There was a short interview on NPR this morning about a new book about Black women and trains. I didn’t catch much of it, but the book was written by a scholar, and she talked about the importance of trains as both a part of and a symbol of the country’s Westward movement. She had stories of African-Americans moving north and west with the Great Migration, and reminded that women were part of it all. They put up with racism, with various measures of sexism added on. Sometimes they masqueraded as men to get jobs on the railroads.Read Rich’s Post →
One of the first axioms of White-Indian relations I remember hearing from Alvin Josephy was that from the moment Europeans hit the North American shore, indigenous peoples had three choices: they could move away; they could become white; or they could die. Assimilation—becoming white—has been the alternative favored most often by governments and by popular opinion. Read Rich’s Post →
“No adverse impact visited on the 1492 voyage of “discovery” was more profound in its consequences in every nook and cranny of the Americas than Columbus’s introduction of Western European ethnocentricity to the Indians’ worlds. Asserting the superiority of the white aggrandizers’’ religious, political, and social universe over each of the many indigenous peoples from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America, this ethnocentricity was an arrogant vice, backed by superior firepower and boundless gall, that never faltered or weakened. It continues unabashedly on both continents today, and its impact has been felt long after the conquest of the continents was complete.”
Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., America in 1492: The World of the Indian Peoples Before the Arrival of Columbus, page 4.
There’s the sin, the hubris, the tragic flaw in our origins.
It is popular—almost automatic in some circles—to say that slavery is America’s Original Sin. It is also true that slavery existed in many parts of the world prior to the 1619 importation of African slaves to North America, prior to Columbus’s century earlier enslavement of “Indians” of the Caribbean (and exportation of some to Europe).
Ibram X. Kendi’s brilliant Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racism in America, recounts the Western Europeans’ importation of Slavic slaves, the development of African slavery and the European—and eventually American—traffic in African slaves, and the development of color conscious superiority thinking in Europe. Kendi would, I think, agree wholeheartedly with Josephy’s comment, made on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the New World.
There is no argument that slavery—the “legal” or culturally acknowledged ownership of one human by another—is evil. But Josephy’s point, echoed by Kendi and by Louis Farrakhan in a speech at the Black “Million Man March” on the Capitol Mall in 1995 (quoted by Kendi), is that “The real evil in America is not white flesh or black flesh. The real evil in America is the idea that undergirds the setup of the Western world, and that idea is called white supremacy.”
I love the word “undergirded” here. And if we think in terms of undergirded and white supremacy as visited on the indigenous peoples of America from Columbus forward, we have only to add Josephy’s “Western European Ethnocentricity” and the gradual expansion of what “white” means to get to where we are today.
Because White, for the first 400+ years of our United States history, did not mean Irish or Greek, Syrian, Eastern European, or Russian Jew. With the massive mobilization and movement of troops across the country in WW II, “White” began to include non-Anglo and non-Western European Americans. It became more fully realized, as Kendi points out, with the GI Bill and suburbanization after the War. Blacks, who were segregated through WW II, were largely excluded by the GI Bill (as were American Indians), and White emphatically did not mean Chinese American and Japanese American and Filipino-American as we enacted internment camps (there were of course no German-American internment camps during WW II), and embraced anti-Asian and miscegenation laws well into the 1950s.
White was broadening. Levittown was open to Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans as well as Anglo-Americans, and although there were still quotas in colleges and universities on the number of Jews admitted, Jewish-Americans were leaving their “ghettos” with humor—all the major comics in the age of TV variety shows and LP records I grew up with were Jewish: Shelly Berman, Mort Sahl, Sid Caesar, Lenny Bruce. American Jews too were making marks in book, film, and song: Philip Roth, Barbra Streisand, Goldie Hawn, Bette Midler…
On TV, Irish American Carrol O’Conner, as Archie Bunker, a lovable bigot with son-in-law “meathead” as his next generation liberal foil, replaced “Leave it to Beaver” as the standard American family. And an Irish-American was elected president!
