Race in US History: 4 Facts Every American Should Know

In “Why You Can’t Understand Conservative Rhetoric“, I described a process by which certain words and phrases lose all real meaning and become nothing more than pejorative labels that the Right attaches to whatever it doesn’t like. Through repetition, the movement’s followers have been trained to respond to “political correctness” and “cancel culture” like a bull to the color red; whatever those labels get attached to makes them angry, independent of whatever might be going on underneath the label.

An extreme example of this phenomenon is this week’s opposition to removing the bust of war criminal and KKK grand wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest from a prominent place in the Tennessee state capitol and placing it in the Tennessee State Museum, where General Forrest’s memory might be assessed objectively rather than simply glorified. (Far from a liberal plot, this is the recommendation of the historical commission appointed by the Republican governor.) But rather than asking “Do we want Tennessee and its legislature to be identified with a key figure in the origin of the Klan?”, moving Forrest’s statue has been labeled “cancel culture”, which must be resisted at all costs.

The latest phrase to get the political-correctness treatment is “critical race theory”. For example, Wednesday when Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced a proposal to overhaul civics education, he made it clear that certain views of American history should not be taught:

Let me be clear: there’s no room in our classrooms for things like critical race theory. Teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other is not worth one red cent of taxpayer money.

Bills to ban critical teaching about race in American history are being proposed in Republican controlled legislatures around the country. (Sometimes the ideas being banned are connected to the New York Times 1619 Project or anti-racism.) In nearly every case, critical race theory is never defined, but rather is given a negative description like DeSantis’ phrase “teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other”. These bills are often accompanied with proposals to teach a more traditional, all-positive view of American history, as South Dakota’s Governor Noem proposes:

I have tasked my administration with creating instructional materials and classroom resources on America’s founding, our nation’s history, and the state’s history. We must also do a better job educating teachers on these three subjects. Through all of this, our common mission and key objective needs to be explaining why the United States of America is the most special nation in the history of the world.

Similarly, former President Trump called for educational programs that teach students “to love America with all of their heart and all of their soul.” Such a rah-rah view of American history and the US’s role in the world gets contrasted with the “indoctrination” and “ideology” of critical race theory. As DeSantis said:

Our schools are supposed to give people a foundation of knowledge, not supposed to be indoctrination centers, where you’re trying to push specific ideologies.

These efforts build on the rhetoric in two Trump executive orders: One banned anti-racism training at companies that contract with the government, and the other established a 1776 Commission to push a US history curriculum opposed to the 1619 Project. Neither order used the phrase “critical race theory”, but instead denounced “a series of polemics grounded in poor scholarship” that “has vilified our Founders and our founding”.

This ideology is rooted in the pernicious and false belief that America is an irredeemably racist and sexist country; that some people, simply on account of their race or sex, are oppressors; and that racial and sexual identities are more important than our common status as human beings and Americans.

As I pointed out in “Why You Can’t Understand Conservative Rhetoric”, phrases picked out for vilification are never defined, they are just labeled and described in a pejorative way. (Often they are described falsely. For example, anti-racist training would serve no purpose if America actually were “irredeemably racist”. Redemption is the whole point.)

So what is this “pernicious and false” doctrine? Time magazine described it as “a way of seeing the world that helps people recognize the effects of historical racism in modern American life”.

The intellectual movement behind the idea was started by legal scholars as a way to examine how laws and systems uphold and perpetuate inequality for traditionally marginalized groups.

But I think it’s important not to get lost in abstraction. Most Americans are not abstract thinkers, and when confronted with theories that are too airy to grasp, they often do what Trump, DeSantis, and the others are urging them to do: Give the abstraction a label and accept or reject it once and for all.

So instead, I want to offer a small number of facts that I believe (1) are essential to understanding the significance of race in American history, and (2) are never going to be taught in the kinds of courses Trump, DeSantis, and Noem are picturing.

1. From the turn of the 19th century to the Civil War, slavery was at the center of the American economy.

Yale historian David Blight:

by 1860, there were more millionaires (slaveholders all) living in the lower Mississippi Valley than anywhere else in the United States. In the same year, the nearly 4 million American slaves were worth some $3.5 billion, making them the largest single financial asset in the entire U.S. economy, worth more than all manufacturing and railroads combined.

Obviously, slavery was central to the Southern economy. In just a few decades time, the entire states of Mississippi and Alabama were taken from Native American tribes, were converted to farm land by enslaved Africans, and became the most productive cotton fields in the world.

But the importance of slavery went much further: Although Virginia did not grow much cotton, its prosperity depended on exporting slaves to the developing slave states. The factories of the North were largely textile mills that gained advantage over English mills from easy and tariff-free access to Southern cotton. So from one end of the country to the other, American prosperity was based on slavery.

Slavery is also the hidden backstory to much of American history. For example, the motivation for Texas to secede from Mexico was that Mexico was beginning to enforce its anti-slavery laws. In that sense, the battle of the Alamo really was about freedom, but not in the way I was taught in high school.

