I can’t begin to blog about the history of racism in America in one posting, but I will begin with this post, with many others to follow. Racism is an issue that has bothered me since I was a very little girl. Even then, I was appalled by the racism I saw in my parents and other White people in the small East Texas town in which I was raised.
Risking even more than the usual beatings from my father, I always spoke up for people of color, but nothing I said ever changed anyone else’s mind. What was even more startling to me was the racism I found when I left East Texas and went to college in Austin. Austin is a liberal city, but that doesn’t mean that everyone in Austin is progressive. The same holds true for the time I spent in New York City, where I moved after college. While I certainly found more people of liberal belief in these two cities than I did in East Texas, I was constantly surprised by the casual racism of far too many White people with whom I interacted.
Racism has been an integral problem in America since colonial times. Before America became its own country, indigenous people of many tribes and nations lived here. Sean P. Harvey tells in Ideas of Race in Early America that race was a concept used to divide people and that “race” encompassed both physical and cultural differences. Before Europe colonized the new country that would become the United States, Europeans didn’t view themselves as being a unified race of White people. Instead, they viewed themselves as being French or Spanish or Portuguese. However, with the discovery of other people, such as indigenous Americans or Black people, be they discovered in Africa or after they were forced to America, “race” took on a new, more complex meaning.
History shows that religion also played a role in how people segregated others from them using race. According to the Bible, God made men of “one blood” and it was not until the Tower of Babel story that people of different colors and backgrounds began to be segregated from each other. Religious leaders were able to use the Bible to not only denote differences amongst people, but also to start putting some people above others.
As Europeans found their way into Asia, the Holy Land, and Muslim territories, they started segregating people as “Christians” and “heathens.” Later, when Queen Elizabeth I colonized Ireland, English Protestants began referring to Catholics as being little better than pagans. By the time Europeans landed in the new country, which for a while encompassed all of North America, they had no problems deciding that the indigenous people were “savages.”
Some Europeans tried to change the way indigenous people lived by doing what they could to sway some of the indigenous to look and act more like Europeans. But few indigenous people were interested in adopting the practices of European, so they continued to live as they once had; only now, they had to deal with the White interlopers and the disease and horror that these people brought with them.
Because indigenous people looked different, spoke different languages, and lived differently than Europeans, the people of North America were diminished by their European conquerors. By the early 1600s, Europeans had no problems pronouncing the indigenous people as being lesser beings and many Europeans, and later Americans, were fine proclaiming that indigenous people must be exterminated.
By the 1800s, some learned men decided that, perhaps, not all indigenous people should be killed. These White men thought that if, somehow, they could teach the indigenous people to speak what the Whites considered a more complex language (such as English or Spanish or Portuguese) then it might be possible for the darker-complexioned people to rise up another level, though certainly not to the level of the White man. Labeling indigenous people as being inferior made it easy for the Europeans (and later, the Americans) to view these people as not being civilized. Because the Whites considered themselves civilized, it only seemed right to them that they should rule the “uncivilized.”
Some men of scholarship bestowed a slightly more benevolent view towards Native Americans. Such a man would be Benjamin Smith Barton, an American botanist and physician. Barton believed that Indians (as indigenous people were now called) might have come from civilization yet unknown to Europeans and Americans, a civilization that was just as complex as those made up of White people. But, over time, this ancient civilization had devolved into what Barton and his peers now saw as a lesser people. President Andrew Jackson used this belief as an argument to get rid of the Native Americans, as it was obvious that their devolution was now permanent and there was nothing to be done but get rid of these people.
Over time, the United States government did their best to exterminate the American Indian. Even President Abraham Lincoln, who most consider to be a decent man because he brought freedom to the Black slaves of his time, was also fine approving the executions of 39 Dakota Sioux warriors during the Dakota War in 1862. And this murder of these Dakota Sioux remain the largest mass execution in U.S. history.
While the order for executions did not stem with Lincoln, but rather with a war commission, Lincoln gave his approval for the warriors’ death. Though, of the 39 Dakota men slated for death, Lincoln commuted one man’s sentence. It should also be noted that the war commission wanted a total of 303 Dakotans killed, but Lincoln commuted most of these sentences, as well. However, had the White man not have spent hundreds of years trying to decimate the indigenous people of the United States, perhaps no Native American would have found themselves being forced to rise up against tyranny.
When the government found itself incapable of killing off Native Americans, they tried even harder to force these people into assimilation. The idea was that if Native Americans received the same education as White Americans, then slowly the indigenous people would stop speaking their native languages and following their individual customs. Starting in the late nineteenth century, the government made it illegal for Native Americans to speak their languages and practice their cultural norms. Traditional religious ceremonies were also banned and young children were sent to Native American boarding schools, where they were forced to learn English, study what other American kids were studying, and attend Christian churches.
Over time, though various laws and enactments by the United States government, Native Americans lost most of the land that they had lived on and worked for their known history. Some indigenous people were moved from their ancestral lands within one state to unknown land in another state. Most Americans were fine with the way that the Native Americans were treated; although, some did try to change the situation, like those involved in the Friends of the Indians movement. But even these people had an ulterior motive, as they were all part of various organized churches whose intent was to “Christianize” the indigenous people.
Additionally, with the White man’s decision to take whatever land he deemed his, with government backing, Native Americans were not only thrown off their land, but many of them died because of White men’s practices. Usurpers went out of their way to destroy bison. In doing so, many Nations could not survive as the bison was integral to their culture.
Whether through war, disease, westward expansion, laws (like that of the Code of Indian Offenses), or assimilation, no indigenous group of people were spared from the White Man’s intent.
A 1928 study, the Meriam Report, showed that United State policies had oppressed Native Americans and had destroyed their cultures and their societies. Because of these, too many Native American lived in poverty and were exploited and discriminated against. Because of this, the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act was passed, restoring some land back to Native Americans and allowing tribes to self-govern. The United States government also invested in healthcare and education for the Native Americans, but far too much damage had been done for this investment to truly alleviate the ills brought against indigenous people.
While things have improved somewhat for Native Americans today, far too many problems still abound, and most of these can be traced back to the incursion of the White man into the indigenous peoples’ worlds. Many Native Americans today are successful, but just as many still suffer the side effects of disease, poverty, alcoholism, and drug abuse. Education can be sparse and employment is seldom full.
Recently, the First Nations Development Institute and Echo Hawk Consulting released deep research that shows how badly Native Americans have been treated. This report goes in detail about the discrimination that still occurs today against Native Americans, showing how other Americans blithely accept negative stereotypes about their fellow Americans, those native to this land, while also revealing what has been lost, and what needs to be done to fix the situation.
It’s nearing the end of 2018 and the United States has a President who is openly racist, a man who mocks all non-White people, including Native Americans. In this CNN opinion piece, Simon Moya-Smith, a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation and a culture editor at Indian Country Today, details Trump’s “casual racism” toward Native Americans. Here, listen to WXXI (Rochester, NY Public Media News Source) discuss the many facets of racism that Native Americans face and how to address it. Read one Rosebud Sioux woman’s reflection on how prejudice against Native Americans invades Rapid City. Or, listen to the emotion in these young Native voices as they discuss race and how racism or the policies of the United States government affect them. This country still has a long way to go to atone for the atrocities they perpetrated on the Native Americans and the issues that these people still face today because of colonization and racism.