African-Americans, Indians, and Asian-Americans were certainly not secure in the post-war world that created the “largest middle class” the country had ever known. They were only creeping in at the edges with policies and practices Kendi, Josephy, and the leaders and immediate followers of the Eisenhower administration called “assimilation.” Trying to become culturally—and sometimes, with hair, skin, and eye treatments, physically—White.
Kendi argues–I think convincingly–that assimilation is not the answer to white superiority. “Inroads,” yes; success for some Blacks and Indians and “other” Americans on white terms, yes; but until we root out the Original Sin of Western European White Supremacy, all Americans, including White Americans (quoting James Baldwin), will not be free and equal human beings.
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Ibram X. Kendi’s book, Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, is an exhaustive catalog of religious, social, and economic attitudes and policies that began with the importation of African slaves and continue to this day. The number of actors and authors he sites in telling the story of racists, assimilationists, and antiracists and their multi-layered beliefs is mind-boggling. The way he weaves the three belief poles through US history—and especially the difficult journey of Black people themselves, but also the journeys of White abolitionists, politicians, and scholars—is a vivid and important telling.
Kendi’s treatment of Indians is sketchy at best. Weaving American Indians into the narrative of racism would have doubled the page count, and maybe he has done his job and it is up to others to tell the stories of European, mostly Anglo, settlers’ assumption of racial superiority over the misnamed Indian inhabitants, imported African slaves, and later immigrants from Ireland, Eastern Europe, and Asia.
Kendi’s anti-Black racism story parallels the story of Indians and White racism in many ways, complicated by one huge and overwhelming factor: land. Indians had it and Whites wanted—needed—it in advancing a potpourri of their own visions of developing a new country. From plantation to Jefferson’s yeoman farmer, settlement of invited immigrants to establishment of Land Grant universities, White America has needed Indian lands. And took them—by war, honest and (mostly) dishonest treaty, and just plain squatting on them. People squatted, but so did the government itself, rural Indian lands being the right and easy places for bombing ranges and nuclear bomb-building.
Racism and assimilation were part of the Indian picture even before 1619 and the importation of African Americans. Columbus’s original killing and enslavement of Indians are now well documented and admitted. Wars against and treaties with Indians always assumed White superiority. And “separate but equal occurred” on reservations as it did in Southern schools; send them back to Africa or move them to Indian Territory. Assimilate them—make them white with religion and boarding schools, or with Black colleges and Euro-White curriculum. Kendi calls assimilation “uplift suasion,“ and notes that Blacks who achieved—and still achieve—some success were and are evaluated on how White-like that success is.
There’s much more to be said about the parallels of assimilation and racism with Indians and Blacks over centuries—it’s worth a book. But for one minute let’s look at the post WW 2 period, 1945 into the 50s. Indians and Blacks both served in WW II; Blacks were segregated and Indians gained some notoriety as Code-Talkers. Blacks and Indians served honorably and received the praise of their services—until they got home.
We know that Black veterans were disregarded, threatened, and occasionally lynched when they tried to parlay their patriotic service into voting or education or housing. Blacks moved North and West, voting with their feet, only to find that the promise of the G.I. Bill’s housing provision could not be exercised in neighborhoods deemed “unsafe” for lenders. Cities were “redlined” and Blacks shuttled to poorer neighborhoods which became poorer without means of getting mortgages.
Similarly, The G.I. Bill’s housing provisions could not be applied on reservations, because banks would not loan money for houses to Indians on reservations. Indian reservations were lands held in trust by the federal government, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs would not sign a waiver granting title to the veterans. Without this waiver, there was no way to secure a loan, even under the GI Bill.
Black veterans wanted to eat in restaurants and travel freely after the War; Indians wanted to have a drink—as they had been able to do while in the service. It wasn’t until 1951, that the Oregon State Legislature removed the ban on the sale of alcohol to Indians and the prohibition of intermarriage with Indians.
And if voting for Black veterans in the South was still subject to the rules of Jim Crow—literacy tests, poll taxes, etc., Indian veterans—in fact no Indians—could vote in Arizona and New Mexico until 1948, and until 1957 in Utah.
