Institutional Racism in the United States

Institutional Racism in the United States

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The history of the United States is one of duality.  In the words of the

Declaration of Independence, our nation was founded on the principles of

equality in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Yet, long before the

founders of the newly declared state met in Philadelphia to espouse the virtues

of self-determination and freedom that would dubiously provide a basis for a

secessionary war, those same virtues were trampled upon and swept away with

little regard.  Beneath the shining beacon of freedom that signaled the

formation of the United States of America was a shadow of deception and

duplicity that was essential in creating the state. The HSS 280 class lexicon

defines duality as “a social system that results from a worldview which accepts

inherent contradictions as reasonable because this is to the believer's benefit.”

The early years of what would become the United States was characterized by a

system of duality that subjugated and exterminated peoples for the benefit of

the oppressors. This pattern of duality, interwoven into our culture, has

created an dangerously racialized society.  From the first moment a colonist

landed on these shores, truths that were “self-evident” were contingent on

subjective “interpretation.”  This discretionary application of rights and

freedoms is the foundation upon which our racially stratified system operates on.


               English colonists, Africans, and Native Americans comprised the early

clash of three peoples. Essentially economic interests, and namely capitalism,

provided the impetus for the relationships that developed between the English

colonists, the Africans, and the Native Americans. The colonialization of North

American by the British was essentially an economic crusade.  The emergence of

capitalism and the rise of trade throughout the 16th century provided the

British with a blueprint to expand its economic and political sphere.  The

Americas provided the British with extensive natural resources, resources that

the agrarian-unfriendly British isles could not supply for its growing empire.


               When Britons arrived in North America, the indigenous population posed

an economic dilemma to the colonists.  The Native Americans were settled on the

land that the British colonists needed to expand their economic capacity.  To

provide a justificatory framework for the expulsion of Native Americans off

their land, the English colonists created a ideology that suited their current



               The attitude of Anglos toward the Native Americans began as one of

ambivalence and reliance.  When the English first arrived in North America, they

needed the Indians to survive the unfamiliar land and harsh weather.  Once the

English became acclimated to their surroundings and realized that the Indians

were living on valuable land, it was only a matter of time before guns and

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shackles replaced treaties and handshakes.


               In the name of Christianity and capitalism, the English colonists

quickly turned their backs on the short lived missionary zeal that characterized

the early colonial period.  Now, the “savage Indians” were viewed as unable to

save themselves and extermination would be a worthy enterprise in the sight of

the Lord.  The idea that one possesses a God-given right to mistreat others runs

through much of Western culture and became especially acute in North America

after the emergence of capitalism.


               For example, in New England many settlers rejoiced at the extraordinary

death brought upon the Native American population by the introduction of

epidemic diseases.  It was viewed as a way of “thinning out” the population.  In

the world of the New Jerusalem, where a city was to be build upon a hill, such

trite concerns were of little consequence for those with divine providence.


               Duality, and its means of placing the truth and its allied freedoms in

the hands of the powerful, furnishes the “chosen ones” with wide latitude to

create theoretical arguments that justify and perpetuate systemic arrangements

of inequality.  John Winthrop outlined his reasoning for the British right to

North American land in terms of natural rights versus civil rights.  Natural

rights were those that men enjoyed in a state of nature (i.e. Native Americans).

When some men began to parcel land and use tilled farming, they acquired civil

rights (English colonists).  Inevitably, civil rights took precedence over

natural rights.  This method of thinking enabled privilege to the English and

provided a justification for the institutional and systemic extermination of the

indigenous people (Growth 83).


               Before addressing the subjugation of African-Americans by the English, I

think it is important that I make an important theoretical point in my argument.

All political systems are rational, in the sense that there is a logic and a

thinking that guides those making the rules. White supremacy and its associated

beliefs (Christianity, patriarchalism, etc) provided the rationale for the

creation of a system of duality that institutionalized racism.  Robert Smith

writes about the inherent contradiction of espousing the self-evident equality

of men and their God-given right to liberty while at the same time sanctioning

genocide and slavery (Smith 8).  The only way this incongruity could be remedied

was to deny the fundamental humanity of those being oppressed.    That negation

of one group humanity by another is the crux of duality and a principle tenet of

all forms of oppression and subjugation.  To objectify a group of people

provides an oppressor with a recourse for the actions one takes.  In the case of

the United States, subjugated groups are often reduced to a stereotype that is

not based in fact: Native Americans were wild savages; Africans were lascivious,

lewd beings that engaged in bestiality with apes; Asians were sneaky, mysterious

and not to be trusted.  What is important is the stereotype fit an institutional

definition that allows the group to be oppressed without self-reflection about

one's perverse actions. Professor Turner mentioned in class the Sarte quote, ”To

be a stone, you must make all around you stone.”  And to act as a savage, one

must make those around oneself savages.


