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The South Continues to "Make" Race: Will the Supreme Court Follow?

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A Review of How Race is Made: Slavery, Segregation, and the Senses, by Mark M. Smith (University of North Carolina Press, 2006, 200 pp.)

A few years ago, in exasperation over pre-invasion polls indicating that a large majority of Americans erroneously believed that Saddam Hussein was involved in al Qaeda's terrorist attacks on 9/11, I was forced to return to Walter Lippmann's classics about Public Opinion and The Phantom Public, along with other books explaining why Americans were so highly susceptible to political manipulation. Ultimately, that reading led to the article, "Democracy or dominion?" written for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists [ Jan/Feb. 2004]

Although the general response to that article was quite positive, a highly esteemed professor insisted that I overlooked the obvious: "Most Americans are incapable of deep and rigorous thought." True, the article never directly addressed that point. Nevertheless, I thought it was implied, when I wrote about Chapter 2, titled "The Barbarians," of Robert H. Wiebe's exceptionally insightful book, Self Rule: A Cultural History of American Democracy.

Wiebe's Chapter 2 explains the shock of mid-19th century European visitors to America as they witnessed white Americans subdue both Native Americans and the frontier in the course of establishing their low-class self-rule. Alexis de Tocqueville, for example, complained that Americans leave no trace of their past, because "no one cares for what occurred before his time." To which Weibe added: "So it always was with savages." [p, 48]

Other European visitors belittled Americans for ignoring "the necessity of disciplining the mind...which lays the foundation for self-control" [p.47], for "the extremely superficial nature of their moral qualities," and for their astonishing "insensitivity to death" [p. 49]. Most unsettling to these Europeans, however, was "America's edge of violence, its creation of society at the border of jungle terror." [p. 51

Although one might reasonably ask how much has changed in the United States since these mid-nineteenth century observations were made, Wiebe is undoubtedly correct when he concludes: "Cheap lives and violent ways came with the origins of white culture in America, moving through the starving times and the slaughtering of natives in the 17th century into the paramilitary settlement of farm lands in the 18th." [p. 53]

To most mid-nineteenth century European visitors, America's "slavery was the ultimate violence, proof positive of democracy's savagery." [p. 52] Now, as Professor Mark M. Smith demonstrates in his highly original interpretation of slavery and segregation, we learn that many southern whites not only justified the enforcement of antebellum slavery, but especially postbellum "Jim Crow" segregation and terrorism, by resorting to irrational racist assertions springing from gut instincts, not rigorous thought.

The crucial factor that compelled white racists from the mid-18th century forward to resort to their senses of smell, touch, taste and sound was their increasing inability to distinguish Negroes by sight. By the mid-18th century, mulattoes were proliferating - and "passing" as white, the result of the "first significant mixing of blacks and the late seventeenth century." [p. 19] (The South subsequently experienced a mulatto "crisis" in the 1850s [p. 39] and the "great age of passing" beginning around 1880 and lasting until 1925. [p. 69])

Quoting Havlock Ellis, Professor Smith asserts, "personal odors do not, as vision does, give us information that is very largely intellectual." [p. 2] "After all," Smith claims, "Enlightenment eyes tend to strive for focus, balance, perspective, considered insight. Without denying the emotional content of particular sights, a wide range of research suggests that some of the other senses in particular historical contexts and circumstances appeal more to the gut than to the mind." [p.3]

(Unfortunately, the world today sees first-hand evidence of the evil that can spew from relying on the gut, witness our ignorant President of the United States, George W. Bush, and the evil he has unleashed in Iraq. Who's surprised that he received his strongest support from the South?)

Had southerners applied critical thought to what their eyes were telling them about mulattoes, the entire regime built upon inherent and unchanging racial characteristics would have lost its rationale. (The worst of America's contemporary racists would do well to contemplate how the birth of twins -- one black and one white -- in England this year thoroughly demolishes their cherished bigotry.) And in that collapsed ideological rubble, torn to shreds, would have been the ludicrous claim that Negroes were inherently unfit for anything but slavery.

