White Supremacy: The Case Against “This is not who we are”

This is us. All of this. You can’t scrub this away and you certainly can’t whitewash it. Repeatedly stating that this isn’t us is unfair and unjust to the countless people that have lost their lives in the pursuit of living an equitable life. Progress has been made, of that, there is no doubt. With that progress, there are always elements in society that want to pull back.

There is a phrase frequently dragged out into the light every time there is a shockingly violent crime committed by a white supremacist or white nationalist. Law enforcement, local politicians, and more will come out to stand in front of cameras and microphones and speak collectively for the people that live in the community. They will say that their community is strong, that the citizens are shocked and angry, and that this is not who we are.

“… this is not who we are!”

Someone somewhere in the united states
at least weekly? Daily? Frequently!

I hope you are sitting down for this, but this is – indeed – who we are. We are never going to solve this crisis if we continue to ignore that this is an ingrained element in our society. White supremacy is not a random fluke, a couple of bad apples, or a select few malcontents. Our nation was founded with slavery fully in place. It is in our very foundation. It is so embedded in our culture that most white people never see it and refuse to believe it is there. With this essay, I hope to show how our history is filled with evidence that this really is who we are.

⅗ a Human

From the very foundation of the United States, the idea that people of color, and specifically those with the darkest skin color, were seen by the populace and the legal system as less than white at the best of times and less than human most of the time. A combination of the Electoral College and the Three-Fifths Compromise allowed the slaveholding states to hold more influence than they should have. By counting the population, and three out of every five slaves, then dividing up the house of representatives and the electoral college on these numbers, the slave states had 42% more representation in 1793 than if there had been no compromise, 29% more in 1812, and 34% more in 1833. On top of this, you must include the fact that the southern states would not allow a new territory into the union unless a relatively equal slave state were added at the same time. This allowed their influence over the politics of the time to be far stronger than it should have been. We have been giving white supremacists far more power than they deserved from the getgo.

You can find my essay on the Electoral College here.

While we have done away with the three-fifths compromise some time ago, we continue the legacy with the Electoral College. Although this is a rant for another day, I need to point out that the unequal representation that comes with the way we draw our districts and distribute our election results based on the boundaries continues the disgusting habit of treating some votes as more valuable than others. Ending the three-fifths compromise and giving African Americans suffrage has lessened that gap, but the gerrymandering tactics of white supremacists and their sympathizers keep a gap in place.

US Citizenship: A White Members Only Club

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, That any Alien being a free white person, who shall have resided within the limits and under the jurisdiction of the United States for the term of two years, may be admitted to become a citizen thereof[.]

An act to establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization
March 26, 1790

In the beginning, citizenship of the United States was restricted to free white people only. Only they or other white immigrants were permitted citizenship. Our schools are typically hostile to teaching history accurately, but at least this point is taught. American was a whites club only until about the turn of the 1870s.

Civil War: It Really Was About Slavery

The north and south division had always been about slavery. Slavery and the plantation economy that made the south an economic powerhouse at the time. Without the massive amount of free labor the slaves were providing, the southern economy would have been but a fraction of itself. With anti-slavery Republicans in control, the south decided it was time to leave the United States. As state after state left, they left little doubt as to the reason they were withdrawing. South Carolina explicitly outlines the reasons as follows:

“[A]n increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution. The States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the Acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them. In many of these States the fugitive is discharged from service or labor claimed, and in none of them has the State Government complied with the stipulation made in the Constitution. The State of New Jersey, at an early day, passed a law in conformity with her constitutional obligation; but the current of anti-slavery feeling has led her more recently to enact laws which render inoperative the remedies provided by her own law and by the laws of Congress. In the State of New York even the right of transit for a slave has been denied by her tribunals; and the States of Ohio and Iowa have refused to surrender to justice fugitives charged with murder, and with inciting servile insurrection in the State of Virginia. Thus the constituted compact has been deliberately broken and disregarded by the non-slaveholding States, and the consequence follows that South Carolina is released from her obligation.”

Any attempt to reframe the war as something else is revisionist history. Even the attempt to reframe it as a “states rights” issue is doing nothing more than obfuscating the truth. Sure, it was a states rights issue: the right to keep slaves and the right to demand escaped slaves to be returned to them from northern states.

We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.

