I’m resurrecting a blog post from the past (slightly modified). Two reasons: I’ve gained several hundred subscribers who would not have seen this original post. More importantly, the content is so fundamental to understanding how we’ve come to this place that it bears frequent revisiting. We so-called white people have been duped, and need frequent reminders of the deception we’ve absorbed in order to remedy how it operates in our lives.
Dr. Ibram Kendi’s National Book Award Winner Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America is among many sources for this blog post. Using his research along with others listed in Resources below, here is a brief account of a pivotal point in what I’ll call the Great White Hoax:
For decades after Europeans came to this land, there was a distinct class system:
Wealthy white landowners, business owners and plantation owners were clearly at the apex, holding absolute power.
All others were in an amalgamated lower class that consisted of:
- Free laborers – of all “races”
- Indentured laborers – of all “races” (under term-limited contracts to those who brought them here)
- Enslaved laborers – of all “races”
Until the late 1600’s, these lower-class people intermingled, socialized, and intermarried. They shared a common bond: frustration with the oppressive systems devised by the wealthy power people.
In 1676 a white Virginian Nathaniel Bacon organized a rebellion, recruiting a thousand Virginians from ALL the lower-class categories. The rebellion was eventually quelled, but as author Kendi observes, in the eyes of wealthy owners, “poor Whites and enslaved Blacks joining hands presaged the apocalypse.”
Those owners resurrected an ancient technique to defuse the possibility:
Divide and Conquer.
Convince the “white” people (free, indentured or slave) that they were clearly superior to those “black” people, and were more rightly akin to the wealthy “whites.” Over the next decade, a series of laws, codes and restrictions (property rights, voting rights, right to bear arms, etc.) were instituted to grant favor to “whites” over others.
The bottom line is this:
- We were taught to esteem our white skin and white unity
- More importantly, we were taught that white-skinned people are superior to black-skinned people.
- Why were we taught this? So that wealthy whites could count on poor whites to side with them against black-skinned people.
This strategy was an overwhelming success. The owners could now simply appeal to the higher status granted by whiteness to convince the white masses to join them in deriding, castigating and persecuting those inferior, bumbling, pathetic Blacks – successfully diverting the attention of the other whites from the injustices they suffered alongside the Black folks.
Thus, the racial divide was intentionally fostered and enshrined. Kendi recounts how bogus “scientific” research was devised to prove the superiority of white people, all debunked over time, but touted by many of our most esteemed leaders over the centuries. (One description of many from Jefferson: “In imagination are they dull, tasteless and anomalous, and in reason much inferior.”) The truth: Physical variations seen among “races” developed over centuries, due to a process of natural selection including geographic adaptation. Genetic testing now gives incontrovertible evidence that we are simply one human race.
That faux scientific evidence is rarely touted now, but the strategy of “Divide and Conquer” has prevailed. The infamous Southern Strategy, which turned the democratic South solid red, was articulated by Nixon campaign strategist Lee Atwater in 1968 (The Nation, Nov. 2012). Republican politicians of that era began to speak in a kind of racial code, designed to turn white working-class voters against government programs, the very kind of government programs that these workers themselves had benefited from for years, because those “Negroes” were taking advantage of them!
To be clear, this Southern Strategy was as effective in the North as it was in the South. It continues with today’s dog-whistle politics, but it also continues in many progressive/liberal minds in a more subtle and no-less toxic form: “helping.” Please consider the possibility that your good works may be tainted: tutoring, mentoring, making contributions, hiring minorities, serving on not-for-profit Boards, etc.. I’ve found that my compassion contains at least some traces of condescension, which is white superiority, which is white supremacy.
This does not mean that we stop trying! The point is not that we quit what we’re doing, but that we become more astute in recognizing how deep-seated our biases are, how entrenched white superiority is in our DNA. This consciousness can foster a “cleaner” approach to what we do, a more humble attitude. As I deepen my awareness, for example, I find myself listening more, absorbing the wisdom of those I had set out to “help.”