Kendi talks about Blacks pursuit of Whiteness with hair products, marrying lighter, and college and professions in the White world. Successful Blacks and social and government programs pushed along in this uplift suasion. For Indians, do-gooders had long held that the only way to “save the man” was to “kill the Indian” in him. Nineteenth century land allotment programs, boarding schools, and the outright banning of languages and ceremony had not been totally successful in stamping out Indian culture, and Indians still clung to some tribal lands. So in the post-war years the Eisenhower administration mounted two drastic assimilation programs to finally solve the nation’s “Indian Problem.” The “Termination” program would buy out reservations and make the lands available to Whites and white-run companies. The “Relocation” program would give young reservation Indians a bus ticket to the city—with the possibility of training or work at the other end. It would certainly get more Indians off their land and striving white in the urban world.
The huge “stimulus package” to integrate American veterans back into society, was, as one author called it, “the most massive piece of affirmative legislation in U.S. history.” Some say the GI Bill created the middle class in America. Kendi shows, and Black Americans and Indians know, that it created the White Middle Class in America. It did finally make the Irish, Poles, Greeks, and Jews of European stock White—but that is another story.
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And immigration too. If we think about it, we, as individuals, families, communities, and a nation are conflicted about both race and immigration, and always have been. This came to mind this week with news that White House advisor Stephen Miller was exposed as having advocated blatantly white nationalist literature. This is the same Miller who designed many of the president’s border and overall immigration policies: the anti-Muslim travel bans, border policies on separating children and families, etc.
I say we are conflicted about immigration and race because most of us in this country trace ourselves—proudly—to immigrant forbearers. My family arrived from Germany and Norway in the late 1800s and early 1900s. When I lived in California, many of my Mexican classmates and neighbors lived in ancestral places and houses, when they were part of Mexico! Anyone who can trace ancestry to African-American slaves has, along with the Mexican-Americans sited above—and many more in Arizona and New Mexico—been “American” in family much longer than I have. “Immigrant” is a conflicted term!
We are conflicted about color and race because white has not always been white enough. When Irish, Greek, and Italian immigrants came to America, most of them huddled in ethnic enclaves in Eastern cities, took jobs that proper white Americans did not want (sometimes jobs that had been done by slaves before our grueling Civil War). The promulgators of Manifest Destiny, like all but seven or eight of our 45 presidents, were “Anglo-Americans” who saw this country as the natural heir to the British Empire, the new arrow of Civilization.
Jewish immigrants have their own sad stories of not being white enough. In the run-up to WW II, in 1939, a ship with 937 refugees fleeing Nazi Germany landed in Havana, Cuba, where 28 passengers were allowed to debark—The US and Canada then refused to allow any departures, and the ship returned to Europe, where the
Holocaust was unfolding.
Subsequent American actions helped staunch the Nazi Anti-Semitic Aryan nationalist movement, and, in the process brought white Italian, Irish, Scandinavian, German and Jewish Americans together with Anglo-Americans and called them all white. Black troops served in a segregated military through that war; integration of the military occurred in 1948.
Majority society’s attitudes about ethnicity are most conflicted when it comes to the original Americans—misnamed from the beginning, “Indians.” The Indians were ravaged by European diseases, and drastically reduced in population as the country moved west and appropriated Indian lands through wars, fraudulent treaties, and overwhelming numbers.
There were always partisans who acknowledged these takeovers with minor or major misgivings. Official policy—and the accepted attitude of most Americans—became one of “assimilation,” making Indians white. The most generous advocates for Indians thought their cultures interesting and worthy of holding in museums, but also thought that the only way to save them was to “kill the Indian and save the man” in boarding schools and through policies that would make Indians farmers, make them city dwellers, make them white.
The Indian population of the country has rebounded from a low of 237,000 in the 1890s to over five million today—a population intent on saving and advancing ancient languages and cultures. Maybe most telling is the number of white Americans who now proudly claim a half-Cherokee grandmother or some other tie to the original Americans. Conflicted on ethnicity.
