Racist America is a bold, thoughtful exploration of the ubiquity of race in contemporary life. From a black New Jersey dentist stopped by police more that 100 times for driving to work in an expensive car to the laborer who must defend his promotion against charges of undeserved affirmative action, Feagin lays bare the economic, ideologic, and political structure of American racism. In so doing he develops an antiracist theory rooted not only in the latest empirical data but also in the current reality of racism in the U.S.
Provocative, authoritative, and dramatically readable, Racist America challenges our complacency about the trajectory of current race relations and sketches the path to an antiracist future.
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About the Author
Joe R. Feagin is Distinguished Professor and Ella C. McFadden Professor in Sociology at Texas A&M University. Feagin has done research on racism and sexism issues for decades. He has written or co-written 70 scholarly books and 200 scholarly articles in his research areas, and one of his books (Ghetto Revolts) was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. His numerous Routledge books include Systemic Racism: A Theory of Oppression (Routledge, 2006); The White Racial Frame (second edition, Routledge, 2013); Racist America (third edition, Routledge, 2014); and Elite White Men Ruling (Routledge, 2017), with Kimberley Ducey. Feagin is the recipient of the Soka Gakkai International-USA Social Justice Award, the American Association for Affirmative Action’s Arthur Fletcher Lifetime Achievement Award, the American Sociological Association’s W. E. B. Du Bois Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award, the American Sociological Association’s Cox-Johnson-Frazier Scholarship Award, and just recently, the American Sociological Association's Public Understanding of Sociology Award. He is a past president of the American Sociological Association.
Kimberley Ducey is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba. Her research, teaching, and activism focuses on race, ethnicity, Indigenous relations, class, gender, and masculinity. She is a recipient of Québec’s Forces AVENIR Scholar-Activist Award, the University of Windsor’s Students Special Needs Campus Community Recognition Award, and various Teaching Excellence Awards from the University of Windsor and Université McGill. Her books include Liberation Sociology (Paradigm, 2015), with Joe R. Feagin and Hernán Vera; Elite White Men Ruling (Routledge, 2017), with Joe R. Feagin; and Systemic Racism Theory: Making Liberty, Justice, and Democracy Real (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), edited with Ruth Thompson-Miller.
Read an Excerpt
Racist AmericaRoots, Current Realities and Future Reparations
By Joe R. Feagin
RoutledgeCopyright © 2001 Joe R. Feagin
All right reserved.
A Comprehensive Perspective
We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. Preamble, U.S. Constitution
Culturally the Negro represents a paradox: Though he is an organic part of the nation, he is excluded by the entire tide and direction of American culture.... Therefore if, within the confines of its present culture, the nation ever seeks to purge itself of its color hate, it will find itself at war with itself, convulsed by a spasm of emotional and moral confusion. Richard Wright, Black Boy
The year is 1787, the place Philadelphia. Fifty-five men are meeting in summer's heat to write a constitution for what will be called the "first democratic nation." These founders create a document so radical in breaking from monarchy and feudal institutions that it will be condemned and attacked in numerous European countries. These radicals are men of European origin, and most are well-off by the standards of their day. Significantly, at least 40 percent have been or are slave owners, and a significant proportion of the others profit to some degree as merchants, shippers, lawyers, and bankers from the trade in slaves, commerce in slave-produced agricultural products, or supplying provisions to slaveholders and slave-traders. Moreover, the man who pressed hard for this convention and now chairs it, George Washington, is one of the richest men in the colonies because of the hundreds of black men, women, and children he has held in bondage. Washington and his colleagues create the first democratic nation, yet one for whites only. In the preamble to their bold document, the founders cite prominently "We the People," but this phrase does not encompass the fifth of the population that is enslaved.
Laying a Racist Foundation Many historical analysts have portrayed slavery as a side matter at the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Slavery was central however, as a leading participant, James Madison, made clear in his important notes on the convention's debates. Madison accented how the convention was scissored across a north/south, slave/not-slave divide among the states. The southern and northern regions were gradually diverging in their politicoeconomic frameworks. Slavery had once been of some, albeit greatly varying, importance in all states, but the northern states were moving away from chattel slavery as a part of their local economies, and some were seeing a growing abolitionist sentiment. Even so, many northern merchants, shippers, and consumers still depended on products produced by southern slave plantations, and many merchants sold goods to the plantations.
Debates Influenced by Slavery While all delegates to the Constitutional Convention agreed that the new government should protect private property, and thus economic inequality, this elite had a right wing, a center, and a left wing. The small left wing, with its strong views on equality and popular revolution, was closest to the general population, and some of its members had dominated the writing of the Declaration of Independence. At the Constitutional Convention, however, the center and the right wing had more influence. The right wing included twenty-one delegates who desired some form of monarchy for the new nation. The left wing and center were able to successfully counter this desire for monarchy, for that seemed unacceptable to the majority of the population. In numerous provisions the final document was oriented to political liberty: there was agreement on rejecting religious tests for office and an established religion, on protecting freedom of debate in Congress, and on protecting citizens from arbitrary government. Even so, many right wing and center delegates at the convention were anti-democratic in their thinking, fearing "the masses." The left wing was unable to add a specific list of individual rights to the Constitution, and some states did not ratify the new document until their populations were persuaded that a democratic Bill of Rights would be added.
