We Americans like to think (and boast) about our great experiment in Democracy: that we are a nation founded on the principle so famously expressed by Thomas Jefferson that all are created equal and endowed by God from birth with an unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
As they say these days: not so much.
Jefferson’s writings and actions taken as a whole tell us that he was an Anglo-Saxonist. The ‘We’ he references in the Declaration of Independence (and elsewhere) are the descendants of those living in England by around 500 AD. He did not mean women or people of color. He was a slave owner and when he died famously 50 years to the day after the signing that aspirational declaration he still owned 130 people of color as chattel slaves. If one reads his widely distributed and influential (among the ruling class) ‘Notes from the State of Virginia’ one finds that he repeatedly replies to anti-racist criticisms by saying that perhaps some day in the future the black race will achieve equality. Some Jeffersonian examples that I didn’t hear about in high school history:
• The blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind...
• Their griefs are transient.
• Their existence appears to consist more of sensation than reflection.
• In memory they are the equal to whites, but in reason much inferior.
• In imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.
• Never yet have I found that a black could utter a thought above the level of plain narration.
From that racist beginning, American society has systematically favored whites. I wrote about this recently, here and here. We have created a society with huge inequity, where a large segment of our population is daily at risk and, perhaps worse, has little hope of survival let alone success. Many live in a daily state of threat and deprivation. In this setting, no one is going to be safe. And if you are thinking, “I didn’t cause this, so I am not responsible for fixing it” then you are responsible for it not getting fixed. If you are in a lifeboat and someone else makes a hole, would you sit passively and wait to drown because YOU didn’t create the problem? I didn’t think so.) If you want to dive deeper, here are a few places to swim:
• Creating Black Americans: African-American History and Its Meanings, 1619 to the Present. Nell Irvin Painter.
• Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Ibram Kendi. (National Non-fiction Book Award 2016)
• North Country: The Making of Minnesota by Mary Winegerd. (How whiteness contributed to displacement and the near genocide of the Dakota Sioux.)
• The Death of Reconstruction by Heather Cox Richardson.
• Freedom Struggles by Adriane Lentz-Smith (Documents the struggles of black veterans after WWI).
• Buried in the Bitter Waters: the Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America by Elliot Jaspin
• Dispossession. Discrimination against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights. By Pete Daniel.
For added interest, you might read about two Supreme Court cases in the early 1920s, showing how narrow the definition of ‘white’ was when applied to eligibility for citizenship:
- Takao Ozawa was a light skinned Japanese national who had served in the US Army. He was an English speaker, his kids were raised in American schools speaking American English, he and his family attended an American Protestant Church. SCOTUS. SCOTUS ruled he was light-skinned and passed for white on the basis of appearance and cultural affinity, but because he was not of Caucasian descent, he was not ‘white’ and was ineligible for naturalization.
- Bengat Singh Thind was a high-caste Hindu of pure Caucasian heritage from the actual Caucasus mountains. The same SCOTUS in the same year ruled that he was Caucasian, but rejected the science for the social construct of what the ordinary person believes is white. He was denied eligibility for naturalization.
I think of whiteness as a club. Most white Americans are raised to expect to be in it because the built-in systemic advantages for whites will help them succeed. But white Americans do not want to be called white. They consider this an insult because they want to be seen as individuals, standing on their individual merits, not a member or representative of a group. (“I’m John Smith. I’m just an American, not a white American.”) Labelling them white or dealing explicitly with their whiteness makes them angry and defensive. Being the ‘default’ American is key to the identity of white Americans. (Ask yourself: when you graduated from college or graduate school, or when you won an award or got a promotion, did you think of that as a credit to your race? Of course not. It was something that YOU, personally, earned. But that framing is a standard one for people of color. They do not represent themselves, they represent their race. They are not standard. They are ‘marked’ as different.)
I was raised in America’s whiteness water and it has been quite a journey to being to understand how strong and pervasive the impact of whiteness has been on me. An incident from college may help illustrate this. I spent the summer as a teacher and civil rights worker in Talladega, Alabama. Was I oblivious to the danger? No, not really. (I didn’t tell my parents what I was doing beyond a summer project in Alabama because I knew how much they would worry.) But I didn’t feel anxious or threatened. I didn’t really feel personally endangered even when I rushed out onto the nearby playing field when someone told me there was going to be a fight and I found myself the only white among about 20 black teenagers, several with guns. I’ve told that story many times since, about how I asked what the fight was about, joked that I needed the information to fill out the forms later, and that after some tense conversation everyone walked away unharmed. Was I arrogant? Blasé? Just stupid? I remember feeling vulnerable but not afraid. Worried but not really worried about dying. I think I trusted my white bullet proof identity. I was a white guy doing good work and America values and protects white guys who do good work. I find it embarrassing that I have told this story as if I was the one in danger. I know now and I think that at some level even then, I knew intuitively that, among all the people on the playing field that day, I was the one with the best chance to succeed and live a long life and ultimately retire and enjoy my children and grandchildren.
So, don’t buy the myth of America as a society founded on a principle of equality for all as real. Because it wasn’t and it isn’t. Treat it as an aspiration. And, if you are white, accept with good grace the fact that you won the lottery. Don’t enable the unequal status quo by taking refuge in: “I didn’t cause this. I’m color blind. I’m not a racist or white supremacist.” Do something to bring us closer to realizing Jefferson’s aspirational Declaration.