What History can Teach us about American Racism

America has a long history of racism. Studying America’s historical bigotry can teach us how to combat and contain that evil today.

We need to study the history of American racism because of widespread ignorance about the subject. Most commentators, for instance, either overestimate or underestimate the influence of racism in our history.

In addition, many observers fail to see how racism shaped American history and warped the nation’s values. In particular, many people do not realize how racist some figures we portray as American heroes were. Conversely, we do not realize how terribly some great Americans suffered for opposing racism.

If we are to overcome racism, we need to understand the evil. The best way to understand racism is to study its history.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana. Source: Big Think

Historical Lessons about American Racism

Here are some historical lessons about American racism we need to grasp:

First, racism can get worse over time

For example, racism was worse in the 1910-1920 decade than in the 1870s.

In the 1870s, America had a President; Ulysses S. Grant (R-Illinois), who fought racism. Grant sent federal troops to the South to suppress the Ku Klux Klan and protect the rights of African Americans. In addition, there were black governors, Congressmen, and U.S. Senators in the 1870s.

In the 1910s, there were no blacks in Congress and no black governors. Meanwhile, it was almost impossible for African Americans to vote in the South because of Jim Crow laws. Segregation was widespread and many of America’s best and brightest openly preached white supremacy.

Notably, in the 1910s, America had an openly racist President, Woodrow Wilson (D-New Jersey) who expanded segregation, refused to talk to African Americans, and used his office to promote racist propaganda. For example, Wilson praised the racist film Birth of a Nation which portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as heroes and federal troops as villains.

Finally, the 1910s violence against African Americans including lynching was widespread. Yet political leaders refused to stop it. Disgustingly, Wilson sent hundreds of thousands of Americans to Europe to “make the world safe for democracy.” Yet he could not send a single soldier or U.S. Marshal to the South to protect American lives, enforce the law, and defend the Constitutional rights of U.S. citizens.

Therefore, the popular notion that racism recedes with time and progress is wrong. Instead, racism only retreats when good people will fight it.

Second, Liberals can be just as racist as Conservatives

Modern mythology teaches that racism is a disease of the right and conservatives.

History, however, shows that American progressives and liberals can be just as racist as any reactionary. Liberal icon President Franklin D. Roosevelt (D-New York), for example, refused to support anti-lynching laws during the 1930s.

Moreover, during World War II FDR extended racism and segregation by illegally imprisoning Japanese Americans in what he called “concentration camps.” In contrast, Roosevelt respected the rights of white Americans with heritage from enemy countries; German and Italian Americans. Plus, FDR extended Jim Crow by organizing segregated Army units for Japanese Americans.

FDR was hardly alone. Many progressives view Woodrow Wilson, perhaps America’s most racist president, as a wise leader and a visionary. In addition, many of the leaders of the early 1900s progressive movement were openly racist.

Many people regarded Populist leader and three time Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan as the champion of the common people. Yet Bryan was a staunch racist who refused to criticize racism, segregation, Jim Crow, or the Klu Klux Klan. Even though racism violated Bryan’s strong Christian faith.

In the 1960s, the notorious segregationist and racist Governor George C. Wallace (D-Alabama) was a lifelong progressive and outspoken champion of FDR’s “New Deal.” In particular, Wallace aggressively opposed President Lyndon Banes Johnson’s (D-Texas) civil rights policies.

More recently President Bill Clinton (D-Arkansas) championed several policies many people view as racist today. For instance, Clinton signed crime bills and “welfare reform” that hurt individual blacks and black families, Michelle Alexander alleges in The Nation. Plus, most observers regarded President Donald J. Trump (R-New York) as a liberal Democrat for most of his career.

Finally, the need for votes rather than idealism motivates the Democratic Party’s current championing of people of color and racial equality. Significantly, Pew Research estimates 90% of blacks, 69% of Hispanics, and 77% of Asian Americans voted Democrat in the 2018 midterm elections. In contrast, Trump received the votes of 58% of white Americans in the 2016 presidential race.

Thus today’s progressives are anti-racist because they need the votes of people of color. Therefore, the correlation between racism and ideology is a questionable notion.

Third, Racists can change

Significantly, some of America’s biggest foes of racism were former racists.

In fact the Great Emancipator himself; President Abraham Lincoln (R-Illinois). was an outspoken supporter of Henry Clay’s (W-Kentucky) racist colonization scheme for most of his career. To explain, Clay and Lincoln wanted to ship all blacks back to Africa. However, Lincoln abandoned that notion as President.

Ulysses S. Grant, for instance, was a former slave owner. The first Democratic president to champion civil rights, Harry S. Truman (D-Missouri) was an admirer of the Confederacy. Yet Truman desegregated the military and created a President’s Committee on Civil Rights. Unlike the Harvard educated northeastern liberal, FDR, Truman actively opposed lynching and violence against African Americans.

No American leader did more for African Americans than President Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas). Yet, Johnson regularly used the “n word” and called Asians “barbaric yellow dwarfs,” biographer Robert Caro claims.

Even George Wallace eventually repented his racism and apologized to civil rights marchers three years before his death, The Baltimore Sun reports. Therefore, even the worst racists can change.

Fourth, those who oppose racism will suffer for it

Americans who oppose racism will suffer for it in life and death. Most Americans hailed President Ulysses S. Grant (R-Illinois) as a hero at the time of his death.

Yet for decades white historians berated Grant as a corrupt and incompetent drunk. Only in recent years have historians attempted to save Grant’s reputation from the racist lies.

Similarly, white intellectuals  attacked President Harry S. Truman (D-Missouri) as incompetent and corrupt throughout his administration. In 1948, Truman faced well-organized third party challenges from both Southern Racists and Northern intellectuals who wanted a different Democratic candidate.

Grant also faced an organized challenge from white Northern intellectuals, led by abolitionist icon Horace Greeley, during his second presidential election in 1872. Greeley, the 1872 Democratic presidential candidate believed Grant was being too tough on the South after the Civil War. In other words, Grant favored Southern blacks over Southern whites.

Many opponents of racism, including Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., were murdered. Today, nationalists try to brand critics of racism like Colin Kaepernick as unpatriotic.

Fifth, our leaders overestimate and underestimate racism

Historically, American leaders overestimated and underestimated the extent of racism.

In 1948, most observers thought Harry S. Truman (D-Missouri) would lose the presidential election because of his Civil Rights policy. However, Truman won with a substantial majority of both the popular and Electoral College votes.

Conversely, in 2016, most observers believed Donald J. Trump (R-New York) would lose the presidential election because of his blatant racism. However, Trump won with a substantial majority of the Electoral College Vote.

Thus it is hard to determine racism’s effect on popular opinions and politics. Notably, observers like Andrew Yang believe economic issues like income inequality and technological employment rather than racism drove white voters to Trump.

Hence, it is always a good idea to view claims that Americans are inherently racist or anti-racist with skepticism. Instead, history shows voters will surprise pundits with their actions.

Understanding America’s history of racism is the best way to ensure we do not repeat that history.