A Dreadful Deceit

The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama's America

by Jacqueline Jones

Hardcover, 384 pages, Perseus Books Group, List Price: $29.99 | purchase

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A Dreadful Deceit
The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama's America
Jacqueline Jones

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Book Summary

A historian presents the stories of six different African-Americans over three centuries to illuminate the long-standing issues of race and economic injustice that continue to cause division and tension in the modern United States.

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Excerpt: A Dreadful Deceit

Like countless other cultures and countries throughout the world, the United States has its own creation myth — its own unique, dramatic story intended to explain where we came from and who we are today. In the case of the United States, this story holds that the nation was conceived in "racial" differences and that over the last four centuries these self-evident differences have suffused our national character and shaped our national destiny. The American creation story begins with a violent, self-inflicted wound and features subsequent incremental episodes of healing, culminat­ing in a redemption of sorts. It is, ultimately, a triumphant narrative, one that testifies to the innate strength and moral rectitude of the American system, however imperfect its origins.

According to this myth, the first Europeans who laid eyes on Africans were struck foremost by their physical appearance — the color of their skin and the texture of their hair — and concluded that these beings constituted a lower order of humans, an inferior race destined for enslavement. During the American Revolution, patriots spoke eloquently of liberty and equality, and though their lofty rhetoric went unfulfilled, they inadvertently challenged basic forms of racial categorization. And so white Northerners, deriving inspiration from the Revolution, emancipated their own slaves and ushered in a society free of the moral stain of race-based bondage. The Civil War destroyed the system of slavery nationwide, but new theories of scientific racism gave rise to new forms of racial oppression in the North and South. Not until the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 did the federal government dismantle state-sponsored race-based segregation and thus pave the way for better race relations. Though hardly an unmitigated triumph, the election of Barack Obama as president in 2008 signaled the dawn of a postracial society and offered a measure of the dis­tance the country had traveled since slavery prevailed in British North America.

Yet America's creation myth is just that — a myth, one that itself rests en­tirely on a spurious concept: for "race" itself is a fiction, one that has no ba­sis in biology or any long-standing, consistent usage in human culture. As employed in the popular rendition of America's national origins, the word and its various iterations mask complex historical processes that have little or nothing to do with the physical makeup of the people who controlled or suffered from those processes.

The ubiquity of the term race in modern discourse indicates that early-twenty-first-century Americans adhere to this creation myth with re­markable tenacity — in other words, that they believe that race is real and that race matters. In fact, however, like its worldwide counterparts, the American creation myth is the product of collective imagination, not his­torical fact, and it exists outside the realm of rational thought. Americans who would scoff at the notion that meaningful social or temperamental dif­ferences distinguish brown-eyed people from blue-eyed people nevertheless utter the word "race" with a casual thoughtlessness. Consequently, the word itself helps to sustain not only the creation myth but also all the human misery that the myth has wrought over the centuries. In effect, the word perpetuates — and legitimizes — the notion that some kind of inexorable pri­mal prejudice has driven history and that, to some degree at least, the United States has always been held hostage to "racial" differences.

Certainly, the bitter legacies of historic injustices endure in concrete, blatant form. Today certain groups of people are impoverished, exploited in the workplace, or incarcerated in large numbers. This is the case not because of their "race," however, but rather because at a particular point in US history certain other groups began to invoke the myth of race in a bid for political and economic power. This myth has served as a tool that one group can use to ratchet itself into a position of greater advantage in society, and a justification for the economic inequality and the imbalance in rights and privileges that result.

Perhaps the greatest perversity of the idea of race is how meaningless it truly is. Strikingly malleable in its contours, depending on the exigencies of the moment, race is a catchall term, its insidious reach metastasizing in response to any number of competitions — for political rights, scarce resources, control over cheap labor, group security. At times, within this constellation of "racial" ideas, physical appearance receded into nothingness — for example, when the law de­fined a person's race according to his or her "reputation" or when a mother's le­gal status as a slave decreed that her offspring would remain enslaved, regardless of their own skin color.

The indistinctness of this idea has given it a twisted trajectory. Through­out American history, members of the white laboring classes witnessed firsthand the struggles of their black coworkers and rivals and yet still main­tained that "race" constituted a great divide between them. After the Civil War, on the campaign stump, white politicians charged that black people were incapable of learning, even while the descendants of slaves were rapidly gaining in literacy rates compared to poor whites. In the early twenty-first century, many Americans disavow the basic premise of racial prejudice — the idea that blacks and whites were somehow fundamentally different from each other — and yet scholars, journalists, and indeed Americans from all walks of life persist in categorizing and labeling groups according to those same, discredited principles.

This book is about the way that the idea of race has been used and abused in American history. It focuses on the contradictory and inconsis­tent fictions of "race" that various groups of people contrived for specific political purposes. As deployed by the powerful, race serves as a rationale for brutality, and its history is ultimately a local one, best understood through the lives of individual men, women, and children. The stories included here range over time and space to consider particular, shifting processes of racial myth-making in American history: in mid-seventeenth-century Maryland; Revolutionary-era South Carolina; early-nineteenth-century Providence, Rhode Island; post-Civil War Savannah, Georgia; segregationist Missis­sippi; and industrial and postindustrial Detroit.

The myth of race is, at its heart, about power relations, and in order to understand how it evolved, we must avoid vague theoretical and ahistorical formulations and instead ask, Who benefited from these narratives of racial difference, and how, where, and under what conditions? Race signifies nei­ther a biological fact nor a primal prejudice, and it lacks the coherence of a robust political ideology; rather, it is a collection of fluid, contingent my­thologies borne of (among other imperatives) fighting a war, assembling a labor force, advancing the designs of demagogues, organizing a labor union, and preserving voting and public schooling as privileges reserved for some, rather than as rights shared by all.

