Why Racism Still Thrives in America
After hundreds of years, racism still plagues the country. Why?
It’s no secret that racism is rampant in America. From the mass shooting in El Paso, where the killer railed against the “Hispanic invasion,” to the images of Ralph Northam, Democratic governor of Virginia, wearing blackface and a Klu Klux Klan hood, we see the evidence of it everywhere.
John Powell, who leads the UC-Berkeley Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, places the blame on the Trump administration:
“What used to be at the fringe is becoming mainstream, and it’s creating new norms,” he says. “That’s why we’ve seen an uptick in racist incidents and more subtle expressions of racism and racial dominance.”
President Trump’s own hatred is no secret either. He’s referred to Hispanic immigrants as “rapists” and “criminals.” He’s accused nations with certain demographics of being “shitholes.” He’s promised to build a wall and keep America safe.
But Trump isn’t the reason racism is thriving in America. He’s no doubt amplified and encouraged it, but the statues of Nathan Bedford Forrest were standing long before Trump entered the White House.
Unfortunately, racism is a deeply rooted and integral aspect of the United States.
The truth is, it’s difficult to imagine how the country could exist without it. To explain what I mean, we’ll need to return to the nation’s beginnings.
Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated in 1801. At that time, the United States had a population of little more than 5 million people. It existed almost entirely on the Atlantic coast, comprised of immigrants from Europe, and the slaves they brought from Africa.
When Jefferson took office, only 10% of the population lived in cities. The United States was an agrarian nation and lagged far behind England, which had undergone rapid industrialization. It was a vastly different country than the industrial empire it would become only a century later.
But Jefferson and the rest of the founding fathers were aware of the potential that lay before them in the new continent. They’d read Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations published, interestingly, in 1776.
In his work, the Scottish economist argued that wealth production would increase if individuals were left to pursue their own self-interest in the market.
[Without trade restrictions] the obvious and simple system of natural liberty establishes itself of its own accord. Every man…is left perfectly free to pursue his own interest in his own way…. The sovereign is completely discharged from a duty [for which] no human wisdom or knowledge could ever be sufficient; the duty of superintending the industry of private people, and of directing it towards the employments most suitable to the interest of the society.
-The Wealth Of Nations, Adam Smith
Jefferson acquired Smith’s book while in France during the years 1784–1789. In 1790, in a letter to Thomas Mann Randolph, Jefferson wrote that “in political economy I think Smith’s wealth of nations the best book extant….”
According to Adam Smith, the expectation of profit from “improving one’s stock of capital” rests on the acquisition and right to private property. A more recent author put the concept in less regal terms:
Just as a man can’t exist without his body, so no rights can exist without the right to translate one’s rights into reality, to think, to work, and to keep the results, which means: the right of property.
-Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand
But Adam Smith’s ideas weren’t working in America. The necessary conditions didn’t yet exist. In England, the serfs had long been driven off their land as the lords consolidated more and more property, thus creating a vast labor pool in the cities that the capitalist could exploit in his factories.
This was not possible in the United States. Not in 1801, anyway. 90% of the population was rural. Capitalists who came to America seeking their fortune — and the application of Smith’s ideas — found it impossible to keep employees. Land was too cheap and plentiful. The colonists were independent, largely providing for their own needs at the expense of industrial life.
Left to pursue their own interests in the new world, the settlers hardly wanted to labor in shoddy factories for low wages.
Any would-be capitalist, like Jefferson, had to turn to slavery to make a decent profit. What’s more, in order to really turn American into an industrial powerhouse, the country would have to take control of more and more property, possibly even the entire continent from sea to shining sea.
But there was a problem. America was already inhabited. Over half a million people lived west of the Appalachian Mountains, and they had an ancient claim to the right of that property.
For property rights to be valid they must be entered upon voluntarily. After all, Smith’s diligent pursuit of self-interest can hardly exist if someone can just move next door, kill you, and take the hard earned product of your labor.
In fact, Smith’s arguments rest upon the concept of mutual gain and just dealings. By regarding their self-interest in a fair market, all would benefit. But without justice and honor, the entire system falls apart.
If [justice] is removed, the great, the immense fabric of human society, that fabric which to raise and support seems in this world if I may say so has the peculiar and darling care of Nature, must in a moment crumble into atoms.
