This article is one in a series of arguments on U.S. history in our summer issue.
Racism and white supremacy, like everything else, have a history. As ideological frameworks, they have evolved and morphed over time. But we often lose sight of the origins of racism in what is now the United States. In British North American colonies in the 1600s, before the American revolution, settler elites began to differentiate white indentured servants from enslaved people descended from Africa. A subjugated class of workers became essential to the economic system that grew around the Southern plantation.
The foundational crimes of U.S. racial capitalism were the theft of Black labor and indigenous land, and the captivity and genocide that followed. American planters, bankers, and traders became rich on the backs of unpaid Black workers and on land violently stolen from people who were already here. All of these heinous acts of dispossession relied on the ideology of white supremacy and racism. The savagery and inferiority of non-Christian heathens, and later the notion of innate racial difference, were the justification for taking land and bodies and all the political and economic hierarchies put in place thereafter—hierarchies that have endured over 400 years. What we now call the white working class was formed not as a raceless class, but as non-Blacks, distinct from the status of unfree laborers. (These processes of U.S. class formation have been documented by W.E.B. Du Bois, David Roediger, and many other historians.)
Racism is not absolute. And as Barbara J. Fields has argued, attitudes “are promiscuous critters,” meaning there are vast inconsistencies inside of racist narratives, stereotypes, and cultural framings. The most important point about the origins of American racism, however, is that it is structural, systemic, and deep-rooted. It is not based on any scientific or fundamental natural differences among humans; there is indeed human variation, but racialization and racism were meanings imposed on those differences, not something that emerged organically. Moreover, racism in the United States is not mainly about attitudes and individual bias but about divisions that were forged long ago by the super-exploitation and political dispossession of people of African descent and other racialized groups, to the benefit of white capitalists.
U.S. democracy was conceived of not as a democracy for all, but a democracy for propertied white men, to the exclusion and at the expense of others. The Three-Fifths Clause, which deemed enslaved Black people as three-fifths of a person for purposes of representation in Congress for the slaveholding class, was baked into the Constitution, co-existing alongside flowery language about liberty and freedom. From the very beginning, those principles were exclusionary. The 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision reaffirmed these distinctions. The court deemed Blacks “inferior” and “unfit”; they “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Even though Dred Scott was later overturned, its imprint remained. The national origin story was a white national story, steeped in racism and inflected by class. And even after chattel slavery and native massacres ended, the Jim Crow system of racial oppression and dispossession, alongside the racist politics of immigrant exclusion, harassment, violence, and exploitation, continued to shape the United States.
This history grounds us in the current moment. Still, the language of freedom, nation, democracy, and even the state, in spite of and at times because of its racism, have not been ideologically stable but a battleground. From the radical abolitionist and eloquent freedom orator Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King Jr. to journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, anti-racist crusaders have worked to simultaneously deploy and expose the duplicity of America’s founding creed and documents.
And while it is important to unearth the rock upon which this nation was built, it is important to also remember that racism is alive and well in modified form. The upheaval of the mid-twentieth-century Black freedom movement resulted in reforms in the racial order but not its eradication. To truly uproot racism would require a reordering of the society in rather fundamental ways.
The 1950s and ’60s, often referred to as the “Second Reconstruction,” was a major rupture in race politics, undoing decades old practices of de jure racism. By 2009 we had super-rich Black celebrities, CEOs, and finally a Black president. But that representation occurred in tandem with a growing wealth gap in society and within the Black community itself, and a growing prison industry with an insatiable hunger for Black and brown bodies. The rise of the carceral state and the targeted incarceration of large sectors of Black urban communities restructured the architecture of American racism. With the gradual erosion of Jim Crow firewalls to individual Black advancement, now it is Black workers, the Black poor, and immigrants of color that are particularly vulnerable. Class is a major mediator of the experience and reality of racism in the United States.
When Du Bois wrote about race in the early 1900s, he did so as someone who, despite his class privilege and Harvard education, was relegated to second-class status and economic marginality. Today, many Black and Latinx elites are junior partners, or major brokers, in arenas of power. There is still racism in those arenas, but those bearing the brunt of police violence, and the harshest edges of white supremacy, are Black and brown people without economic means or “social capital.” This class divide has long featured in American racism, but never more so than today.
That is why Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives’ rejection of the middle-class politics of respectability is so powerful. They have not deferred to the authority of established Black leaders with clerical, political, or academic credentials, and they have insisted that all Black folk are deserving of justice: incarcerated and formerly incarcerated, trans and queer, undocumented, sex workers, people struggling in the informal economy, and those who are rebelliously irreverent. Past movements have erred on the side of touting wholesome, law-abiding, churchgoing, proper-speaking members of the race as those most deserving of rights and resources. This movement has shifted the narrative to one that is radically more inclusive and democratic.
Racism as we know it has not existed forever, but it was embedded in the formation of this nation. Its roots and branches run deep and spread widely. The tens of millions of people who took to the streets in the middle of a deadly pandemic in 2020 in an unprecedented display of anti-racist solidarity recognized both the history and current-day reality of American racism. There is hope as long as their movements continue to struggle and build.
Barbara Ransby is a historian, author, and longtime activist. She is the author of Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement and Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the Twenty-First Century, a co-founder of the Black Radical Congress in 1998, editor of the journal Souls, and a professor and director of the Social Justice Initiative at the University of Illinois at Chicago.