Authors of two recent University of Illinois Press books are featured this week on the History News Network.
Scholars who locate the origins of the American racial system in a permanent color psychology of whites are not only mistaken about how the system began, but they also underestimate the significance of the changes that have taken place. There have been three great movements to reform the American racial system. Each arose out of a national crisis. The first was during the War for Independence, when American slavery became a threat to the struggle for American freedom. The unraveling of slavery in the North began. The second came during the “irrepressible conflict” over slavery, culminating in the Civil War and Reconstruction. It ended slavery but left African Americans half free. The latest reform movement 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. The civil rights movement seized the moment and struck down the nation’s racial laws and provided new opportunities for many African Americans.
When time and space collide, the result is history. As Columbia University met with the tumultuous 1960s, it found itself next to an increasingly militant black community in Harlem that had grown to resent the elite Ivy League institution. Taking advantage of the urban renewal movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s, Columbia attempted to keep the neighborhoods that surround it in check by purchasing land and buildings. While expanding, Columbia eliminated housing for poor, black, and Puerto Rican people. Although these residents were rankled, many felt as though they could not resist the desires of the second largest land holder in the city. That was, at least, until time and space caught up with Columbia.