Institutional Racism in the United States Sociolog
y Racism Prejudice EssaysInstitutional Racism in the United States
The history of the United States is one of duality. In the words of the
Declaration of Independence, our nation was founded on the principles of
equality in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Yet, long before the
founders of the newly declared state met in Philadelphia to espouse the virtues
of self-determination and freedom that would dubiously provide a basis for a
secessionary war, those same virtues were trampled upon and swept away with
little regard. Beneath the shining beacon of freedom that signaled the
formation of the United States of America was a shadow of deception and
duplicity that was essential in creating the state. The HSS 280 class lexicon
defines duality as a social system that results from a worldview which accepts
inherent contradictions as reasonable because this is to the believer’s benefit.
The early years of what would become the United States was characterized by a
system of duality that subjugated and exterminated peoples for the benefit of
the oppressors. This pattern of duality, interwoven into our culture, has
created an dangerously racialized society. From the first moment a colonist
landed on these shores, truths that were self-evident were contingent on
subjective interpretation. This discretionary application of rights and
freedoms is the foundation upon which our racially stratified system operates on.
English colonists, Africans, and Native Americans comprised the early
clash of three peoples. Essentially economic interests, and namely capitalism,
provided the impetus for the relationships that developed between the English
colonists, the Africans, and the Native Americans. The colonialization of North
American by the British was essentially an economic crusade. The emergence of
capitalism and the rise of trade throughout the 16th century provided the
British with a blueprint to expand its economic and political sphere. The
Americas provided the British with extensive natural resources, resources that
the agrarian-unfriendly British isles could not supply for its growing empire.
When Britons arrived in North America, the indigenous population posed
an economic dilemma to the colonists. The Native Americans were settled on the
land that the British colonists needed to expand their economic capacity. To
provide a justificatory framework for the expulsion of Native Americans off
their land, the English colonists created a ideology that suited their current
The attitude of Anglos toward the Native Americans began as one of
ambivalence and reliance. When the English first arrived in North America, they
needed the Indians to survive the unfamiliar land and harsh weather. Once the
English became acclimated to their surroundings and realized that the Indians
were living on valuable land, it was only a matter of time before guns and
shackles replaced treaties and handshakes.
In the name of Christianity and capitalism, the English colonists
quickly turned their backs on the short lived missionary zeal that characterized
the early colonial period. Now, the savage Indians were viewed as unable to
save themselves and extermination would be a worthy enterprise in the sight of
the Lord. The idea that one possesses a God-given right to mistreat others runs
through much of Western culture and became especially acute in North America
after the emergence of capitalism.
For example, in New England many settlers rejoiced at the extraordinary
death brought upon the Native American population by the introduction of
epidemic diseases. It was viewed as a way of thinning out the population. In
the world of the New Jerusalem, where a city was to be build upon a hill, such
trite concerns were of little consequence for those with divine providence.
Duality, and its means of placing the truth and its allied freedoms in
the hands of the powerful, furnishes the chosen ones with wide latitude to
create theoretical arguments that justify and perpetuate systemic arrangements
of inequality. John Winthrop outlined his reasoning for the British right to
North American land in terms of natural rights versus civil rights. Natural
rights were those that men enjoyed in a state of nature (i.e. Native Americans).
When some men began to parcel land and use tilled farming, they acquired civil
rights (English colonists). Inevitably, civil rights took precedence over
natural rights. This method of thinking enabled privilege to the English and
provided a justification for the institutional and systemic extermination of the
indigenous people (Growth 83).
Before addressing the subjugation of African-Americans by the English, I
think it is important that I make an important theoretical point in my argument.
All political systems are rational, in the sense that there is a logic and a
thinking that guides those making the rules. White supremacy and its associated
beliefs (Christianity, patriarchalism, etc) provided the rationale for the
creation of a system of duality that institutionalized racism. Robert Smith
writes about the inherent contradiction of espousing the self-evident equality
of men and their God-given right to liberty while at the same time sanctioning
genocide and slavery (Smith 8). The only way this incongruity could be remedied
was to deny the fundamental humanity of those being oppressed. That negation
of one group humanity by another is the crux of duality and a principle tenet of
all forms of oppression and subjugation. To objectify a group of people
provides an oppressor with a recourse for the actions one takes. In the case of
the United States, subjugated groups are often reduced to a stereotype that is
not based in fact: Native Americans were wild savages; Africans were lascivious,
lewd beings that engaged in bestiality with apes; Asians were sneaky, mysterious
and not to be trusted. What is important is the stereotype fit an institutional
definition that allows the group to be oppressed without self-reflection about
one’s perverse actions. Professor Turner mentioned in class the Sarte quote, To
be a stone, you must make all around you stone. And to act as a savage, one
must make those around oneself savages.
