The recurrent U.S. story—dominant, habitual, profoundly functional—is a tale of democracy and freedom, uplift and forward motion, perpetual improvement and never-ending progress. It echoes in our consciousness until it achieves the exalted status of a truth beyond doubt, a plain American fact: “America is the greatest country on earth”; “Land of the free, home of the brave”; “God bless America.” To wonder about or interrogate any of this is like questioning whether down might be up, or white black. No sensible person dare ask.
But every crack we encounter in that domineering story becomes a little earthquake in our heads: Scottsboro, crack, Don Pedro Albizu Campos, crack, Greensboro, crack, Birmingham, crack, Selma, crack, Fred Hampton, crack, Trayvon Martin, crack, mass incarceration and felony disenfranchisement and school closings—crack, crack, crack.
Start at the beginning, when the Puritans provided one of the most durable symbols of the “American experiment,” a symbol that is as resilient and resonant today as it ever was: America was to be a city on the hill—our exalted place, chosen by God—whose inhabitants, the chosen people, would engage in an errand into the wilderness, their task to shine their countenance upon the darkened world and thereby to enlighten it. There were some twenty million indigenous peoples already here, according to the most recent scholarship; 90 percent would be exterminated. The project of a blessed people bearing civilization and progress and truth offers a ready justification for anything—conquest, theft, and mayhem, ultimately mass murder: We come in peace, we are messengers of God, we embody the greater good. Opposition is nothing but the Devil’s handiwork.
Beyond political calculation and opportunism, military advantage and strategic aims, imperial dreams and desires, this foundational symbol goes some way toward explaining many U.S. misadventures, including the unconditional military support the US offers Israel today. That nation, too, was built by a determined band of people who suffered and survived, arose phoenix-like to discover “a land without people,” they claimed, “for a people without land.” They, too, were a chosen people, a lighter-skinned European people claiming the leadership, who “made the desert bloom,” and they planted their plucky little democracy in the midst of hostile and threatening and notably darker-skinned neighbors. Perpetual but righteous war would become the necessary order of the day for the forces of goodness. And so it is, in settler Israel as in the settler US.
Before the improbable and treacherous migration to North America, people in Europe thought of themselves as English or Irish, Dutch or German, Italian or Greek. As soon as these exiles and pilgrims landed in a “new world”—a land populated by a complex network of indigenous tribes and civilizations soon to be massacred and driven onto reservations, a land soon enough abounding with captured Africans, and, as it conquered a continent, Mexicans and then Chinese indentured servants—every European became white. Made-in-America. Race achieved and exploited this singular success: the creation of whiteness as a union of disparate peoples, classes, backgrounds, and histories. Oddly, whiteness is the most dehumanizing of all categories, always expressed as a negative—not Black, not colored. It has no content of its own; it surely has no science; it’s always experienced as a negation.
When the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in 1774, over a century and a half after the first Africans arrived in chains in Jamestown, the abolition of the slave trade was named as one of the goals for the new nation. But when the Founding Fathers ratified the Constitution after the Revolutionary War, instead of abolition, they wrote slavery into law. The Declaration of Independence, which dissolved the legal and political ties to Great Britain, is stamped with white supremacist thinking, but it’s the Constitution of the United States, in Article I, Section 2—the infamous “3/5 Clause”—that embeds white supremacy in its heart, accommodates the new nation to slavery, and sets in motion all the politically layered and social and economic privileges and disadvantages still flourishing:
Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several states which may be included within this union, according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.
Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania provided a voice of dissent:
“Upon what principle are slaves computed? Are they men? Then make them citizens and let them vote. Are they property? Why then is no other property included? The admission of slaves into the House when fairly explained comes to this: the inhabitant of Georgia or South Carolina who goes to the coast of Africa, and in defiance of the most sacred laws of humanity leads away his fellow creatures from their dearest connections and damns them to the most cruel bondages, shall have more votes in a government instituted for the protection of the rights of mankind, than the citizen of Pennsylvania or New Jersey who views with horror so nefarious a practice.”