               To address the enslavement of Africans, it becomes necessary to once

again look at the economics that fueled the decision to bring slavery to the

United States.  In capitalism, a driving force is to minimize costs and, as a

result, maximize profits.  The labor intensive tobacco and cotton fields

presented the need for a low cost labor supply.  Impelled by white supremacy,

the English began to move away from the system of indentured servitude that

characterized the early years of colonialization and towards slavery.


               By definition slavery must be sanctioned by the society in which it

exists and such approval is most easily expressed in written norms and laws.

From the moment Africans set foot in North America, they faced a system that

perpetuated and encouraged their enslavement.


               Throughout the 17th century, laws and regulations regarding slaves were

becoming more explicit in their dehumanization.  All questions of whether these

men and women would be seen as such were erased with a number of legislations

that sough to erase any ambiguities.  By 1705 the only real question remaining

was what type of property the slave was to his captor..  Ringer writes “by 1705,

Virginia had rationalized, codified, and judicially affirmed it exclusion of

blacks from any basic concept of human rights under the law” (Ringer 67).


               Intrinsic to the subjugation of Africans was an ideology that reduced

Africans to lesser beings.  Reasoning behind this idea has gone from Christian

beliefs to “scientific” evidence to current day beliefs in African-American

laziness (an idea whose roots are as old as white supremacy) and the use of IQ

tests as measures of innate intelligence. What has stayed constant is a

manipulation of the “truth” and a myopic self-interest by those parties with an

interest in keeping privilege.


               White supremacy and it dualistic vision of society became

institutionalized in colonial North America, emanating from the base and

structure of society.  The Civil War Amendments to the Constitution were no more

than words on paper, with short lived legislative muscle.  From the vision of

Forty Acres and a Mule, the newly freed African-Americans moved on to

sharecropping, lynchings, and segregation.


               The mid to late 19th century witnessed the beginning of Chinese

migration to the United States.  Immediately, they were met by various laws and

ordinances designed to restrict their economic, political, and social

advancement.  This was combined with racial commentaries that echoed those

levied against Native Americans and Africans.  The Chinese were heathen, morally

inferior, savage, and childlike.  The Chinese were also viewed as lustful and

sensual.  Often Chinese immigrants were depicted in cartoons with devil-like

features and devious expressions.


               Economics also played an important role in the discrimination Chinese

faced in the United States.  Chinese exclusion, a policy initiated in 1882,

banned U.S. entry to Chinese laborers. After the U.S. acquisition of California

in 1848, there arose a need for cheap labor, and Chinese flocked there to work

on the railroads. By 1867 they numbered 50,000; their number increased after the

Burlingame Treaty of 1868, which permitted Chinese immigration but not

naturalization. Anti-Asian prejudice and the competition with American workers

led to anti-Chinese riots in San Francisco in 1877, then to the Chinese

Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned Chinese immigration for 10 years.  Once

again inherent contradictions were seen as reasonable because it was to the

believer's benefit.  A scarcity of employment opportunities combines with

prejudices to create a atmosphere of hatred and political blame directed toward

the Chinese immigrants (The Heathen Chinese 230-240).


               Another case of dualistic application of justice towards the Asian-

American community is the case of Japanese-American internment during the Second

World War.  In 1942, Lt. Gen. John L. De Witt rationalized the deportation of

Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans with “A Jap is a Jap”.  When second-

generation Japanese-Americans in the nation's ten concentration camps were

drafted for the war effort for cannon fodder, outraged Japanese-Americans formed

the Fair Play Committee to protest the conscription of those who were not

guaranteed the least bit of civil rights.  In reply, the US government jailed

those who refused to serve, questioning their loyalty and admonishing them for

not embracing the opportunity to discharge the duties of citizenship.
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