www.eprace.edu.pl » race-and-racism » ROOTS OF RACIAL SEGREGATION IN THE AMERICAN SOUTH


Slavery and race belong to the most important factors which shaped the United States of America. At the beginning there was no distinction between races. In 1616 the Virginia Company brought ninety women as wives for settlers. The price was "120 pounds weight of best tobacco leaf."2 “Indentured servants paid their tickets to America signing contracts which made them work up to seven years on plantations: "Only about 40 per cent of indentured servants lived to complete the terms of their contracts.”3

The first twenty black Africans were brought to Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. The status of black Africans was not clear till 1660 when the laws which started racial segregation were passed. The next thirty years brought several regulations which separated the poor white Europeans from Africans or Indians. The White felt into "free" category of people whilst black Africans (as the most vulnerable part of society) were turned into slaves.4 According to Encyclopaedia Britannica: “By 1723 even free African Americans, descendants of several generations then of free people were prohibited from voting and exercising their civil rights. Colonial leaders thus began using the physical differences among the population to structure an inegalitarian society."5 It was caused by the economic situation in colonies. There were two types of colonies: those set up by companies to make profit and the other created for different - mostly religious - purposes.6

The first settlement - Jamestown - was set up by Virginia Company as a business venture in 1607. The first years were very hard for settlers. During the “starving time" winter, between 1609 and 1610, only 60 of the original 214 colonists remained alive.7 The colony survived only because it had perfect conditions for growing tobacco. The tobacco and rice cultivation became a profitable business for the whole South. After 1793, when the cotton gin was invented, the cotton production became an additional source of wealth. “With only 30% of the nation's (free) population, the South had 60% of the ‘wealthiest men’. The 1860 per capita income in the South was $3,978; in the North it was $2,040."8 This would not have happened without the institution of slavery. Whilst the slavery as “condition in which one human being was owned by another”9 is as old as the history of mankind, the race element was added in the USA as an inseparable part of that concept.

There are many definitions of the word "race" at present. I have chosen two of them: ”race, the idea that the human species is divided into distinct groups on the basis of inherited physical and behavioural differences. Genetic studies in the late 20th century refuted the existence of biogenetically distinct races, and scholars now argue that ‘races’ are cultural interventions reflecting specific attitudes and beliefs that were imposed on different populations in the wake of western European conquests beginning in the 15the century”10 and “each of the major divisions of humankind, having distinct physical characteristics: people of all races, colours, and creeds [...]. Although ideas of race are centuries old, it was not until the 19th century that attempts to systematize racial divisions were made. Ideas of supposed racial superiority and social Darwinism reached their culmination in Nazi ideology of the 1930s and gave pseudoscientific justification to policies and attitudes of discrimination, exploitation, slavery, and extermination. Theories of race asserting a link between racial type and intelligence are now discredited. Scientifically it is accepted as obvious that there are subdivisions of the human species, but it is also clear that genetic variation between individuals of the same race can be as great as that between members of different races.”11 Both definitions, although different, stress that "race" is not linked with personality features and it is how the word is understood today. However, by the beginning of the 20th century the term, which was based on people’s biases only, evolved into set of beliefs - that led to institutional racism and has its consequences till today. It includes among other things:

Because an individual may belong to a racial category and not have any or all of the associated physical features, racial scientists early in the 20th century invented an invisible internal element, “racial essence,” to explain such anomalies.

With reference to the above paragraph, the world "racism, also called racialism [describes] any action, practice, or belief that reflects the racial worldview—the ideology that humans are divided into separate and exclusive biological entities called "races," that there is a causal link between inherited physical traits and traits of personality, intellect, morality, and other cultural behavioural features, and that some races are innately superior to others."13

The “racial world-view” appeared in 17th century. Creating the idea of race and a strict description of it, the southern policy-makers solved two problems at one time: gained slaves to work on the plantations and placed the white poor higher in social hierarchy which prevented the possible riots against the upper-class plantations owners.14 Slavery shaped the whole USA. At the beginning it was colonies wide and only in 1820, almost forty years after the American War of Independence, The Missouri Compromise, which divided the American states into "slave" and "free", was passed.15 The act fashions people's attitude towards the phenomenon mostly according to their place of living. American Anti-Slavery Society led by William Lloyd Garrison and Arthur Tappan was an answer of the part of Americans to the "Peculiar Institution."16

