There’s a United Nations proclamation on race and racial prejudice that also has plenty to say about ethnic discrimination, discrimination based on national origin, and religious prejudice–as if they all were in essence the same thing. These certainly are related topics, but I think it’s important to point out that they are different things. Tribalism is not in fact the same thing as racism. This post will look at the history of racism itself and “white identity” as seen in the documents and institutions at the very beginning of the United States of America. (I’d originally planned to cover a broader topic, the Rise of White Supremacy, but it proved to be too long for one post.)
To illustrate the difference between tribalism and racism, let me refer to the 1990s war in former Yugoslavia, in which (among other things) ethnic Serbs and Croats killed one another and both sides killed Bosnians. “Ethnic cleansing” was common, in which one side eliminated groups different from the majority in a certain area. Note that not only are all these people of the same race, as in European (“White”), they are all Slavic and all speak the same language. But the Serbs write their language in Cyrillic alphabet due to Orthodox Church influence, the Catholic Croats use a Latin-based alphabet, and the Bosnians studied Arabic at least on occasion, because the majority of them were Muslims. These relatively minor differences during the lifespan of an officially secular Yugoslavia, differences which had absolutely nothing to do with race, proved to be enough motive to slaughter one another when the central authority of Yugoslavia dissolved.
Human tribalism of this sort has always been around, which I already mentioned as “ethnocentrism”–people able to hate and loathe one another based on their perception of the others being different. And note that while religion was an important element in identifying the different tribes in ex-Yugoslavia, the war wasn’t really about religion. The war wasn’t about forced conversions–it instead featured murders, rapes, and driving people out of their homes. Horrible tribalism–but that isn’t the same as racism. The war in former Yugoslavia had nothing to do with racism.
So the observation that racism is new, an observation played out out in these posts, is not meant to downplay the human capacity to be tribal and decide to slaughter or otherwise abuse other people. That’s always been around. But racism is something else.
Racism in the US Constitution
Unless you’ve read it recently, you may be surprised to hear only one race is directly mentioned in the US Constitution. Let me quote the pertinent bit, under Section 2, talking about the US House of Representatives:
Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.
By the way, the 14th Amendment repealed the “three fifths of all other Persons” section. However, the “Indians not taxed” part was not repealed. American Indians in the United States were not considered US citizens until 1924.
That’s right–the one race directly mentioned (and let’s be clear that most Americans at the time of the ratification of the Constitution thought of it as a race) is “Indians.” “Indians not taxed” were not to be included in the count of “the whole Number” of persons, whether free or not, because legally speaking the government of the United States regarded “Indians” as members of other nations. Nations with which the United States could conduct trade and upon whom the United States could declare war. Which doesn’t perhaps sound directly racist–after all, Native American tribes also regarded themselves as separate nations. However, the Declaration of Independence describes Indians as “merciless” and “savages,” so there should be no doubt that American Indians were definitely defined as “not people like us” by the Founding Fathers of the United States. Not just another race, but a race that most of the people of the United States believed it was only natural that “we” (“we” as in “we the people” of the United States) should be at war with.
Note that when the Bureau of Indian Affairs was established in 1824, it was part of the US War Department (which would later be renamed “the Department of Defense”). Not until 1849 would the bureau be placed in the newly-created Department of the Interior. I’m mentioning this to back up the idea that the early US government generally did think of American Indians as people–but “people we are at war with.”
Three Fifths Human?
I recall a conversation with an Army fellow soldier years ago, who was black, in which he was explaining to me the justification the Constitution had for saying black people are only to be counted as three fifths of white people. He said, “It’s because they didn’t believe black people had souls. That’s the missing two fifths.”
Let’s look at this as it actually was, neither over excusing nor over accusing. The reality was the 3/5 number came from a political compromise. Slavery had not been legal in any of the first colonies as they began, not directly anyway, but Southern colonies after a number of decades of African indentured servitude passed law codes recognizing and codifying slavery. However, Northern colonies also adopted law codes that recognized and permitted slavery, in part because some merchants based in Northern colonies were involved in the sale of enslaved people to plantations in the South.
But roughly around the time of the American Revolution, Northern attitudes about slavery being legal changed (though in fact some Northerners were always anti-slavery). Slavery was taken off the books and made illegal in various ways. These events were inspired in part by Christians who objected to the practice of holding black people permanently in slavery.
So at the Constitutional Convention, many Northern representatives were arguing for the abolition of slavery everywhere, North and South. Southerners representatives argued for it. To make a long story short, the two sides struck a series of compromises that included counting people who were not free as 3/5ths of a free person.
It wasn’t a deliberate statement about black people. It just kinda happened. Which doesn’t mean it wasn’t damaging in effect. Or wasn’t reprehensible. But it did not reflect a widespread belief that black people are soulless. Such a belief was not in fact common at the time…or else Southerners would not have supported Christian evangelism among those held in slavery, which they in general did very much support. Though it is true that racists considered black people inferior, as I will mention in a bit.
Note the careful, careful language of the section of US Constitution I quoted above. It identifies “free Persons” and directly states “Indians” but when talking about slavery it says “all other Persons.” The word “slavery” itself does not appear. This ginger treatment stems from the political compromise reqired to get people ardently against slavery to sign the document.
But the law codes of various states make it clear what we’re talking about here. State codes, which I won’t directly quote, mention “Negroes” and make it plain they can either be free or slaves, but were the only race who could be enslaved in a way the law would support. That is, kidnapping or forcing a person to work was a crime, written in the law codes of various states as a crime–but excepting slavery, excepting “Negroes.” A black person did not have the same status before the law as the default position the law took in defending the general public.
