As a white historian I often feel ashamed of the the past behavior of my “race” (itself a misleading concept). When I say this to other Whites, they often reply, “Yea, but I’m not responsible for what earlier white people did.” Yes, but still…. Do we really have no obligation to atone for the previous misdeeds of our group? Whether it be a family, a city, a nation, a religion, an ethnic group, or whatever? Did the children of Nazis have no responsibilities to remaining European Jews after their fathers helped kill 6 million other Jews?
The mention of Nazis indicates that Whites in various countries have been guilty of racist behavior (sometimes even holocausts) against others. Lately, it seems, everywhere I turn I’m reminded of this.
First, I began watching Amazon Prime’s mesmerizing 10-part series The Underground Railroad, with all of its depictions of the evils of slavery and slave catchers. Then I watched (also on Prime) the film White Lies. It deals with a woman who had some Maori (the native people of New Zealand and Australia) blood; but because of animus against darker skin, her mother had disguised it by using a whitening agent. The next night on PBS’s Newshour there was a segment on the current phenomenon of skin whitening among people of color, in the USA and elsewhere.
On that same Newshour, there was another segment entitled “Tulsa race massacre  survivors, advocates testify before House committee.” The previous night the Newshour featured an interview discussing an 83-page American-Medical-Association report that found that the organization is “rooted in white patriarchy.” On 23 May, almost a year after the policeman killing of George Floyd, The Boston Globe featured an essay entitled “I Too, Rage America,” which stated, “Our elders were tortured, burned, and hanged while hundreds and even thousands of white folk watched …. They took photos and made souvenirs of our suffering, sometimes with pieces of us attached. America delighted in our deaths. They murdered us and called it just back then. Now…[after Floyd’s murder] it feels as though America has learned to value us in our deaths instead of doing the liberation work that would lead to our long lives.”
But back to White Lies. Itis set in the 1920s New Zealand and begins by showing a full-blooded Maori heroine getting beaten as a child by white settlers who also kill members of her family. English settlers often treated Maoris like some Whites treated Native Americans. In an eaarlier essay I mentioned that because of English-brought diseases and socioeconomic policies from 1840 to 1891, “the Māori population may have halved.”
In that same essay I wrote, “In subjugating various Siberian indigenous peoples the [Russian] conquerors were often aided by epidemics like smallpox and measles, which sometimes wiped out more than half a people’s population.” I was reminded of the fate of so many Siberian tribes just the other night while watching famed director Werner Herzog’s documentary A Happy People: A Year in the Taiga. One of the descendants of a native Siberian complains of the drunkenness among his people and adds, “The Russians are to blame! Without the Russians, there wouldn't have been vodka.” Remind anyone of the legacy of U.S. Whites mistreatment of Native Americans?
As a historian, I have often dealt with past whites racism. Here are just a few examples from my book An Age of Progress? Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces, where I deal with imperialism and racism (often combined) as well as other 20th century developments.
From 1876 to 1915, Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, and Italy took over, or less often redistributed, about one-fourth of the world’s lands, including most of Africa, which were added to already substantial overseas colonies such as India and the Dutch East Indies. The United States also participated in the imperialism and racism of that time.
A good example was our takeover of the Philippines, following the Spanish-American War (1898). Here is what one participating U. S. officer had to say about the conflict: “Our men have been relentless, have killed to exterminate men, women, and children, prisoners and captives, active insurgents and suspected people, from lads of ten up, an idea prevailing that the Filipino was little better than a dog.” Another U. S. combatant wrote: “There is not a feature of the whole miserable business that a patriotic American citizen…can look upon with complacency, much less with pride…It is an utterly causeless and defenseless war…The longer it is continued, the greater crime it becomes.” Still another U. S. soldier described a specific attack as such: “We burned hundreds of houses and looted hundreds more. Some of the boys made good hauls of jewelry and clothing.” And finally, “We bombarded a place called Malabon, and then we went in and killed every native we met, men, women, and children. It was a dreadful sight, the killing of the poor creatures.”
Although non-white racism and, more commonly, ethnic prejudice and atrocities have also been widespread in history, what is most galling to me is the racism of Whites here in the USA and how long it has continued in a country that some Whites consider an “exceptional nation” and a beacon of light for the rest of the world.
In These Truths: A History of the United States, historian Jill Lepore writes that “between 1500 and 1800, roughly two and a half million [white] Europeans moved to the Americas; they carried twelve million Africans there by force; and as many as fifty million Native Americans died, chiefly of disease.” Admittedly, not all of those millions were in the USA, but many were. And how can anyone defend it? And even after ending centuries of slavery and decimating Native Americans, the racism continued and continues and continues—for more than a century and a half after President Lincoln emancipated the slaves.
