The deep roots of racism in the US

America was born in racism, starting with the way that the early settlers massacred the indigenous peoples, before moving on to the institution of slavery, and then to the conquest of regions of Mexico that resulted in yet another group to be subordinated. To understand better why it is the way it is now, it helps to understand that history.

Eric Foner is one of the foremost scholars on one aspect of it, that of the aftermath of slavery, especially the post-civil war period in the US known as Reconstruction that is usually given as 1865-1877, and I have already mentioned before (here and here) his excellent book on the subject.

Recently the radio program Fresh Air re-aired a 2006 interview with Foner about that period and its legacy and it is an excellent opportunity for anyone who has not read his (admittedly long and detailed) book to get a quick introduction to a highly misunderstood and much maligned period in American history that lay the ground work for the systematic discrimination and oppression of black people that continues to this day and which has sparked yet another period of widespread protests.

He explains why white supremacists felt the need to paint the reconstruction period in a very negative light.

The image of Reconstruction as a period of misgovernment and corruption was fixed in the popular mind not only by historians but in very, very popular films like “Birth Of A Nation” way back at the beginning of the 20th century, “Gone With The Wind,” in best-sellers like “The Tragic Era” by Claude Bowers, a great best-seller of the late 1920s. But more important, maybe, is that this image of Reconstruction was a political image as well. It underpinned the Jim Crow system of the South, which lasted well into the 1960s, as you know. The disenfranchisement of black voters, taking away the right to vote from blacks, was justified by the alleged horrors of Reconstruction. The worse you could paint Reconstruction to be, the more you could justify just eliminating blacks altogether from American democracy.

He discusses the importance of the 1866 Civil Rights Act that was passed over the veto of the racist president Andrew Johnson who took office after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865.

First of all, it declared that black people were citizens of the United States.

But more than that, it then created this – for the first time in the law, this principle of equality among citizens regardless of race. In other words, that all these citizens are to enjoy the same legal rights. Now, it didn’t apply to the right to vote, which states could regulate. But all sorts of other things – I mean, access to court, testifying, signing contracts, enjoying the fruits of your labor.

Johnson also was just a racist. He said, you know, black people don’t understand what it is to be a citizen in this country. Basically, he just said black people are inferior. They can’t enjoy the same basic legal rights of citizenship of whites. And so the two appeals of Johnson to states’ rights and to racism, in a sense, laid down the basic arguments against black justice which would be repeated over and over again all through the late 19th and even well into the 20th century.

Well, by the 1890s, most Southern states are passing laws – well, first of all, disenfranchisement laws. That is laws to eliminate black voting. Now, you couldn’t just say only whites can vote because the 15th Amendment to the Constitution had been passed during Reconstruction which said states can’t discriminate on the basis of race in voting. So these laws were supposedly non-racial. So they’d say you had to pay a poll tax to vote. That applies to white and black, but a lot of whites were excused from it. You had to have a – be literate. You had to be able to understand the state constitution to the satisfaction of the registrar. Now, a black PhD could walk up, and they’d ask him a question. They’d say, well, you don’t understand the state constitution, so you can’t vote. So these laws, basically by 1900 more or less, eliminated black voting in most of the South.

Then you had the segregation laws. And, of course, the Supreme Court in 1896 in Plessy vs. Ferguson upheld segregation as compatible with the 14th Amendment. The 14th Amendment says all citizens must get equal treatment. The court said, well, you know, if it’s separate but equal, that’s OK because then its equal. But, of course, the facilities, whether it’s the schools or the public hospitals or the trains or the whatever facilities were set up as segregated, were never equal. All the public money was funneled into the white institutions. Black education and other facilities were just, you know, very much neglected by the state government. So that was another way of taking away – of rescinding this idea of equality.

The efforts at disenfranchising black people continue to this very day by putting up all manner of obstacles to their voting.

Foner is a very good speaker. You can listen to the 34-minute interview below or read the transcript here.


  1. says

    Foner’s book is excellent. The Seeing White podcast is another excellent take on the origins and evolution of racism in the US.

    One quote from a speaker in Seeing White is:

    The history of racism in America is the history of labor in America

    Foner also supports this: the settlers didn’t have the muscle-power to colonize North America themselves, so they sped the process up by importing people and invented chattel slavery as a means of controlling their labor. That critical decision has had tremendous knock-on effects, since a large amount of the political dialogue in the US is about nothing more than how to manage “free” and paid labor. It’s still going on, when you look at the prison labor market and how racialized that is. The US, truly, is a shithole nation.

  2. Bruce says

    Yes. We should also note that the biggest surge in making racist statues came just two years after the racist 1896 Plessy decision. So those statues were never so much about the civil war as they were about the racist Jim Crow laws. Thanks for reminding us about this context.

  3. Matt G says

    We have been taught a hugely sanitized version of American history. It’s good that so much attention is being focused on this now. People don’t want to hear that their country isn’t as great as they imagined.

  4. publicola says

    All true, and all stuff that everyone should be taught. But how do you reach the minds that are so closed, so twisted, that even the most powerful evidence can’t break through? Until we find an answer to that, we will never end racism here or anywhere. Which is not to say we should stop trying.