Beyond undermining the South's slave-based plantation culture, the application of honest, rigorous thought also would have deprived low-class southern whites (who had little else going for themselves) of their pathetic sense of racial superiority over the Negro.

But, rather than risk their race-based socio-political edifice, by the mid-18th century white American colonists began to expound irrationally upon the sub-human features of the Negro, especially his foul odor.

In 1744, Dr. John Mitchell - writing in the influential Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society -- not only argued that the black skin of Negroes was the result of its thickness and density, which better suited them for hard labor, "the perspirable Matter of black or tawny People is more subtil and volatile in its Nature; and more acrid, penetrating, and offensive, in its Effects." [p. 17]

In 1754, naturalist Mark Catesby observed that "the Indians of Carolina and Florida," emitted "nothing of that Rankness that is so remarkable in Negres [sic]. In 1769, a resident of Philadelphia wrote, "The Negroes...stink damnably." [p. 14].

Thomas Jefferson wrote (in his Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781) that Negroes "secrete less by the kidnies, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour." [p. 16]

Even an ardent opponent of slavery, Dr. Benjamin Rush, gave a speech in 1792 to Philadelphia's American Philosophical Society, in which he claimed that the Negro was black "because his environment, taken to include diet, customs, and diseases, had led to a high incidence of leprosy" Because of this leprosy, the skin "exhale[s] perpetually a peculiar and disagreeable smell." [p. 18]

In 1799, the English surgeon, Charles White, wrote An Account of the Regular Gradation of Man, in which he linked the thick skin of Negroes to a "duller" sense of touch." [p. 19] Others extrapolated from this dull sense of touch to claim that blacks lacked an "aesthetic capacity" [p. 19] and, thus, were savages requiring brutal treatment. Moreover, "Sensory associations helped animalize blacks," which "probably offered whites powerful rationalizations for sexual exploitation." [p.19]

Thus, with major exceptions for black "mammies" suckling white babies and female house slaves placing their coarse black skin on the food they prepared for white households, whites decided when the touching of white skin to black skin was permissible. And by rampantly violating their own codes, especially through sexual liaisons, whites reinforced the arbitrary nature of their power.

Belief in the Negro's thick black skin not only justified slaveholders' demands for hard labor but also the necessity of inflicting brutal physical punishment. In addition, thick skin merited nothing more than outfits made of very coarse cloth.

Thick lips, causing lack of taste, justified slaveholders in providing the poorest of foods. "'Turkeys are too good for niggers!' and so too was fish, according to one South Carolina 'slave driver'". [p.24]

Finally, whites also believed that they could identify blacks by their sound. "Slow speech, accent, dialect, stuttering - all functioned as aural markers of black slavery." [p. 34] Smooth words quickly spoken, when combined with light skin, were most likely to fool whites.

As Smith notes, "in truth, most antebellum northerners were not unlike most white southerners when it came to believing, inventing, and applying sensory stereotypes." [p. 37] But, unlike southern slave owners, northerners were not faced with a regime-threatening mulatto crisis. Thus, they were not compelled to act upon their racist beliefs.

Southerners even took to warping Christianity to keep the regime intact. Thus, in 1852, Josiah Priest wrote his Bible Defence of Slavery. Priest cited Matthew 25:33 to invoke the ill-scented "goat on the left" hand of the Lord as a symbol of "profane and impure men," before noting how similar the Negro was to the goat in excessively disagreeable passions, propensities and smell. [p. 42]

The crackpot Christianity of New Orleans physician, Samuel A. Cartwright, was just as demented. According to Cartwright: Southern slavery arose "from causes imprinted by the hand of nature on the sons of Ham, so far back as the time when the catacombs were constructed." [p. 44]

Bad as that was, after the Civil War, "racial sensory constructions were reintroduced with a ferocity and frequency that slaveholding paternalism had muted in the antebellum period." [p. 49] As Smith notes with a touch of sarcasm - "Southern hatred for the freedmen and their Yankee aides (themselves hardly angels when it came to race relations) was probably as great as their professed paternal love had been for the slaves." [p. 52] The hatred took the form of Jim Crow segregation, which was enforced by terror and sadistic lynchings. "More than 2,500 lynchings [were] recorded in the South from 1885 to 1903." [p. 60]