In Article I Section 9, Congress is prohibited from abolishing the international slave trade until 1808; in Article IV, Section 2, the various states are prohibited from emancipating fugitive slaves; in Article I, Section 8, Congress can call up militias to suppress insurrections, including slave uprisings. On and on: commerce, taxation, representation, unamendable clauses. Slavery and its antecedents—a large and easily identifiable underclass—had several alluring advantages from the ruling class point of view: the suppression of wages and the ruin of a possible
Of the first five U.S. presidents, four owned slaves and, overall, twelve presidents owned slaves, eight while in office. Hundreds of senators, congressmen, and judges—highly esteemed men, some of them revolutionaries—owned slaves. George Washington, father of the nation, owned slaves, freed his personal servant upon his death, and said of slavery in 1786: “I can only say that no man living wishes more sincerely than I do to see the abolition of [slavery]. But when slaves who are happy and content to remain with their present masters, are tampered with and seduced to leave them … it introduces more evils than it can cure.”
James Madison, the fourth president, owned slaves his entire life, but freed them in his will. In 1819 he said: “A general emancipation of slaves ought to be” gradual, equitable and satisfactory to the individuals immediately concerned, and “consistent with the existing and durable prejudices of the nation… To be consistent with existing and probably unalterable prejudices in the U.S. freed blacks ought to be permanently removed beyond the region occupied by or allotted to a White population.”
John Tyler, tenth president, owned slaves and said, “[God] works most inscrutably to the understandings of men; the negro is torn from Africa, a barbarian, ignorant and idolatrous; he is restored civilized, enlightened, and a Christian.”
Zachary Taylor owned more than a hundred slaves, and declared in 1847: “So far as slavery is concerned, we of the South must throw ourselves on the Constitution and defend our rights under it to the last, and when arguments will no longer suffice, we will appeal to the sword, if necessary.” Taylor later served as a lawmaker in the Confederate government.
Historian John Hope Franklin observed that “racial segregation, discrimination, and degradation are no unanticipated accidents in the nation’s history. They stem logically and directly from the legacy that the founding fathers bestowed upon contemporary America.”
Whenever we hear about the Founding Fathers and their “original intent,” let’s remember just what kind of fathers we’re talking about, and wonder a bit about the purity of their intent. They were human, of course, filled with contradictions—isn’t everyone?—and apologists point out that they lived in their own time, not in ours. True. But even and especially in their own time, values and standards were contested, as they always are—there was Cinque as well as Jefferson, Wilborn as well as Washington, Frederick Douglass and John Brown and Toussaint L’Overture and Nat Turner as well as Zach Taylor.
And in that contested space the Founding Fathers were fundamentally, to a man, unapologetic and open white supremacists. At the end of the Civil War, this young country again had an opportunity to confront the legacy of white supremacy and set things right. Congressman Thaddeus Stevens and Senator Charles Sumner proposed to seize slaveholders’ lands and divide them among the former slaves, offering what was to become the iconic and legendary “forty acres and a mule” as reparations for generations of slavery and exploitation and oppression, and to give the newly freed people an economic foothold in the future. The failure to follow through on this potentially powerful gesture allowed the resurgence of the brutal system of white supremacy in new but also lethal forms. The slave economy, a consistent and efficient exploitation of labor, was always more than a simple labor arrangement—it was the first thoroughly race-based system ever invented, and now, at the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, it is possible to see that despite significant modifications and hard-fought transformations, it has defined every aspect of US history, from the development of capitalism, to the odd federalist political system with its disproportionate Southern power, to our daily interactions.
Race anchored slavery. It intended to dehumanize Africans and it failed; it never meant to dehumanize white people, but indeed it has. We live in the world slavery created. So in fact the US was conceived as a white supremacist nation, and the American idea and experience was, from the very start, shot through with the assumption of white superiority. The consequences of this for African Americans are too familiar. Both the corrosive and advantageous implications for whites remain only lightly examined and largely misunderstood. While white supremacy has always been resisted and contested—primarily by its victims—it has never been upended, never massively rejected, and never defeated. It changes form and shape from time to time, it is shot through with contradictions and even exceptions, but back it comes, again and again, living within and among us right up to today. In other words, white supremacy has proven itself an astonishingly enduring social and cultural system, and the US, in spite of its happy rhetoric, remains fundamentally dedicated to structures, institutions, and ideologies that construct and enforce white domination.