This History of Us
Published March 2, 2022 / Updated March 18, 2022

This History of Us

Regardless of where we find ourselves in history, white Americans continue to find new ways to shore up their sense of superiority at the cost of the Black mind and body.

by Susan E. Stutz

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Civil rights march on Washington, D.C. Film negative by photographer Warren K. Leffler, 1963. From the U.S. News & World Report Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.     Photograph shows a procession of African Americans carrying signs for equal rights, integrated schools, decent housing, and an end to bias.

Photo by Library of Congress

“Although we’re not responsible for history, we are responsible for what happens today, and for what happens in the future. Racism impacts all of us. And we all have a role to play in ending it.” –Derrick Anderson, Executive Director of Race Matters for Juvenile Justice

Whether the belief has centered on religion, scientific “fact,” or popular culture, white humanity has repeatedly found ways to sustain and justify the oppression and subjugation of an entire body of people. None, however, have suffered as much as the Black body and mind. Men and women who were kidnapped and brought to our shores in the disease-ridden underbelly of cargo ships. Their offspring and future generations would continue to be brutalized, all under the guise of keeping “them” in “their” place. And, this “place” was anywhere white people determined it to be. Regardless of where we find ourselves in history, white Americans continue to find new ways to shore up their sense of superiority at the cost of the black mind and body.

When speaking of the establishment of the United States and the forced removal of Native Americans from their ancestral homelands and hunting grounds, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. is known to have rejoiced over the extermination and compulsory relocation of the millions of Native Americans who had inhabited North America for at least ten thousand years before Columbus’ “discovery” in 1492.

Holmes’ statement, “and so the red-crayon sketch is rubbed out, and the canvas is ready for a picture of manhood a little more like God’s own image,” clearly illustrates the white individual’s desire to look out among the lands of their new—albeit stolen—home and see only that which mirrored themselves. As we will see, Holmes was not alone in his desire to gaze upon the masses and see “that nobly arched head, containing such a quantity of brain [...] that emblem of modesty, of delicate feelings”, which he and others like him believed represented the best part of humanity, staring back at him.

The supposition that the creation story in the book of Genesis is a tale of white individuals has flourished throughout recorded history even though the book of Genesis never mentions the color of Adam and Eve’s skin. As history has shown us, this theological belief in the superiority of the white race has been in place for centuries. Statements, such as those by Holmes, have been taken as true despite the lack of genuine evidence in support thereof. Theological beliefs, coupled with the alleged certainty that the white race reigned in intelligence and capabilities, determined that all other races were savages by comparison and therefore sub-human. This mindset encouraged a rampant lack of empathy, which resulted in the perceived justification for the control and extermination of an entire population. In time, these beliefs would leave the realm of theology and enter into the world of “science,” where such attitudes and their consequences would have further devastating effects on those that the white race saw as the “Other.”

When unpacking the scientific “discoveries," one must consider that you cannot separate science from the society in which its uses occur. Science is always profoundly enmeshed in the cultural and prevailing mindsets of the day, and it is often used to justify belief systems already in place. Additionally, visible science is most often performed by those at the top of the racial hierarchy. It is rare for observable science to have been performed by those that the dominant race believes are unworthy and incapable. If it is, less credit is given to that individual and their findings due to the prevailing thought process that the “Other” really has no such capability and can therefore produce nothing of value. Moreover, racism has meant that white scientists have regarded people of color as an undifferentiated part of the environment, a given, rather than a subject active in changing the environment.

The chronicle of the early days of scientific racism—the use of scientific theory to support white racial superiority and thus brown or black inferiority—began in 1676 with William Petty’s division of humankind into a category of several species in The Scale of Creatures. In this work, Petty gives us a window into the transformation of race from a theological perspective to one rooted in scientific “fact.” Petty explains that he has not only observed a physical difference between Europeans and Africans but that he has also observed a marked difference between their “natural manners and in the internal qualities of their minds.” By making this distinction, Petty categorizes and marginalizes not only people and their respective countries of origin but also divides white and black individuals into biologically separate species.

More than one hundred years later, Georges Cuvier would add to Petty’s theory by examining the various types of elephants and positing the idea that species could and had become extinct. In his studies regarding extinction, Cuvier did not look to natural elements. Instead, he proposed that a massacre was the culprit. Cuvier's admirer, Charles Lyell went further by suggesting that the extinction of a species stemmed not from an external force but as a result of a species’ inability to evolve. One can surmise that the argument being made was that the annihilation of the black and brown race was not due to the violent actions of Europeans, slave trading, or colonization but rather as a result of the black individual’s own failure as a people.