Not Stephen Miller. The new information about him follows an election and three years of rhetoric from the president and advisors that touches on—or settles squarely on—race. I believe that the election and support of this president is firmly rooted in race. Italian -Americans and Anglo-Americans, who once were divided by concepts of race, have made up and married and now fear the day when non-white Americans will be a majority in the country.
Yes, some religious conservatives look past anti-immigrant policies and continuing convictions of corrupt officials to the appointment of anti-abortion judges. And other traditional conservatives look past offensive remarks and actions to tax cuts and robust returns on investments. But the hard core of support for the current political regime is racial fear.
And that fear of becoming some kind of minority in “our own land” allows the likes of Stephen Miller to advocate racist policies in the White House and, importantly, engenders a quiet acquiescence to overt white nationalism and white supremacism among a large number of Americans.
In Wallowa County and majority white communities like ours, we support our Mexican, Thai, and Chinese restaurants, and hire Mexican crews from outside the area to sheetrock our homes and work in our fields, but fear the floodgates of new immigrants and the tilt of the nation-wide racial balance.
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Recent studies show that African-American women with similar economic and educational backgrounds to white counterparts die more often in childbirth, and at younger ages overall. After ruling out all of the geographic and sociological factors they can, researchers attribute the more frequent and earlier deaths of the black women to the stress and anxiety that comes with having black skin.
In the New York Times this week, an extensive study of thousands of boys concludes that white boys from rich families mostly remain rich; black boys from rich families more likely drop down the income ladder. Latino boys drop as well, but not as many and not as far. Asian boys better their white cohorts—remaining in the same income bracket or moving up.
Although the number of American Indian boys who grow up in rich families is small, their trajectory is like that of African-American boys.
When I explained to an Nez Perce friend that my grandchildren, whose father is from Calcutta, experienced subtle—and sometimes not so subtle—racial slurs in Eastern Oregon, he said that I didn’t have to explain that to him: “I’ve been brown for 80 years.”
And on and on we go, led now by a President who has emboldened talk of race, color, and the “art of the deal.” As far as deals go, there have probably never, in history, been as many crooked deals as those made by those white, westward riding Manifest Destiny jockeys in their carefully worded, often amended, and rarely observed treaties as they gobbled up lands from tribal peoples, and shuffled them around like pawns on a board.
Last night I watched a repeat of the Jackie Robinson story. It all happened in my lifetime! One black man, who could have played professional football or basketball, ran in the Olympics, or commanded troops in World War II, ran, hit, scratched, defiantly sat where he wanted to on the bus, bit his tongue when he needed to, and carried out the biggest breakthrough in racial integration in the 20th Century.
But he was helped. Labor Unions and sports writers and a baseball team owner and manager, and, ultimately, other ballplayers, fought alongside Jackie Robinson.
Today, in a strange reversal, black athletes dominate professional football and basketball, and Latino and now Asian players are the new kids in professional baseball. But maybe it is not so unusual. It is still white men, for the most part, who are the team owners and financiers—the “Romans” watching the Christians and lions battle it out in the arena, cutting the deals, writing the treaties.
I don’t know what it will take to get past all of this? I put my faith in women and children. Women, including black and brown women, are running for political office. Women are talking about the powerful men who harass and abuse them. Women, having crept through the hole afforded them by Title 9, are becoming doctors, lawyers, executives, plumbers and electricians.
And children are marching against the NRA, taking on one of the most fiercely white-male dominated organizations in the country. (I cannot resist mentioning the draft deferments handed out to NRA exec Wayne La Pierre and President Donald Trump. It is so consistent with reducing risks and handing out rewards to the right kind of white men at the expense of boys and men of color and women in general.)
More importantly, children are fearlessly expressing their sexuality and marrying people from other tribes. And this is the real hope. As more and more of us have openly gay people in our families and among close acquaintances, the tolerance for gays is growing—even evangelical Christians under 40 seem to accept the fact.
More and more of us having rainbow marriages among our networks of family and friends seems the only practical remedy to the reign of white American men.
