This weekend I’m writing about America’s original sin. Everyone knows about it. Black people, Native Americans and Latinx people deal with it on a daily basis. Asian-Americans face it less brutally, but no less real, in a variety of stereotypes that have become cultural tropes. Most white people either actively participate in it or perpetuate it by trying to ignore it. Every white person in this country benefits from it in some way. This sin touches everything in the United States in some way. Until we face it, confess it and atone for it we will never be a free land of free people.
It’s called white supremacy and it has been the engine that drives America from the very beginning. In the very first report that Columbus sent back to the Spanish Court he said that he thought the Arawak natives of the Bahamas, Virgin Islands, Jamaica and Hispaniola would be excellent slaves. He took advantage of the Arawak’s hospitality, murdered several of their citizens, took more hostage in attempt to extort gold from them and left an armed band behind on San Salvador when he returned to Spain. When he came back he found that his armed party had angered the Arawaks by raiding and had been killed to a man by a unified Native force.
Rather than stay on San Salvador he instead established himself as Governor of Hispaniola and set about trying to prove his hypothesis that the Arawak would be excellent slaves. Unfortunately for the Arawak it turned out they had no immunity to communicable European diseases. So the slaves died a lot. Columbus was forced to raid for new slaves almost constantly, which killed more Arawak in the fighting. Eventually it was so hard to find slaves that Columbus forced Spanish colonists to do the work the slaves had been doing. So they fired his ass immediately. Treating white people like “Indians” was monstrous!
The downfall of the first would-be American emperor came from the same white supremacy that had motivated his imperialism in the first place. His successors would solve the labor shortage by buying African slaves from the Portuguese in exchange for Caribbean sugar. The lesson from this is that we can’t treat the Native American genocide and the Pan-Atlantic Slave Trade as isolated historical events resting in their own beds until checked upon. Columbus intended to create a slave society from the very beginning. The Native Americans died faster than they could be replaced. The white Spaniards did not want to work. African captives were purchased instead. The empire began to flourish.
America was built on this foundation of white supremacy and imperialism. When the first Spanish colonists settled Florida they brought slavery with them and drove the native Seminoles away from their settlements. When the first English and Dutch colonists arrived in what are now Virginia, New England and the Mid-Atlantic States, they bought slaves from the Portuguese and the Spanish. They couldn’t enslave entire Native American populations but they could and did enslave the prisoners they took and didn’t simply massacre.
Slavery and Native American displacement became the story of the original expansion of the Thirteen Colonies and the catalyst for independence. The number one resentment against the British government by wealthy Colonists of property was that the British crown had placed limits on their westward expansion by virtue of agreement with Native allies. It was easy for them to use the propaganda of opening new western lands for poor farmers to form a power bloc with poor white tenant farmers and indentured servants who might otherwise be more sympathetic to their fellow oppressed, the slaves.
It could be argued with some credibility that white supremacy and imperialism, in this specific form, were the real catalyst for American independence.
During the fight for independence white supremacy was only strengthened by the British promise to American slaves that they could have their freedom if they joined the British Army or Navy to fight their masters. The first black Canadians were Loyalist soldiers who couldn’t stay in the newly independent United States without being returned to their masters. The Treaty of Paris included a clause (never fulfilled by the British, because the king believed slavery was morally wrong) to compensate Americans for “stolen property.” This didn’t mean the Redcoats were looters. It meant Thomas Jefferson wanted to be paid for slaves who had run away and joined the British army.
Once independence was won imperialistic white supremacy was soon enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. The Battle of Fallen Timbers and the Louisiana Purchase vastly increased the size of the United States of America. All of this meant that Native Americans died. All of this meant a greater need for black slaves. Even after the Trans-Atlantic Trade ended, there were still plenty of surplus slaves available from Virginia, North Carolina and the Caribbean. Soon the Southern slave-owning class became the unofficial aristocracy of the nation. Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James K. Polk, and Zachary Taylor owned slaves. Washington, Jackson, Polk and Taylor largely became wealthy(-ier) by the selling of slaves. Jefferson used the selling of slaves to keep himself out of debt.
Whether or not the active conspiracy imagined by many Northerners ever existed it is not inaccurate to refer to the American political class of the time as the “Slave Power.” The Slave Power certainly drove the Mexican War during the Polk administration. It was pushed upon the country by a largely pro-Slavery Democratic Party that wanted to channel immigrants into the army to “Americanize” them while carving out new lands for slave-holders. The (very weakly) anti-slavery Whig Party opposed the war and then consistently opposed appropriations for spending for the war. This opposition cost them their Congressional majority and sowed the seeds for the death of the party.
