1 Jul 2022


History of Race in America

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Race is a concept used to differentiate human beings on the basis of cultural, ancestry and physical traits. Race has played a big role in American history, and it provided the foundation for the colonization of Native land and enslavement of Africans. The longstanding racial prejudices were used to justify the mistreatment of non-Europeans in America and across the world. Europeans came up with racial distinctions as they were expanding to the new world, such that Natives were referred to as “red Indians,” while the slaves and freed people were referred to as “colored.” The origin of race stems from the European conquest of the new world. Europeans came up with the concept of race to justify their mistreatment of the Indian natives, Africans and others on the basis of racial differences.

Historical perspective of how race came to be in the US 

According to the American Anthropological Association (2016), the history of race in America can be traced back to the 1500s when the Europeans tried to establish settlements in the new world. The Spanish, French and English had embarked on a journey to discover and take over new lands. Unfortunately, the Native Americans were already occupying the new world; hence there were constant conflicts between the natives and the European settlers as they tried to establish colonies in Florida, Virginia, Southwest and the north east bordering Canada (Sharfstein, 2003). The European settlers did not know how to interact with the strange inhabitants of the new land, and given the human nature of classifying everything, they saw the inhabitants of the new lands as “savages” based on the different skin color and behavior (Tashaspawn, 2008). By 1600s, the Europeans had established a system of servitude in America, whereby the Native Americans and African Americans served the Europeans, who viewed themselves as the superior race.

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Race became a concept that divided members of the society as early as the 16 th century, even before the concept was properly defined in historical and scientific books. The American Anthropological Association (2016) credits Carolus Linnaeus as the first person to develop a biological classification system for differentiating people in the 18 th century (Kidd, 2006). Soon other scientists such as Johann Blumenbach and historians like Thomas Jefferson showed their support for the idea of race as a symbol of biological and social hierarchy. Thomas Jefferson, a Virginia slave owner, promoted the idea of race and came up with the notion that whites are superior and Africans are inferior. Jefferson commented that, “…blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind” (American Anthropological Association, 2016).

Racial theories were developed in the 19 th century to support the notion that whites formed the superior race, and to justify the slavery and mistreatment of blacks. One of the theories was borrowed from the Biblical teachings, it claimed that race was a representation of the variation of the human species, and that those occupying the upper layer of the variation must be respected (Higham, 2002). On the other hand, the multiple species theory was developed by Samuel Morton and Louis Agassiz to support the existence of many races, and racial differences (Foley, 2001). In the mid-19 th century, scientific debates on the issue of race became part of the mainstream culture. Most whites genuinely believed that they were superior, and this gave them the right to treat slaves like animals. However, not everyone bought into the notion that whites were the superior race and formed the abolitionist movement as early as the mid-19 th century. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin showed a realistic picture of slavery, and some whites joined slaves in protesting the idea of racial superiority (Fredrickson, 2003).

Evidently, the concept of race led to racism in America. As early as the 1600s, the European settlers exploited the natives, claiming that they were more superior due to the cultural and physical traits (Kidd, 2006). Racism in America began immediately when settlers established themselves in the world (Fredrickson, 2003). Unfortunately, the concept of race in today’s American society still has some similarities with the initial concept introduced by European settlers in the 16 th century. While the society acknowledges that all Americans are equal, African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Indians are still victims of systemic racism.

Paradox of Slavery during Westward Expansion 

America gained independence in 1776 after the colonists, slaves and freed people fought the British. Slaves were enticed to fight during the revolutionary war with the promise of independence, but that did not materialize for most slaves in the Southern States (Forbes, 2009). After independence, the Southern states relied on slaves to work on the cotton plantation, and they saw the expansion into the West as a positive move that expanded the area for cotton cultivation. On the other hand, the Northern states were in the process of banning slavery as seen in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 (American Anthropological Association, 2016). The views of the Northern states were supported by the abolition of international slavery in 1808. However, bringing together the slavery supporting Southern states and Northern states together during the westward expansion proved to be very difficult. The new nation was almost broken over the issue of slavery, with the Northern states fighting against the South due to the different opinion on the issue. It was deemed politically expedient to maintain equality, by admitting an equal number of Free states and slave states (Forbes, 2009).

