The Durability of Race

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the death of racism. Many believe that as the global demographics change and Generation Y rises, racism will fade in significance. Some even suggest that what we are witnessing in the Obama backlash is just death throes.

That argument ignores history.

Here’s what I mean.

Neither the Emancipation Proclamation nor the abolitionist movement were enough to end slavery. Slavery was defeated in a Civil War that was fought not over race equality nor just for the cuase of freeing slaves, but over federal authority. The cynicism at the root of the “war against slavery” is revealed by the fact that when legal race slavery was finally defeated in 1865, the culture of  white supremacy survived, both in the North and the South.

Southern state governments, determined to maintain white supremacy, pivoted after the war and took advantage of an exception in the 13th Amendment that allowed for the indentured servitude of criminals. They created a set of legal codes that criminalized Black people. Crimes included changing employers without permission,vagrancy, and selling cotton after sunset.

Once imprisoned, African Americans were subjected to neo-slavery in the form of labor camps and chain gangs. But the impact of neo-slavery was not just on those enslaved. The system terrorized Blacks throughout the South keeping them subjugated to white employers who in many cases were their former masters.

The federal government’s unwritten policy through this period was to turn a blind eye, allowing the system to continue unacknowledged for more than 70 years. While many attempted to fight neo-slavery, what finally ended it was World War II. Just days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Francis Biddle, Attorney General under FDR, issued Circular N0. 3591 acknowledging the federal government’s unwritten policy of overlooking complaints of peonage and slavery and directing federal law enforcement officials to enforce the 13th Amendment.

The move was driven by fears that the Japanese and German propaganda machines would use the federal government’s tolerance of neo-slavery to undercut support for the war effort among African Americans. The circular was issued, but it wasn’t until 1948 that federal criminal code was rewritten to explicitly outlaw slavery.

Of course, while neo-slavery was finally abolished, other aspects of Jim Crow survived, as did the culture of white supremacy. Through Jim Crow, white supremacy was exercised by means of legal apartheid, a system that not only held Black people separate and unequal under the law, but that accommodated white terrorism and vigilante violence to suppress resistance.

When Jim Crow fell, it wasn’t just the result of the courageous efforts of civil rights activists. The death of Jim Crow was also brought about by the Cold War, a conflict in which racism in the U.S. could be weaponized by the Soviet propaganda machine.

But even as Jim Crow fell, the culture of white supremacy survived. The federal government, under Richard Nixon, pivoted to maintain white dominance by targeting the War on Drugs at Black communities. Like the Black Codes before it, the War on Drugs and a broader War on Crime would attempt to criminalize Black people, popularizing the idea that the rising crime rates of the 1970s was the result of the alienation of a permanent Black underclass and not, as sociologists suggest, the result of the baby boom.

Whites and Blacks use illegal drugs at approximately the same rate. The sheer numbers of white people puts them in the drivers seat of the illegal drug market. Yet law enforcement efforts target Black and Latino communities with the result that over two-thirds of people in prison for drug offenses are people of color.

Just as neo-slavery affected far more than those who were imprisoned and enslaved, the War on Drugs is having a broad and devastating impact on communities of color. Prisons take wage earners out of families and parents away from children only to return them years later to suffer collateral consequences such as the loss of voting rights, bans against certain types of employment, and banishment from public housing and “drug-free zones” that may follow them for the rest of their lives. And, for some, just for carrying marijuana in their pockets.

That so small an offense could cost one so much also contributes to a climate of fear and a culture of fatalism. A Black woman married to a man in prison on a drug offense once asked me to imagine what it is like to be a parent of a child in a militarized zone. She said, “every day I tell my kids, ‘if you are stopped by the police be still, be polite, and keep your hands out of your pockets.'”

White supremacy is also adapting to a changing world. Today, the criminalization of race affects more than African Americans. Latino immigrants are reduced to a criminal act when we refer to them as “illegals.” We exploit racism to criminalize Muslims to justify a grab for geopolitical control of a resource rich region of the world. And if you doubt that the growing fear and hatred of Muslims is rooted in racism, imagine for a moment the face of the Muslim threat that lives in the mind of Michelle Bachman. I assure you, it doesn’t have white skin and blue eyes.

We can’t just wait for the culture of white supremacy to be swept away by demographic and generational change. History show us that the durability of race will require much more of us than patience.

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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

12 replies on “The Durability of Race”

Death of racism? No, I don’t expect that to happen.

Nevertheless, the grip of racism is weakening, and I expect to see a continuation of that weakening. That will be accompanied by a backash against affirmative action (they will call it “reverse racism”). It will be a slow and bumpy ride.

Did the election of Obama help? Yes, but it also hardened the resistance to change among the racists. If he is elected for a second term, that too will help. But divisiveness will continue to be bitter during a second term.

I am not sure how much of it is even weakening, though. I don’t live in the Deep South, but it is still the south (NC), and I sure still see even overt racism around here. And while some older folks I know may engage more openly in their racism, I hear people of my generation and younger still engaging in casual racism, even if they may not (or feel they may not) have racist beliefs. And until you get rid of that casual racism – I mean really, truly get rid of it – it will always be there simmering under the surface, ready for people to exploit for their own power/ends. And then it will be back in the forefront again.

Are people really having conversations about the “death of racism” (I am not referring to your comment now, Neil Rickert, but to the beginning of this post)? I just had a disturbing conversation today with someone who is voting for Romney b/c of Obama’s race, so it’s probably not the day for me to consider the “death of racism”.

Great piece, as usual. Another factor that continues to drive the idea that racism is dead is the idea that the rate of interracial relationships is inversely correlated with the presence of racism. Not. There have always been interracial people, and there are plenty of societies with significant numbers of interracial people among their populations, namely some of the most racist. Look at Brazil. Puerto Rico. And then there’s the United States. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that between 75 and 90 percent of African Americans are of mixed race. That means that irrespective of how our identity has been restricted (Jim Crow, one-fifth a person, octaroon, maroon, mixed), we have always been multiracial people. Obviously, that didn’t stop racism. The only thing interracial relationships correlate with is the fact that people like to have sex. No surprise there.

Since racism hasn’t always been with us–we can thank the philosophers of the European Enlightenment for this among other, much more useful, gifts–societies, even powerful ones, can clearly exist without it. The creation of the concept of race was as much about economics as anything. Will an economic upheaval manage to do what civil war, social unrest, and legal frameworks couldn’t?

Generation one: slave owners and Indian killers
Generation two: Slave owners and Indian killers
Generation Three: Slave owners and Indian Killers
Generation Four: Slave owners, Indian Killers and anti-immigrant, indentured servant masters, racist abolitionists
Generation five: Indian killers, Anti-immigrant, indentured servant masters, lynching white supremists, separatists
Generation six: Anti-Immigrant, indentured servant masters, lynching white supremists, separatists
Generation seven: Anti-Immigrant, violent neo nazis, indentured servant masters, separatists, “I’m not a racist, but . . .”

It seems like we may have a generation or two to go.

This is a strong piece. The typo made me want to make sure you are running a spelling and grammar check on each of them so any typos will show up.

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