The reading of these documents enabled me to utter my thoughts, and to meet the arguments brought forward to sustain slavery... There was no getting rid of it... The silver trump of freedom had roused my soul to eternal wakefulness. Freedom now appeared, to disappear no more forever."
Frederick Douglass, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
The Italians and the Irish came to the US, most with very little, except the clothes on their backs, as the saying goes. Most suffered from hunger or homelessness. Or worse, both. Without employment or with life-threatening employment in the mines or on railroads, their situation, at first, was no doubt precarious. In short, Italians and Irish lacked the qualifying identity as members of the privileged Anglo-Saxon community... Temporarily.
Their status as second-class citizens lasted only as long as the denomination of "white" evaded their designation as Americans. But once the Italians and the Irish embraced the prized status of " white American," then the doors were truly open to them.
That was easy. What would it mean, however, to be white and free while African Americans were also free but not white ? Enslaved blacks weren't free blacks. Americans hadn't anticipated freedom for an entire population of African Americans. It's not surprising that Americans cultivated a way of thinking concerning the presence of free black people. After all, the "unimaginable" has happened, and the "unimaginable" reality, writes Khalil Gibran Muhammad, in Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, frightened white Americans in the 19th century.
White Americans realized the Irish and Italians as people posing no "'threat to Anglo-Saxon purity.'" But for the influential Harvard scientist and writer Nathaniel S. Shaler, writing in 1884, the "presence of black people in America" represented "'a danger to America greater and more insuperable than an of those that menace the other great civilized states of the world.'" The existence of African Americans in America, free African Americans in America, became a problem to be solved. What do we do with black people who are free? Black people who begin to think themselves equal to white Americans?
In my college days, I remember reading about the last days of Richard Nixon's presidency. He stands (or is he kneeling?) for hours before portraits of his predecessors in the White House... Is he lamenting a lost war on crime and drugs? Or is Nixon recounting the successful rise in the incarceration of black Americans?
In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness Michelle Alexander recalls that one of Richard Nixon's most influential advisers, H. R. Haldeman, revealed that his boss considered the ills of America resided with the presence of black people. "'He [President Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks...'" Nixon certainly knew his history! He certainly knew how to reach minds and hearts in America with an old tradition criminalizing disturbers of "law and order."
The ideas put forth by Nathaniel S. Shaler never died.
Writing his first article on what he called the "Negro problem," Shaler, writes Muhammad, argued that the assimilation of black people into white society would pose a grave danger not just for America, but for the entire "civilized" world. Shaler recognized that men of science, men of the industrial age, and men of the modern world had "inherited this predicament from the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century fathers." The "Negro problem" was an inheritance. What of racial purity? The previous generation of slaveholders had been "too stupid to see or too careless to consider anything but immediate gains," Shaler explained, and now white people have a problem: "terrible things," he argued," "await a nation bent on handing ballots to beasts."
According to Muhammad, Shaler did well to sell of African Americans with his "Negro problem" and his agenda to solve it, with an "unbiased" mind, of course. Shaler is followed by other "unbiased" minds such as the "pioneering racial demographer" Frederick L. Hoffman who, like Shaler, embellishes his ideas about race with statistics, "especially racial-crime statistics."
In the post-emancipation era, other scientists join Shaler and Hoffman. Hinton Rowan Helper thought to produce research that would prove what anyone with eyes could see the inferiority of African Americans. His research would bring to the study of race, particularly the "Negro problem," "credibility" and "objectivity."
Samuel George Morton, a physician and naturalist, begins collecting "eight hundred skulls" in 1820. By 1849, writes Muhammad, Morton's research of skulls confirmed with certainty that the English, the German, and the white American were racial superiority to the African American. For sure. He, Morton, studied the skulls! Morton's protege, Josiah C. Nott, thought to call his research on the "Negro problem" "'n-word business'" or "'niggerology.'"
Academia was cashing in on supplying credible and objective "facts" to support the ideology of white supremacy in the US. The contribution of Americans scholars in "Anglo-Saxon civilizationist discourse" put a "Eurocentric spin on white supremacy," writes Muhammad. For historians, naturalists, political scientists, sociologists, and others, the study of "race" results in the belief that democracy's origins begins and ends with the Anglo-Saxon. Democracy is a good idea, so long as it is an idea developed and practiced for and by Anglo-Saxons!
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