Chinese made up just .002% of the population, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882, and in 1902 it was extended indefinitely.
The Chinese were followed by the Japanese who began to enter the United States in growing numbers in the 1890′s. Japanese immigrants would meet the same level of racial hostility as their Asian predecessors. Like other ethnic or racial minorities Asian Americans made major contributions to this nation through farming, railroad and factory work and later in professions and business. In part, it was the very success of Japanese farmers that helped precipitate the placing of Japanese Americans in detention camps during World War II. In recent decades other Asian peoples have migrated to this
country. All of them to a greater or lesser degree have faced racist attitudes and institutions that would inhibit their success in a way that never impeded white ethnics. For Asians skin color and “alien” culture has made a difference.
Any discussion of racism that doesn’t include the experiences of all people of color cannot fully assess the true nature of American racism–of white supremacy and white privilege. At the same time the discussion must recognize that the hostility towards black Americans in the United States has been unique. While African Americans have worked as hard as any other population in America and have contributed in myriad ways to this nation, when most white Americans hear terms like affirmative action, low test scores, busing, welfare, homelessness, crime, drugs, and more, the first image that comes to mind is still an African American. As the men who participated in the documentary Color of Fear suggest even many people of color from other cultures have come to share some of the stereotypes about African Americans that were created by the dominant white culture.
The history of the United States indicates that as people of color move towards becoming a non-white majority (in a nation that has always equated “white” and “American) it’s inevitable that efforts to confuse, distort, and to “divide and conquer” will continue. Without collective action by all communities of color and white people who are seriously trying to understand and oppose white supremacy, racism in the United States will not be defeated. That collective action requires the use of a history that limits distortion to the greatest degree possible and that rejects the assumption of a “single white narrative”.
*This essay was written in the late 1990′s and reflect terms describing racial/ethnic groups during that period.
(Note: An important source used in this essay was: A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America, by Ronald Takaki)