It’s very important to understand that both the Slave Power and the government of Mexico saw this as a war for imperial might. The difference was that what we now call the US/Mexican border was then a largely rural mestizo society ruled by creoles who saw themselves as “white” but who were seen as “Mexicans” by the Anglo-Americans who still formed the dominant U.S. culture. For this reason, in addition to slavery (which Mexico had already abolished and the U.S. hoped to expand), the notion of fighting heathens who were not quite truly white people added a strong element of white supremacy to the Mexican War.
There were two consequences of American victory that created opportunities for the U.S. to begin to throw off its basis in white supremacy. The first was an alliance between the U.S. Army and the caballero class in Texas and California that insured these territories were conquered with a minimum of actual fighting compared to the rest of the war. Anglo-Americans in the new territories had married into these families and purchased land from them even before the war. This should have created a sense of common clan that admitted at least the Mexican upper classes into “polite society” in the United States. That’s not what happened.
The second was the Northern opposition to the Slave Power that would lead to the Civil War. These included genuine moral abolitionists and even a small number of genuine antiracists. It also included a general theory among Northern businessmen that slavery was ultimately bad for capitalism by making the stakeholder class lazy and arrogant. This united rich and poor against the Slave Power and allowed them to forget their problems with each other. This faction of the Antislavery Opposition was no less racist than the Slave Power and often attempted to exclude even free black people from “free soil.” Capitalists have always used white supremacy to unite white people against black people and prevent poor white people from naturally siding with black people against the stakeholders. The Civil War, Emancipation and Reconstruction presented a bold chance to make amends for black slavery. That’s not what happened.
Instead a double tragedy occurred. First the Latinx people of California and Texas were largely dispossessed of their lands and properties by a combination of legal action and direct violence. A prime example of the former was Mariano Vallejo, who went bankrupt fending off lawsuits claiming title to his family lands. He had to sell the land to pay his legal debts and the Anglo developers won. An example of the latter is legendary California outlaw Joaquin Murrieta, who engaged in retaliatory killings and robberies against Anglo-Americans until his death at the hands of the California Rangers after his wife and brother were killed by land-grabbers who accused his brother of stealing a mule. The unfortunate antihero’s head allegedly ended up pickled in a jar. Whether or not it is a true story it certainly captures the white supremacy that changed Murrieta’s life and then ended it.
In the words of our president, he was an animal and was treated like one.
Black people were no more fortunate than Latinx people. Reconstruction offered some efforts at enforced equality in the South but fell due to Southern opposition and a lack of real Northern commitment to racial equality. Though President Rutherford B. Hayes spent the rest of his life, after his single term, trying to get the vote for black men his ascent to the presidency destroyed Reconstruction and any hope of racial justice at the time. The freed slaves and their children were terrorized and brutalized until they fled the South in large numbers. In the South, Jim Crow laws and work permits continued slavery. Worse, penal slavery revived it in the North.
There is a lot more for which I don’t have space. The Chinese Exclusion act, the imposition of quotas on immigration from Roman Catholic and Orthodox Catholic countries in Southern, Central and Eastern Europe, the imperialism of the Spanish-American War and the Philippine War and the internment of the Japanese during WWII all figure prominently. So does the shameful treatment of the people of Puerto Rico by the US government since the end of the Spanish-American War.
It’s very important to understand that this white supremacy is not just something from the past. It’s not a series of historical incidents that we have put behind us. The Native American genocide is still ongoing. The state of Massachusetts recently declared the Wampanoag Council extinct despite the fact that its members are still alive. DNA tests showed they weren’t “really Native American.” Is it any wonder some Cherokee intellectuals are so angry at Elizabeth Warren right now?
Black slavery is still ongoing in its own way as well. The police violence that terrorizes much of the black community is a descendant of the Fugitive Slave Law and the Southern slave patrol. The prison-industrial complex and prison slavery have taken the place of chattel slavery. They are no less important to the economy now than chattel slavery was in its own day. The words “tough on crime” are particularly weighted against black people and in favor of these forces that hold many poor black people in a form of de facto slavery.
Likewise, the white-washing of the American Southwest continues in a very obvious way in the administration of President Donald Trump. The Orange Troll has ascribed all the stereotypes to Latinx immigrants that were ascribed after the Mexican War to ethnically cleanse many portions of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. ICE attacks immigrants and deports them in a fashion clearly designed to send Latinx (and other non-white immigrants) people back to their countries of origin.
When you understand how central white supremacy is to every political and economic fiber of this country you will begin to understand the problem we face. Solutions for these problems have to be found if we wish to overthrow our stakeholder democracy and achieve social democracy. Frederick Douglas said it best, at the United States’ 100th birthday. Reconstruction had ended and white reconciliation had begun between North and South.
“What will peace among the whites bring?”
Defeating white supremacy means accepting a simple motto and really learning to live bit. Solidarity with the oppressed and no peace among the whites.
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