- Historic Sites
The End Of Racism?
February/March 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 1
Well, one reason was that white slavery had virtually vanished from Europe considerably earlier. During the Middle Ages what you had was a replacement of slavery by serfdom, whereas in Africa slavery was flourishing. So the early Americans made no radical modification of these institutions. They were able to purchase free whites for a limited period, as indentured servants, and they did. For that period whites were treated like slaves, in the sense that they were property. They could be bought and sold, they could be gambled away, and they were. However, the blacks purchased from Africa could be bought for life, and I think people just took advantage of that.
And that’s not a racist distinction?
In its initiation it’s not. I’m saying it evolved into a racial institution as the contradiction between the American egalitarianism and slavery became clear.
Let’s talk next about segregation. I was struck in the book by your saying that segregation was invented by patrician whites in the South to protect blacks. I wonder if you could explain that and tell me what role you think racism had in legal segregation?
The story of segregation is a complex one. You had two groups in the South: first, the radical racists, epitomized by the Klan. This is the group that believed blacks are fit only to be slaves, and if they’re not slaves, they should be either sent back to Africa or brutalized, lynched, hanged, or exterminated. If this group had been the ruling group in the South, it is difficult to see how the black population would have survived, because its agenda was one of ruthless extermination. But this group was a minority in the South. It might have had a brief period in which it could essentially run amok, or rule unmolested, between about 1890 and about 1910, the heyday of radical racism in the United States. However, the ruling class in the South, 1 argue, was Bourbon, patrician, and conservative, and it regarded blacks as inferior—it was in agreement with the radical racists on that point—but it was willing to live with the result of the Civil War and recognize that blacks were not going to disappear, and it felt that the kind of routine brutality that the Klan epitomized was against the values of both Christianity and chivalry. So it established segregation, on the one hand as an expression of black inferiority …
So segregation was racist, by your definition?
Exactly. Segregation was an expression of Southern racism, to be sure. But it was an expression of the moderate wing of Southern racism, in contradistinction to the radical wing. Essentially the segregationists argued, “Yes, blacks are inferior to whites. Yes, we are justified in discriminating against them and segregating them. On the other hand, why don’t we let them have their own barbershops and their own schools so that they can develop to their own limited capacity?” So I don’t deny that segregation was a racist institution, but I’m arguing that it was an expression of some paternalism.
I grew up in the segregated South, and it seems to me that your picture of segregation is too rosy. Blacks had no recourse to law. The patricians knew that a lot of physical brutalization went on, and there was a winking attitude toward it, a sense that as long as it didn’t get out of control, you know, it happened, and there wasn’t much you could do about it. Second, there was no real desire on the part of the patricians for there to be black institutions that were strong and vigorous. There were very severe limits on what institutions blacks could and couldn’t run.
The reason I try to present the portrait of Southern paternalism, the notion of blacks as inferior and of being able to survive if not flourish under conditions of separation and limited institutions, is to lay the groundwork for the later part of my argument, which is: Where are the old positions of the race debate? 1 argue that, in a sense, contemporary liberalism is beginning to embrace some of the tenets of the old paternalism. Not with the same explicit ideology of inferiority, and not in the same way, but by saying, “We can’t segregate blacks by making them live in a separate world from whites, but even though blacks and whites live in the same world, go to the same schools, and work in the same jobs, they will be judged by two sets of standards.” You have something resembling the old argument, although the reasons for it are said to be radically different. The effects of it may not be radically different.
Let me go back and pick up the historical line. Wouldn’t you agree that if you’re black, most likely everyone in your family line, from arrival in America up until some time in the fifties or sixties, was living under racism? Everyone would have had a lower status based on being black, based on presumptions of biological inferiority. Is that fair to say?