With the present and persistent outrage over racial injustice in this country it’s a good time for us to take a jaundiced look back at American history. We should be particularly interested in how racism and nativism have permeated our history. In the United States racism and nativism have never been just a question of a few bad apples; these ways of thinking about “the other” have been systematic and institutional from the beginning.
We can go as far back as the 1630s, and the dealings of Puritans with the Native American peoples of North America, to see the beginning arc of this history. Once Puritans were convinced that Native Americans stood in their way of creating a “city on a hill” and that they were incontrovertible minions of the Great Deceiver they had no problem engaging in the near genocide of the Pequot people. This wholesale slaughter is recounted in Alfred Cave’s well-received 1996 book The Pequot War, a book that shows how banal disagreements over trading practices led to full-scale war. Cave also points out that the Christian prophetic tradition only served to exacerbate the cosmological divide between Puritans and Native Americans. In short, it is much easier to kill your enemy when you and they are placed into well-defined categories of good and evil. When your enemy is just so much vermin to be exterminated all moral sentiment can be thrown out the window.
Forty years later Bacon’s Rebellion (1676) fomented a war between settlers and another tribe of Native Americans; however, there would be less apocalyptic hysteria involved here. The English government, which directly ruled the colony, would generally be opposed to the actions of the settlers, people they saw as vigilantes and usurpers of Crown authority. The chief issue here was the English government’s attempt to restrict settlement into recognized Indian lands. The goal of the English government was to keep the peace, primarily for all the large landholders of Virginia, folks who had already been given the most choice agricultural land. Bacon’s Rebellion is really an uprising among the lower-class freeholders, or would-be freeholders, those who could not easily satisfy their hunger for land in areas already appropriated by the colony’s large landholders. It should be pointed out that the English government cared very little for Native American lives; their only true interest was maintaining their own control over the colony and maintaining the peace. This event also foreshadows the events following 1776 which were in no small part a reaction to the Proclamation Line of 1763, part of a peace treaty that restricted westward English settlement into treaty-approved Native American lands.
AFRICAN SLAVERY AND RACE
Besides all the violence associated with the acquisition of land there was also the colonial introduction of African slavery in the early 17th century. This system of forced labor would initially be used in most of the colonies but by 1800 it would be almost solely associated with the southern United States. For nearly a century indentured servitude existed alongside African slavery. Indenture was a form of colonial apprenticing that proved extremely exploitative, because the indenture rarely got what he/she was promised. However, indenture lost favor in the 18th century and was almost gone by the founding of the new nation. What this meant was that there was only one system of extremely exploitative labor, African slavery, after 1800. This form of labor also became increasingly associated with the idea that Africans were by nature biologically, intellectually, and morally inferior to whites.
It is interesting to note here Ruth Herndon’s book Unwelcome Americans: Living on the Margin in Early New England (2001). During her research Dr. Herndon uncovered a late-eighteenth century habit of identifying all people of color as “black.” Even Native Americans were beginning to be thought of as black by the end of the eighteenth century. This is just one more piece of evidence to corroborate the conclusions of scholarship focusing on “whiteness.” Of course, any examination of this topic should begin with Winthrop Jordan’s White over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (1968). This book makes clear that the idea of “whiteness,” and all its associated moral, biological, and intellectual benefits, were beginning to be almost universally accepted. For those who would dismiss this scholarship as pedantic or historically heretical it should be remembered that even when the Civil War removed the moral, political, and economic blight of African slavery it still did not give African Americans equality. It took another century to legally recognize African American rights and fifty years later the United States continues to struggle with the practical implementation of these laws.
If you take an American history class and do not learn about all the horrible things this nation has done alongside all the laudable things it has done, then you will be forever stumped by our present social, political, and economic problems. Learning only about the “melting pot” of America without learning about how Americans have often been anti-immigrant denies you the full lesson of history. Yes, many diverse people came here but they were not all initially welcomed. You can go back as far as the large surge in Irish and German immigration in the 1840s, an immigration that led to the creation of the Know Nothing movement. This movement even sported its own national political party, first the Native American Party and then just the American Party. It should also be remembered that opposition to this Irish and German immigration was not so much racial as it was religious. Most of these immigrants in the 1840s were Catholic.
Opposition to immigration did not stop there. In 1882 the United States created the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited the further importation of Chinese labor into the United States. Of course, this act could only be passed once Chinese immigrant labor had built out the First Transcontinental Railroad of the United States. This law would not officially be rescinded until 1943!
There was another problem in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the large influx of immigrants from eastern and southeastern Europe, mostly those speaking Slavic languages and members of non-Protestant churches. So, in the 1920s a program of Americanization began. The emphasis of this program was taking these alien folk and transforming them into true Americans, primarily through learning English and adjusting to the American way of doing things. The latter part of this Americanization process could take the form of learning to work within the American capitalist system or learning to dress and eat like an American. Underlying all this, again, was a fear of those who were not completely white and Protestant. So, even if you were a white Jew or Catholic it was hoped that you would adopt the look and manner of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.
