Fall Hunter Moon
Racism. Is complicated. Very complicated. And, yes, I believe all white Americans are part of its grip on our culture. I’m going to try to boil down a very thorny subject into a few words, see if I can convince you that you are part of the problem if you’re white and live in the U.S.
Power. Racism is not about prejudice, it is about power. An analogy is rape. Rape is not about sex, it’s about power. So, just as rape is about power, not sex, racism is about power not race. Race, a spurious concept in the first place, not supported by DNA evidence, is a cultural idea, not a biological one.
At the beginning of our country, as the founders drafted the much admired and revered U.S. Constitution, a beacon of liberty and freedom for all nations, there was conflict between southern slave holding states and northern states. It concerned how to count slaves for the purposes of determining a state’s population. In our system of government the number of representatives a state gets in the House of Representatives follows from the state’s population. More population=more representation.
Slaves did not vote, but if counted as full persons for population purposes they would have given slave states and the whites who did vote greater representation in the U.S. House. This would have unbalanced power between the North and the South.
The three-fifth’s compromise was the result, stating, in our founding document, that slaves were only three-fifths a person for census purposes. From the start both North and South willingly manipulated the fate of the enslaved for their own purposes. Not only did the north instigate the three-fifth’s compromise, they did it to retain slavery in the U.S. Slavery was then a powerful economic engine that underwrote a large amount of the total U.S. economy.
This legal idea of a slave as a three-fifths a person contributed to the general devaluation of the enslaved. And who benefitted? Every citizen of the new country who benefitted from the slave economy. Everyone did. Thus whites in the U.S. had from this early date in our history an unearned advantage, an unearned economic advantage over persons of African descent.
They also had an unearned advantage in their social status as at least higher than that of the slave, the three-fifths of a person enslaved. This unearned social status gave low income whites, often share-croppers, a psychological and social boost which had nothing to do with their personal merit. They were better, at least, than those who toiled without compensation and freedom. That unearned and undeserved lift in personal status persists in the minds and hearts of all white Americans.
The advantage in economic circumstances held by whites in the aggregate over the descendants of the enslaved has its roots in this wholly unequal economic baseline. Our wealth, as whites, depends in part on the advantage we had as a segment of the U.S. population, a segment that received the economic benefit of goods and agricultural products made cheap by the unpaid labor of the enslaved.
The civil war, you might say, shows the inherent goodness of the north and the hostile debasement of southerners. You might say that if you don’t factor in the unearned economic and social advantages even northerners gained from the enslaved. You might say that if the wreck of reconstruction hadn’t resulted in Jim Crow laws throughout the south. You might say that if you hadn’t grown up near Elwood, Indiana which had a sign at its city limits, No Niggers In Town After Sundown. This was taken down only after the civil rights act in 1964.
You might say that if the disparity in white/black economic fortunes hadn’t persisted to this very day. You might say that if prisons were not filled disproportionately with persons of color, especially African Americans. You might say that if systematic attempts to prevent African-Americans from voting weren’t front and center in this very election-all those cries against non-existent voter fraud and for voter i.d. laws that would make it difficult for the poor to vote at all.
How have all these terrible realities managed to remain in place? Because those with power rarely give it up willingly. We white Americans, through our avoidance of these issues, have capitulated to the structures already in place. Why? Because those structures: biased employment choices, biased voting requirements, lack of affordable housing, lack of available health care, still unequal education, are on the fringe of our lives, happening to someone else, some other African-American self. And to fix them would cost us in taxes, in our unearned advantage in employment, in our ability to control local and state and national elections.
Are these conscious decisions for most of us? No. But they do not have to be. It is our assumption that the way our culture organizes itself is just and fair that makes us all complicit. This is institutional and institutionalized racism. It is the result of either our conscious decisions or our unconscious capitulation to things as they are. We, we white Americans, are all part of this, and, in this very real and potent sense, racist.