Question: What’s the difference between ignorance and apathy?
Answer: I don’t know, and I don’t care!
We need to talk, and we need to listen to the voice of The Other. One of the most fundamental aspects of privilege – the privilege to ignore, the privilege to remain innocent in our minds – still retains its durability among far too many of us. We need to talk about how America established that privilege – in law – from the very beginning, indeed, from before the beginning. In other words, I’m talking about America’s long history of Affirmative Action for white people.
Other than abortion, no domestic issue has been as controversial and divisive over the past fifty years as affirmative action. Opportunistic politicians have used it to create a wedge between working class whites and blacks. Well versed in the imagery of American myth, they have repeatedly posed the question (in soft terms, careful to not appear overtly racist) of whether it is just for hardworking people to be taxed so as to support people who are too lazy and irresponsible to better themselves. As I write in Chapter Seven of my book Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence,
Reactionaries invoke (the myth of) equality by claiming that legal equality is sufficient and calling affirmative action “reverse discrimination” and ethnic liberals “reverse racists.” Some even argue that since prejudice no longer exists, minorities should require no assistance (which only encourages the sin of laziness). This false argument has potency because it contains some truth; since individuals have occasionally “pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps,” then conservatives claim that everyone should. If they can’t, says the myth, Puritan at its core, then failure is their own fault.
In doing so, these politicians, and many religious leaders, have duped three generations of misinformed whites into perceiving themselves as victims of people whom they once regarded as natural allies. And (when discuss the New Deal and the G. I. Bill) we should note that the demographic most opposed to taxes for welfare – those over the age of 65 – are themselves the beneficiaries of the greatest welfare programs in world history.
But this is hardly the first time this has happened. In Chapter Ten I write:
The narrative veils the issues of corporate welfare, financial corruption and deindustrialization and the fact that most white males vote Republican, partially because they fear affirmative action. Few admit the racial dimensions of the issue and the degree to which even poor whites have privilege. Actually, the generosity of state welfare reform varies according to demography: those with overwhelmingly white populations have stronger safety nets and impose softer sanctions.
So we need to learn how the federal government has instituted affirmative action for white people many times over the course of our history, and that this reality is a fundamental aspect of the Myth of American Innocence. Indeed, it began long before the creation of the federal government itself. For a much more detailed version of this timeline, see my essay “Who Is An American?”
We have to begin with the foundational factor, that a series of American Presidents and Supreme Court Justices, most of whom were themselves slaveholders, did nothing to change the condition of literally millions of black people (four million in 1860 alone) who were legally enslaved and deprived of almost any possibility of legal economic or personal improvement for 245 years. These were the people whose unpaid labor, brutal treatment and family separation were the foundations for the creation not only of most personal American fortunes, but as many academics argue, of the world-wide industrial revolution itself.
A just society would at least begin the conversation of how to compensate their descendants for the condition of entering civil society as free people, but with none of the accumulated equity that generations of whites were already enjoying, or into a social environment of extreme terrorism. Estimates of those murdered by the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists run into the tens of thousands. At least 4,000 lynchings occurred.
Perhaps one day we will quantify such reparation payments in economic terms. But it will be even harder to understand the accumulated emotional scars on those 25 generations of people, or of the five generations who then endured institutionalized Jim Crow segregation. The result is what Dr. Joy DeGruy has termed Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, with its multi-generational patterns of low self-esteem, internalized abuse, depression, propensities for anger and violence and physical symptoms such as heart disease and diabetes.
So we actually have to begin nearly a century before the American Revolution.
1620-1710: Although African slaves first arrived in Virginia in 1619, and the colonists did attempt to enslave Native Americans, we have little evidence of a white/black racial hierarchy until around 1680. Large numbers of Irish and Scots had arrived as indentured servants and worked alongside blacks under terrible conditions. But neither “blackness” nor “whiteness” firmly established themselves in the American mind until the defeat of Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676, when the oppressed challenged the oppressors, attempting to overthrow the system of indentured servitude. This was a watershed moment. Historian Theodore Allen writes:
…laboring-class African-Americans and European-Americans fought side by side for the abolition of slavery…If the plan had succeeded, the history of…America might have taken a much different path.
The state of Virginia eventually suppressed the rebellion, but its implications of class warfare were terrifying to the propertied classes. To make certain that nothing like it could ever occur again, they resorted to the ancient technique of “divide-and-conquer.” Virginia soon codified its bondage and legal systems. It replaced the terms “Christian” or “free” with “white,” gave new privileges to Caucasians, removed certain rights from free blacks and banned interracial marriage. Other laws contributed to what Allen calls the “absolutely unique American form of male supremacism” – the right of any Euro-American to rape any African-American without fear of reprisal. As most of the colonies soon copied his system, it became more or less universal for decades.
This early white privilege – the privilege to hunt down and punish another human being – became the genesis of policing throughout America. In 1704 South Carolina, responding both to the fear of insurrection as well as to concern for lost property, established the first slave patrols, which soon spread throughout all thirteen colonies. The patrols discouraged any large gathering of blacks and generally perpetuated the atmosphere of fear that kept the slaves in line. In some areas, killing a slave was not considered a crime by the courts or community, although property considerations limited extreme violence.
Some states required every white man to arrest any slaves found away from their home without proper verification and return them to their masters. Many were happy to serve on the patrols, since the benefits included exemption from taxes. Others who may have been reluctant on moral grounds faced severe taxes for not participating, so universal white participation became institutionalized and lasted up to the Civil War. By 1860, few Southerners could remember times when such conditions had not applied.
So affirmative action for white people was well established by the end of the 17th century. It meant that every single white person was indoctrinated to believe that their condition, no matter how limited, was by nature better than that of practically any black person and that they were privileged to enjoy a range of opportunities (in theory, at least) that even a well-educated black could not aspire to. The poorest of whites, home-grown or immigrant, started life assuming the most fundamental American value – this was the land of opportunity – and even if they failed utterly, their children started out with the same assumption. It would take some 330 years before blacks could also say Yes We Can.
1790s: In the second example of affirmative action for white people, the “Three-fifths Compromise” in the new Constitution counted three out of every five slaves as people. Its effect was to give the Southern states a third more seats in Congress and a third more electoral votes than if slaves had been ignored, but fewer than if slaves and free people had been counted equally. As a result, Southern states had disproportionate influence on the presidency and the Supreme Court all the way up to the Civil War. The clause remained in force until the post-war 13th Amendment freed all enslaved people. However, as Louis Menand writes,
…one of the reasons the South was able to exercise a stranglehold on race relations in national politics was the supervention of the famous three-fifths clause, once the focus of abolitionist attacks on the Constitution. When the former slaves were counted as full persons, the former slave states gained twenty congressional seats, a twenty-five-per-cent bump. They also gained votes in the Electoral College. They suppressed the votes of their African-American residents, then got full representational credit for them.
The Naturalization Act of 1790 was one of the first foreign policy measures of the fledgling government, and its racist implications set the tone for 200 years of restrictive definitions of what it means to be an American and who is allowed to enjoy the benefits of citizenship. This was the third case of affirmative action for whites, since it allowed virtually any European immigrant to become a citizen, while expressly denying that privilege to Asians. Two hundred and thirty years later, we wonder what Congress was so afraid of. Over the next 120 years, it would pass many other definitions of who was “us” and who wasn’t – especially concerning black people – which served as models for the almost entirely invisible white privilege that would bolster the Reagan, Bush and Trump “revolutions” many decades later. By then, structures of oppression would be so effective precisely because they seemed so natural.