The trade in, and enslavement of, people of African descent was an important and divisive issue for the convention. Most of these prominent, generally well-educated men accepted the view that people of African descent could be the chattel property of othersand not human beings with citizens' rights. At the heart of the Constitution was protection of the property and wealth of the affluent bourgeoisie in the new nation, including property in those enslaved. There was near unanimity on the idea, as delegate Gouverneur Morris (New York) put it, that property is the "main object of Society." For the founders, freedom meant the protection of unequal accumulation of property, particularly property that could produce a profit in the emerging capitalist system. Certain political, economic, and racial interests were conjoined. This was not lust a political gathering with the purpose of creating a major new bourgeois-democratic government; it was also a meeting to protect the racial and economic interests of men with substantial property and wealth in the colonies. As Herbert Aptheker has put it, the Constitution was a "bourgeois-democratic document for the governing of a slaveholder-capitalist republic."
The harsh reality of slave conditions and the death-dealing slave trade hung over the Convention like a demonic specter. Slavery intruded on important debates, perhaps most centrally debates over representation in Congress. Northern and southern delegates vigorously argued the matter and reached the famous three-fifths compromise on counting slaves for the purpose of white representation. Article I speaks only of three groups in the new nation: "free persons," "Indians not taxed," and "all other persons." The "other" persons they had in mind were those enslaved, mostly those of African descent. Whether free or enslaved, African Americans were not to be citizens or voters, yet 60 percent of their number could be counted to enlarge white representation in the states. Interestingly, the earlier Articles of Confederation had used the term "white" in setting the formula for enumerating the population. The new Constitution made use of the Confederation's language in this regard but without the word "white."
One delegate from Pennsylvania, James Wilson, questioned the three-fifths compromise; he did not see "on what principle the admission of blacks in the proportion of three-fifths could be explained. Are they admitted as Citizens? Then why are they not admitted on an equality with White Citizens? Are they admitted as property? Then why is not other property admitted into the computation? The answer, however, was clear. Enslaved blacks were to be counted as human beings only when it suited whites to do so. Otherwise, they were white property. These framers of the Constitution realized that they were divesting black people of their humanity. Soon after the convention, the Federalist Papers supported the compromise thus: "Let the case of the slaves be considered as it is in truth, a peculiar one. Let the compromising expedient of the Constitution be mutually adopted, which regards them as inhabitants, but as debased by servitude below the equal level of free inhabitants; which regards the slave as divested of two fifths of the man."
The new nation formed by European Americans in the late eighteenth century was openly and officially viewed as a white republic. These founders sought to build a racially based republic in the face of monarchical opposition and against those people on the North American continent whom they defined as inferior and as problems. James Madison, who enslaved many black Americans himself, put it thus: "Next to the case of the black race within our bosom, that of the red on our borders is the problem most baffling to the policy of our country."
The concerns of slaveholders would appear again and again in debates over taxation, the presidency, commerce, and other matters. For example, initially there were two days of debates over the importation of slaves into the colonies. Some members denounced the trade, while others vigorously defended it and argued that no Constitution would be accepted if the trade was not protected. In the end, a compromise was reached and placed in Article I, Section 9. This section allowed the brutal trade to continue until at least 1807. Historian Donald Robinson concluded that "rarely, if ever in human history, has the institution of slavery formed so fundamental and so pervasive a part of the political community."
At the convention a few delegates spoke critically of chattel slavery or the slave trade. George Mason, a prominent Virginia slaveholder, blamed the slave trade on the greed of British merchants. He noted the threat of slave uprisings and argued that slavery made poor whites lazy. As Mason saw it, "every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant." Strikingly, however, Mason did not mention slavery's impact on those in chains. He and delegate Elbridge Gerry (Massachusetts) would later refuse to sign the document, in part because of its slavery provisions. Yet their objections were not moral but political. Mason feared that the continuing slave trade would make the new United States "more vulnerable" and less capable of defense.
Not one of the fifty-five delegates advocated that the abolition of slavery should be an integral part of the new Constitution. On key votes most northern delegations voted with southern delegations, in part because the trade in slaves and slave-produced products was of economic benefit to many northern traders and merchants. At one point Luther Martin, a slaveholding delegate from Maryland, expressed the view that there should be a tax on those imported for enslavement. Representing the views of a state with a surplus of enslaved Africans, Martin sought to reduce the overseas slave trade. The South Carolina delegate John Rutledge, also a slaveholder, opposed the proposal and threatened secession if it were included; the "true question at present is whether the Southern States shall or shall not be parties to the Union," he explained. If the northern representatives consulted "their interest," Rutledge added, they should "not oppose the increase of slaves which will increase the commodities of which they will become carriers." Oliver Ellsworth, a Connecticut representative and later Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, supported this view, arguing that he did not want to debate the "wisdom of slavery" and felt that "what enriches a part enriches the whole" of the nation.
