Slavery, racism, and genocide, America’s horrors, are seldom discussed in the “manifest destiny,” of our “shining beacon on a hill.” It is difficult, nearly impossible, to separate the phenomenon of slavery from racism and white supremacy since both of the latter were used to justify permanent enslavement of African Americans. Nor is this a sectional problem; bigotry is just as likely to be found north of the Mason Dixon Line, in the West, in Alaska and Hawaii.
Fifty years after the Civil Rights movement abolished the disgraceful Jim Crow de jure system of racial segregation, many white Americans deny that “white privilege” exists. It’s not always apparent to those of pale skin, but it is akin to oxygen, essential for life but invisible. Those with darker shades of color know it exists; they are far more likely to come off badly in chance encounters with police or our legal system that is far from color blind.
Theories of race and white supremacy were fabricated to justify permanent, life-long slavery, although economics was also a factor. Slavery was abolished after the Civil War, but white Southerners retained the enslavers’ mindset, creating new labor arrangements that degraded blacks in a highly discriminatory social system.
Perhaps the greatest paradox of the American experience has been the existence of castes of people excluded from the American Declaration of Independence’s central premise that “all men are created equal.” Despite this proclamation, second class citizenship has applied to African Americans, Native Americans, and to a lesser degree to other “people of color” — Chinese, other Asians. Middle Easterners and Latinos. Of course, Jews, Irish, Italians, and other immigrants not of Anglo-Saxon origin were at first reluctantly accepted on our shores — the inscription at the base of the Statue of Liberty has always been somewhat aspirational. As activist and social critic Cornell West observed at Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in 2018, slavery was not America’s “Original Sin;” that distinction belongs to Native American genocide.
Germany’s Nazis and the Soviet Union’s Communist Party never tired of pointing out America’s hypocrisy, which fundamentally belied our democratic ideals. Sadly, they had a point: bigotry has certainly split the American soul, dimming the light coming from our “shining beacon.” It is difficult, in fact, impossible to argue that our history does not demonstrate that both racism and white supremacy are part of the warp and woof of America.