Cuvier, while claiming to be a believer of monogenism, also developed a theory that mirrored polygeny far more closely than monogeny. Whereas monogeny states that all humans can trace their descendants from one set of original parents, polygeny is the idea that the human race stems from multiple sets of original parents.

Following Cuvier and Petty was Louis Agassiz, a Swiss Naturalist who immigrated to the United States in the 1840s. Agassiz would develop and become one of the leading authorities on the issue of polygeny. The argument that the races are separate and apart from each other would serve as a cornerstone in the American understanding that seen as a separate life form, people of color did not need to nor should they participate equally with white people. Thanks to men such as Petty, Cuvier, Agassiz, and Lyell, no longer was racial and white supremacy rhetoric stemming from theological perspectives and individual opinions. Riding upon the words uttered by the pre-eminent men of the day, racism entered the new sphere of science.

While Petty, Agassiz, and Cuvier gave the scientific community and layperson alike grandiose theories of racial deficiency and surplus, there were others who put those theories to the test. One of the more absurd scientific tests performed was done so by Robert Knox. In The Races of Man: A Fragment, Knox suggests that because “dark races have been slaves of those lighter-skinned” since the beginning of history, it stands to reason that there must be a physical or psychological explanation that makes the dark races inferior. Knox further asserted that this innate inferiority was not necessarily “due to the lack of size in the brain but rather a lack of quality in it.” In coming to this conclusion, Knox relies on a single autopsy of a man of color which he claims revealed to him that the corpse of the black male—whose attributes were then assigned to all black individuals, men and women alike—had “a third fewer nerves in arms and legs than in a white man of corresponding size. The soul, instinct, and reason of both races must therefore, it is obvious, he maintain[ed], be different to a corresponding degree.” In Knox’s opinion, as was and is often the case, that which applies to one black individual applies to the population as a whole.

In addition to the scientific “facts” being touted at the time, the public was also provided with visual and artistic examples of how segments of the human race and their lower relatives were strikingly similar. In 1868, J.C. Nott and Geo R. Gliddon provided drawings that depicted the bust of Apollo Belvidere as the personification of white physical perfection. Apollo’s skull was thought to be perfectly formed, at least insofar as it met with Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.’s description of the epitome of the white human race. Moving through the scale of drawings, we see the caricature of the African American male portrayed with exaggerated lips and facial characteristics followed by an illustration of a young chimpanzee. These representations of serve to reify the assertion that the white man is the embodiment of perfection. In contrast, the black man is slightly separated from the chimpanzee. When faced with the question as to whether or not race is real, innate, or the product of physical and genetic differences, white humanity has answered with a resounding yes, seeing themselves as the pinnacle of perfection.

Much of our historical education has glossed over this country’s appalling treatment of African men and women, attempting to omit the atrocities our earliest citizens committed. Discussing Edward Baptist’s new book, The Half Has Never Been Told, Braden Goyette writes:

“[O]ur narrative of slavery generally goes something like this: it was a terrible thing but it was an anomaly, a sort of feudal throwback within capitalism whose demise would inevitably come with the rise of wage labor.”

On the Duckster Education Site, for example, in text that barely fills one-and-a-half pages, the history of this country’s heinous actions is so watered down that it might as well not even exist. As children, we are taught simply that the first enslaved people arrived in the colonies of our new country from their home on the African continent, Lincoln freed them, and all was well. The neglect of the ugly side of American history and capitalism does not improve much as our children get older and move into and out of high school.

What is often left out of our discourses are the conditions in which African people were expected to live as they traveled unwillingly from their homes to our shores as well as the horrific and violent conditions under which they lived, once they reached the Americas. NPR Senior Editor Cory Turner says, quoting the Southern Poverty Law Center’s report:

“Slavery is hard history [...] It is hard to comprehend the inhumanity that defined it. It is hard to discuss the violence that sustained it. It is hard to teach the ideology of white supremacy that justified it. And it is hard to learn about those who abided it.”

Although disputed by some, it is generally accepted that in August of 1619 a group of approximately 20 men and women were the first group of Africans to be sold as involuntary laborers or indentured servants in the English colonies. Those twenty men and women were brought to the then-infant America, as shackled human cargo stowed in the underbelly of a ship. And, for many:

“...the chains remain. Not the chains [they] were unable to elude upon [their] historic beginnings as human chattel whose blood, sweat, and tears mixed with the dirt in which the foundation of America rest. But chains of oppression. Chains now more mental than physical.”