To follow up on these facts, look at The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward Baptist, The American Slave Coast by Ned and Constance Sublette, and Empire of Cotton by Sven Beckert.

2. The melting-pot miracle was based on creating a new White identity that rejected and stood above Blackness.

Something genuinely wonderful about American history is the way that Europeans from warring countries could come to America and live in peace. Certainly there was rivalry and sometimes conflict between European ethnic groups. (The HBO series Broadwalk Empire centers on the struggle between Irish and Italian gangs to dominate the Prohibition booze trade.) But it was truly marvelous how French and German and Polish people could homestead western lands and become neighbors, while their relatives back in Europe continued to hate each other.

It is pleasant to tell this story as a unified “American” identity replacing previous identities as Czechs and Serbs, but there’s more to it than that: Russians and Swedes didn’t just learn to be American, they learned to be White. The same deal was not available to Black or Chinese people. (Whether it was available to Jews varied by location and era.) By identifying as White, Europeans came into the American caste system at a level one or two steps above the bottom rung of the ladder, which was reserved for non-Whites.

You can learn more about this process in Learning to be White by Thandeka.

3. The public investments that created the great American middle class intentionally excluded Black Americans.

The most obvious example is the segregated public school system, which helped poor White children gain the skills they needed to rise in the world, but either formally or informally herded Black children into schools with much less to offer. The New Deal and G. I. Bill programs that created the American Dream as we know it contained loopholes that Blacks consistently fell through: Social Security and the minimum wage didn’t apply to occupations with substantial numbers of Black people, like agricultural and domestic workers. The government would not guarantee home loans in the “red-lined” neighborhoods where most Black people lived. Black veterans of World War II could get help paying for college, but only if they found a college willing to accept them. And so on.

Learn more about this in When Affirmative Action Was White by Ira Katznelson.

4. White support for those programs faded after LBJ extended them to Black people.

By the 1950s, New Deal programs (and the high tax rates on the wealthy that paid for them) were no longer controversial. In a 1954 letter to his brother, Republican President Eisenhower wrote:

Should any political party attempt to abolish social security unemployment insurance and eliminate labor laws and farm programs you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group of course that believes you can do these things. Among them are a few other Texas oil millionaires and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.

But then the Civil Rights movement happened. 1954 was the year the Supreme Court ordered school desegregation. The 1958-59 school year became “the Lost Year” after Governor Faubus of Arkansas closed all of Little Rock’s public high schools rather than integrate them. In 1963, President Kennedy had to federalize the Alabama National Guard to move Governor Wallace aside so that the first Black student could enroll in the University of Alabama. 1964 brought the Civil Rights Act banning racial discrimination. It was followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which ended Jim Crow disenfranchisement.

Lo and behold, the Eisenhower consensus went away. When government programs offered Blacks the same helping hand they had been offering Whites for decades, Whites didn’t like them any more. Right-wing rabble-rousers stigmatized government programs as a way to tax Whites and give money to Blacks, and a small-government anti-tax movement started. Democrats became identified as the party of government, and no Democratic presidential candidate has received a majority of the White vote since LBJ in 1964.

As a result, tuition-free state universities are gone, inflation has eaten away the value of the minimum wage, and we argue about issues like whether children should get medical care.

Read more about this in The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee.

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  • Creigh Gordon  On March 22, 2021 at 10:35 am

    It does occur to me that a word which often has no defined meaning and is used pejoratively is “racist.”

    • weeklysift  On March 25, 2021 at 10:54 am

      It seems to me that a considerable amount of effort has gone into discussing what the definition should be, and to classifying different kinds of racism.

  • Roger  On March 22, 2021 at 10:44 am

    An excellent summary for ahistorical Americans.

  • donquixote99  On March 22, 2021 at 11:08 am

    Creigh, maybe you’d like the word ‘otherist’ better. I define it as the belief that some people can be regarded as ‘us,’ the in-group, and some are ‘others,’ the out-group. There’s a huge psychological literature on this universal human tendency to regard the in-group and the out-group(s) differently. But in a nutshell, one treats the in-group with ordinary good-will and easy cooperation, while the out-group is regarded with fear and suspicion, at least. Nearly universal as I said, but some people have much more developed habits along these lines than others. Our rational minds can override these impulses, but such cognition often needs a little time to work. Here, nice article in Science going into this: https://science.sciencemag.org/content/336/6083/825

  • Roger  On March 22, 2021 at 11:34 am

    Haven’t been reading the Sift since the election. Just “visited” today and was reminded what an astonishingly insightful source is here, and that the need for insight doesn’t disappear with the ousting of the black comedy authoritarian regime from the Oval Office. I’ll be restarting regular readings.

  • Roger  On March 22, 2021 at 12:08 pm

    There’s a perfectly satisfactory definition of “racism” within easy reach, viz, a caste system in which a person’s caste identity is linked to certain physical features. There are doubtless many other ways of defining the ways in which E.g. Americans, have used racial features as a litmus for evaluating character and granting or withholding caste privileges, both consciously and unconsciously.

