Who are you calling racist?

I recently came across a four-page document meant for use in the classroom. Entitled “A Contemporary Glossary: Definitions of Racism,” it was published in 1983 by the Council on Interracial Books for Children. Most of its source material dates to the early 1970s. One professional educator (now retired) looked at my copy of this document and declared it badly outdated. However, I suspect many people my age were taught these definitions and still believe them. Moreover, I also suspect that they have passed along these definitions to younger generations of students who also believe them.

The document opens with a dictionary definition of prejudice: “Unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand without knowledge, thought, or reason.” It follows with a certain person’s definition of racism: “Racism is different from racial prejudice, hatred, or discrimination. Racism involves having the power to carry out systematic discriminatory practices through the major institutions of our society.”

I do not object to an effort to define prejudice as an opinion or feeling and racism as practices based on prejudiced opinions or feelings. I fear, though, that a focus on power and on major institutions of our society presents a distorted view of racism. Indeed, the rest of the document makes its premise clear. “In the United States at present, only whites can be racists, since whites dominate and control the institutions that create and enforce American cultural norms and values… blacks and other Third World peoples do not have access to the power to enforce any prejudices they may have, so they cannot, by definition, be racist.” It also says, “Racism and white racism mean the same thing….” And, “All white individuals in our society are racists. Even if whites are totally free from all conscious racial prejudices, they remain racists, for they receive benefits distributed by a white racist society through its institutions.”

I see no benefit and great risk in the statements that only white people can be racist and that all whites are racist, even if they have no racial prejudices. But I do understand why certain individuals, certain statements, and certain actions have been labeled “racist” even when I could find no racial prejudice in what the target of the label said or did. If every white person in the United States is assumed to be racist—even defined as racist—then it is easy to put a racist spin on anything a white person says or does.

I acknowledge that racism still exists in the United States. Some managers, sifting through a stack of resumes that are virtually identical, are more likely to arrange an interview with Jennifer than with LaKisha. In some workplaces, white English-speaking people are more likely to be promoted to higher-paying positions than black people or Spanish-speaking people. Black individuals are more likely than white individuals to be denied a loan for buying a car or a house, and if they get the loan they are likely to pay more than white individuals with the same income. These things happen. They are morally wrong. They are also illegal. When persistent patterns of racism in a workplace or other institution can be revealed, those guilty of making racist decisions are penalized.

But in schools and workplaces, black people and people of other minorities have risen to positions of power. They can hire, promote, or fire employees. If they should favor members of their own minority over whites, would that not be racist? And is anyone willing to go out on a limb and say that such things never happen in America?

Maybe it is true that the handout I found is outdated and no longer relevant. My questions are: when did things change, and what changed them? Was there a time that every white person in America was racist and no black person in America could be racist? When was that time, and what brought it to an end? Was it ended by court decisions and legislation? Was it ended by the Civil Rights movement? Was it ended by education, such as the document I found, which taught students about racism and so brought it to an end? Or, since racism can still be found, is it still true that every white person is racist and no black person can be racist?

I teach college students. I have had white students that did well and white students that did poorly; I have had black students that did well and black students that did poorly. Since I teach history, race and racism are mentioned in the classroom. I make the point that, biologically, all humans belong to the same race. Modern racism, as it developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, was a result of evolutionary theories, assumptions that people are different because of the traits they inherited from their ancestors. Racists assume that strength, intelligence, endurance, and other qualities differ from race to race. But DNA tests do not bear out those assumptions. A white student and a black student in the same classroom might have more DNA in common with each other than either of them shares with a brother or sister of the same two parents. That’s simple science.

A student once asked me why we still talk about racism if there are not different races. It was a sincere question and a good one. I think the label remains useful to discuss prejudices based on the perception of different races, even though different races do not exist. And if someone—black, white, or any other appearance and culture—has the power to treat other people differently based on those prejudices, I say that misuse of that power is racist.

All people are sinful. Prejudice is one aspect of human sinfulness, stronger in some sinners and weaker in others. Humanity has developed many different cultures, and I believe that all of them are worth celebrating. Irish, German, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Jewish, Arab, African, Hispanic—they are all good. Each member of a culture should have pride in his or her cultural identity—pride, but not a sense of superiority. In fact, as we celebrate our various cultures, we should also take note of the celebration of other cultures and learn about our neighbors from their celebrations. By itself, that attitude will not eliminate prejudice and the possibility of racism, but openness to cultural diversity is better than automatic labeling with the word “racist.” Or so I believe. J.

