Can white Americans overcome this legacy? Can we wake up in the morning without ever questioning the advantages we have over Black Americans because of the accident of our white skins? To illustrate what I mean by this, white skin privilege enables those of us who are white to go to the head of the line -- for jobs, schools, opportunity -- without asking the permission of, without even acknowledging the presence of, those already in line, particularly if they're persons of color. Unless we renounce or abolish this privilege, persons of color, principally Blacks, will never fully trust us and a political alliance or collaboration between whites and blacks to achieve mutually beneficial aims will be impossible to construct. Actually, it's not so much Black mistrust of whites that's the principle obstacle, but historically the opposite. Even before Reconstruction and the abolition of slavery, whites have feared and mistrusted blacks, the price of maintaining whites' superordinate status. Accordingly and ever since Reconstruction, whites have viewed progress made by Blacks as a zero sum game, i.e., a threat, accomplished at our expense, and not as a way forward for all Americans. In short, so long as white privilege exists, so will white supremacism. In my estimation, they're synonymous.
This essay seeks to answer the question posed at the outset of the preceding paragraph: essentially, can white Americans change their fundamental self-identity as the predominant ethnic group in this country? Can we form what Russell Banks terms a creole or mongrel nation comprised of individuals of disparate origins or will we continue to deny their presence and their place alongside us?
A little more history. First, back to the Constitution; which document, the country's political keystone, explicitly contradicted the Declaration of Independence, which had declaimed that all men were created equal. That clause of the Declaration was a clarion call of freedom, one never before stated openly in a public document. It propelled all thirteen of the American colonies into revolt against the British Empire and underscored its animating ideology. By the end of the 1770's, Massachusetts had abolished slavery as did New Hampshire's new state constitution. Even Thomas Jefferson, at the Revolutionary War's conclusion, raised the possibility of sending freed slaves to settle the Northwest territories ceded to the new United States by Great Britain in the Treaty of Paris of 1783.
The fervor for universal freedom didn't outlast the decade. The national government of the thirteen new states, bound together by the Articles of Confederation, had no revenues, had no power to tax, had no power to enforce the laws passed by the national Congress. Having rid themselves of an oppressive Imperial government in London, most Americans and the individuals states in which they lived were leery of empowering a strong central government to run the country. The country appeared on the verge of falling apart, with each of the thirteen states going its own way. Then the political deal-making began, led by Hamilton and Madison for the central government faction or Federalists, as they became known, and Patrick Henry and Jefferson representing the Southern plantation owners.
In exchange for their support, the Southerners secured the Federalists' pledge that the proposed new Constitution and the government it established would guarantee their property rights as slaveowners. The British government had protected their right to own slaves as property in perpetuity and they expected their own government to do no less.
As an added inducement to the anti-Federalist or Republican faction, Hamilton and Madison promised to addend to the Constitution a Bill of Rights to safeguard American citizens from the intrusions of a central government. Key to our discussion, "citizens" were defined as white male property owners twenty-one years old and older. Most importantly, a "citizen" was no longer a "subject" of a monarch or supra-authority, whose status in a hierarchical society determined the rights to which he was entitled. Rather, a "citizen" was entitled to full political and legal participation in his government and larger society. Only he could vote, hold political office, own property and enjoy the rights protected by the Constitution. Minority age males, Native Americans and women could not be citizens. It was not until the ratification of the 14th Amendment, the "equal rights" amendment, in 1868, that citizenship by birthright became law, and the ratification of the 15th Amendment two years later that gave all American men, black or white, property owners or not, the right to vote.
When I was a young man, during and after the height of the Civil Rights movement, I had marveled at the ferocity displayed by white Southerners in denying Black Southerners their civil rights. James McPherson, the Civil War historian helped me gain an understanding of that phenomenon in his book of essays published in 1992, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution. White male Southerners' self-identity, he wrote, was rooted in their understanding of citizenship as based on their historical ownership and hence subjugation of Blacks in a hierarchical, even feudal society. To be obliged to accept Blacks as political equals, as citizens, on a more level social field not only galled them but led them to question who they were. What Southerners popularly call their "heritage" and "way of life", which had gone uninterrupted since Jamestown's founding in 1607, save for the brief hiatus of post-Civil War Reconstruction, was being severely challenged. Many Southerners must have despaired. Yet, to quote Faulkner again, "When you have plenty of good strong hating you don't need hope because the hating will be enough to nourish you." (Absalom, Absalom!, 1936). More on this below.
The Constitution had ensured the political integration of slavery into the country's fabric; Eli Whitney and the cotton gin he invented in 1793 ensured its economic integration and, with it, the financial well-being of the entire country. Cotton production had been a laborious process that required cotton seeds to be hand-picked from the cotton flower. The cotton gin could do that onerous work in only a fraction of the time. Cotton production boomed as did the slave trade and the number of African slaves imported to plant and pick cotton. By 1820, the South was producing 600,000 bales of cotton annually, which number grew to four million bales in 1850. By 1860, the South was producing 80% of the world's cotton and had become the principal supplier of cotton to British textile manufacturers. The number of slaves in 1820 had grown to 1.7 million and doubled by 1860. Subsequent to the abolition of the slave trade by the British in 1807 and the prohibition of the importation of slaves by Congress in 1808, the internal slave trade boomed. Historians have estimated that as many as one million slaves were transported over state lines between 1820 and 1860. New York bankers accumulated fortunes trading in cotton and slaves, as did the Rhode Island ship owners whose ships carried them. Cotton and the slaves who picked it became the economic foundation of the country and remained so until 1861 and the onset of the Civil War. In short, cotton gave birth to American capitalism and America's wealth on the backs of America's Black slaves.