Questions: Making Race in America

As we continue thinking about the creation of the color line in late 19th century America, and African Americans’ varied responses to different manifestations of white supremacy, we’ll add the Plessy ruling and some insights from “The American History Guys”  to our discussion http://backstoryradio.org/black-and-white-americas-most-stubborn-color-line/.  Post your questions here . . . and feel free to comment on each other’s ideas–or to at least look them over before we tackle them together in class.

12 thoughts on “Questions: Making Race in America

  1. The case of Plessy vs. Ferguson has always been in my mind a black man versus a white man. Reading the account in Crossing this case has more of an impact on the Civil Rights movement. Plessy was 1/8 African American and, as the court described, was fully white in appearance. In my mind, someone in that coach had to know his ancestory to know he had that little portion of “black blood” within him. The history guys on the podcast mentioned that “blood quantum” (defining how much of your blood is a part of certain races) is most generally used for legal situations. People look at it when legalities are in question. The also discussed that people will often use this small distinction to define themselves as a specific societal group. I suppose this would be in the effort to unite themselves together for a common cause. My question is, was it safer to be a “pure” black or a “mix-breed?” Were there more sever consequences for mix-breeds? The Plessy case involved such a man and the result was disastrous, so was this always the case or were there often times that being both black and white brought prosperity as it did with the Hemings family (the slave of Jefferson)?

    Defining race seems to be a difficult subject. The guys of history defined race as social groups that differ and often just being of a different ethnicity (Irish, English, Russian) can define a person as a separate race. They also mentioned religion as a possible mode of defining boundary lines between inferior and superior races. The Plessy case defines race in the late 19th century as a color issue rather than ethnicity, but a further look into 19th century politics, this color issue only resided with the black and Indian peoples while a religious race existed with Mormons and the problem of Polygamy. Can we define Race as the guys of history did or is that an invalid definition they gave? In my view, race involves ethnicity and not religion. (Ethnicity can be Asian, African, English, Irish, Russian, etc.) Hatred towards different religions is not racism because many, especially christian religions, extend well over ethnic boundaries and involve many people of different ethnicity’s/races. I think religious intolerance is a different category of racism that needs to be distinguished because the majority of missionary oriented religions go well beyond ethnicity.

  2. In the podcast they talked about how people have come to see race in a hierarchical way, and that even though we have completely eradicated the notion that blacks are less-than-human, there is still this notion of racial hierarchy demonstrated in a number of different ways, such as the example the Howard University professor gave of black and white college students not wanting to take classes with Asians, because of the notion that Asians are smarter, a notion which comes from a sense that there is some sort of racial hierarchy. Clearly the supreme court justices who ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson either failed to understand that racial distinction often is viewed as hierarchical, or they conveniently ignored it, while the dissenting justice, on the other hand, was keen in his observations of the ways in which segregation really represented this hierarchical view, and therefore separate facilities, etc., could not be equal. My question is, is it possible to think in terms of racial distinction without viewing race in a hierarchical way?

  3. In the Plessy decision, it seems as though the justices were trying to avoid the larger question of the case by relying heavily upon precedent and rulings of lower courts and State legislatures to justify their sanction of racism, as well as a narrow interpretation of the Fourteenth amendment. Particularly when Justice Brown interprets the amendment, saying, “it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality.” From this, it seems that the government did not intend to give blacks social equality, only seeming political equality. But we have seen through our history that social equality is crucial to political equality. What makes it so that political equality cannot exist without social equality?

    Justice Brown goes on to say that “[if] the two races are to meet upon terms of social equality, it must be the result of natural affinities, a mutual appreciation of each other’s merits and a voluntary consent of individuals.” I think that this is on some levels a very true statement. If you don’t have the consent of the people, they will not obey the laws. Was it possible that the Civil Rights movement occurred when it did, instead of sooner after emancipation, because it was far enough removed from the residue racism of slavery that it was the first time people were willing to change their attitudes about race? Was the Supreme Court correct in their assumption that they could not force public opinions to change, and therefore should not try?

