A Note on Racial History.

(x-posted from United States of Jamerica)

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ most recent post – “The Tragedy and Betrayal of Booker T. Washington” – is fantastic, and you’d be doing yourself a favor if you take a few minutes out of your day to read it.  I just want to comment on this particular passage:

The dominant logic of the post-Reconstruction era held that the real problem wasn’t white racists, but carpetbaggers and meddlers from up North who’d elevated illiterate blacks above their station. The white Southerner, presumably, had no existential objection to blacks, they just didn’t want to live next door to them or have an illiterate and morally degenerate population electing their politicians. To this Washington, and much of black America, said Fine. Cease fire. You let us be, we’ll let you be.

In retrospect, this was a grievous error. In point of fact, whites actually did have an existential objection to black people. Their beef wasn’t that illiterates and moral degenerates might get too much power. Quite the opposite. Their beef was that blacks would prove to not be illiterates and moral degenerates, and thus fully able to compete with them. To see this point illustrated, one need only look at the history of race riots in the South. When white mobs set upon black communities they didn’t simply burn down the “morally degenerate” portions–they attacked the South’s burgeoning black middle and working class and its institutions. They went for the churches, the schools and the businesses. It’s one thing to be opposed to black amorality. It’s quite another to be opposed to black progress.

One of the (many) things that hamper intelligent discussions of race is the fact that most Americans don’t even have an inkling of the extent to which American race history is marked by terrible violence directed towards African-Americans.  I think it’s fair to say that most white Americans (and even a fair number of black Americans) see America’s racial history in three steps: first blacks were slaves, and then – for a while – they were half-free, and couldn’t drink from certain water fountains or go to certain restaurants.  Finally, with the help of Rosa Parks and MLK, they became fully free!  The End.  I’d wager that few Americans realize that for a considerable period of time (certainly more than half a century), whites waged an organized and sustained campaign against black progress, and that that has had tremendous implications for the social, political and economic development of black America.   That this isn’t common knowledge is almost certainly one (big) reason for the sorry state of our racial dialogue.


Jamelle Bouie is a writer for Slate. He has also written for The Daily Beast, The American Prospect and The Nation. His work centers on politics, race, and the intersection of the two.

You can find him on Twitter, Flickr, and Instagram as jbouie.
  • Well said, though I would add that a lot of Americans do not really grapple with American history as a whole (viewing it as either overwhelmingly good or bad).

    When are you guys gonna talk about Booker T (and not the wrestler)? I nominate his biography (thanks Ta-Nehisi) as the new item on the reading list thingy. That and I love me some historical biographies.

  • Belle

    Also check out Jelani Cobb’s post on americanexception.com

  • Joanie

    Yup, and thinking of history this way has also created these discrete periods of “pre-civil rights” when everything was bad, and “post-civil rights,” now that racism is over (“You have a black president now,” etc).

  • Great points. There’s a real failure to grapple with how specific policies actively antagonized black wealth creation.

    When the white middle class came into its own after WWII, black people were still being redlined and forbidden from buying homes, or in the case of many big cities, neighborhoods with significant black populations had homes that were appraised at substantially lower rates. That means that a second- or third-generation black homeowner would be inheriting substantially less wealth than a white person in similar circumstances. (It also created an additional disincentive for whites to live near blacks, and reinforced the de facto segregation in northern cities.

    And this isn’t even going into the whole Levittown thing, where planned suburban communities explicitly prohibited selling homes to blacks.

  • dborchardt

    For someone who is admittedly uncomfortable with his lack of knowledge in this area, could you recommend a book or two of the most essential readings on the subject?

  • blackink12

    “One of the (many) things that hamper intelligent discussions of race is the fact that most Americans don’t even have an inkling of the extent to which American race history is marked by terrible violence directed towards African-Americans.

    Is it possible that this is willful ignorance? Or, on some level, revisionist history?

    Particularly here in the South, it’s tough for some people to even admit that slavery kinda, sorta, maybe had something to do with the cause of the Civil War. And after having that debate more than a few times, I’ve often wondered if we’re even have an honest discussion about the topic.

    Which bodes poorly for any sort of intelligent dialogue about race.

  • I might just be projecting my own learning curve onto the general population, but it seems to me that things like black political and social freedom in the immediate reconstruction era, the kkk and jim crow backlash, the role of lynching in disenfranchizing blacks and stealing property, redlining and so forth are slowly becoming more widely known–at least there have been a lot of books published in recent years about these things. Or is it just that educated whites like me, or at least some educated whites, are finally starting to learn some of the American history we didn’t get taught in schools? Were things like the political/economic role of lynching well-known to college-educated African-Americans, say, twenty or thirty years ago?

  • Right. But so was I aware of things like lynching and violence, for sure. (My folks were fans of the civil rights movement, and I went to a deliberately integrated elementary school where we learned a lot of elementary-age A-A history). But I didn’t make the connection between the violence and the effects/causes of the violence, beyond a kind of generalized idea that it was about prejudice and racism, until I was in my 30s, I think.

    (Which I think is part of why you have a lot of white folks who get defensive about history, or (as Blackink mentions above) deny that slavery had much to do with the civil war and so forth. If you understand the history of racism as being just about how white people felt, then you think of it as a *personal* thing: hence denial or guilt. But at least when racism or history has come up in courses I’ve taught, for instance, the white students can get past that personal reaction if/when you start talking about how this stuff *worked* and why the important issue isn’t whether or not white people are bad but the specific ways in which white people (good or bad) benefitted from economically disenfranchising blacks.)