American racism at home and abroad

May 4, 2012

Christina Bergmark explains how the reinforcement of ideas of white supremacy at the turn of the 20th century was tied to America's rise as a world power.

RACISM AT home has always been tied to racism abroad. And it is essential to fight chauvinism and patriotism aimed abroad as part of the fight against racism in the United States.

In 1898, the Republican Party--the same party which had recently supervised the post-Civil War transition--led the U.S. into a series of imperialist adventures in the Pacific and Caribbean. The result was that some 8 million people--none of them white--came under American domination. The Nation magazine of that day described these people as "a varied assortment of inferior races which, of course, could not be allowed to vote."

As the United States grew into an imperialist power, taking up what was known as the "white man's burden," after a term used by the poet Rudyard Kipling, Southern attitudes on the subject of race grew in acceptability. The editor of the Atlantic Monthly wrote, "If the stronger and cleverer race is free to impose its will upon 'new-caught sullen people' on the other side of the globe, why not in South Carolina and Mississippi?"

The History of Black America

In their essence, the arguments for Anglo-Saxon superiority by which Professor John W. Burgess of Columbia University and other academics used to justify American imperialism in the Philippines, Hawaii and Cuba were one and the same as the white supremacist theories by which the likes of Sen. James Vardaman of Mississippi justified Southern-style racism.

On January 14, 1899, the Boston Evening Transcript wrote that the race policy of the South was "now the policy of the administration of the very party which carried the country into and through a Civil War to free the slave."

A year later, the New York Times editorialized that, "Northern longer denounce the suppression of the Negro vote [in the South] as it used to be denounced in the Reconstruction days. The necessity of it under the supreme law of self-preservation is candidly recognized."

The implications of the new imperialism were thoroughly grasped by the white supremacist leaders in the South. Sen. Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina declared, "No Republican leader, not even Governor Roosevelt, will now dare to wave the bloody shirt and preach a crusade against the South's treatment of the Negro. The North has a bloody shirt of its own. Many thousands of them have been made into shrouds for murdered Filipinos, done to death because they were fighting for liberty."

IT WAS no accident that at the very time the U.S. was emerging as an imperialist power, the ideology of racism became not only acceptable, but popular in the most respectable circles of scholarly and intellectual society.

Writers of all disciplines--historians, anthropologists, sociologists, biologists, journalists and novelists--explained, justified and attempted to make palatable the supposed "fact" that the races were completely discrete entities, and that the Caucasian race was vastly superior to the rest.

The renewed wave of Southern racism at the turn of the century could have been broken without the growing acceptability of racism throughout the country. But supported by that larger tide, and by the underlying logic of imperialism, the ugly era of Jim Crow was quickly ushered into being.

Step one was the total disenfranchisement of Blacks. The standard devices, invented in Mississippi, were property and literacy qualifications for voting, designed with loopholes to keep Blacks out, such as the "understanding clause" or the "grandfather clause" or the "good character clause." The poll tax was also a favorite--not only for denying Blacks the vote, but for denying it to any objectionable poor whites as well.

By 1900, the disenfranchisement movement had effectively barred all Blacks from participation in the electoral system. But despite its ultimate success, the movement for disenfranchisement was met with resistance.

To overcome and divert the suspicions of poor whites, the leaders of the movement resorted to propaganda of the most vicious form. Throughout the South, a sensationalist press headlined stories of "Black crime," alleging rape or attempted rape and instances of "arrogance," "impertinence" and "surly manners," not to mention a "failure to exhibit proper civility in conduct."

Although they were, in reality, intimidated into submission in the South, Blacks were pictured as on the verge of insurrection. The direct result was a rise in violence against Blacks.

But the white supremacists wanted more than disenfranchisement and intimidation. They wanted a society resembling apartheid. Now unhampered by resistance from the North, the federal government or the Supreme Court, they set about to make it official. In the pre-First World War era, a large body of law grew up throughout the South, dealing with every imaginable area of life.

Jim Crow laws not only outlawed interracial marriage and mandated segregated schools and work areas, they also outlawed integrated swimming pools, parks, water fountains, restrooms, hospital waiting rooms and train cars.

But laws alone cannot adequately describe the extent and prevalence of racial discrimination in the South. Most often, they simply reflected the new reality which had already been established in practice. More Jim Crowism was practiced in the South than ever appeared in the law books.

Unlike the laws of earlier periods, the Jim Crow laws did not give the subordinate group a fixed status in Southern society. Rather, they were part of a process of pushing Blacks even farther down.

This was the reality that was to hold Blacks in their ever-sinking place, and to drag Southern white workers down into a position only slightly above them. This was the reality that was only to be transformed half a century later by struggle and organization. The movement at home against racism also helped usher in the movement against imperialism abroad--the movement to end the U.S. war in Vietnam.

First published in the May 1985 issue of Socialist Worker.

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