The westward expansion was one of the significant events in the early 19 th century (Rothman, 2009). Thomas Jefferson believed that Westward expansion was crucial for the nation’s health. Jefferson argued that the nation would only retain its independence if it owned land, and had virtuous citizens to labor and fight for their independence. Hence, in 1803, Jefferson purchased Louisiana from the French government for $15 million; the purchase doubled the size of the United States (Billington & Ridge, 2001). With the purchase of Louisiana, the question of slavery became political. New states were ushered into the union as pro and anti-slavery states depending on the political and economic advantage (American Anthropological Association, 2007). Congress was embroiled in the never-ending debate on dividing acquired territories either as slave or Free states.

In 1819, Missouri applied to enter the Union. Slavery was still being practiced in Missouri, and they were over 10,000 slaves in 1819 (Forbes, 2009). The Northern states opposed Missouri’s entrance into the Union except as a free state, and eventually a protest swept over the nation (Smith, 2008). The future of the nation was in jeopardy over the issue of slavery and the Northern states which had a higher number of members in Congress appeared to be on the winning side. The Southern states also felt threatened because they relied on slaves for almost all forms of economic activities. Henry Clay arranged Missouri Compromise, such that Missouri would be admitted as a slave state, while Maine would be admitted as a free state to end the stalemate (Billington & Ridge, 2001).

The Missouri issue was momentous in the development of the new nation, and the country’s leadership recognized the need for a permanent solution towards the issue of slavery. The westward expansion was also altered in 1850 during the admission of states that acquired at the end of the Mexican War (Billington & Ridge, 2001). A rule was passed that the citizens of the new states will vote to decide on whether they wanted to be a free or a slave state as they entered the union, and thus it nullified the provisions of the Missouri Compromise.

Slaves were fleeing to the Northern states during the westward expansion, and the federal government came up with the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, a law which required the government to return runaway slaves back to the South (Chafe et al., 2013).

How Race Played a Role in Civil War and the Construction of Jim Crow 

McPherson (2014) states that the Civil War determined what kind of nation America would be after the constant rift between the Northern and Southern States. After the independence, the union was formed as a confederation of sovereign states; this did not work well for the new nation as states often rebelled.

Another notable issue that played a role in the Civil War is the issue of race, specifically whether America would grant its slaves equal liberty or it would continue to be one of the biggest slaveholding nations (Blight, 2002). The Southern and Northern states, both had uncompromising stand on slavery, and each of them wanted the new states to join their side. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln became the first Republican president, and pledged to keep slavery out of the new territories (McPherson, 2014). Seven Southern states seceded and formed a new nation, the Confederate States of America. President Lincoln and the Northern states refused to recognize the legitimacy of the secession fearing that it would break the country further, hence the beginning of the Civil War (Peavler, 2008). The war was specifically triggered by the Confederate army attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston Bay. Soon several other slave states joined the Confederacy, because they did not want to be a part of the nation that outlawed slavery. Millions of armed men battled each other along the Virginia to Missouri, with each side trying to expand itself further.

Race played an important role in triggering the Civil War, and it also determined operations during the Civil War (Bell, 2004). When the North came out openly to be against slavery and Southern planter aristocracy, African Americans joined the war. Each defeat of every Southern state was seen as one step closer towards freedom. President Lincoln came up with a provision that allowed drafting of black soldiers, both slaves and freed slaves. However, the Confederacy did not use black soldiers until it was too late; rather it promised to shoot any captured black soldier as a runaway slave (McPherson, 2014).

The Civil War ended officially in 1865 after the collapse of the Confederacy. The 13 th Amendment to the constitution was passed, and slavery was declared illegal. The nation embarked on a complicated Reconstruction process aimed at freeing all slaves and helping people in the Southern states who suffered a lot of losses from the Civil War. Southern states still held on to the beliefs that whites and blacks were unequal, and they came up with black code laws to deny blacks their rights (Chafe et al, 2013). The black code laws started in a few Southern states, and soon other Southern states followed suit. “Jim Crow,” a contemptuous term for a black man became the title of the laws passed in the South to establish different rules for blacks and whites (Alexander, 2013). The Jim Crow laws were based on the theory of white supremacy and a reaction to the defeat by the North during the Civil War. Eventually, blacks were discriminated in terms of employment, education, public benefits, and right to vote (Hall, 2008). While the federal government declared the black codes illegal through the creation of the Civil Rights bill in 1866, it found it hard to impose the law on Southern states since the local governments were responsible for the creation of the black codes (Alexander, 2013).

Impact of race during the civil rights era through the beginning and end of affirmative action 

Before the Civil War era, the American society was polarized in terms of race. The Whites viewed themselves as the superior group, and the others were deemed inferior. However, this changed during the Civil War, when the Northern states outlawed slavery and viewed everyone as equal regardless of their race or ethnicity.

