How the U.S.A. Institutionalized
The Insidious Infection Spreads
The deep roots of the white supremacist tree were planted during the period between the creation of the U.S. Constitution and the attempt to dissolve it. The construction of much of our current racist/white supremacist society may have started in 1619 (when the first slaves were “delivered” to Virginia), but it was the first half of the 19th century that institutionalized the stereotypes that are still thriving in 2019. The notions that Black males are to be feared (the “Brute”), that African-Americans are less intelligent and “slow,” all began with an array of stereotypes promoted by the “minstrel” shows of the early 1800’s (shows in which white performers dressed in rags and blackface, presenting exaggerated “Black” characters). The “Jim Crow” character was born and persists to this day in many white minds.
As regards the stereotypes from the 1789 to 1850 slave period, please consider the following perspective. African slaves, from early on, were considered “inferior” intellectually. This notion grew from a number of factors. That Blacks were legally not allowed to read or write, to receive any kind of education, clearly points to the root of the “intellectual inferiority" stereotype. But another factor, with a more interesting perspective, contributed to this stereotype. Enslaved Blacks seemed “unable” to follow directions (“Cassius, grab that rake.” “What?” “Grab that rake." “What’s a rake, Massa?” “How many times do I have to show you what a rake is?”). While this was clearly a ploy on the part of the slaves to delay tasks at hand, it created a stereotype that they “couldn’t” learn. In much the same way, Blacks couldn’t be trusted with matches (tool sheds kept burning down) and there are countless instances of tools (that rake, for example) being broken, time and again, delaying work, etc. The “superior” white overseer and his Master attributed all this to the “stupidity” of the slaves, of course, not realizing they, the white men, were being conned. In the 1930’s a “classic” stereotype of the American Black man was portrayed in movies by Stepin Fetchit (the name alone signifies quite a bit) who was billed as “the laziest man in the world.” The notion that Blacks moved as slowly as they thought was a common stereotype from the 1800’s on. It apparently never dawned on slaveowners that their “property” weren’t about to jump up and run to work each day, particularly when faced with a 12-hour shift in the scorching sun for no pay! Who in his/her right mind would move quickly when faced with such a situation? Yet those vicious stereotypes persist to the present day --- with people like Representative Steve King buying it hook, line, and sinker, never realizing the enslaved people were perfecting their “trickster” methodology.
What we see, historically, when we examine the 1789 to 1860 period is a growing fear by Southerners that slaves would revolt (as early as 1800 Gabriel Prosser, an enslaved blacksmith, was organizing a revolt but was “ratted out” and hanged). In 1800 there were 5.3 million people in the United States and fully 20% were African Americans (at least 900,000 were slaves). In many of the Southern states, slaves comprised a third to one-half of the population and, in rural plantation areas, far outnumbered whites. Aside from Prosser, Denmark Vesey (in 1822) and Nat Turner (in 1831) stoked the fears of Southern whites by planning (and in Turner’s case, executing) large-scale slave rebellions. The criminalization of Black males has a long and perverse history --- which we can still observe in our current incarceration statistics. Ironically, it begins with Black men attempting to revolt against their oppressors (a fact lost on those who revered the “War for Independence.” This is not unlike those in our present culture who see a kneeling protest against social injustice during the National Anthem as an affront to “patriotism.” The white males of the 19th century saw Black rebellion as a direct threat to their authority, too). The fear of slave revolts led to a series of laws passed throughout the Southern states to control slaves in every way imaginable and Fugitive Slave Laws (taking a cue from the U.S. Constitution) increased in their severity. Anyone who has seen (or read) “12 Years a Slave” knows how “Slave (Bounty) Hunters” traveled throughout Northern and border states to “return” runaway slaves (or any Black person they deemed a “runaway”) to their rightful owners.
State laws against teaching slaves to read and write (started as early as the colonial period) reveal just how afraid Southerners were of their slaves. (Need we look further than this to see the connection to the inferior education offered to --- particularly urban ---minorities throughout our nation, even today?) The inevitability of the Civil War was clearly reflected in the series of makeshift legislative moves that reveal, in hindsight, the national “denial” that gripped the United States from 1789 to 1860. Starting with the Missouri Compromise in 1820 and culminating in the Compromise of 1850, the North continued to try to keep the nation in one piece as the South threatened to secede when it felt its “peculiar institution” was in jeopardy. (You can Google the Compromises to get full details)
As the U.S. continued to physically grow in the 1800s the expansion of slavery into new territories and states became the bone of contention between the “free” North and the “slave” South. When Missouri (a “slave” territory) applied for statehood in 1819 a deal had to be struck to maintain “equality” in the Senate (equal numbers of “free” and “slave” Senators). The northern Massachusetts territory of Maine was designated as a “free” state candidate and a crisis was averted. Ancillary conditions included a line --- 36 degrees, 30 minutes, the Southern border of Missouri --- being designated as the divider between future “free” and “slave” states. (If you look at a map of the USA it appears that the North would get the best of that deal, in terms of acreage, but Southerners were already coveting Mexico and its territories --- Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, California --- as well as Cuba and other Caribbean islands as future Slave States). Indeed, the Missouri Compromise proved a workable stopgap (between 1820 and 1850 six states were admitted: 3 “free” – Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin; 3 “slave” – Florida, Arkansas, Texas) until 1850, when California (newly “won”/stolen in the Mexican War of 1846-48) applied for statehood.
It was also during this period that the westward expansion of the United States subjected Native Americans and Latinx settlers to the white supremacist doctrine already lorded over Blacks. Aside from relentlessly moving west, taking land and breaking treaties, Andrew Jackson’s physical removal of the Cherokee Nation (not only against their will but also against the edict of the United States Supreme Court!) clearly reflected the deep-seated sense that White Men decided everything of importance on the North American continent. The Mexican War (1846-1848) resulted in “winning” the coveted Spanish colonies of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, and California, as well as territory in what is now Kansas, Wyoming, Oklahoma, and Texas (the bulk of Texas had already joined the Union after existing as an independent Republic from 1836 until 1845--- a separate land grab by white men led by Sam Houston and Stephen Austin). So, the Native Americans (“Red people”) and the former Mexican citizens (“Brown” people) of these territories were now “subjects” of the white, male patriarchy run from Washington, D.C.
The acquisition of California opened an entirely new can of worms for the Congress and the people of the United States, ringing in a decade that would ultimately (finally?) lead to a Civil War between free and slave, North and South. It is why Jefferson, upon learning of the Missouri Compromise in 1820 wrote:
"but this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. it is hushed indeed for the moment. but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence."
Indeed, that “fire bell in the night” would finally be silenced on the bloody battlefields of the Civil War. And the decade of 1850 to 1860 was the dress rehearsal for that final, cataclysmic event.
Monday: The Fire bell in the Night: 1850-1860