Join in this awakening by using the resources listed here.
Comments and suggestions welcome below.
Stamped From the Beginning – The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. National Book Award Winner by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi. Traces the development of the uniquely American brand of racism, tracking the calculated origins of the race idea. He details the extent to which white people have been duped into seeing ourselves as a superior people.
America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America by Jim Wallis
White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness by Maurice Berger
Race: The Power of Illusion, Episode 2, The Story We Tell. PBS Documentary
Scene on Radio Podcast “Seeing White” Series
“Guidelines for being strong white allies” 2 ½ page guide by Paul Kivel.
“Developing Authentic Anti-Racist Leadership” Brief list from Howard Eagle
If you live in a suburb, check out what is happening in your town to respond to the current surge of interest in dismantling racism. Leaders in many suburbs, spurred by residents, are suddenly interested in addressing systemic racism – in schools, zoning policies, and entrenched disincentives for People of Color to live in their towns. To my limited knowledge, there is movement in Brighton, Fairport and Pittsford. Research and get involved.
One simple way to support the Black community now: A Rally and Vigil sponsored by Black Nurses for Black Lives: Saturday 7/11, 3:00 p.m. at MLK Park at Manhattan Square Park. Details here.
And still, this list will leave no excuse to say “But what can I do?:”
“97 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice”
9 thoughts on “The Great White Hoax: Who Told You You Were White? And Why?”
bob dylans song “only a pawn in their game” ties your theme in a song
Ah, thank you David.
Thanks for continuing to try, but your article contains a number of ideas that are clearly representative of conflated convolution, which probably contributes to “anti-racist”-mess-making ( http://minorityreporter.net/snake-oil-solutions-critique-of-novice-mess-makers-and-those-who-know-better/ ) — more so than fostering clarity. I’ll just point out a couple of the most glaring, and I would very much appreciate your response:
1) I have no idea as to where you apparently read about so-called “Enslaved laborers – of all “races”,” but I feel confident that if your grossly-distorted, wild idea is discussed in Kendi’s book(s) — it is qualified via some level of differentiation. That is to say, it’s unimaginable that Dr. Kendi, or any other credible historian, would posit that there has ever been a time in U.S. history, or anywhere else in the world for that matter, in which Black folks and white folks were enslaved TOGETHER under a system such as U.S. chattel slavery. So, what exactly did you mean by the quote above? Did you perhaps state it in a manner that is outside of the context in which it was originally presented?
2) You wrote that “the owners successfully diverted the attention of the other whites from the injustices they suffered alongside the Black folks.” However, before leveling the latter assertion, you had already written that — “a series of laws, codes and restrictions (property rights, voting rights, right to bear arms, etc.) were instituted to grant favor to [ALL] whites over others.” So, if the latter contention is true, and it is — then how is it possible that whites “suffered alongside the Black folks?”
Again, my questions are NOT rhetorical, and answers would be very much appreciated.
I’ll reply later, Howard. For now just wanted to post this.
Thank you Frank.
Howard, now I’m surprised. If you google “enslaved white people”, there is a wealth of information about enslaved Europeans. It’s hardly just Kendi’s assumption.
On your second point, I don’t understand your point. The laws (including the Viginia Slave Codes of 1705) clearly diverted the attention of whites from the ways in which they were still being cheated by the elite class. In reality, they were more “alongside” the Black people than the white elites, but as long they has some advantage, they were placated.
We should also em ember that in addition to “whiteness”, the pre-revolutionaryfree landowners could also play the “Englishman” card. At the time, England was very powerful, and the English considered themselves superior to all other nationalities and races – a term that frequently had wider connotations than simply skin color.
An important point, thank you, Bill!
Frank, I agree with your statements about Divide and Conquer as the approached used by people in power. I also agree with your statement about condescension.