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And even before he ended slavery, many people knew of its evils. And not just in the South, where slavery prevailed. In no small part this was due to the immense popularity of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), a heart-rending novelistic depiction of the monstrosity of Southern slavery.In his excellent Mightier than the Sword(2011), David Reynolds writes that “it moved millions.” And “no book in American history molded public opinion more powerfully than Uncle Tom’s Cabin…. It set sales records for American fiction. An international sensation, it was soon translated into many languages.”
This tremendous popularity occurred mainly in the North. As Reynolds writes, “Southerners denounced the novel.” (More later on why so many Southerners “denounced” it and why so many Americans continue to downplay prejudicial and disgraceful behavior toward Blacks.)
Following the post-Civil-War period of Reconstruction, in which President Grant attempted to impose fairer treatment for southern Blacks, racists gained the upper hand in the South, where about 90 percent of African Americans continued to live. Such racists were aided by U. S. Lost-Cause pseudo history, which “celebrated antebellum Southern slaveholding society” and depicted Reconstruction as a scheme foisted on the South by Northerners. Between 1877 and 1950, over 5000 “racial terror lynchings” occurred, overwhelmingly in the South, eventually helping to propel the “mass migration of millions of Black people from the South into urban ghettos in the North and West.”
Besides lynchings and other forms of violence, Southern racists employed segregation, which in 1896 the Supreme Court upheld. In 1913 government officials in Washington, D.C. began the official segregation of their employees. Segregated schools, churches, housing, restaurants, bars, hospitals, barber shops, public transportation and restrooms became commonplace throughout the South, and for the most part remained so until after a Supreme Court decision of 1954 ruled that segregated public schools were unconstitutional. Even after that, compliance was slow, with “states rights” often given as an excuse. Most forms of segregation continued into the 1960s. (Living in northern Virginia in the early 1960s, I remember picketing a segregated movie theater.) Finally, the civil rights campaign of Martin Luther King and others, plus actions of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, finally began to achieve major results. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, for example, gave the federal government powers to enhance Black voting rights. Thus, from 1964 to 1969, the percentage of black registered voters increased almost tenfold in Mississippi and more than threefold in Alabama.
Now, however, Republican efforts in many states are attempting to make voting harder, which will (as Republicans know) disproportionately affect people of color.
But why? Why have white racist attitudes continued century after century, decade after decade? Three cause that seem prominent are as follows:
- First, ignorance. Many Whites simply didn’t and don’t know many Blacks well. When I attended a Catholic grade school in Ohio, no Blacks attended it and none lived in my neighborhood. Segregation, whether formal, as once in the South, or informal as often in housing encourages ignorance and the belief in myths like Black “welfare queens” who fleeced the welfare system for ill-got gains or believing that many Blacks are poor because they are lazy—a belief much more likely among Republicans than Democrats.
- Second, irrationality, a subject I addressed in my "A Rational World It’s Not." It’s simply true that many of us are more influenced by our feelings, culture, and sub-cultures, including our friends, our occupations, and the media we follow, than we we are by relying on solid reasoning and logic.
- Third, psychological insecurity. In Kris Kristofferson’s “Jesus Was a Capricorn,” he sings, “Cause everybody's gotta have somebody to look down on.” Unfortunately, too often that’s true. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe indicates an example of this when she describes a Kentucky slaveowner looking at one of his hired out slaves who “talked so fluently, held himself so erect, looked so handsome and manly, that his master began to feel an uneasy consciousness of inferiority. What business had his slave to be marching round the country…and holding up his head among gentlemen? He'd soon put a stop to it. He'd take him back, and put him to hoeing and digging.”
Now in 2021, more than a century and a half after Uncle Tom’s Cabin, where are we? The Trump presidency encouraged racist fears, whether directed at Blacks or immigrants—or sometimes both at once, as when Trump referred to Haiti as a “shithole” country. And by all sorts of other measures—e.g., percentages of covid deaths, police victimization, and imprisonment rates; poverty; and educational attainment—the lives of African Americans (as well as other minorities like Native Americans) continue to display the effects of centuries of racism. But other signs, including the Biden presidency, offer us some hope.
Perhaps it is still not too late, as President Lincoln said in 1865, to proceed "with malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right…to bind up the nation’s wounds.” And perhaps we can still achieve Martin Luther King’s dream of a future when more “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
Walter G. Moss