Nevertheless, the "coloured" people and particularly Afro-Americans became stereotyped as "inferior elements"- the term first used in racial sense by an American writer- Lothrop Stoddard in 1922 in his pamphlet "The Revolt Against Civilization: The Menace of the Under-man."17 The whole tendency was supported by institutional racism together with the laws which sanctioned the system throughout the decades. The famous "slavery culture" was based on socio-economic factors which gave big powers to a small privileged group of people but survived for such a long time because of the human nature. Melvin J. Lerner, Professor of Social Psychology, "a pioneer in the psychological study of justice," in one of his experiment, proved that people tend to blame a victim if there is no other reason for the victimisation. People just want to see the world as a rational and fair place.18 The slavery in the USA of America was abolished by The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution on January 31, 1865. But the racial segregation which affected all areas of life was supported by law (the segregation de juro) till 1954 when the Supremes’ Court decisions after „Brown v. Board of Education" were passed. 19

The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery but paradoxically brought deterioration in quality of life among the former slaves, supporting the common belief that they are unable to live as free people. There was no clear idea how the situation should be solved, because the abolition of slavery was in fact one of the causes, but not the main reason of the war. Lincoln’s Ten-Percent Plan caused an outrage among congressmen but the situation became even worse when Lincoln’ successor, Andrew Johnson, ordered the Freedmen's Bureau (whose main aim was to help the freed people to find themselves in new situation) to return confiscated land to former owners. Confederate Leaders regained power, and the restrictive Black Codes were passed by the southern government. However, the Black Codes were overturned by Civil Rights Act of 1866 - the Fourteenth Amendment passed in 1868 was rejected by most of the southern states.20 The introduction of the Civil Rights Act caused the establishment of Ku Klux Klan, the organization whose aim was to limit the power of Republicans and which is known for its brutal methods (the last lynch by KKK took place in 1981 in Alabama).21The battle with the enforced segregation lasted till 1970s with the turning point in 1954 when the "Separate but equal" doctrine (introduced by Plessey v. Ferguson in 1896) was overruled. However, it was as late as in 1964 when most of the discrimination acts were disestablished by the introduction of the Civil Rights Act (followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965).

The discriminatory system can be illustrated by the Georgia Supreme Court statement, 1869: "[...] moral or social equality between the different races does not in fact exist, and never can. The God of nature made it otherwise, and no human law can produce it, and no human tribunal can enforce it. There are gradations and classes throughout the universe. From the tallest archangel in Heaven, down to the meanest reptile on earth, moral and social inequalities exist, and must continue to exist throughout all eternity."22 There were many forms of discrimination in the American South. The "Separate but equal" doctrine stated that both races had the right to the same public services and facilities, but they should be separate for each group. In practice, it meant the worse service quality for African-Americans. Jim Crow laws, passed between 1876 and 1965, authorised the unequal access to the public facilities.

In a world where being black or white became a crucial issue, the laws were passed to keep “racial purity". The Racial Integrity Act of 1924 just reinforced the existing anti-miscegenation laws which were enacted before the USA came into being. The first colony which banned mixed-race marriages was Maryland (1660).The laws stated that a person could be considered as a non-white if had "any African or Indian ancestry". So called "one-drop rule" prohibited interracial marriages. The law was changed as late as in 1967 as a result of Loving vs. Virginia case. Before the case of legally married couple found its happy-end, Leon Bazile, the judge, stated in his ruling: “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races show that he did not intend for the races to mix."23

The statement which at the moment of issuing was against “the principle of separation of church and state as well as the equal protection clause in the U.S. Constitution” 24 illustrates in the best way how deeply rooted was the racial attitude in the American South and how far the state interference influenced the common people’s life.


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