    I don’t understand why you’d want to classify “racism” as an undefined term, unless you were just reminding us that it is a term that many whites don’t want to hear about, or that there’re some uses of the term that are contentious. Example of contentious use: a black man who says whites hates blacks is displaying “racist” attitudes. By my definition this is a fair if contentious point: it’s expected that POC understand that they are in a different social space than whites—since caste functioning assumes everyone “knows their place.”

    • Creigh Gordon  On March 23, 2021 at 9:35 am

      Roger, definitions of racism definitely can be made, but too often the accuser is thinking of one definition and the accused is thinking of a different one. The accused, by their definition, denies and resents the charge. It may be easier to get past that problem by using different terminology.

    • Moz of Yarramulla  On March 23, 2021 at 7:36 pm

      Different terminology only works if the argument is being carried out in good faith. But the larger point of the post is that it’s not good faith, and by deliberately vandalising the terms used they can defeat people trying to argue with them.

    • weeklysift  On March 25, 2021 at 11:04 am

      Several years ago I suggested distinguishing between “hot” and “cold” racism. I defined hot racism as conscious hatred based on race — KKK-style racism, in other words. Cold racism I defined as “the habitual and perhaps unconscious tendency to see people of another race differently, judge them more negatively, and react to them more harshly”.

      So if you got angry seeing President Obama put his feet up on the desk in the Oval Office, but it hadn’t bothered you when all previous recent presidents had done exactly the same thing — that might be an example of cold racism.

  • NANCY BROWNING  On March 22, 2021 at 2:09 pm

    Other great reads about this subject: Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (James Loewen); Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (Isabel Wilkerson); and The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (Richard Rothstein). Thanks!

  • Roger  On March 22, 2021 at 2:31 pm

    Re; The Color of Law. A tough read. Here’s a 17-minute video, with Rothstein’s narration, that breaks down the book: https://www.segregatedbydesign.com/

  • Derek  On March 22, 2021 at 2:42 pm

    They want to teach a history that never existed. We’ll probably be teaching that the slaves were happy and well taken care of. The history of the nation will be taught as through the constitution we became the greatest nation without mentioning that for many in the country the ideals espoused in the constitution have been unreachable.

  • Moz of Yarramulla  On March 23, 2021 at 7:33 pm

    why the United States of America is the most special nation in the history of the world.

    Is “special” still used in the sense of “kids who go on the short bus are special”? Because that seems to be the meaning used in that quote.

    I find it annoying that people who claim to oppose indoctrinating students with a particular ideology are so fixated on specifying the exact ideology that students must be taught. A bit like the christian view that “religious freedom” means the freedom to be as christian as you want to be, rather than meaning that sometimes the rota means your government opens with a prayer to satan, or jah. And that those doing so are so unwilling to compare themselves to other historical forced-religion governments like the various protestant-catholic changes in Europe or the sunni-shia ones in the middle east.

    But it’s not new – Humpty Dumpty’s catchphrase “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean” was poking fun at powerful people doing exactly that about 1650. And, obviously, 1984’s newspeak poked at the 1940’s version of the same.

    Also, from outside the US, your schools have always seemed steeped in propaganda and ideological indoctrination. There’s no balance between “we invaded Iraq and killed millions of people because FREEDOM!!” and, say, “we engaged in a campaign of war crimes to destroy Iraq because invading Saudi Arabia wasn’t possible”. But in Aotearoa the whole “this country was founded by a treaty which was largely ignored by the British leading to a war of resistance by Maori”… it’s taught both as historical fact *and* as a cultural conflict that continues to this day. And we are currently having a slow fight between “we invaded Afghanistan for terrorist reasons (and that’s bad)” (to force political change through acts of war) and whatever mealy-mouthed platitudes the lying weasels in the Department of War are using this week. History starts today… every day.

  • John  On March 24, 2021 at 11:10 am

    In mainstream religion, we are told of our inherent sinfulness and yet we do not rebel; we accept it as an understanding that paves the road to redemption. But apparently was is easy to see in our own souls offends us when applied to our society and nation. The truth of sin and love at the same time are not incompatible – except for conservative culture warriors.

  • Brian Shanahan  On March 27, 2021 at 1:59 pm

    ” When government programs offered Blacks the same helping hand they had been offering Whites for decades, Whites didn’t like them any more.”

    A mixture of the crab-bucket mentality and hatred so eclipsing your thinking that you’re willing to hurt yourself.

  • AWJ  On April 2, 2021 at 1:42 am

    Another good book about the centrality of slavery to America in the first half of the 19th century is This Vast Southern Empire by Matthew Karp. In the same way that 20th century American foreign policy was about “making the world safe for democracy”, and present-day China’s foreign policy is said to be about “making the world safe for autocracy”, 19th century America’s foreign policy was all about “making the world safe for slavery”.


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