I love history. It was one of those subjects that I found that I was good at. Maybe it was because I had good teachers, but I saw history like one big story. You had interesting people and events with lessons that I could apply to my life. One of my favorite quotes emphasizes this very point.
“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
While there are some high points in the historical narrative, there are also really terrible stories and events. Some of the most jaw-dropping ones come from the subject of race relations. Because I’m the product of an interracial marriage, I was always kind of shocked to realize that racial prejudice and racism actually existed. Yet, there are all kinds of terrible stories. Here are ten historical points form American history that highlight low-points in race relations:
In 1662, Virginia outlawed interracial sex when the legislature amended its prohibition of all fornication to impose heavier penalties if the guilty parties were “negroes” and “Christians.” In 1691, Virginia made it illegal for a “negro,” mulatto, or “Indian” man to marry or “accompany” a white woman. Laws prohibiting mixed marriage in Virginia were in effect until 1967. South Carolina did not overturn its ban on interracial marriage until 1998, and even then 38% of voters opposed the referendum.
Before the African slave trade boom in the 18th century, between one-half and two-thirds of all early white immigrants to the American colonies were non-free laborers. Initially, European settlers in the colonies gave blacks from Africa and Native Americans the same status as white indentured servants. By the 1700s, however, Africans and their children were treated as a different race and were viewed as life-long properties of their masters.
Thomas Jefferson was not only a political philosopher but also a naturalist. In one of his notes, he argued that black people were predisposed to sleeping more because their minds were empty: “An animal whose body is at rest and who does not reflect must be disposed to sleep, of course.”
Johan Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840), a medical professor in Germany, argued that human beings fall into five races: Caucasian, Mongolian, Ethiopian, American, and Malay. He argued that Caucasians, who derived from the Caucasus Mountain region, embodied the ideal human from which the others “degenerated.” It was a popular belief that Caucasians were the ideal form based on a skull that had been found in the Caucasus Mountains, near the supposed location of Noah’s ark.
In the early 1800s, blacks hoping to move to Ohio had to post a $500 bond guaranteeing their good behavior, and they were required to produce court documents proving they were free.
A Harvard professor wrote four adamant letters in 1863 to Lincoln’s Civil War Commission asserting that incorporating blacks as equals in the reunited nation would contaminate the white race, both socially and biologically.
In the early 1900s, eugenists attempted to use IQ tests to prove that certain races were inherently more intelligent than other races. For example, they used tests to try to demonstrate that blacks and recent immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were intellectually inferior to Americans of Anglo Saxon or Scandinavian descent. By the 1940s, eugenics had been discredited both as bad science and as an excuse for racial hatred.
In the early 1900s, the Racial Integrity Act in the United States required racial classification of every person at birth and made marriage between whites and anyone with even a trace of Negro ancestry a crime. It was motivated by concern that sexual intermingling between blacks and whites would deteriorate the white race.
At the end of the 19th century, American anthropologists used Darwin’s notion of survival of the fittest to justify the killing of American Indians and forced regression of blacks to servant class. In light of the survival of the fittest theory, it was also popular to believe that the “defective” bodies and minds of “savage races” would gradually lead to their own extinction.
In the early 20th century, some churches in the U.S. would hang a pinewood slab on the door with a comb hanging from a string. A person could enter only if his or her skin was lighter than the pinewood and if they could run the comb through their hair without it snagging.
Go ahead, fact check these points. We tend to think, “Racism is something that happened in the days of the Civil War. Didn’t Martin Luther King Jr. put an end to racism? Isn’t President Barack Obama a great example of the fact that we live in a post-racial society?”
Some of our great-great-grandparents fought and died to free or to have other people as property. Some of our great-grandparents campaigned to deny black people the right to vote. Some of our grandparents were alive when blacks and whites used different water fountains. Some of our parents couldn’t even freely date people outside of their own race.
Where I live in Greenville, South Carolina, Bob Jones University (a private conservative Christian school) only recently, as of 2000, dropped their ban on interracial dating. This was only done due to mounting political pressure because then-Presidential candidate George W. Bush had visited the school and the media got word of it.
This isn’t 200, or even 50 years ago. I remember the year 2000.
Here is what one media source said about the Bob Jones interracial ban:
“The southern school adopted its ban on interracial dating in the 1950s. Ironically, the policy was not instituted in response to concerns of white parents, but came after an Asian family threatened to sue the school when their son, who was a student at the school, nearly married a white girl. BJU did not admit black students until the 1970s. The school lost its tax-exempt status in 1983 after a 13-year battle with the Internal Revenue Service, which said the school’s policies violated federal law. The school had justified its ban on interracial dating by saying that God created people differently for a reason.”
Why is an “injustice-free America” an illusion?
Because discrimination and injustice are part of the very fabric of our nation. Injustice is a byproduct of a sin-sick world where everybody seeks what’s best for them at the expense of those around them. When we apply this to the history of our nation, that’s why we have traditionally had a difficult relationship with dealing with those people who are different than us.
Every era is different. If the conflict isn’t from our interaction with people that we encountered here first or those that were brought here to help grow our land, it is from the immigrants who have consistently pushed the boundaries of our comfort zone (Irish, Jewish, Italian, Hispanic, Middle-Eastern, etc.)
The institution of slavery was begrudgingly done away with and was replaced by the Jim Crow Laws of the Reconstruction Era, but the South was not the only part of the country to practice racism. In the North, segregation was not legally condoned, but – in practice – occurred in job discrimination, housing conditions, bank lending practices (redlining in the St. Joseph/Benton Harbor, Michigan area is one of the clearest examples of this), and so on. It was the Civil Rights Movement which eventually ended this period of racial injustice.
Even then, only public racism was made illegal; private racism was (and still is) alive and well.
Today, President Obama’s tenure in office hasn’t divided the country (as some political commentators have said). It has simply raised to the surface racial tensions that have always been present. He’s not trying to start a race war; the race war has been going on for a long time now.
The difference is that, nowadays, there are code words and catch phrases that are used to voice our prejudices (e.g. patriots/real everyday Americans vs. thugs/terrorists/illegals), instead of outright racial slurs that were used in the past.
Don’t get me wrong, I love this country. There’s no place in the world I’d rather be. Still, at best, the idea of a post-racial America is a delusion; at worst, it’s selective amnesia.
A post-racial world does exist. Currently, it only exists in the minds of those who are brave enough to see it. However, it’s up to courageous men and women to stand up and bring that theoretical idea into reality and right the wrongs of history’s past. I, for one, want to be a part of its creation.
Here is another good article on race if you want to learn more:
8 Truths About Race That Every White Person Needs To Know
(pardon some of the language)