In regard to a provision about extradition of criminals, Pierce Butler and Charles Pinckney, both of South Carolina, moved that fugitive slaves should be returned "like criminals" to their owners. Significantly, no delegate spoke about the oppressive conditions faced by runaway slaves. Instead, James Wilson argued only that such a requirement would put a financial burden on northern governments, while Roger Sherman (Connecticut) noted that he saw "no more propriety in the public seizing and surrendering a slave or servant, than a horse."
The "Most Prominent Feature" In one of the vigorous debates touching on slavery, the wealthy Gouverneur Morris noted cogently that "domestic slavery is the most prominent feature in the aristocratic countenance of the proposed Constitution." By the end of the summer of 1787 there were at least seven sections where the framers had the system of slavery in mind: (1) Article 1, Section 2, which counts slaves as three fifths of a person; (2) Article 1, Sections 2 and 9, which apportion taxes on the states using the three-fifths formula; (3) Article 1, Section 8, which gives Congress authority to suppress slave and other insurrections; (4) Article 1, Section 9, which prevents the slave trade from being abolished before 1808; (5) Article 1, Sections 9 and 10, which exempt goods made by slaves from export duties; (6) Article 4, Section 2, which requires the return of fugitive slaves; and (7) Article 4, Section 4, which stipulates that the federal government must help state governments put down domestic violence, including slave uprisings.
The founders were aware of the oppressiveness and cruelty of the slavery from which they profited. In spite of their freedom to speak, read, and do business in the colonies, they and other whites often described their own sociopolitical condition as one of actual or potential "slavery." As F. Nwabueze Okoye has put it, "The allusions, similes, metaphors, and concrete images which they utilized reveal how profoundly and disturbingly chattel slavery was embedded in their consciousness. It was, in fact, their nightmare." Many publications and pamphlets of the revolutionary period compared colonial conditions under the British king to slavery. As early as 1774, the ever influential George Washington noted the coming crisis over colonists' rights: "The crisis is arrived when we must assert our rights, or submit to every imposition, that can be heaped upon us, till custom and use shall make us tame and abject slaves, as the blacks we rule over with such arbitrary sway." One Convention delegate, John Dickinson, expressed the common view: "Those who are taxed without their own consent, expressed by themselves or their representatives, are slaves. We are taxed without our own consent, expressed by ourselves or our representatives. We are thereforeSLAVES." Dickinson, a farmer and lawyer, was at one time the largest slaveholder in Philadelphia. Dickinson, Washington, and other influential white leaders described slavery as creating people who would be cowardly, weak, degenerate, and inferior. From their viewpoint, only black Americans deserved to be kept and treated as slaves.
Generally, the founders viewed Americans from Africa as slaves by natural law. Conceptualized as inferior beings, these Africans were fit by nature for enslavement by whites. Natural law was also used to explain why the white male founders and their compatriots could subordinate two other large groupswhite women and Native Americans. White women were not directly mentioned in the Constitution, and their legal rights under local and national laws were limited. In Article I of the Constitution, the section dealing with Congress regulating interstate and foreign commerce adds relations with "Indian tribes," indicating that indigenous peoples were not generally seen by the founders as part of their new nation. Until the mid- to late nineteenth century, indigenous societies were generally viewed as separate nations, with some whites advocating treaty making, land purchases, and the "civilizing" of Native Americans while others pressed for land theft, extermination, or removal of all Native Americans to the distant western areas of the new nation.
A House Founded on Antiblack Racism Antiblack racism is centrally about the lived experiences and interactions of black and white Americans. Historical events represent, reflect, and embed the tangible realities of everyday lifeboth the means of concrete oppression and the means of symbolizing and thinking about that domination. Every day in the United States a great number of politicians, columnists, teachers, lawyers, executives, and ordinary Americans cite the U.S. Constitution, and the founders' actions, as the underpinning and glory of U.S. society. The founders' decisions and understandings still shape the lives of all Americans in many different ways.
The "Agreement with Hell" The U.S. Constitutional Convention, the first such in the democratic history of the modern world, laid a strong base for the new societal "house" called the United States. Yet from the beginning this house's foundation was fundamentally flawed. While most Americans have thought of this document and the sociopolitical structure it created as keeping the nation together, in fact this structure was created to maintain separation and oppression at the time and for the foreseeable future. The framers reinforced and legitimated a system of racist oppression that they thought would ensure that whites, especially white men of means, would rule for centuries to come.
The system they created was riddled with contradictions that have surfaced repeatedly over the course of U.S. history. By the 1830s and 1840s, for example, many black and white abolitionists were aggressively protesting slavery and the constitutional document undergirding it. Before this period there had been white antislavery advocatesblack Americans, of course, had advocated abolition from the beginningbut large-scale action against the slavery system did not take place until the nineteenth century. At one 1843 meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society a resolution was adopted: "Resolved, that the Compact which exists between the North and the South is a 'covenant with death, and an agreement with hell'involving both parties in atrocious criminalityand should be immediately annulled." At a gathering in Massachusetts on July 4, 1854, the eminent abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, burned a copy of the U.S. Constitution, uttering the words: "So perish all compromises with tyranny."