According to Denny & Walter (2014) many soldiers joined the movement because they were tired of the slavery, and the civil rights war was the only way they would gain their freedom. When the civil war came to an end, the freedom did not come easy and blacks became victims of systemic discrimination, especially in the Southern States. Jim Crow laws took root in the society, and eventually blacks were denied the same opportunities as whites. Pager & Sheperd (2008) analyze the persistent racial inequality in employment, housing and other social domains. Black codes were created to segregate and deny blacks their basic rights, and it was until the 1960s that blacks engaged in civil rights campaigns to fight for their rights.

The concept of race played a role in the civil rights era. Civil rights movement divided blacks from whites; blacks felt that they were not accorded the same treatment as whites (Civilrights.org, 2017). Hence, blacks and other notable racial minorities in America took to the streets to protest against the government’s indifference towards their suffering (Bosarge, 2015). It is worth noting that many whites joined in on the civil rights movement as they felt that racial discrimination no longer had a place in the American society (Jones, 2002).

Jones (2002) explores how blacks and whites reacted in the beginning and towards the end of the civil rights era. In the beginning, many whites came to support blacks and engaged in many protests together. However, towards the end of the 1960s, the civil rights movement had taken place for almost a decade, and the response towards the civil rights movement had changed due to the changes in American politics. The civil rights movement had produced powerful black leaders such as Martin Luther King, and white voters began looking at “black power” as a threat (Jones, 2002). Black power developed in the civil rights era was rooted in a disdain for whites due to the many inhumane acts committed by the whites. Additionally, the late 1960s and 1970s politics lacked the spirit of liberal activism that had inspired many whites to join the civil rights movement. While some whites remained loyal, some abandoned the cause and joined white conservatives to defend the rights of whites. The conservatives viewed blacks to be taking advantage of the government to take away their hard-earned rights and privileges, and they described the civil rights movement as a form of “reverse discrimination.” The conservatives were not fond of affirmative action enforced by President Johnson to increase educational and employment opportunities for blacks (Ezorsky, 1991).

How race impacts the 21st century 

In the contemporary society, race still plays an important role. Race is often referred to when differentiating individuals in a group. Unfortunately, the concept of race still has a negative connotation as it shows the persistent racial discrimination in the society (Winant, 2015). American society today is not discriminating as it was in the 1960s. There are no “Whites only” signs lurking over restaurant counters or bathrooms, and yet racism still permeates the society (Allen, 2013). Education, employment and economic statistics show that whites have an advantage over blacks and Latinos. For instance, a study done in 2012 showed that 43% of Latinos and 38% of blacks go to schools where less than 10% of the student population is white (Allen, 2012). Such statistics take us back to the Jim Crow era, whereby blacks were not allowed to be in the same schools with whites (Walsh, 2008).

America has embraced the concept of ‘diversity’ more than any other nation, such that Americans perceive race to be a less significant issue now as compared to the past (Hall, 2008). There is a belief that the society is moving to a color-blind society, whereby once class matters more than race (Ray, 2010). President Obama’s presidency was seen as a symbol of the ending of racial discrimination. Young people pride themselves in having a diverse group of friends from different racial groups.

However, the commitment to diversity is still questionable, with many people choosing to stick with friends from their race. American society has popularized racial stereotypes more than any other society, and in most cases, the negative stereotypes target blacks and other minorities (Bell, 2004). Unfortunately, the stereotypes have been used to victimize or deny social services to the minorities. Ray (2010) asserts that U.S. neighborhoods and schools were more segregated in 2005 than in 1965. Racial minorities have been marginalized, and they are languishing in poverty, just like they did in the civil rights movement. A keen observation of the key socio-economic and political factors indeed shows that whites have more opportunities than blacks and other minorities. It is ill-advised to make the conclusion that race no longer defines many aspects of social life, when empirical statistics show otherwise (Shankles, 1998).

In conclusion, the concept “race” refers to the physical and cultural attributes that separate individuals. Historically, the concept of race in American society can be traced back to the 1600s when early European settlers came to the American society. The settlers noted the differences between themselves and the Native Indians, and they made assumptions based on the differences (Wolfe, 2001). Since then, America has been struggling with racism for decades. The Civil War led to the abolishment of slavery, but Civil Rights movement in the 1960s helped blacks to gain equal opportunities with whites. Today’s society has taken serious steps to end racism, but subtle cases of systemic racism are impeding the progress.


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