Ideologically-Convenient Constructions of History: Denying the Racist Character of America.

Comment, January 18, 2020. This essay was penned nearly twelve years ago. While my politics have been for the most part consistent over the years, I have substantially changed my thinking on the question of racism in American history. I used to subscribe to arguments hailing from the critical race theory perspective and from that perspective I produced arguments like the one you will encounter here. I confess that I cringe when I read the stridency in my voice in the final two paragraphs.

I would revise my argument in the following manner: First, the United States no longer represents a system of white supremacy. The system of racial apartheid that privileged whites was dismantled more than fifty years ago. Second, I would explain that the United States was founded in the context of a racially segregated society and that patterns of de facto segregation today are in part a legacy of that initial situation. While racial inequality has not disappeared, racial oppression as a material fact of existence has. This material fact is why blacks continue to trail whites in every significant social category is not evidence for racism. There are a number of arguments that may explain such disparities. One is not defending white supremacy by saying this, and this is the most strident statement in my essay. I embarrass myself when I write, “I know the truth irks folks because it is inconvenient, but if one is rational person, he will prefer truth over ideology.” Yes, this is true, but what I was asserting as truth is ideology and I regret having written these words.

Just encountered a comment that claims that racism doesn’t exist in America today, that black people enjoy racial privilege, because slavery only existed in North America for 88 years. 

How did this individual arrive as such a preposterous claim? By arbitrarily setting the clock at 1776. If the idea was to make some technical point about slavery in the United States of America, the United States of America did not exist in 1776 and would not exist until more than a decade later. But whatever the idea was, it was either a deliberate or ignorant distortion of the history of slavery in North America. What is more, the unspoken premise is false, namely that racism is reducible to slavery.

First, on the question of slavery, owning Africans in North America existed in the colonies of North America at least as far back as the early 1600s. By the time independence was declared in 1776, slavery had been in existence in the colonies for more than 150 years. By the time the United States became an independent country, if we take 1619 Jamestown as the start of slavery in the North American colonies, and set the birth of the United States at 1789, the year the new government was seated, then slavery was in existence for 170 years. Slavery would continue until December 1865. That means that after the founding of the first government and the adoption of 13th amendment to the Constitution, 76 years had passed. That’s a total of 346 years.

Second, chattel slavery is only form of racial oppression and exploitation in existence throughout the history of the United States and the colonies that formed its basis prior to 1789. After emancipation in 1865 (the Emancipation Proclamation did not emancipate the slaves, but only freed those slaves in states in rebellion against the Union), racial violence at the hands of white people saw the mass murder of thousands of blacks—more than five thousands blacks were killed by lynch mobs alone. Throughout the post-emancipation period the criminal justice system was expanded to accommodate the reality of millions of free blacks with the predictable consequence that racial disproportionality in punishment sharply increased. 

Systematic racism followed slavery. In 1896, the US Supreme Court formally sanctioned legal apartheid. In other words, 32 years after slaves were emancipated, the US government established a national system of apartheid, or legal segregation, barring blacks from access to educational, occupational, and political institutions and resources. Blacks and whites were even forbidden to marry one another. This system of legal apartheid lasted well into the 1960s. In many states, blacks and whites couldn’t marry until the US Supreme Court overturned such laws in 1967. After the dismantling of the legal system of apartheid, the physical and cultural system of apartheid remained in place, what we know as de facto segregation, and this system of white supremacy continues to this day.

It is a brutal truth, a rationally undeniable reality, that the United States was founded as a racially-segregated society and that it remains a racially-segregated society to this very day. While the forms of racial oppression have changed—slavery, de jure apartheid, de facto apartheid—racial oppression as a material fact of existence has not disappeared. This material fact is why blacks continue to trail whites in every significant social category.  When one denies this essential truth of our society, whether out of ignorance or malice, one is defending white supremacy. What one is advancing when they deny systematic racism in America is ideology, not the truth about America. I know the truth irks folks because it is inconvenient, but if one is rational person, he will prefer truth over ideology.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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