Thursday, July 30, 2009


Thoughts on the Persistent Racial Divide in America

It is enough to make one sick. After hearing the Glenn Becks and Rush Limbaughs of this country carry on ad nauseum about "reverse racism" and "hatred" of whites, the common illusion that is desperately being peddled is that America (white America) has solved the race problem and moved on. We have a black president, right? Why are you (blacks) complaining? According to this narrative, any individual that continues to talk about discrimination or racism is talking about a past that no longer exists in the present, and has a chip on their shoulder, refusing to let go of his or her victim-hood for some nefarious reason. This, my friends, is a big lie that not only ignores the fact that the civil rights of black people were granted to us after we fought tooth and nail for them (they were not given to us gratuitously nor out of good faith but begrudgingly and are not by any means guaranteed into perpetuity), but dismisses a number of unresolved and festering issues.

It is precisely one of these unresolved issues that I want to touch on briefly: There is a dirty little secret harbored by a not insignificant population of our Americas (and not only in the United States, but everywhere that black slavery was practiced) that is rarely discussed by either side in this unresolved black/white divide, and that haunts this land to this day. It is a story that goes to the heart of why the race question has not yet been fully resolved and will not be resolved until perhaps something like a South African style Truth and Reconciliation Commission is constituted to deal with it. It has to do with the de facto mixture of the races throughout the history of the United States (in particular) and its implications (legal and otherwise) for the "family trees" of many of today's US citizens of mixed African-European ancestry.

If the mixing of the races in many of the states of the United States was against the law up to the nineteen fifties, then what explains the existence of a significant population of mulattoes (interestingly that term derives from "mule" which is no innocuous term in and of itself) at the time? The dirty little secret is that during slavery, many slave owners either fell in love with or took advantage of their black slave women thereby giving rise to a "phenomenon" of interracial concubinage that produced a not insignificant population of "mixed race" offspring. It should be noted that one-eighth black parentage remained sufficient for disenfranchisement for many years.

Note: The true nature of these relationships has been subject to historical interpretation, discussion and, in the worst case, to simple conjecture. In the scholarly treatment of such a contentious and often taboo subject, I would adopt the position of Dorothy Denneen Volo and James M. Volo, authors of Daily Life in Civil War America:

There is considerable disagreement over the level of true affection found between such (mixed race) couples. Noted Civil War historian Eugene D. Genovese claims that many slaves fell in love with their masters and vice versa. In The Plantation Mistress: Woman's World in the Old South (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982), Catherine Clinton finds such a conclusion lacking in sensitivity with regard to the dynamics of sexual exploitation. The authors have decided to defer to Clinton's view. {footnote # 40, page 80}

The vast majority of the offspring of these relationships, whether they were sincere relationships based on "true love" or not, or a product of rape were never recognized and ended up leaving many "mulattoes" with truncated family trees. Now please step back and consider this for a moment. This is not some minor detail or insignificant fact to be conveniently swept underneath the rug and forgotten, although that is precisely what happened in the vast majority of cases by the white side and in some cases the black side as well. It was done for many reasons but initially for the basic reason that miscegenation and intermarriage were deemed illegal well into the post emancipation period. Even after intermarriage between blacks and whites became legal and Jim Crow became a thing of the past, many of these relationships were still not acknowledged.

Since such relations were "taboo" for so long, one can only speculate on the nature and motivations behind the "original act" and the possible reasons for them not being acknowledged, even after the passage of time. Racism undoubtedly played a role in many, if not the vast majority of cases. Even in the case of an acknowledged and legal union, as Volo and Volo describe in their text:

...some white Southerners demonstrated a long commitment to their black mistresses, recognized their mixed-race offspring, and attempted to provide for their upkeep and well-being. Often this took the form of a public admission after death, and many interracial alliances were recognized in a planter's will. The white children of such masters often went to great lengths to undo those parts of their father's will favorable to their biracial siblings. {Daily life in Civil War America, page 77.}

Nevertheless, each case would require its own independent investigation and the circumstances surrounding each would undoubtedly turn out to be as diverse and unique as any individual family experience in the history of a people. It shouldn't take the detached observer long to deduce that at the root of many problems of non-recognition lie legal problems involving possible property claims and inheritance. It's hard not to imagine many former slave owners watching with regret as their former slaves obtained equal legal status as citizens of the nation... Or with terror in the case of a slaveholder that had fathered progeny with a black "concubine". What would prevent a slew of legal claims on the property of such a former slave holder?

We have seen recently how some black individuals (primarily celebrities like Chris Rock, Al Sharpton and Oprah) have begun to uncover some long buried "secrets" within their own family histories, with some discovering ties in the process to sometimes prominent white individuals. Clearly the wounds in America have not healed, and to express that it is truly unfortunate to see certain people pressing the wider society to move on as if everything has been resolved is, in my opinion, an understatement.

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