The trick now will be to get to there without losing the traditions and knowledge held onto tenaciously, against overwhelming odds, by the African-Americans, Latinos, south and east Asians, and American Indians among us. The more important marriages are of modern technology with ancient wisdom, the nurturing of women with public and private leadership, and the health of the public space—indeed, the planet—with the needs and freedoms of individuals.
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This is a newspaper column I wrote for the Wallowa County Chieftain this week. It was suggested I post it here. I don’t think it is out of place.
We live in a strange time. National news is dominated by arguments over facts—half-facts and fake facts, social media condemnations and accusations—while a growing chorus of serious speakers of all ages, religious and political persuasions rises to speak truth.
The liberal movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was not the first person of note to be accused of sexual abuse and huge hush money payments—Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly beat him on that score—but the accusations against Weinstein have opened a dam of stories about major figures in entertainment, religion, sports, and politics with sometimes bizarre accounts of power, control, and sexual predation.
Diana Nyad, the greatest long distance swimmer ever, wrote last week in the New York Times about a swimming coach who abused her and others when they were in high school, and how, after the girls told the school, the coach was quietly let go, and then went on to coach in college and in the Olympics! She’s been telling the story for decades; now people are listening. And listening to Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman, who joined the chorus with accusations against USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, who is already facing charges of abuse and child pornography. These stories—and powerful organizations and a naïve public—are too late for scores of abused swimmers and gymnasts, but “late” is saving lives.
Last week also the Brooklyn Diocese released the names of several priests who had been “laicized” for abusing young boys 30 and 40 years ago. One went on to an illustrious academic career—which Arizona State University terminated with the new revelations.
The comic Louis C.K. joins Kevin Spacey and Public Radio’s Senior Vice President of News Mike Oreskes in the parade. In the NPR case, as in most others, the women—and in Spacey’s case, men—who had been reluctant to come forward have found courage in the wake of Weinstein’s fall. Even the US Senate has decided that sexual harassment training should be required—as Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore fights off accusations of pursuing and abusing teenagers as a young lawyer. My favorite defense: the Bible has stories of older men happily marrying teenagers.
If you think this all happens somewhere else, talk to the folks at Safe Harbors, and comb old local newspapers for reports of men physically and sexually abusing girls, women, and the occasional boy. The legions of famous victims who have stepped forward will embolden ordinary people in towns and cities across the country.
And listen for other stories too. Race has not been far behind gender in today’s truth-telling. Recent studies show that the tide of white Trump voters who swept him into office—despite evidence of questionable sexual and racial behaviors—was largely motivated by fear of immigrants and the fact of a sitting black American President.
In Wallowa County we named the mascot at Wallowa High School “Amos,” after an African-American named Amos Marsh, probably the most successful athlete who ever graduated there. And we laugh at the story of our beloved County Clerk, Marjorie Martin, who felt obliged to hide documents related to the massacre of Chinese gold miners on the Snake River while close relatives of the perpetrators were still alive.
Oregonian reporter Greg Nokes caught wind of the massacre story and doggedly pursued it, befriended Marjorie, and gained important information after she retired and new Clerk Charlotte McIver uncovered old documents stuffed away in the “wrong place.” A book, a monument on Snake River, and an Oregon Public Television documentary followed.
A recent showing of “Massacre at Hells Canyon” drew over 100 people at the Josephy Center, and Joseph teacher Jason Crenshaw showed the film and taught the event in his US History class.
Gwen Trice has been uncovering the history of African-American loggers in Wallowa County with the Maxville Heritage project for several years, and Pearl Alice Marsh, younger sister of star athletes Amos and Frank, is compiling a written history with interviews of the first generation descendants of those loggers.
Last week Pearl Marsh told the Joseph student body, grades 7-12, what it was like to grow up black in Wallowa, how she couldn’t be a “Brownie,” but a kind 4-H leader recruited her, how famous Amos could dance with white girls, but not date them, how living in Maxville and Wallowa was tough, but a huge step up from the Jim Crow south. When a student asked if she still experienced discrimination, Pearl said yes, but we’re much better now than we were with the legal discrimination and the lynchings that haunted all black American lives just a few years ago.