-The Theory Of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith
The native Americans, however, refused to participate in the market. They didn’t believe the land was for sale; they didn’t believe in property rights. They had a different idea of what was in their self-interest.
And so, they proved an awful challenge to those seeking to use their land as a means of building the most industrialized and, therefore, capitalist country on Earth.
I see the whites all over the country gaining wealth, and see their desire to give us lands which are worthless…I never said the land was mine to do with it as I chose. The one who has the right to dispose of it is the one who has created it. I claim a right to live on my land, and accord you the privilege to live on yours.
–Chief Joseph, the remarkable leader of the Nez Perce tribe.
He has done nothing for which to be ashamed. He has fought for his countrymen, the squaws and papooses, against the white men, who come year after year, to cheat them and take away their land. You know the cause of our making war. It is known to all white men. They ought to be ashamed of it. Indians are not deceitful. The white men speak bad of the Indians and look at him spitefully. But the Indian does not tell lies; Indians do not steal.”
— Black Hawk, chief of the Sauk and Fox Indians, upon surrendering himself at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, August 27, 1832.
But they found a way to make it work. The colonists had been cultivating the theory of racial superiority for centuries and the founding fathers — now in control of the colonies who vastly outnumbering the native population — unleashed it with full force.
It would become the cornerstone of the new nation. Racism would legitimize the right to property the founding fathers and their descendants dangled over generations of immigrants fleeing industrialized Europe.
Once the property was theirs, they could put upon it an artificial price that would compel immigrants to work for a long time to earn enough wages to buy the land, thus becoming independent and escaping the drudgery of wage-labor.
And so, armed with the theory of racial supremacy, they set out to exterminate the native population and claim the land for themselves. Doing so was simply a divine right, they argued. This concept is still taught in schools today under the term “manifest destiny.”
The consequences were catastrophic.
This unfortunate race, whom we had been taking so much pains to save and to civilize, have by their unexpected desertion and ferocious barbarities justified extermination and now await our decision on their fate.
-President Thomas Jefferson, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, December 29, 1813
Is one of the fairest portions of the globe to remain in a state of nature, the haunt of a few wretched savages, when it seems destined by the Creator to give support to a large population and to be the seat of civilization?
-Governor William Henry Harrison, of the Indiana Territory (1800–1812) while defending displacement of the Indians
Claims to racial superiority were necessary to justify genocide in the name of creating a world based on the pursuit self-interest and the right to private property. Ironically, Jefferson himself enshrined this racism into the fabric of the country when he wrote that “all men are created equal.” What was unspoken but acknowledged by those words was the idea that Native Americans and African Americans didn’t count as men.
Through conquest, colonial education, and displacement, the American colonists sought to not only destroy the indigenous population, but also to wipe out the knowledge that it contained, knowledge which ran opposed to their own ideas. Like usurpers killing any remaining heirs to the kingdom, they butchered those who could challenge their claim.
The legacy of their actions is still alive. America has become the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, and it has done so ignoring the brutal contradictions of its creation.
The pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness cannot exist simultaneously with the right of conquest. All property rights are invalid under the doctrine of might equals right. Justice can’t exist when the many (the colonizers) kill the few (the colonized) to take their resources.
The existence of private property in America only exists thanks to the right of conquest. This isn’t a hidden fact. It’s expressed everyday in the rampant white supremacy that still infests America.
Fast forward to today and the plunder continues. As more and more Americans are denied access to the greatest pile of wealth in history, it’s no surprise that they would retreat into racial justifications for a piece of the pie.
Such claims are, after all, the bedrock of their country. Without them, property rights come down to nothing but the right of conquest: the right of might.
When the American capitalists set out to create the conditions necessary to apply Adam Smith’s theories, they placed the country on a dark path. Today, we know theories of racial superiority have no scientific basis, and yet we must live with constant reminders of their legacy.
America’s very existence is itself a testament to the right of conquest. Their so-called democracy (which ignored almost everyone but white men for most of its history) would never have existed without it. Their concepts of property rights and the pursuit of self-interest really come down to nothing but blood and soil; you kill, and you take. Treaties were ignored, crops were burned, and the land was stolen in order to create the wealth of the nation.
This is why America has never put an end to racism.
It couldn’t exist without it.