The "Normality" of Slavery Then, as now, this was not the prevailing view of the U.S. Constitution. Indeed, in the first two centuries of the new nation the majority of white Americans, in spite of the professed ethic of liberty, saw nothing wrong with the brutal subordination of black Americans or the driving away or killing of Native Americans. This was true for a great range of white Americans. Religious leaders like Cotton Mather, the famous Puritan, and William Penn, a Quaker and founder of Pennsylvania, owned black Americans. The founder of American psychiatry and perhaps the leading intellectual of his day, Dr. Benjamin Rush, owned a black American. Men of politics like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Patrick Henry, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, and Sam Houston enslaved black Americans. Ten U.S. presidents (Washington, Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, John Tyler, James Polk, Zachary Taylor, Andrew Johnson, and Ulysses S. Grant) at some point in their lives enslaved African Americans.
Many in the elites at the head of the new United States supported, or were not uncomfortable with, the idea of a permanent slave society. Even as president, Abraham Lincoln, often called the Great Emancipator, was willing to support a constitutional amendment making slavery permanent in the existing southern states if that would prevent a civil war. Such a projected proslavery amendment was supported by many Republicans and was actually approved by both houses of the U.S. Congress in early 1861. Strikingly, from the 1780s to the Civil War period, some slaveholders articulated grand visions of expanding the U.S. slavery system across the globe.
Understanding the centrality and harsh realities of slavery leads to some tough questions for today: How are we to regard the "founding fathers"? They are our founding fathers, yet many were oppressors who made their living by killing, brutalizing, and exploiting other human beings. The combination of white freedom and black enslavement seems radically contradictory. However, William Wiecek notes that "the paradox dissolves when we recall that American slavery was racial. White freedom was entirely compatible with black enslavement. African Americans were, as the framers of Virginia's first Constitution determined, simply not part of the Lockean body politic." Indeed, the work of those enslaved brought the wealth and leisure that whites, especially those in the ruling class, could use to pursue their own liberty and freedom. Some recent analysts have argued that it is unfair to judge early white leaders by contemporary standards. However, there were strong opponents of slavery among whites at that time, including many white antislavery advocates. The founders themselves sometimes exhibited guilt over the system of slavery. James Madison himself argued that it would be wrong to state openly in the Constitution the "idea that there could be property in men." As a result, the words slave and slavery do not appear in the document; euphemistic terminology is used in the sections dealing with slavery.
Into the mid-nineteenth century, the majority of whitesin the elites and among ordinary folkeither participated directly in slavery or in the trade around slavery, or did not object to those who did so. The antihuman savagery called slavery was considered normal in what was then seen as a white republic. This point must be understood well if one it to probe deeply into the origins, maintenance, and persistence of racist patterns and institutions in North America. W. E. B. Du Bois put this forcefully in summing up European colonialism in the Americas and elsewhere, saying, "There was no Nazi atrocityconcentration camps, wholesale maiming and murder, defilement of women and ghastly blasphemy of childhoodwhich the Christian civilization of Europe had not long been practicing against colored folk in all parts of the world in the name of and for the defense of a Superior Race born to rule the world."
A Continuing Foundation European colonialism and imperialism eventually reached most of the globe and thus created a global racist order, which has had severe consequences for the world's peoples now for centuries. The U.S. Constitution, which embraced slavery and imbedded the global racist order in the United States, remains the nation's legal, political, andto a substantial degreemoral foundation. Its openly racist provisions, though overridden by amendments, have not been deleted. At no point has a new Constitutional Convention been held to replace this document with one created by representatives of all the people, including the great majority of the population not represented at the 1787 Convention. Moreover, the racist spirit of the original document persists today. Even as they live in, and often maintain, a racist system, most white Americans still do not see slavery, legal segregation, or contemporary racism as part of the nation's foundation. At the most, the majority see racist institutions as something in the distant past, something tacked on to a great nation for a short time, and something nonsystemic. From their perspective the racism that may have once intruded into the American house has substantially been eradicated.
Toward a Theory of Systemic Racism
A Rich Conceptual Tradition The black intellectual tradition is a rich source for developing a far more accurate and systemic view of this American house of racism. Drawing on the analyses of Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, Oliver Cox, Anna Julia Cooper, Kwame Ture, and Frantz Fanon, among others, I accent here a conceptual framework understanding American racism as centuries-long, deep-lying, institutionalized, and systemic. As I suggested in the introduction, systemic racism includes a diverse assortment of racist practices; the unjustly gained economic and political power of whites; the continuing resource inequalities; and the white-racist ideologies, attitudes, and institutions created to preserve white advantages and power. One can accurately describe the United States as a "total racist society" in which every major aspect of life is shaped to some degree by the core racist realities.