A Declaration of the Causes which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union
Februrary 2, 1861

The Rise of Violence

After the civil war, we begin to see a rise in violence against people of color. That isn’t to say that there hadn’t been violence in the past. Quite the contrary, slave owners could be quite brutal depending on who they were. But the freed slaves were now in public and were beginning to receive some small rights by the federal government. It was during this time that the Ku Klux Klan’s first period began. Their time of popularity was initially in the six years proceeding the civil war. Each group was independent of each other as there was no central leadership. In principle, the groups’ purpose was to strike fear in the communities of the recently freed slaves and their allies. Their intention was to demonstrate the supremacy of the white race.

Worse than Slavery by Thomas Nast
”Harper’s Weekly”, October 24, 1874

After the enforcement acts were passed in the early days of the 1860s, the KKK was suppressed enough to practically eliminate their existence. However, the individuals involved obviously didn’t disappear. In between the first and second period of the KKK’s popularity, various organizations came into existence in the south. The White League and the Red Shirts stand out as examples. They both set the goal of destroying the reconstructionist government, forcefully removing Republicans from elected positions and the removal of freedmen from communities. The White League operated in Louisiana while the Red Shirts were in the Carolinas. Unlike the KKK, the White Leauge and the Red Shirts operated out in the open. They were former confederate soldiers that continued the legacy of keeping the south white.

Prior to the founding of the White League, future members partook in the Colfax massacre. White militia members descended on the newly created Grant Parish to remove the newly elected Republican leaders. After the Republicans and freedmen surrendered, they were summarily executed. It is estimated that over 100 lives were lost, of which only 3 were on the aggressors’ side.

The federal government attempted to prosecute those involved under the Enforcement Acts of 1870. The Supreme Court decided in United States v. Cruikshank that first and second amendment did not apply to the actions of the states or private individuals. The white men involved in the massacre could not be charged due to this ruling and must be charged under state laws. The state, being under democratic control, opted not to involve itself or charge anyone.

Another massacre occurred in August 1874 by the White League. It was another instance of white supremacists upset over the election of republicans and the rising power of freedmen, this time in New Orleans.

On August 22, 1874, Julia Hayden, a seventeen-year-old African-American school teacher, was murdered by members of the White League.

Over in the Carolinas, the Red Shirts were involved in the Hamburg massacre. These democratic white supremacists came out to regain control of the state governments from the hands of republicans and freemen. Their success led to the creation of laws ensuring single-party white supremacist rule, legal segregation, “Jim Crow”, and the prevention of black citizens from registering to vote and voting.

Benjamin Tillman is a person of note in the Hamburg massacre. He was indicted by a coroner’s jury for his participation in the massacre, but he and his subordinates were never convicted. He went on to rise in power to become the Governor of South Carolina and eventually US Senator. He was boastful and proud of his past, frequently stating as such on the floor of the US Senate.

[A]s white men we are not sorry for it, and we do not propose to apologize for anything we have done in connection with it. We took the government away from them in 1876. We did take it. If no other Senator has come here previous to this time who would acknowledge it, more is the pity. We have had no fraud in our elections in South Carolina since 1884. There has been no organized Republican party in the State.

Senator Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina
March 23, 1900

Conclusion

In this essay, I have only covered up to 1900. In the century that followed, the pre-civil rights race riots, the rise of the second period of the KKK, and the complete lockdown on civil rights by supremacist lead to the rise of the civil rights movement in the 50s onward, and the rise of the third and current form of the KKK. Church burnings, police brutality, institutionalized racism, et al. Modern history is relatively well documented. Now with the proliferation of recording equipment in the form of cellphones, these interactions are being shared more and more often. The family being called racial slurs at a store, people of color having the police called because they are existing in a public space, and people told to “go back to where you came from” for daring to speak another language in public.

This is us. All of this. You can’t scrub this away and you certainly can’t whitewash it. Repeatedly stating that this isn’t us is unfair and unjust to the countless people that have lost their lives in the pursuit of living an equitable life. Progress has been made, of that, there is no doubt. With that progress, there are always elements in society that want to pull back. Looking back at history has a way of making it all so simple and destined, but to those millions that lived this life, it was never so. We must own this as a nation and find a way to move forward. We need to stop cutting the weeds of white supremacy as they pop up and finally dig underneath and pull out its roots. It is the only way we can ensure that our future generations do not have to continue fighting for small bits of equity and equality here and there.

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