  4. In Justice Brown’s explanation of the decision made by the Supreme Court in the Plessy case, he states that Plessy falsely assumes that “social prejudices may be overcome by legislation.” He argues further that If blacks and whites are to meet upon terms of social equality, “it must be the result of natural affinities.” In 2012, I understand that I have the benefit of hindsight and am living in a U.S. that is much different than it was in the late 19th century. Nevertheless, didn’t the Civil War take place just over 30 years prior to this decision? My main question is how is it possible for members of the Supreme Court to sincerely believe that equality could come as a “result of natural affinities?” Natural affinities? One race was enslaved by the other, their rights non-existent, but they are supposed to develop an affinity for their former captures naturally? For southern whites, their ancestors kept slaves as property for centuries and now they were “naturally” supposed to tolerate them as equal participants in society? This concept promoted by the Justice seems extremely ignorant and unreasonable. To the Justice’s first point about overcoming prejudices through legislation, wasn’t this situation foreshadowed by the brutal clash of the Union and Confederate Armies? If we learned anything from the Civil War, we learned the fundamental principle that the government MUST intervene and protect all citizens equally under the law. Why did the seemingly implicit lessons taught by the Civil War and subsequent Emancipation Proclamation translate into the understanding by elected officials that reconstruction required more Federal intervention, not less?

    Racial purity was an obsession for some southern citizens during the early centuries of United States history. The concept of race came from what type of blood you had in your lineage. The one drop rule excluded many part-white people due to its harsh definition that if a person had but one drop of black blood in them, they were officially black. Within the black community, were Mulattoes looked down upon or were they viewed equally? If someone, like Homer Adolph Plessy, had but 1/8 of “black blood” in their lineage, were they outcasts in black society?

    • We’ll be talking (some) about color within the black community. But there’s a famous exchange between Walter White (head of NAACP) and Clarence Darrow in which White admits he wonders about the capacities of full-blooded blacks; just one example of how (until the late 1960s) we see light skin/mixed heritage being seen as positive (so, rather than outcasts, they’re at the top of the racial hierarchy within the black community, often given preferential treatment by teachers, for instances–even at black schools).

  5. There has been, for many years, real concern with defining racism so that it will benefit the white community, and the classification of the ‘negroes’ to contain, at least in theory, the ideal of racial purity and to really stress the seriousness of this point even the governments established laws to ensure that this would be so; so how did both societies expect to overlook the temptation of sexual relationships, especially between white men and black women?

    In Plessy vs. Ferguson, the judges followed suit on their ideal of racism that would allow them the advantage of racial purity, thus even if a person seemed all white, even one tiny drop of blood was enough to classify them as black; this gave the white community the advantage of being “racially pure.” What was the argument of the Backstory with American History guys that helps us see why the Supreme Justices ruled against Plessy, and show the definition that the white community had developed on race?

  6. In the podcast it talked about how the enlightenment ideals, rather than leading to more open ideas about race, instead lead to people being more closed minded about race. Why would this be true? What about the Enlightenment ideals would lead to racism?

    Someone called into the podcast and discussed percentage of racism. He asked why people define themselves as half one race and half another. While they were giving the man a response, the History Guys said something about how people began to see a black as anyone who had even a drop of black blood in them. This is similar to how Germans defined Jews during World War II. How was the situation of the African Americans in the early United States similar to that of the Jews in World War II. How was it different?

  7. The podcast discusses how overtime we have acknowledged racial boundaries, but have failed to challenge them. An interesting note is made by Annette Gordon about how race is still important to whites, the need to still have a white founding father and the importance on a white purity. The idea of interracial relationships still bother whites because of this white purity. In the Plessy v. Ferguson case, Mr. Justice Harlan states, “The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country… But in the view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens.” This case suggested that blacks and whites were separate but equal and that the 14th amendment could not be upheld because it could not “abolish distinctions based upon color.”

