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Race and Racism From Pre-Revolutionary America to the Civil War

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Between 1525 and 1866, 12.5 million people were kidnapped from Africa and sent to the Americas through the transatlantic slave trade. Only 10.7 million survived the harrowing two month journey. Comprehending the sheer scale of this forced migration—and slavery’s subsequent spread across the country via interregional trade—can be a daunting task, but as historian Leslie Harris told Smithsonian’s Amy Crawford earlier this year, framing “these big concepts in terms of individual lives … can [help you] better understand what these things mean.”

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Segregation remains an intractable force in American life, more than 60 years after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling outlawed racial separation in America’s schools. The Government Accountability Office recently estimated that more than 20 million students of color attend public schools that are racially or socioeconomically isolated. This figure has increased in recent decades, despite a raft of federal and state initiatives. Major cities like New York and Chicago struggle with high levels of residential segregation, especially at the neighborhood level. The entrenched correlation between race and poverty is partly to blame, but segregation catches even affluent people of color. A recent study found that, while only 9 percent of white Americans earning $100,000 or more lived in poor areas, 37 percent of African-Americans on the same income level lived in poorer neighborhoods. If we want to understand why racial segregation still exists in America, we should start by understanding its origins. The most widely accepted account puts the blame for creating segregation on white Southerners. According to this version, defeated Confederates regrouped after the Civil War to prevent the federal government from making African-Americans equal citizens. If slavery could no longer be sustained, racist Southerners would use other weapons to intimidate and disenfranchise their black neighbors

By the 1880s, Southern whites had created the Jim Crow system, which enforced racial segregation throughout the South. Only with the advent of the civil rights movement would African-Americans succeed in dismantling this system of local oppression—with the help of Northern supporters and, crucially, a newly engaged federal government under President Lyndon B. Johnson. This account creates two false narratives: it presents institutionalized segregation as a Southern-only problem, and it sets American history on an upward trajectory from oppression to freedom. We miss the national roots of America’s segregation problem because we assume that the battle over slavery predated the fight for black citizenship, and that segregation struggles were a re-run of North versus South. On the contrary, the obstacles to integration in America were an offshoot of the nation’s revolutionary ideology as well as its long history of racial exploitation.

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Yet, this constitutional ending of slavery illustrated just one of several approaches to slavery’s northern end. In Massachusetts, a combination of slaves suing for their individual emancipation, an organized slave petition drive, black soldiers fighting against the British, a state constitution that declared the freedom of all men, judicial decree, white’s unease with their ideological hypocrisy, and a mixed economy that condoned but did not require slavery all pushed the decline of human bondage. In Pennsylvania, the greater reliance upon slave labor mandated compensation in the form of gradual emancipation laws. The Pennsylvania statute of 1780 ended slavery by shortening the period of “servitude” from perpetuity to 28 years. Even as northern states ended slavery, they continued to define black people as legal and political subordinates, as servants who had essentially been given a bit more room to make decisions for themselves (François Furstenberg). Even abolition, the legal ending of slavery as an institution, did not escape the grasp of racist intentionality. Never mind the desire and action of black Patriots who had fought the British; in the minds of many whites, it was white people who had earned their independence from Great Britain. Moreover, the act of freeing slaves could confirm the emancipator as a virtuous person, especially if the master wondered whether the freed person could properly exercise the duties of citizenship (Richard S. Newman). This profound paternalism informed much of the interaction between white and black abolitionists throughout the nineteenth century. Emancipation and abolition were different and the same. Emancipation only meant that one person had gained release from unending servitude. Abolition meant the necessary end of all lifetime bondage. Both sprang from the growing ideological chasm between slavery and freedom, but neither could close the widening gap between slavery and race. Both led to the end of slavery in the north, but neither diminished the idea, that in the realms of politics, religion, science, and daily routine, somehow black people remained lesser and should remain subordinate. That racism would continue on without slavery marked a significant change in this pernicious phenomenon. However, the fact that racism has changed along with its historical contexts also explains why, yet again, it has reared up in such unequivocal and unyielding fashion. In consequence, it will continue to be a problem that so many people believe that it is necessary to “Make America Great Again” when America failed at its very beginning.

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Overall, educating people about damaging, inaccurate stereotypes is recommended. Small focus groups involving individuals of different races could be organized through agencies, schools, universities or churches. Discussion of racial stereotypes and attitudes in a safe format would allow people to explore and possibly discard stereotypes. Individuals can reassess their own prejudices and biases and effect a change within themselves. Through a non-judgmental process of exploration, the possibility that people who believe and perpetuate stereotypes do so not out of hate but as a means of protecting themselves can be considered. They may do so out of ignorance, habit or fear rather than maliciousness. By suspending our disbelief and seeing each person as an individual rather than through the eyes of a preconceived stereotype, we can begin this change on the individual level

As a result, resolution on the community and societal levels can occur.

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François Furstenberg, “Beyond Freedom and Slavery: Autonomy, Virtue, and Resistance in Early American Political Discourse,” The Journal of American History, v. 89, 4 (March 2003), p. 1298; Jared Hardesty, Slavery and Dependence in Eighteenth-Century Boston (New York University Press, 2016)

(Ceasar Sarter (former slave), “Essay on Slavery,” The Essex Journal and Merrimack Packet, August 17, 1774

Richard S. Newman, The Transformation of American Abolitionism: Fighting Slavery in the Early Republic (University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

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