Frederick Douglass was one of the first U.S. analysts to develop a conceptual approach accenting institutionalized racism across many sectors of society. In 1881, speaking about the ubiquitous impact of racist prejudice and discrimination, he argued that "[i]n nearly every department of American life [black Americans] are confronted by this insidious influence. It fills the air. It meets them at the workshop and factory, when they apply for work. It meets them at the church, at the hotel, at the ballot-box, and worst of all, it meets them in the jury-box.... [the black American] has ceased to be a slave of an individual, but has in some sense become the slave of society." No longer did a small group of slaveholders hold black Americans in chains; the total racist society held them in bondage. This broad conception of racism permeated Douglass's later speeches and writings. By the late 1800s, and early 1900s, drawing on the black experience and intellectual tradition, W. E. B. Du Bois was working from a conceptual perspective viewing U.S. society as pervaded by racism across major institutions. He was probably the first social scientist to analyze the emergence of the dominant idea of "whiteness" and of a white-racist order extending beyond the United States. Writing of the years around 1900, Du Bois argued, "White supremacy was all but world-wide. Africa was dead, India conquered, Japan isolated, and China prostrate.... The using of men for the benefit of masters is no new invention of modern Europe.... But Europe proposed to apply it on a scale and with an elaborateness of detail of which no former world ever dreamed."
The first extended analysis of U.S. society as a system of racism was probably that of Oliver C. Cox, who provided in the 1940s a well-honed, book-length argument showing how the sustained labor exploitation of black Americans had created a centuries-old structure of racial classes. In the case of African Americans, the white elite decided "to proletarianize a whole peoplethat is to say, the whole people is looked upon as a classwhereas white proletarianization involves only a section of the white people." By the 1960s a number of black activists and scholars were developing the institutional-racism perspective even further. For example, drawing on Du Bois and Fanon, Kwame Ture and Charles Hamilton demonstrated in some emipirical and theoretical detail the importance of institutionalized racismthe patterns of racism built into this society's major institutions, the discriminatory patterns and practices involving much more than the actions of scattered white bigots. Moreover, by the late 1960s a few white scholars and analysts were also moving in the direction of accenting institutional racism. These critical black and white analysts saw racism as much more than demons in white minds, for white racism entails a complex array of racialized relationships developed over many generations and imbedded in all major societal institutions.
Historically the social-science study of racial oppression has been identified by such terms as "intergroup relations" or "race relations." These somewhat ambiguous and euphemistic phrases are accented by many analysts who prefer to view an array of racial groups as more or less responsible for the U.S. "race problem." Such terminology, however, can allow the spotlight to be taken off the whites who have created and maintained the system of racism. Moreover, many white analysts have written about the "race problem" as "in" U.S. society. Yet, race relationsor, more accurately, racist relationsare not in, but rather of this society. In the American case systemic racism began with European colonists enriching themselves substantially at the expense of indigenous peoples and the Africans they imported for enslavement. This brutally executed enrichment was part of the new society's foundation, not something tacked onto an otherwise healthy and egalitarian system.
In the rest of this chapter we will examine briefly some key aspects of systemic racism, including: (1) the patterns of unjust impoverishment and unjust enrichment and their transmission over time; (2) the resulting vested group interests and the alienating racist relation; (3) the costs and burdens of racism; (4) the important role of white elites; (5) the rationalization of racial oppression in racist ideology; and (6) the resistance to racism.
Undeserved Impoverishment and Enrichment Analyzing Europe's colonization of Africa, Du Bois demonstrated that extreme poverty and degradation in the African colonies was "a main cause of wealth and luxury in Europe. The results of this poverty were disease, ignorance, and crime. Yet these had to be represented as natural characteristics of backward peoples." The unjust and brutal exploitation of African labor and land had long been downplayed in most historical accounts of European affluence. By bringing the unjust impoverishment of Africa back into the picture, Du Bois showed that this impoverishment was directly and centrally linked to European prosperity and affluence. A similar connection needs to be made between the immiseration and impoverishment of black Americans and the enrichment and prosperity of European Americans.
Several scholars, including Theodore Cross, Patricia Williams, Ian Ayres, and Richard Delgado, have suggested extending the idea of unjust enrichment, an idea taken from the Anglo-American legal tradition, to discuss the reality and consequences of racist oppression. Unjust enrichment is an old legal term associated with relationships between individuals. One legal dictionary defines the concept as "circumstances which give rise to the obligation of restitution, that is, the receiving and retention of property, money, or benefits which in justice and equity belong to another." This legal concept encompasses not only the receiving of benefits that justly belong to another but also the obligation to make restitution for that injustice. This idea can be extended beyond individual relationships envisioned in the traditional legal argument to the unjust theft of labor or resources by one group, such as white Americans, from another group, such as black Americans. I suggest here the parallel idea of unjust impoverishment to describe the conditions of those who suffer oppression. As we will see later in this book, for over fourteen generations the exploitation of African Americans has redistributed income and wealth earned by them to generations of white Americans, leaving the former relatively impoverished as a group and the latter relatively privileged and affluent as a group.
Racial Classes with Vested Group Interests Understanding how this undeserved impoverishment and enrichment gets transmitted, reproduced, and institutionalized over generations of white and black Americans is an important step in developing an adequate conceptual framework. Black labor was used unjustly for building up the wealth of this white-dominated nation from the 1600s to at least the 1960sthe slavery and legal segregation periods (see chapter 2). Recall Oliver Cox's arguments that the sustained process of black labor exploitation created a structure with contending racial classes. Black Americans as a group were proletarianized to build up white profits and prosperity. Racial classes are the rungs on the racist ladder and thus have greatly divergent group interests.