We are all better for knowing the truth—even when the telling is hard.
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I believe that Manifest Destiny was the nineteenth century idea that the United States of American—led by Anglo-Americans—was picking up the mantel of world leadership and the white man’s burden from the British Empire and would become greater than its predecessor. I think it was an idea that began decades before its formal declaration, and continues in some diminished way to the present.
I think that Manifest Destiny was not about white Greeks and Bohunks, Irishmen, and Swedes. I think that “white” didn’t become a standard classification to include all Americans of European ancestry until after WW 2, when Bohemians and Swedes, Greeks, Italians, and Irishmen all served together. Until then—even through the Dutch-American Roosevelts, Anglo-Americans were the ideal, and the story of Manifest Destiny their story of crusading against and bringing Civilization to a vast wilderness. (Which of course leads to totally ambivalent attitudes towards American Indians—but that is another story.)
If you look at one factor only, the ethnicity of our presidents, fully 38 of the 44 Presidents’ backgrounds, and 39 if you count Trump’s maternal side, are from the British Isles. Until about 1950, Scandinavians were farming; Germans were brewing and baking and doing business. National political leadership was left to or taken by Anglo-Americans.
Eisenhower was our first German American President, Kennedy the first Irish—and Catholic—President. The clump at the top of this chart doesn’t really break apart until after WW 2.
The other whites. The vast majority of early non-Anglo European immigrants to the U.S. came to Northern cities and Midwest farms. Northern cities were made up of ethnic neighborhoods, where Italian, Polish, Irish, and other non-Anglo European-American groups clustered. Irish Catholics and Italian Catholics often attended their own churches in adjoining neibhborhoods.
In my Minnesota birth town several Lutheran churches ministered to their unique immigrant communities. The German Lutheran Church still used the German language; the Swedish Lutheran Church used Swedish. The largely Scandinavian population who had fled farms too divided to maintain and sustain found farms in Minnesota and the Dakotas that had some resemblance to country they had left. Willa Cather found Bohemian farmers in Nebraska in the same circumstance.
But, you say, under Jim Crow, Southern restaurants, public restrooms and drinking fountains said “whites only” and not “Anglo only”? Although I do not have experience in the South, my reading is that Southern culture was long dominated by Anglo-Americans—maybe beginning with Jamestown. That domination hiccupped during the Civil War and Reconstruction, then continued until the Civil Rights era of the 1960s.
At a church meeting in Washington D.C. in 1968, not long after the assassination of Martin Luther King, I heard a white woman from South Carolina—and significantly, I do not remember her name or ethnic identity—describe herself as “white trash.” She said that that she and her kind were looked down on by the region’s leaders, but given racism as a way to make them feel superior to someone while keeping them in their place. If this is true, “whites only” was a crude tool left in the wake of failed “Reconstruction” to keep the original, largely Anglo slave owners in control.
To bolster my theory about the impact of WW 2 on homogenizing white in America, remember that troops were totally segregated through the War; the military was integrated by President Truman in 1948.
I think one can also argue that ethnicity had, from the 19th century on, through the period noted as Manifest Destiny, been of less concern on the Frontier. People left old homes and alliances to move West—and the intermingling was almost immediate. In Wallowa County where I live, there were not enough French Canadian DeBoies and Beaudoins to keep intermarriage of that ethnic group sustained.
We should also remember that the Great Migration of Southern Blacks is recent; 1916-1970 are the normal given dates. And Blacks did displace some ethnic neighborhoods as whites moved to GI housing in all-white but ethnically mixed suburbs.
All of this is to say that the renewed concern about race in America is different from racist attitudes of other days. And that my hunch is that WW 2 kicked off the new divisions that have worked their way to Trump and some of his angry followers.
So today, many whites of all stripes feel threatened—and united in their fears—by sixty years of Civil Rights legislation, legal immigration from many continents, and the economic jostling at the southern border that just might have started with the Bracero program of WW 2.
And by the advent of an African American President.
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