Clearly, if they couldn't own and brutalize the Negro, these formerly paternalistic Christians wanted nothing to do with him, except under conventions they established and enforced. And thus, "Racialized sensory constructions allowed southern whites to monitor infringements on white physical and social space." [p.50]

Ironically, it was the case of Homer Plessy, a "black man who was not visibly black, who had to tell whites that he was black" that led to the 1896 Supreme Court ruling (Plessy v. Ferguson) that established the constitutionality of "separate but equal" segregation in America. Plessy refused to sit in the "colored" railway car, in order to show -- in a courtroom -- just how ridiculous were the criteria for determining race.

Unfortunately, "The Court sidestepped the central question of how race was identified and, in so doing, allowed for the establishment of a modern system of segregation that necessarily conceded that sight alone was not always sufficient to establish racial identity." [p. 75]

And, so, the country had to endure more irrational racist claims by white southerners. When the tubercle bacillus was discovered in 1882, segregationists alleged that black maids and servants passed it on to whites. Blacks also were impugned as carriers of venereal disease. And, of course, all of this occurred because they were filthy. Moreover these pathetically ignorant white southerners comforted themselves with the thought that "black disease could surely be smelled." [p. 65]

(The "vicious fiction" about innate smell was disproved by two studies, one conducted in the 1930s, and the other in 1950. The 1930's study "found not only that noses could not distinguish the race of sweat but also that the sweat from a black person was often ranked by whites as more pleasant than the smell of white sweat." [p.81])

Thus, to nobody's surprise, the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court ruling -- which explicitly outlawed racial segregation of public education by repudiating the belief that separate education by race could nevertheless yield equal education -- caused near apoplexy among southern segregationists, due to their fear that they "now had to see, hear, smell, touch and, God forbid, taste blackness in contexts defined by African Americans." [p. 116].

In 1955 sociologist Arnold M. Rose lamented this predominance of the gut over the brain when he asserted: "The fact that the great majority of American 'Negroes' and a large minority of Southern 'whites' are of mixed ancestry...plays little role in the thinking of the whites." [p. 137]

According to Smith, "the extent of the segregationists' hatred and the strength of their emotion were unfathomable except to those caught in their own sensory history...Their senses had stolen their capacity for reasoned thinking in racial matters." [p. 139]

Yet, many white southerners must have recoiled in embarrassment - just as most other Americans did - upon seeing "segregationists spew their hatred with such ferocity on national television." [p. 139] Perhaps that ugliness explains why most of them repudiated their Jim Crow ways in the wake of the violent Civil Rights movement.

Yet, "regarding busing for school integration, fair housing, anti-discrimination laws, and increased spending on race-targeted programs, major national surveys conducted well into the 1990s show significantly greater opposition among whites living in the South than among those living elsewhere." [Vincent L. Hutchings and Nicholas A. Valentino, "The Centrality of Race in American Politics," Annual Review of Political Science2004. 7:383-408, p. 388]

Moreover, "young white southern adults were consistently more racially conservative than their counterparts in other regions in the late 1980s. Also, lifelong southerners seem to be more racially conservative than immigrants to the South from other regions." [Ibid]

Jim Crow segregation had deep ties to the Democratic Party in the South. When the national Democratic Party began to challenge segregation in 1963, white southerners began to gravitate to the Republican Party, which articulated - and still articulates - ideas now called "symbolic racism."

According to an important article written by Professors Nicholas A. Valentino and David O. Sears - "Old Times There Are Not Forgotten: Race and the Partisan Realignment in the Contemporary South ( American Journal of Political Science Vol. 49, No. 3, July 2005) - symbolic racism consists of four complementary beliefs: (1) Blacks no longer suffer from racial discrimination, (2) their continuing disadvantage is due to a lack of a work ethic, (3) blacks make excessive demands and (4) receive too many undeserved advantages. [p. 674]

Although symbolic racism goes far to explain southerners' opposition to busing, fair housing, anti-discrimination laws and spending for race-targeted programs, racial animus may be less of a factor than the desire to maintain white racial group privilege." [see Hutchings and Valentino, p. 392]