Arising in Middle English, the word interest (literally "to be between") originally meant a title to or share in something. From the beginning this idea of interest has entailed social relations. A group interest can now be seen as a relation of being objectively concerned in something, of having a stake in something. Interests are outcomes likely to benefit the members of a particular class or group. Thus, whites are strong stakeholders in a centuries-old hierarchical structure of opportunities, wealth, and privileges that stems from a long history of exploitation and oppression. The interests of the white racial class have included not only a concrete interest in labor and other exploitation during the slavery and segregation periods, but also a concrete interest later on in maintaining the privileges inherited from one's ancestors.
The racial-class system, initially created by the white ruling class, provided benefits to most white Americans. From the seventeenth century onward, the farms and plantations run with enslaved laborers brought significant income and wealth to many white Americans, and not just to their particular owners. These enterprises multiplied economic development for white Americans well outside the farms' and plantations' immediate geographical areas (see chapter 2). As we will see shortly, ordinary whites for the most part bought into the identity of whiteness, thereby binding themselves to the white racial class.
Slavery's impact extended well beyond the economy. Each institutional arena in the new nation was controlled by whites and was closely linked to other major arenas. As we have seen, the new Constitution and its "democratic" political system were grounded in the racist thinking and practices of white men, many of whom had links to slavery. Those who dominated the economic system crafted the political system. Likewise the religious, legal, educational, and media systems were interlinked with the slavery economy and polity. Woven through each institutional area was a broad racist ideologya set of principles and viewscentered on rationalizing white-on-black domination and creating positive views of whiteness.
Alienated Racist Relations Systemic racism involves recurring and unequal relationships between groups and individuals. At the macrolevel, large-scale institutionswith their white-controlled normative structuresroutinely perpetuate racial subordination and inequalities. These institutions are created and recreated by routine actions at the microlevel by individuals. Philomena Essed has noted that individual acts of discrimination regularly activate whites' group power. Discriminatory practices express the collective interests of whites and regularly activate and sustain the underlying racial hierarchy.
People do not experience "race" in the abstract but in concrete recurring relationships with one another. Individuals, whether they are the perpetrators of discrimination or the recipients of discrimination, are caught in a complex web of alienating racist relations. These socially imbedded racist relations distort what could be engaging and egalitarian relationships into alienated relationships. The system of racism categorizes and divides human beings from each other and thus severely impedes the development of common consciousness and solidarity. It fractures human nature by separating those defined and elevated as the "superior race" against those defined and subordinated as the "inferior race." As a result, life under a system of racism involves an ongoing struggle between racially defined human communitiesone seeking to preserve its unjustly derived status and privileges and the other seeking to overthrow its oppression.
The alienation of oppression extends to other areas. In the case of black Americans, that which should most be their owncontrol over life and workis that which is most taken away from them by the system of racism. There is a parallel here to the alienation described by analysts of class and gender oppression. In Karl Marx's analysis of capitalism, the workers' labor, that which is most their own, is that which is most taken away from their control by the capitalist employer. The worker is separated from control over, and thus alienated from, his or her work. In addition, feminist theorists have shown that at the heart of a sexist society is an alienating reality of dehumanized sexuality. Women are separated by sexism from control over how their own sexuality is defined. To lose significant control over one's own life choices, body definition, future, and even self is what subordination imposes. Thus, racial oppression forces a lifelong struggle by black Americans, as a group and as individuals, to attain their inalienable human rights. Dehumanization is systemic racism's psychological dynamic, and racialized roles are its social masks. Recurring exploitation, discrimination, and inequality constitute its structure, and patterns such as residential segregation are its spatial manifestations.
In much theorizing about contemporary racial inequalities and conflicts, racial matters have been more or less reduced to issues of class, as in some Marxist work, or to issues of socioeconomic status, as in the work of William Julius Wilson. Many analysts have argued that racism is of declining importance in U.S. society. These positions have been rigorously contested. Michael Omi and Howard Winant have shown with sustained evidence and argument that "race" cannot be reduced to ethnicity or class, but rather is an "autonomous field of social conflict, political organization and cultaral/ideological meaning."
However, even among those analysts who take contemporary racism seriously, such as Omi and Winant and Robert Miles, there is in my judgement too much emphasis on the ideological construction of race or the formation of racial meanings and identities. While these are very important aspects of systemic racismwhich I examine in detail in chapters 3 and 4they are by no means the most important aspects. As is clear from the arguments above and the chapters that follow, the conceptual framework I accent is grounded in an understanding of the concrete advantages whites have gained, unjustly, over several centuries of slavery, segregation, and contemporary racism.
Systemic racism is not just about the construction of racial images, attitudes, and identities. It is even more centrally about the creation, development, and maintenance of white privilege, economic wealth, and sociopolitical power over nearly four centuries. It is about hierarchical interaction. The past and present worlds of racism include not only racist relations at work but also the racist relations that black Americans and other Americans of color encounter in trying to secure adequate housing, consumer goods, and public accommodations for themselves and their families. Racism reaches deeply into family lives, shaping who has personal relations with whom, and who gets married to whom. Racism shapes which groups have the best health, get the best medical care, and live the longest lives. As Cornel West has put it, "Categories are constructed. Scars and bruises are felt with human bodies, some of which end up in coffins. Death is not a construct."
