In scientific racism intent may also be invisible and its existence difficult to prove. Any false scientific view of race that equates racial differences with racial superiority or inferiority may be defined as scientific racism. The authority of science as a discipline of study has long been called into such debatable areas as the relative importance of heredity versus environment. Whether institutional or scientific, racism has deep roots in European and American pasts.
Winthrop D. Jordan in an important 1968 study (White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812) provided conclusive evidence that American racism is traces to the prejudices of Elizabethan Englishmen. Their attitudes toward blacks were shaped by their own needs for national self-consciousness and identity. With great mastery of details, the author points out that racism preceded rather than originated with slavery, and that it persisted as a psychological as well as an economic system of exploitation. In effect, the author’s central theme is that the idea of white supremacy over blacks served to provide a sense of social purpose and control for whites.
The principle reason for the persistence of antiblack racism and concomitant policies of segregation and discrimination is historical. They are too elemental and vigorous a part of the national heritage to die of their own accord. American society has always been structured along white supremacy lines, and Americans absorb the racial values of their society just as they do its economics, politics, and other values.
Here are the practical consequences of antiblack racism and a major reason for its endurance. Segregation creates a vicious cycle, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Its consequences become its justification. White Americans think of their national experience as a success story. To them, America is a land of hope and opportunity, of economic abundance, of social mobility, and of political equality. They see their society as one that cultivates initiative, individualism, self-reliance, and self-sacrifice. They see America as a nation whose institutions are benevolent: the law protects everyone from oppression and is not itself oppressive. The fundamental rights of citizens are spelled out in the U.S. Constitution and guaranteed to all. The right of trial by an impartial jury of one’s peers is so basic as to be common place. Every man respects his fellowman, his freedom of expression and movement. This picture, of course, is overdrawn in the popular imagination, but there is an element of truth in it for whites.
For blacks the story is different because ideals are honored more in the breach than in the observation. Furthermore, for many whites, white supremacy has been of their center ideals. From 1890 to the mid-1960’s blacks were legally relegated to a world of more or less rigid segregation and a deadening second class status that saps the energies of all but the most persevering. The racial meaning of this must be understood, for the conditions thus produced have persisted. Segregation is the most important fact in the history of African-Americans in the twentieth century dominating their experience as political freedom, economic opportunity, and social mobility dominated the white man. Segregation excluded African-Americans from a normal way of life. It tended to cultivate in them personal and social traits and moral and ethical values which adds up to a way of life notably different from that of whites. Not all African-American were so affected, but a significant amount were. However the compliance was carried out by institutions that subscribed to the notion of African Americans as second class citizens.
Measured by the standards of the larger society, the “good” African-American was one who was humble, ingratiating, and childlike. The African-American’s experience did not reward thrift and self-sacrifice as the white man’s did. It offered him little hope for a better tomorrow. It encouraged irresponsibility, ignorance, servility, helplessness, and hopelessness- qualities that White Americans despised. His political and social status was ill-designed to inculcate respect for law and government, property rights, middle class morality, family, and even his fellow African-Americans. To the African-American, government often seemed little more than an organized tyranny; law, a device for denying him the fruits of his labor; and society, a system permitting women to be compromised, children to be exploited, and honor and self respect to be undermined. Yet, even though they were subjected to tyrannical laws, many African Americans developed work ethics and moral standards that equaled or exceeded those of most whites.
Again, the racial significance of this must be stressed. For most whites, segregation was not an inconvenience and for many it was a great boon; for African-Americans it made race the supreme fact of life. At every turn it subjected the African-American to an invidious racial veil, circumscribed his liberties, stifled his talents, and thwarted his ambition. He found it impossible, or virtually so, to exercise the responsibilities of citizenship or reap the rewards of the good life. He could not readily achieve a position of self-respect, or of independence, or of virtue.
What this means is that segregation creates some ostensibly objective evidence to collaborate the segregationist view of African-Americans. That at least is the conclusion white Americans have reached. Whites everywhere are perceived as superior to African-Americans. They are better educated, live better, and control the instruments of power and prestige. African-Americans often seem to deviate from acceptable standards of conduct. They become, in the view of whites, a race prone to violence, illegitimacy, venereal disease, broken homes, a people who threaten property value, make low scores on intelligence tests, and lower standards in public schools.
The impact of this legacy of white injustice has been overwhelming. White Americans are preconditioned to think of African-Americans in racial terms, and they accordingly conclude that the African-American’s condition is explainable only in those terms. White attitudes toward African-Americans have always reflected as well as reinforced the status of the race in this country, varying from time to time and section to section according to the status or condition of African-Americans in a given time or section.
The history of antiblack thought in America seems to follow this pattern. African-Americans achieve or are relegated to a certain status for economic, political, or psychological motives. Whites develop a systematic rationale to justify this status. Only after African-Americans were enslaved did white Americans conclude that slavery was the natural status of the race. And, only after the slave system came under systematic abolitionist attack were the most elaborate scientific, historical, and scriptural authorities cultivated to legitimize it. When African-Americans were segregated, the process occurred again. Racists then recognized segregation as the natural status for African-Americans and again cultivated authorities to support their conclusion.
The slow liberalization of racial ideas over the last generation has followed closely upon the rise of an African-American middle class, the emergence of independent black Africa, and new or heightened black awareness. The difficulty is that white attitudes are changing more slowly than black achievement and the aspiration that achievement inspires. If this analysis is correct, whites will not believe essentially in racial equality until blacks actually achieve equality. Only then will the fallacies of racist thought be apparent. But the major obstacle to equality is the white man’s belief in inequality and the complexities of racial policies that rest upon that belief. The way out this impasse would seem to involve social changes fundamental enough to enable Blacks to achieve actual equality. This, would require Whites to devise social policies that run counter to deeply held racial convictions and economic, social, and political arrangements designed in their interests. That they will do so, with or without further violence, is problematical. The traditions of racism are strong and enduring.