According to Valentino and Sears, this symbolic racism is much stronger and pervasive in the South than elsewhere in the country. "White Southerners are today more racially conservative than whites living elsewhere on all conventional dimensions of racial attitudes." [p. 679]

Using impeccable statistical analyses, the authors also prove their hypothesis that "the association between racial conservatism and Republican partisanship has strengthened over time in the South, both in absolute terms and relative to the rest of the country." [Ibid] In addition, "negative black stereotypes are associated significantly with Republican party identification and Republican vote choice in the South but not in the North in the 1990s." [p. 683]

One finding in this impressive study took me by surprise and contradicts what I've been told by my African-American friends: Referring to conclusions reached in a 1997 study by James H. Kuklinski, Michael D. Cobb and Martin Gilens ("Racial Attitudes in the 'New South,'"Journal of Politics), the authors assert that white Southerners exhibit a "greater tendency to hide their true prejudices" than do Northerners. [p. 686]

Nevertheless, their research supports their suspicion that "a cultural way of life ingrained for so long is unlikely to have been eradicated thoroughly enough to have been shunted to the political sidelines." [p. 685] Such suspicions might also apply to the accompanying tendency to use the gut, rather than critical thinking, to justify that way of life.

Although southern racism remains the huge elephant in the national living room, a national tendency to make gut decisions when "making race" has besmirched America's history -- whether it concerned the making of Native Americans, Negroes, Irish, Jews, Italians, "Japs" during World War II, "gooks" in Vietnam or "Sand Niggers" in today's Iraq.

As historian Gary Gerstle has argued, America's civic nationalism has been accompanied by a racial nationalism "that conceives of America in ethnoracial terms, as a people held together by common blood and skin color and by an inherited fitness for self-government." [Gerstle, American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century, p. 4]

The Constitution "endorsed the enslavement of Africans in the southern states" and "a key 1790 law limited naturalization to 'free white persons.' Although modified in 1870, this 1790 law remained in force until 1952, evidence that America's yearning to remain a white republic survived African American emancipation by almost 100 years." [Ibid]

Recently, a Philadelphia Inquirer columnist, Alfred Lubrano, wrote an article suggesting that a full 80 percent of Americans are biased against blacks. He quoted University of Connecticut psychologist, John Dovidio, who asserted: "A person can be nice 90 percent of the time, but capable of racism the other 10." Which prompted Lubrano to ask: "If you're white and get cut off by a black driver, for example, do awful words barge into your head?" [Philadelphia Inquirer, Dec. 02, 2006]

Yes, perhaps, for too many white Americans. But those awful words come from the gut, not from the application of rigorous thought. After all, as Lubrano notes: "Most white people grew up in a society in which more black faces than white faces were associated with poverty and crime on the TV news," especially local TV news. "They grew up hearing negative comments about blacks from their parents; didn't see black people in their homes; never knew a black person with power." Yet, it's worth mentioning that shouting of an epithet in a heated moment is far different from the racism designed to keep a system of white privilege in place.

Nevertheless Mr. Lubrano is quite correct when he asserts: "the only way to battle bias is to live truly integrated lives." Which is why, when the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of race-based school integration plans in Seattle and Jefferson County, Kentucky, it should conclude that the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 was a decision to integrate the schools, rather than a decision to prohibit the assigning of students to a school based upon their race. Separate wasn't equal then, and will only foster racism today.

The Court should follow the opinion of Judge Alex Kozinski, who asserted, "Seattle's voluntary integration program could be upheld because it did not involve a 'race stigma' or a preference for one race over the other. 'It gives the American melting pot a stir without benefiting or burdening any particular group." ["Cases Retread Brown vs. Board of Education Steps," Los Angeles Times, 4 Dec. 2006]

In a word, the Supreme Court should avoid "making" race, as it once did in Plessy v. Ferguson, by succumbing to the South's - and the Republican Party's - brain-dead "symbolic racism."
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Walter C. Uhler is an independent scholar and freelance writer whose work has been published in numerous publications, including The Nation, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Journal of Military History, the Moscow Times and the San (more...)
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