I have already mentioned how African Americans had to wait an additional century after the 13th and 14th Amendments to get legal recognition of all their rights. However, even as the African American struggle of the 1950s and 1960s played out we had another class of individuals struggling to be recognized: Mexican Americans. Sometimes these folks were immigrants living in the shadows because they were undocumented workers; often they were citizens who were just not quite white enough. As early as 1956 these issues were being explored in film. The epic film Giant explored the problems of a labor system in which all are not given equal protections. It also explored the much more controversial issues of interracial marriage and public discrimination. These types of films would multiply over the next few decades, possibly lending support to the modern idea of teaching multiculturalism. However dubious you might think multiculturalism is today you cannot understand why it exists without a jaundiced eye cast back on American history.
THE LEGACY OF THE ‘WHITE CHRISTIAN REPUBLIC’
So, now we get to the notion of the ‘white Christian republic.’ By the early nineteenth century many–if not most–Americans were convinced that the hand of Divine Providence was directing their nation’s steps. Because of the confluence of religious, economic, racial, and political ideas the providential agenda of the country was seen as republican in design, pushed forward by liberal capitalism, and largely limited to white Protestants. Through the white Protestant republic of the United States the whole world would soon enjoy God’s kingdom in the form of political liberalism, economic capitalism and, of course, white paternalism over the “lesser races.”
If you doubt this you need only go back and read what was being written in the first half of the nineteenth century by popular ministers, especially in the southern United States. For example, Samuel Davies Baldwin in his book Armageddon (1854) writes, “The white race will never admit a general equality of political franchise to either Asiatics or Africans, and it would be ruinous for it to do so…..” Later on he writes that the “Millennium is a political era of Christian republicanism, confined mainly to the white race.” He goes on, “As a government, it will extend over Europe and America, and control the rest of the world, and gradually elevate other races. [emphasis mine]
That I have singled out a quote from a southerner should not suggest that racial attitudes were much different in the North. If the fact that African Americans lived supposedly “separate but equal” lives for a century after Emancipation does not convince you then maybe you should consider other facts, like the decidedly racial motivations behind the creation of the American Colonization Society (1816). The existence of this organization was an admission by white northerners that even if African Americans were freed from bondage they would never find a place in white American society. One can also point to the laws that were passed in the northern states of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois against the immigration of free black people. All three had abolished slavery with their state constitutions but they did not want free blacks migrating to their states. Add to this the wide legal and social restrictions on black behavior in the North and one can easily see that the racial attitudes of white northerners were rooted in the same general ideas of African biological inferiority. The only way not to see this parallel history of a marginalized people is to make a conscious decision to focus only on the positive side of American history.
Perhaps the greatest problem with ignoring this history is that many white people pick up the newspaper or watch the evening news only to be gobsmacked by images of racial tension. “Didn’t we solve this problem back in the 60s they mumble?!” Or maybe they ask, “Why don’t these people just get jobs and live like real Americans?!”
That white people still have these thoughts exhibits their ignorance of American history. Convinced–as were whites of ten generations ago–that America is a just nation where anyone who chooses can succeed, these folks cannot understand how the sins of the father have been visited upon generation after generation. They do not see the “drug war” for what it has been–whether intended or not: a systematic attack on the black community, which was rooted in a fear that unless the black man was kept in check he would run roughshod over white-dominated institutions.
To say all this is not to ignore the great progress that many African Americans have made in our society. However, the exception proves the rule, as they say. Fifty years after the Civil Rights Act was signed into law we should not be patting ourselves on the back that a black man has been elected president or that a black woman has just been nominated for U.S. Attorney General. Were we truly living in a post-racial America these things would pass without comment, and these people would be judged solely on how they performed their jobs.
Instead we wait on tenterhooks for a grand jury decision in Ferguson, Missouri, hoping justice will be done. Yet, one must wonder whether even if we deal well with this injustice that maybe we are ignoring another larger issue: the statistical aberration of violence in the United States when compared to other industrialized countries. Maybe the events in Ferguson, and other areas around the country, are not just racial, maybe they are related to what Michael Moore suggested in his 2002 movie Bowling for Columbine? Maybe we as a nation have just become too enamored with vigilante justice and guns?
I would add that it is this proclivity toward violence identified by Moore mixed with historical ignorance that prevents us from seeing how a long history of racial injustice continues to contribute to our social, economic, and political problems today. Maybe it’s time for us to retire permanently the idea of the ‘white Christian republic’–in all its religious and secular forms? Maybe then we can focus on building a pluralistic and just society based on the commonly shared values of individual liberty, family and community cohesion, and social justice?
More likely, though, is that we will continue to ignore history and stare wide-eyed in disbelief at every racially charged event in this country, wondering to ourselves, “What exactly is the beef these folks have with this great, meritocratic, and righteous nation of ours?” We will continue to believe the problem is not societal and institutional but rests in a lack of moral character, an intellectual deficit, or the personal ambition of “those people.” Unfortunately, I can think of no better state of mind to ensure things get worse before they get better.
For more on this topic watch for my book “The Rise of the ‘white Christian republic’: From the Contagion of Liberty to the White Man’s Burden”, which I hope to have published in 2017.