1830s: Historians consider “Jacksonian Democracy” the period when the government increased political freedoms. But it did so for only for white men, while removing those freedoms from Native Americans. Race, rather than civilized behavior or Christian belief (both held in abundance by the Cherokees, one of the so-called “Five Civilized Tribes”), now determined citizenship. The tribes lost their land and were forced to endure the murderous Trail of Tears. As thousands of Native Americans died, thousands of whites bought up their developed land, including entire towns, for pennies on the dollar. This was the fourth example of affirmative action for white people.
1850-1890: Prior to the Civil War, in the 1857 Dred Scott decision, the Supreme affirmed that no person of African ancestry, including free blacks, could claim citizenship. Therefore, they had no legal standing to bring suit in a federal court and were powerless against whites who were exploiting them.
After the war, the definition of who was an American was turned on its head. For 175 years, with few exceptions, the notion of “freedom” had been synonymous with whiteness. Emancipation of the slaves ended this consensus and contributed to a great uneasiness about identity among whites, as well as a financial crisis among capitalists. This same uneasiness would reoccur after each of America’s major wars (see below) and would result in significant violence each time. “Freedom” was no longer one of the concepts that defined whiteness.
The postwar Southern economy required a legal system that kept blacks under de facto slave conditions, and it required compliant white working-class people who knew who they were – downtrodden, but superior to blacks and confidant that their relative status and prosperity would remain. For another 150 years they would be privileged to engage in all kinds of marginal behaviors without fearing the police. On the other hand, writes Nadra Kareem Nittle, “It’s hard to understand why African-Americans are incarcerated at higher rates than other groups without knowing what the black codes were.”
In 1864 the 13th Amendment to the Constitution formally abolished slavery, but with this extraordinary qualification: “except as a punishment for crime.” In response, all the Southern states passed the Black Codes, the primary purpose of which was to restrict blacks’ labor and activity. The codes were enforced by all-white police and state militia forces which had descended from the earlier slave patrols and the more recent Confederate Army.
The codes included strict vagrancy and labor contract laws, as well as so-called “anti-enticement” measures designed to punish anyone who offered higher wages to a black laborer already under contract. Mississippi required blacks to have written evidence of employment for the coming year; if they left before the end of the contract, they would be forced to forfeit earlier wages and were subject to arrest. South Carolina prohibited blacks from holding any occupation other than farmer or servant unless they paid an annual tax.
Violation required offenders to pay fines. Inability to pay meant that county courts could hire them out to employers until they worked off their balances, usually in slavery-like environments and with high fatality rates. Because licenses were required for offenders to perform skilled labor, few did. With these restrictions, blacks had little chance to learn a trade and move up the economic ladder once their fines were settled. And they could not simply refuse to work off their debts, as that would lead to a vagrancy charge, resulting in more fees and forced labor. All African Americans, convicts or not, were subject to curfews set by their local governments, and their day-to-day movements were heavily restricted. Black farm workers were required to carry passes from their employers, and local officials oversaw all meetings blacks took part in, even in church. Blacks who wanted to live in towns required white sponsors.
Several states determined that there were certain crimes for which only blacks could be “duly convicted.” Therefore, the argument that the criminal justice system works differently for whites and blacks can be traced back to the 1860s, if not all the way back to the introduction of slave patrols. Most of the codes were repealed during Reconstruction and then re-instated with different language after it ended. From 1874 to 1877, Alabama’s prison population tripled. Ninety percent of new convicts were African American.
Even those blacks with the means to escape this repression found their options limited. Southern states passed laws that prevented most blacks from acquiring western land and kept them as de facto slaves in the South. Homesteading – the ability to acquire free land – became a privilege of whiteness, and another example of affirmative action for whites. In the southwest, similar systems targeted Latinos. No wonder our picture of the hardy “pioneers” is lily-white.
During this period (1882) Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was not to be fully repealed until 1965. Although anti-Asian sentiment had little direct impact on black people, I note it here to remind us that in the zero-sum world of capitalism, limitation of the rights or freedoms of any ethnic or sexual minorities always implied a corresponding expansion of white privileges and freedoms.
1890s: The phrase “Separate but Equal” had been a customary way to reject complaints about segregation for decades, even though in the Dred Scott decision, Chief Justice Roger Taney had said that black people were “a subordinate and inferior class of beings,” with “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Now the Supreme Court itself asserted that segregation was not per se discrimination. If the statute did not prescribe unequal conditions, then, legally, conditions were not unequal. In reality, of course, this ruling institutionalized segregation in housing and transportation and poor schooling for Blacks and residential privilege for whites.
During that decade, Southern mobs lynched at least a thousand black men and terrorized the rest of the black population into submission. By the end of the century, the work of disenfranchisement was complete. There were 130,000 blacks registered to vote in Louisiana in 1896; in 1904, there were 1,342. In Virginia that year, the estimated black turnout in the Presidential election was zero. Soon, almost all Southern blacks lost their right to vote and were unable to prevent the establishment of the legal foundation for a public education system that, for the next 65 years, would discriminate against blacks and provide educational access and jobs for whites.
And even after that, white flight and de facto segregation would perpetuate those conditions. A significant contemporary version of this unequal world is the fact that the United States, practically unique among nations, still funds its schools primarily through property taxes, giving wealthy suburbs massive advantages over inner city neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, a private education system modeled on that of Britain’s used legacy admissions to channel the sons of the upper classes, regardless of intelligence, talents or effort, through the prep school system, on to top-level universities and graduate schools and eventually to management positions in industry, politics, finance, diplomacy and espionage.
1910s: President Woodrow Wilson segregated federal jobs, once again giving whites privileged access to well-paid government work. Throughout these years, every time a person of color (in government or not) was denied a decent-paying job or educational position – and the long-term opportunities they might have provided – a white person almost certainly received it. We have to emphasize this point. Liberals are comfortable acknowledging the history of discrimination. But it takes a further leap of logic to realize something that is patently obvious to people of color. Discrimination is not a single-lane road. Each time a black or brown person is pushed to the back of the line, a white person steps to the front. This is the essence of privilege.
It’s a particularly outrageous irony of American history that, as Michael Kazin writes,
…every major piece of legislation that…Wilson signed to regulate big business—from a major anti-trust act to an eight-hour day for railroad workers—was crafted by a Democrat from one of the states that barred most African Americans from voting.
World War One and the 1920s: We should also acknowledge at this point the vast but unquantifiable loss of equity sustained by every generation of black Americans due to white-on-black race riots, 25 of which occurred during after the “Red Summer” of 1919. The terror continued for several years in places such as Tulsa, Oklahoma, Elaine, Arkansas and Rosewood, Florida.
There can be no more obvious or gruesome example of how very significant numbers of black families that had struggled to acquire property and create middle-class businesses were thrown back in a single day into utter poverty – and how what was left of their assets was confiscated by the state and redistributed to whites. This category would also include property held in common, such as the hundreds of black churches burned down by white racists. All of these events – when they don’t happen to whites or white communities – contribute to the enrichment of whites relative to blacks.
The same situation has persisted in education. Wherever they lived, North or South, throughout the entire twentieth century, black children were channeled into substandard and segregated schools that prepared most of them only for agricultural or domestic work (see below), and later, for the military and the factories. Meanwhile, a minority of white children received educations that gave them the opportunity to rise into the middle class and thus to manage the millions who could not. Indeed, large numbers of whites-only American colleges had been built and serviced for generations by slaves and later by poor blacks. For a more detailed discussion of the intentions of the American education system relative to traditional concepts of initiation, see Chapter Five of my book, or read Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, by John Taylor Gatto.