To address the enslavement of Africans, it becomes necessary to once
again look at the economics that fueled the decision to bring slavery to the
United States. In capitalism, a driving force is to minimize costs and, as a
result, maximize profits. The labor intensive tobacco and cotton fields
presented the need for a low cost labor supply. Impelled by white supremacy,
the English began to move away from the system of indentured servitude that
characterized the early years of colonialization and towards slavery.
By definition slavery must be sanctioned by the society in which it
exists and such approval is most easily expressed in written norms and laws.
From the moment Africans set foot in North America, they faced a system that
perpetuated and encouraged their enslavement.
Throughout the 17th century, laws and regulations regarding slaves were
becoming more explicit in their dehumanization. All questions of whether these
men and women would be seen as such were erased with a number of legislations
that sough to erase any ambiguities. By 1705 the only real question remaining
was what type of property the slave was to his captor.. Ringer writes by 1705,
Virginia had rationalized, codified, and judicially affirmed it exclusion of
blacks from any basic concept of human rights under the law (Ringer 67).
Intrinsic to the subjugation of Africans was an ideology that reduced
Africans to lesser beings. Reasoning behind this idea has gone from Christian
beliefs to scientific evidence to current day beliefs in African-American
laziness (an idea whose roots are as old as white supremacy) and the use of IQ
tests as measures of innate intelligence. What has stayed constant is a
manipulation of the truth and a myopic self-interest by those parties with an
interest in keeping privilege.
White supremacy and it dualistic vision of society became
institutionalized in colonial North America, emanating from the base and
structure of society. The Civil War Amendments to the Constitution were no more
than words on paper, with short lived legislative muscle. From the vision of
Forty Acres and a Mule, the newly freed African-Americans moved on to
sharecropping, lynchings, and segregation.
The mid to late 19th century witnessed the beginning of Chinese
migration to the United States. Immediately, they were met by various laws and
ordinances designed to restrict their economic, political, and social
advancement. This was combined with racial commentaries that echoed those
levied against Native Americans and Africans. The Chinese were heathen, morally
inferior, savage, and childlike. The Chinese were also viewed as lustful and
sensual. Often Chinese immigrants were depicted in cartoons with devil-like
features and devious expressions.
Economics also played an important role in the discrimination Chinese
faced in the United States. Chinese exclusion, a policy initiated in 1882,
banned U.S. entry to Chinese laborers. After the U.S. acquisition of California
in 1848, there arose a need for cheap labor, and Chinese flocked there to work
on the railroads. By 1867 they numbered 50,000; their number increased after the
Burlingame Treaty of 1868, which permitted Chinese immigration but not
naturalization. Anti-Asian prejudice and the competition with American workers
led to anti-Chinese riots in San Francisco in 1877, then to the Chinese
Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned Chinese immigration for 10 years. Once
again inherent contradictions were seen as reasonable because it was to the
believer’s benefit. A scarcity of employment opportunities combines with
prejudices to create a atmosphere of hatred and political blame directed toward
the Chinese immigrants (The Heathen Chinese 230-240).
Another case of dualistic application of justice towards the Asian-
American community is the case of Japanese-American internment during the Second
World War. In 1942, Lt. Gen. John L. De Witt rationalized the deportation of
Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans with A Jap is a Jap. When second-
generation Japanese-Americans in the nation’s ten concentration camps were
drafted for the war effort for cannon fodder, outraged Japanese-Americans formed
the Fair Play Committee to protest the conscription of those who were not
guaranteed the least bit of civil rights. In reply, the US government jailed
those who refused to serve, questioning their loyalty and admonishing them for
not embracing the opportunity to discharge the duties of citizenship.