    Popular culture has begun to suggest that skin color must be paired up with a certain cultural. Stereotypes continue to polarize races and strengthen racial differences. The idea of being a mixed race person does not exist as an identity, but that society forces the individual to choose either or to claim. In the Plessy case, Plessy was 1/8th black and felt because he was mostly white, he should be treated as such. But his mixed identity automatically made him impure in the eyes of whites even though he was mostly white. Racism developed eugenics as a scientific reason for racial inferiority. Certain races possessed unwanted features and that to be white and pure would put them above other nations my not mixing with blacks to become “impure.” To whites they believed they were just doing what the rest of the world was doing and easing the “white man’s burden,” but didn’t see the hipocrasy until WWII.

    Mr. Justice Harlan said that whites would be seen as superior if “it remains true to its great heritage and holds fast to the principles of constitutional liberty.” Because there is less African American history taught in schools, does this automatically create a racial divide amongst young children? Children typically make no distinction about color until they are told they are different. Do these distinctions carry on now into interracial relations? Disturbingly, why did those in favor of black rights ease their efforts nearing the beginning of the 20th century? Why wasn’t there a push to redefine the ideas of racial impurity?

  8. Both the podcast and the Plessy ruling show evidecence of how prevalent the fear of racial integration has been throught the 18, 19, and 20th centuries. The podcast insterts a quote from President Obama’s famous race speech, inferring that this is the first President in history to breech the topic openly.

    In what ways is this untrue? Have there been civil leaders willing to address the subject openly? What is the reason that some leaders feared racial integration, or felt white supremacy (such as Thomas Jefferson)? In what way did their situation affect their ideas?

    Plessy was an octoroon (someone with 1/8 amount of black blood). He could have passed as a white person. What does the fact that he chose to promote this race trauma show about the early civil rights leaders? Likewise, what does the story of Sally Hemmings show about early civil rights leaders? In what ways have blacks not just been victims, but agents in the past centuries?

    In the podcast, we are learning about racial purity, and white supremacy. In the reading from last week, we learned about how southern blacks averted Mormonism in order to not be associated with polygamy. In what ways was polygamy a reality of life for them? Does this show any of the same issues, of racial purity and race supremacy?

  9. In the podcast a man called in about ethogenics which got the hosts talking about “racial science” and “racial religion.” “Racial science” began dividing people into parts to explain how racially pure they were compared to their ancestors. For example in the Plessy and Ferguson case Plessy was considered 7/8ths white and 1/8th black. The hosts mentioned that the idea of dividing people up into racial parts stemmed from the antebellum arguments of whether the human race came from one original set of parents or multiple parents. They mentioned that religious thought was common sense in the 19th century and that the good Christians believed that the original people came from Adam and Eve. Christians began justifying negative racial attitudes with the stories of Cain and Abel and the curse of Ham. They saw these stories as God punishing people with black skin so therefore blacks were still in a cursed or punished state of being. Did white Christians believe that blacks had to account for the original sin and the curse of Cain or Ham? How did whites justify themselves as the “pure” race if they were “marked by God” as well with original sin? Couldn’t one argue their points by saying that the white race was evil for bringing the transgression on human kind? Did white Europeans see the Jews as the “pure” line as well for bringing about the only pure son of God on earth who wiped away the original sin? Did the white Christians not believe that Christ was powerful and kind enough to wipe away the curse of ham away from blacks? If they did why didn’t white Christians treat blacks the same as themselves? They believed that they all came from Adam and Adam was a son of God as well as Christ who said “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

  10. Historian Daryl Scott suggested that one of the greatest advances we have had in American history of racial equality is the advances in our view of what race is. He explained that in the early twentieth century, black people were seen as less-than human. By the middle of that century, even the most racist and segregation advocates allowed them to be represented in court; the black race was seen as human, although still inferior to the White race. To what extent has the American view of the Black race been advanced in the last fifty years toward true equality (ie. that they are equal in worth, intellect, potential, and abilities)? What evidence is there to suggest that equality, by this definition, has yet to be achieved?

    In the podcast, there was much discussion about how race is defined or identified. In the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, the idea of race being defined by blood (that a person can be “seven-eighths white” but still be defined as black) was addressed. It seems that this search for a definition, even that the race is in us rather than perhaps manifest outwardly, was primarily a White pursuit. Why did this pursuit ensue, especially among White Americans, and what have been the ramifications in American culture for defining race so strictly– that one is either the one or the other?

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