Right after the last election we published Open Wound: The Long View of Race in America. The work is a capstone achievement by William McKee Evans, professor emeritus of history at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. It received excellent reviews, and was called “a penetrating look at the complicated history of race in America,” by Booklist.
As we approach another history-making election, I thought I would share this “Interpretive Overview” by the author, which appears before the Preface in the book. The second half of the essay will be posted tomorrow.
“In 1776, the Continental Congress launched a new nation, but a nation with an open wound. From the outset the nation had a system of mutually reinforcing ideas, practices, and institutions that disadvantage people of color. Over the centuries the racial system has changed. Old ideas and practices have given way to new ones, and white behavior and attitudes toward black people have changed in important ways. Yet the system has continued from slavery to segregation to resegregation in jobless ghettos. So, while many black Americans have escaped from a three-hundred-year-old mudsill stratum of American society and recently some have indeed risen to positions of influence, the imprint of slavery on the nation is still visible.
Through decades of American history, African Americans remained virtually invisible to whites. From the beginning, however, whenever the nation has faced a crisis, the same question has emerged: What about the blacks? In recent times, during World War II, the Cold War, and the so-called war on terror, as the nation has competed for the leadership of a largely nonwhite world, blacks have been by no means invisible to scholars. Nothing has more occupied scholars than particular components of the nation’s racial history. Many excellent studies have illuminated particular aspects of this history: works on slavery, peonage, segregation, constitutional rights, white racial attitudes, the black freedom movement, the causes of black unemployment, among other important aspects. What is needed now is a long view of how American racial institutions and ideas began and how and why, over time, they have changed.
Certain studies have approached the centuries-old persistence of the white-over-black shape of American society, finding causes in “human nature.” Such early twentieth-century historians as U. B. Phillips thought that the lowly jobs held by African Americans could be explained by their limited mental capacity. In the 1950s and 60s, however, when blacks took to the streets, the theory of their inferiority fell into disfavor. But then a prominent school of white historians, stressing psychology and culture, held that the problem lay not with the nature of blacks but with the nature of whites. Whites’ prejudice derived, not from the way they treated blacks, but from the way they perceived them. These scholars thought that black had always been a color that whites associated with disagreeable things and that this limited their ability to fully accept black people. Two narratives but one conclusion: the status quo. Because of either the nature of blacks or the nature of whites, American society was likely to remain racially stratified.
Yet, in other times and places black people and white people have not always interacted as they have in the United States. The first task of the present study is, therefore, to demonstrate that the attitude of American whites toward Africans derived, not from their unchanging reactions to color, but from a new type of slavery that appeared in the new Atlantic World of the 1500s. It differed from the then traditional Old World slavery in two ways: slaves produced commodities for the market, and slaves were taken almost exclusively from sub-Saharan Africa. Now a master was motivated by profit. A slave was recognized by color. This appearance of market-driven, color-defined slavery, and a legacy of anti-African lore that came with the Atlantic slave trade, were the beginnings of what came to be called “American racism.” If one can establish that this self-reinforcing system of ideas and practices had a beginning, one can also venture the prediction that it will have an end.
Those who locate the origins of the American racial system either in the nature of blacks or in the nature of whites are not only mistaken about how it began, but they also underestimate the significance of the changes that have taken place. Important changes occurred at three historical moments when the racial system entered a crisis phase. The first was during the War for Independence, when American slavery became a threat to the struggle for American freedom. The second phase of crisis came during the “irrepressible conflict” over slavery, culminating in the Civil War and Reconstruction. The latest crisis occurred during the Cold War when a Jim Crow nation set out to “lead the free world,” which was then seething with revolution and colonial revolt by people of color. Each of these crises opened a window of opportunity for idealists who challenged the defenders of the racial status quo. Each of the ensuing conflicts resulted in a compromise that changed the way whites treated blacks, but fell far short of Thomas Jefferson’s vision of human equality.
But how is one to explain why change has taken place only at discrete historical moments? Why the relatively changeless behavior and ideas of whites during the long decades between these crisis phases? To ask such questions is to probe the secrets of power. An important part of this study is an effort to illuminate these periods of near stability by the theory of “hegemony,” or the idea that a governing class achieves firm control, or “legitimacy,” by popularizing a consensus ideology, which advances its own agenda. These beliefs are accepted as self-evident by common citizens, even though they may actually conflict with their own self-interest.” Continues Friday.