As the colonies stretched their legs into being a country, more than 600,000 African men, women, and children would be herded like cattle and shipped across the ocean to meet colonists’ demand for laborers and servants. Packed into the underbelly of cargo ships like animals, many Africans did not survive. Those who perished while were tossed overboard, which only added to the tragedy as those left behind believed that death and burial were matters to be handled with the utmost care and respect. Once on American soil, African families were torn apart by their owners who gave no thought to selling children but keeping the parents, and vice-versa. Families and marriages were routinely broken, and many would go to their graves without knowing where their loved ones went, never having seen them again.

African women and girls were subjected to sexual assault at the hands of their enslavers and countless children were born and bred in the homes of slaves on the South’s antebellum plantations. As many white Americans can trace their lineage back to the earliest colonists, so too can many African American lines of descent trace their heritage back to the violent couplings of enslaved people and their enslavers.

Unable to reconcile themselves with the consequences of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, Southern whites sought new ways of maintaining control over the men and women who were no longer their property. Southern whites were unable to accept the idea, much less the reality, of free black men and women who would seek to enjoy control over their own lives and, in doing so, potentially achieve some level of equality with white people. Having lost the benefit of claiming ownership over the physical black body, white people now looked for alternate ways in which to maintain control. As a result, they created a system of laws, both written and unwritten, that served to dictate virtually every aspect of the black individual’s life.

Named for a stage character created by Thomas Dartmouth Rice in the late 1830s to entertain white audiences, these new laws and social dictates became known as Jim Crow. The control Southern whites had before the 1863 emancipation was regained in-part through their wide-scale implementation.

As Jim Crow served to prohibit the most benign of activities, such as black and white individuals dining in the same restaurants or riding in the same train cars, it also became the story of an entire people who were denied the basic rights of citizenship or humanity, invisible except as caricatures in the public’s mind. To maintain social and political control in a time of freed slaves, white Americans employed a system of terror, intimidation, and violence to doom the promise of Reconstruction.

In a multitude of ways and despite laws to the contrary, over the course of almost four hundred years, white America has successfully and repeatedly established new ways of maintaining control over the minds, bodies, and lives of black men and women. Whether that be through the existence or lack of housing choices, avenues for economic success, disenfranchisement, lackof academic opportunities, the war on drugs, slavery, or an unyielding system of violence, very little has changed in that people of color remain under the thumb of white supremacy. And, as black men and women live behind what W.E.B. DuBois termed the veil of identity, always reckoning their behavior with the perception of white people, whites themselves are, “but [the] hideous, groping hired hands, doing their bit to oil the raging devastating machinery.”

While racism isn’t found on the human genome, the perceived inferiority of people of color has become so ingrained in the lives of its believers that it could almost be perceived as having been handed down through bloodlines. However, our beliefs are not genetic. We are not born believing one idea over another. Rather, we are taught by others. Despite the socially constructed truth of racism, white men and women have prospered emotionally and economically in their efforts to maintain racial superiority. Every generation passes to the next, the principles of racism and of white supremacy. The success of white America in being the triumphant group depended then, as well as now, entirely upon the losses to those—the “Others,” people of color—who are deemed unworthy. In order to win, someone else must lose. And, for racist white Americans, the loser can only and ever be people of color.

What You Can Do

States all across this country are proposing and enacting legislation to keep this history–America’s real history–out of our classrooms. For the GOP, the abbreviated and wholly misleading narrative about racism is more than enough. But, their stunted story of this country’s racist beginnings, and the lengths that modern Americans are willing to go to in order to continue that false narrative, serve only to deepen the wedge between a racist or just society. Four hundred years of oppression is enough. It is past time–centuries past–to begin to live up to the promise of what this country could be. The beacon on the hill will forever be just an ember so long as we continue to oppress our brown and black brothers and sisters. This democratic experiment will never succeed if we continue to fail in recognizing the contributions made every day by millions of people of color. The American story can only truly be written when we the history of us includes us all.

To find out the status of critical race theory legislation in your state, take a look at this map. And, when you are ready, send state to 50409 and lobby your legislators on this or any other topic that is important to you. You can also check out this petition or this one, and invite your friends and family to do the same.

Thank you to Jason.

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