Undeserved Impoverishment and Undeserved Enrichment
The Wealth of a White Nation Not long ago, Bob Dole, onetime Senate Majority Leader and presidential candidate, spoke in a television interview of "displaced" white men who must compete with black workers because of affirmative action. He said that he was not sure that "people in America" (presumably he meant whites) should now be paying a price for racial discrimination that occurred "before they were born." He was fairly candid about the past, saying, "We did discriminate. We did suppress people. It was wrong. Slavery was wrong." Yet Dole added that he was not sure any compensation for this damage was now due. Similarly, Representative Henry Hyde (R-Illinois), who served as chair of the House Judiciary Committee, has commented that the idea of collective guilt for slavery in the distant past "is an idea whose time has gone. I never owned a slave. I never oppressed anybody. I don't know that I should have to pay for someone who did generations before I was born." This questioning of the relevance of the racist past for the present is commonplace among white Americans.
Sources of White Wealth: A Vignette Consider four young children coming into the American colonies in the late seventeenth century. An African brother and sister are ripped from their homes and imported in chains into Virginia, the largest slaveholding colony. Their African names being ignored, they are renamed "negro John" and "negro Mary" (no last name) by the white family that purchased them from a slave ship. This white (Smith) family has young twins, William and Priscilla. Their first and last names are those given to them by their parents, and they never wear chains. The enslaved children are seen as "black" by the Smith family, while the twins will live as "white."
What do these children and their descendants have to look forward to? Their experiences will be very different as a result of the system of racist oppression. William's and Priscilla's lives may be hard because of the physical environment, but they and their descendants will likely build lives with an array of personal choices and the passing down of significant social resources. As a girl and later as a woman, Priscilla will not have the same privileges as William, but her life is more likely to be economically supported and protected than Mary's. Indeed, John and Mary face a stark, often violent existence, with most of their lives determined by the whims of the slaveholder, who has stolen not only their labor but their lives. They will never see their families or home societies again. They can be radically separated at any time, a separation much less likely for William and Priscilla. From their and other slaves' labor some wealth will be generated for the Smith family and passed on to later generations. Unlike the white twins, John and Mary will not be allowed to read or write and will be forced to replace their African language with English. Where they eat and sleep will be largely determined by whites. As they grow older, major decisions about their personal and family relationships will be made by whites. Mary will face repeated sexual threats, coercion, and rape at the hands of male overseers and slaveholders, perhaps including William. Moreover, if John even looks at Priscilla the wrong way, he is likely to be punished severely.
If John and Mary are later allowed to have spouses and children, they will face a much greater infant mortality rate than whites. And their surviving children may well be taken from them, so that they and later generations may have great difficulty in keeping the full memory of their ancestors, a problem not faced by William and Priscilla. If John or Mary resist their oppression, they are likely to be whipped, put in chains, or have an iron bit put in their mouths. If John is rebellious or runs away too much, he may face castration. John and Maw will have to struggle very hard to keep their families together because the slaveholders can destroy them at any moment. Still, together with other black Americans, they build a culture of resistance carried from generation to generation in oral traditions. Moreover, for many more generations John's and Mary's descendants will suffer similarly severe conditions as the property of white families. Few if any of their descendants will see freedom until the 1860s.
The end of slavery does not end the large-scale oppression faced by John's and Mary's descendants. For four more generations after 1865 the near-slavery called legal or de facto segregation will confront them, but of course will not affect the descendants of William and Priscilla Smith. The later black generations will also be unable to build up resources and wealth; they will have their lives substantially determined by the white enforcers of comprehensive segregation. Where they can get a job, where they can live, whether and where they can go to school, and how they can travel will still be significantly determined by whites. Some may face brutal beatings or lynchings by whites, especially if they resist oppression. They will have inherited no wealth from many generations of enslaved ancestors, and they are unlikely to garner resources themselves to pass along to later generations. From the late 1600s to the 1960s, John and Mary and their descendants have been at an extreme economic, political, and social disadvantage compared to William and Priscilla Smith and their descendants. The lives of these black Americans have been shortened, their opportunities severely limited, their inherited resources all but nonexistent, and their families pressured by generations of well-organized racial oppression.
The desegregation era of the 1960s may renew hopes for major changes in the system of racism. But the changes bear a great price. For example, the parents of young black children will be forced to watch them be spit upon by howling mobs of whites seeking to stop school desegregation. Since the civil rights movement forced an end to legal segregation in the 1960s, John's and Mary's descendants have had more opportunity to control their lives and to garner some socioeconomic resources. Yet they have faced large-scale discrimination in employment, housing, and most other arenas of U.S. society because the 1960s' civil rights laws are largely unenforced. The descendants of William and Priscilla Smith have not faced such discrimination, nor have the many whites whose families came into the nation after the end of slavery or legal segregation. Over the many generations since the late 1600s, John's and Mary's descendants have usually been unable to build up the economic, educational, and cultural resources necessary to compete effectively with white individuals and the greater socioeconomic resources they typically enjoy. Most of William and Priscilla Smith's descendants, as the beneficiaries of the oppression of John and Mary's descendants, have more or less prospered.