To fly or not to fly (the Confederate flag)

When people in the United States choose to display the Confederate flag, other people are offended. Those who defend the display of the flag say that they are celebrating the culture of a region; they say that there is nothing inherently racist or otherwise offensive about the flag. Those who are offended respond that the flag represents an attempt by some states to leave the Union so they could preserve the institution of slavery, an institution that (as practiced in the United States) was distinctly racist.

Defenders of the flag say that the Civil War was not really about slavery. They say it was really about the rights of states to make their own rules without interference from the national government. Slavery happened to be the issue wherein interference was perceived, but (they say) southerners were not so much fighting to retain slavery as they were fighting to retain independence promised to them (they say) in the United States Constitution.

Abraham Lincoln was opposed personally to slavery. However, he said that the Civil War was not about slavery–it was about keeping the country united. Lincoln said he would be willing to tolerate the continuing reality of slavery if it would hold the country together; and Lincoln said that he was sending soldiers into rebellious states to preserve the Union. Contrary to popular opinion, Lincoln did not free the slaves. His Emancipation Proclamation applied only to slaves in states that were members of the Confederacy and thus (from Lincoln’s point of view) in opposition to their national government. Four slave states remained in the Union during the Civil War, and Lincoln’s Proclamation did not affect slaves in those states. Slavery was ended in the United States by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which was proposed in Congress while Lincoln was alive, but was not ratified until after he had died.

If Lincoln said that he was not fighting against slavery, does that mean that the southerners were not fighting to keep slavery? To answer that question, one must research the reasons given by southern leaders when they chose to secede from the Union and to fight, if necessary, for a new nation, the Confederate States. Because I have family and friends living in Arkansas, and because the history of Arkansas’s secession is rather interesting, I will use that state’s secession as a model for this research.

When Lincoln was elected and some southern states chose to secede from the United States and form the Confederate States, Arkansas had been a state for only twenty-five years. Residents were divided over the issue of secession. While slaves were found in every county of the state, most of the slaves in Arkansas were in the southeastern half of the state, which had flat land suitable for large cotton plantations. The northwest half of the state–featuring the Ozark and Ouachita mountains–held many citizens who favored remaining in the United States rather than joining the Confederate States. Accordingly, the state government decided to hold a convention, with delegates chosen by the voters of the state, to decide whether to secede or to remain.

When they gathered in Little Rock in March, 1861, the number of delegates supporting secession and the number of delegates supporting the Union were roughly equal. The convention conducted its regular business, electing officers and the like, while observers tried to guess what the final vote would decide. On March 11, those favoring secession gave their reasons. They listed six objections to remaining in the Union. These were:

  • In the northern states, a new political party had recently formed, and its central and controlling idea was hostility to the institution of “African slavery.” The newly elected President and Vice President were members of this party.
  • The government of the United States was threatening to deny the southern states protection to “slave property” by declaring that any states added to the Union would not allow slavery. (Up to this time, the country had carefully added one slave state and one free state around the same time, keeping the United States Senate balanced between the two positions. Michigan became a state shortly after Arkansas did so.)
  • Northern politicians claimed that Congress had the power to abolish slavery in the territories, in the District of Columbia, and in forts, arsenals, and dock yards owned by the government, even in southern states.
  • The United States government obstructed faithful execution of its own fugitive slave laws (which required the return of an escaped slave to his or her owner, even if he or she had reached a free state).
  • The United States government denied citizens of southern states the right of transit through free states with their slaves and the right to hold those slaves while sojourning temporarily in free states.
  • The United States government “degraded American citizens” by allowing “equality with Negroes at the ballot box.”

Directly or indirectly, all six of these reasons are connected to slavery.

As the convention continued to meet, it remained clear that the delegates were almost equally divided. After several more days, the convention decided to schedule an election for August in which all the voters of Arkansas could choose between secession or remaining in the Union. With this accomplished, the convention adjourned and the delegates returned home.

The next month, the Civil War began, as shots were fired at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. President Lincoln sent out a message calling for soldiers from each of the states that had not seceded to join the United States Army. The governor of Arkansas refused to provide a single soldier to fight against fellow southerners. Instead, he called the convention back into session. Meeting on May 6, the delegates called for a vote the proposal that had been made on March 11. Perhaps some of them had forgotten the reasons given on March 11; more likely they didn’t care. The vote in favor of the motion to secede was 65 to five. Four of the delegates who voted no then changed their vote, seeking unanimity. Only one of the seventy refused to support leaving the United States and joining the Confederacy.

In this way, and for these reasons, Arkansas entered the Civil War. Next week, I will describe how the Civil War nearly began in Arkansas rather than at Fort Sumter. J.