So by inversion of those specifically mentioned as eligible for slavery, we get what the legal definition of a white person was. A white person was anyone who was not an Indian who could not be legally enslaved. Note this definition of a white person isn’t mentioned in the US Constitution at all, it’s derived from a comparision of documents.
How Rights Made White
Another important element needs to be emphasized here. It’s based on one of the ways ancient world slavery was different from modern world slavery.
As I mentioned in my previous post, anyone could be a slave in the ancient world. Slavery wasn’t linked to any specific race, not permanently.
Part of why it wasn’t relates to the idea of having rights. If you traveled back in time and told an ancient Roman that all people have “inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of hapiness,” he or she would look at you as if you dropped in from outer space, even if you were wearing a Roman toga and speaking Latin…(though granted they’d be even more astounded if you showed up in modern clothing, speaking English 🙂 )
Why? Because “inalienable rights,” as in “rights that nobody can take away from you,” is something Romans didn’t believe in. They believed it was perfectly fine to take away another person’s rights. Though they also beleived in rule of law, in a sense they believed “might makes right.” That is, by right of conquest, it’s legal to make you or anyone else a slave.
But the United States formed at time when “rights of man” had gained prominence in Western thought. The inspiration for such ideas came from philosophers writing in French like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and and Montesquieu. These ideas were not at all unpopular in the United Kingdom, but the Continental Congress and the early United States argued that the British had denied the rights of what would become the United States, rights to taxation only with representation (which stems from Rousseau’s Social Contract theory of government). Many Americans also argued that having any king at all was a sign the United Kingdom was a den of oppressive despots.
Today we recognize that as American Revolutionary War rhetoric, since the UK was one of the freest nations of the 18th Century, though there’s no doubt many Americans believed having a king, any king, was a bad thing. Which is something worth considering here. If no one has the right to be king, if everyone has supposedly equal rights, how could anyone justify holding a particular race in slavery?
The sinister answer the culture cooked up was this one–the reason black people don’t deserve the same rights is because there is something wrong with them. They are not like us. They are defective somehow.
But note that without a concept of “universal rights of man” (as the French Revolution would put it in 1789), a concept we can without reservation consider praiseworthy, it wouldn’t have been necessary to in effect declare some people are not entirely human. Of course the motive for not seeing black people as entirely human was profit, as mentioned in the last post. But the justification would not have been necessary–they could have kept slaves like Romans did for “might makes right” reasons–except for the general idea that all people have inalienable rights.
If all people have inalienable rights, how can these people not have them? The racist would say, “Well, those people are not really people like you and me.” That idea, of “people like you and me,” people entitled to inalienable rights, that was the first definition of “white,” if you follow the impact of what it meant to be white in United States laws and customs.
The Changing Definition of “White”
I’ve heard Critical Race Theorists mention the definition of “white” changed over time (hey, I think even frequent Progressive commentator Notleia said this). But that’s actually mostly false. Yeah, the definition of white would eventually become a bit narrower in one way, excluding Hispanics, who were at first considered white, as in not Black, not Indian, i.e. subject to full protection of the law and counted as a full citizen. (It would become a bit broader eventually as well, to include West Asians and North Africans, i.e. Arabs and Persians and related groups, but not until the 20th Century.)
But the CRT crowd generally says the definition of “white” became more inclusive. That people who were discriminated against at various times in American history, such as Irish people, Germans, Italians, Jewish people, etc, were not at that time considered fully white. So in the name of white supremacy, supposedly, these peoples were oppressed.
The actual truth is more complex–and throws a wrench in the gearworks of the CRT system. In fact, racial prejudice was never the only kind of prejudice in the USA. White people were perfectly fine with discriminating against other people they recognized as white for reasons other than race.
The 1790 Naturalization Act stated that “free white persons” of “good character” could be admitted as citizens. This would be the law of the land until the 1870 Naturalization Act, which focused on birth in the USA (with the exception of “Indians”) allowing black people to be considered citizens for the first time. Between 1790 and 1870, US courts struggled with the question if Arabs like Syrians were “white” and could be citizens (the Supreme Court said both “yes” and “no” on this question) and wondered if people of non-Christian religion could be considered “white,” denying citizenship to a Sikh on this basis, but US courts never, not once, denied citizenship to Irish people or Italians or Slavs or even Jews based on the idea they were not white. During a time of plenty of prejudice against all of these ethnic groups.
It’s the modern Critical Race Theorists who are changing the definition of race and racism by making all forms of ethnic tension being about white supremacy (in their view). When in fact, an American Protestant of English decent in the 18th Century might despise an Irish Catholic, especially if a recent immigrant, yet would never suggest for one second the Irishman wasn’t white. “White” being whatever was not specifically Indian or Black in terms of legal protection; “white” being “European” in early race theory.
Please refer to my comments on the wars following the breakup of Yugoslavia and human tribalism to show what I mean about racism not being required for humans to be cruel to each other. You don’t have to deny someone else is human to hate them or think ill of them.
Though in the heyday of racism in the 1800s, it is true some racial theorists would specifically narrow the definition of white even more than what I mentioned, to talk about Aryan nations and related nonsense. Some of them would do that–but most did not. Most would simply talk about some whites being superior to others genetically. But I shall endevour to cover that in the next post, the Rise of White Supremacy.
So what are your thoughts on the legal theory of what it meant to be “white” in early America? Do you agree that the concept of universal human rights fed into the impulse to dehumanize those held in slavery? Were you suprised that “Indian” is the only race mentioned in the Constitution? What other thoughts come to mind?