From this vignette we can begin to see how racism's economically and systematically constructed. Unjust impoverishment for John and Mary and undeserved enrichment for William and Priscilla become bequeathed inheritances for many later generations. Undeserved impoverishment and enrichment are at the heart of colonial land theft and the brutal slavery system. Over time this ill-gotten gain has been used and invested by white colonizers and their descendants to construct a prosperous white-dominated nation. Today there is a general denial in the white population that black Americans have contributed much to American (or Western) development and civilization. This denial is part of contemporary white racist misunderstandings of the reality of the history of the West. However, the facts are clear: The slavery system provided much stimulus for economic development and generated critical surplus capital for the new nation. As we will see in chapter 2, without the enslaved labor of millions of black Americans, there might well not be a prosperous United States today.
Extorting More Resources: Legal Segregation Once in place, oppressive institutions have demonstrated great social inertia. When the Civil War and the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution put an end to official slavery, systemic racism soon took the form of officially sanctioned segregation, the process that Douglass called blacks becoming "slaves of society." Like slavery, widespread segregation was implemented under the cover of law. Extensive Jim Crow segregation of free African Americansin employment, housing, the justice system, and politicswas invented in the North in the 1700s and early 1800s. It was firmly in place there when southern elites adopted it. Significantly, the war and its aftermath created a national economy, with the South becoming ever more integrated into that economy. A national system of racist exploitation of black labor now parallelled the growth of a national economic system.
The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery but did not abolish the new barriers faced by those formerly enslaved. After the Civil War the status of being a slave for an individual master was replaced by a condition of being a slave to white society, in both the North and South. Access to wealth-building property and other resources was for the most part not open to the technically "free" African Americans. In contrast, whites coming of age in the century between the end of slavery and the early 1960sincluding recent immigrantswere generally able to accumulate family resources or individual opportunities, unfairly and very disproportionately, because there was little or no black competition for most critical resources and opportunities. As we will see in later chapters, these resources and opportunities included, among other things, decent-paying jobs, quality educations, good farm land, oil leases, airline routes, radio and television frequencies, and good housing areas. The new barriers of segregation were regularly enforced by individual and organized violence, including police brutality, and many house burnings, bombs, beatings, and lynchings.
Contemporary Racism: More Impoverishment and Enrichment With the end of apartheid in the United States in the 1960s came some changes in the operation of systemic racism. For the first time African Americans had, at least in theory, access to many areas of the economy and the larger society that had been off limits to them for centuries. However, the political and legal changes of the contemporary era have by no means eradicated racism as the foundation of the American house. Since the 1960s racial oppression has persisted in widespread discrimination against African Americansoften in violation of civil rights laws. To make matters worse, these laws have for the most part been weakly enforced. Some continuing oppression of black Americans is more covert or subtle than in the past, and this can make racist practices difficult to see for those who are not the targets. Nonetheless, racism is still systemic and webbed across all sectors of society. Whites still dominate almost every major organization and most major resources, be they economic, political, educational, or legal. And official violence against African Americans can still be seen in recurring instances of police malpractice and brutality.
In chapters 5 through 7 we will detail the character of this current oppression and exploitation of African Americans and its many advantages for whites. Here we can briefly note one example: like the legally segregated economy of the 1950s, the contemporary U.S. economy channels many black Americans into certain types of jobs and away from other employment. Many do not have access to good-paying jobsor face unemploymentbecause of direct discrimination in the job market or because of the use of screening barriers by white employers that reflect the lack of access by these workers to adequate training or education. Not only are black workers often channeled into lower paying jobs, but the jobs they often hold service whites. Once again racial exploitation takes the form of transferring the benefits of the labor of blacks to whites. For centuries this transfer was done through slavery and segregation. Today, many low-wage service and unskilled menial jobs are held by African Americans or other people of color who service white managers, employers, or skilled workers. As Iris Young explains, "These jobs entail a transfer of energies whereby the servers enhance the status of those served." In addition, even those black Americans who do secure good-paying jobs still face many other racist hurdles in workplaces. Employment discrimination has serious consequences that take the form of undeserved impoverishment for blacks and unfair enrichment for whites.
Today, the mechanisms of racial oppression and de facto segregation continue to operate in all major areas of U.S. societya situation Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas once described as "slavery unwilling to die."
Excerpted from Racist America by Joe R. Feagin Copyright © 2001 by Joe R. Feagin. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
1 Systemic Racism: A Comprehensive Perspective
2 Slavery Unwilling to Die: The Historical Development of Systemic Racism
3 The White Racial Frame: A Social Force
4 Contemporary Racial Framing: White Americans
5 Racial Oppression Today: Everyday Practice
6 More Racial Oppression: Other Institutional Sectors
7 White Privileges and Black Burdens: Still Systemic Racism
8 Systemic Racism: Other Americans of Color
9 Antiracist Strategies and Solutions: Past, Present, and Future
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