This book is about physical force flowing from the law, the barrel of a gun, or the fury of a mob; but it is also about the struggle for justice and personal dignity waged by people of African descent in America. Their fight for human rights in turn intensified policies and prejudices based on so-called racial difference. In fact, in the region that would become the United States, race initially developed as an afterthought or a reaction — an afterthought, because for several generations the exploitation of people of African heritage required no explanation, no justification beyond the raw power wielded by the captors; and a reaction, because a concerted project based on the myth of race eventually arose in response to individuals and groups such as abolitionists and civil rights activists who challenged forms of state-sanctioned violence and legal subordination that afflicted enslaved people and their descendants.

For the first century and a half or so of the British North American colonies, the fiction of race played little part in the origins and develop­ment of slavery; instead, that institution was the product of the unique vulnerability of Africans within a roiling Atlantic world of empire-building and profit-seeking. Not until the American Revolution did self-identified "white" elites perceive the need to concoct ideas of racial difference; these elites understood that the exclusion of a whole group of native-born men from the body politic demanded an explanation, a rationalization. Even then, many southern slaveholders, lording over forced-labor camps, be­lieved they needed to justify their actions to no one; only over time did they begin to refer to their bound workforces in racial terms. Meanwhile, in the early-nineteenth-century North, race emerged as a partisan political weapon, its rhetorical contours strikingly contradictory but its legal dimen­sions nevertheless explicit. Discriminatory laws and mob actions promoted and enforced the insidious notion that people could be assigned to a partic­ular racial group and thereby considered "inferior" to whites and unworthy of basic human rights. Black immiseration was part and parcel of white privilege, all in the name of — the myth of — race.

By the late twentieth century, transformations in the American political economy had solidified the historic liabilities of black men and women, now in the form of segregated neighborhoods and a particular social division of labor within a so-called color-blind nation. The election of the nation's first black president in 2008 produced an outpouring of self-congratulation among Americans who heralded the dawn of a postracial society. In fact, the recession that began that year showed that, although explicit ideas of black inferiority had receded (though not entirely disappeared) from Amer­ican public discourse, African Americans continued to suffer the disastrous consequences spawned by those ideas, as evidenced by disproportionately high rates of poverty, unemployment, home foreclosures, and incarceration.

Spanning the seventeenth through the late twentieth centuries, the follow­ing six chapters highlight a number of constant themes that connect dispa­rate times and places: the wavering class lines that blurred divisions between blacks and other people of color compared to whites of modest means; the matrix of military, political, and labor-market imperatives used to justify the denigration of people defined as "black"; the persistent, ongoing process of blaming black men and women for economic downturns and other national misfortunes; and patterns of circular and cumulative causation whereby ra­cial mythologies gave license to practices by which blacks were marginalized and dispossessed, conditions that in turn reinforced these same mythologies.

The six stories presented here challenge the American creation myth and provide a new perspective on both the evolving notion of race and the mul­tiple, practical uses that groups of whites found for that notion. The mys­terious circumstances surrounding the death of an enslaved African named Antonio at the hands of his Dutch master in early colonial Maryland reveal the social dynamics of an Atlantic world of colliding empires. Within this world, Africans were enslaved not because of their "race" or their status as nonwhites or non-Christians; rather, Africa's diverse ethnic groups lacked membership in a robust nation-state that could rescue, protect, or redeem them on the high seas or in a foreign land. During the early years of British North American settlement, planters in the Chesapeake Bay region of Vir­ginia and Maryland experimented with groups of laborers who were Euro­pean, Native, or African, men and women set to work in the fields as bound workers, family members, sharecroppers, or hired hands. These planters were not ideologues; they embraced the institution of human bondage be­cause it was possible and practical for them to do so, not because either vis­ceral feelings or intellectual theories of racial difference inevitably impelled them in that direction.

By the time of the Revolution, the institution of bondage had made a small group of planters fabulously wealthy. Those in the South Carolina Lowcountry failed even to contemplate the hypocritical dimensions of their own revolutionary rhetoric of liberty and equality; they felt no compunction to rationalize human bondage, preferring to see the institution as one upon which their own self-interest depended. Slavery provided the ruling class with the labor that fueled a privileged way of life, of which richly furnished mansions, fashionable clothing, lavish dinners, and fancy carriages were key components. Race as a justification for black subordination developed only gradually as other slaveholders — Thomas Jefferson most notably — decided that revolutionary times demanded a theory of social difference that would posit black intellectual inferiority and rationalize black exclusion from the body politic of the new nation. To counter these gradually emerging ideas of racial difference, evangelical preachers such as the fugitive slave Boston King sought a wider, transnational community based on religious faith and spiritual equality among all men and women.

Meanwhile, in the post-Revolutionary North, whites of all classes and backgrounds aimed to preserve their political privileges by attaching the stigma of slavery to recently freed people of color. This contradictory, fictional narrative held that the former slaves and their descendants were by nature poor and dependent, but also at the same time predatory and dangerously capable of depriving whites of access to good jobs and even political rights. A rapidly transforming economy in the Northeast threatened the social and financial stability of white householders and provoked attacks on blacks, who served as scapegoats for the factory system's degradation of skilled labor. El­leanor Eldridge, a savvy black businesswoman of early-nineteenth-century Providence, Rhode Island, defied contemporary stereotypes of her forebears, Africans and Narragansett Indians, as lazy, promiscuous, and degenerate. At the same time, in a series of disputes over landownership, Eldridge also con­founded her white supporters, who preferred to see black people as purely pa­thetic victims of slavery, rather than as advocates for themselves in the courts and in the marketplace. Throughout the North, white politicians hastened to encode "racial" distinctions into law, thereby excluding a whole group of free, native-born Americans from the rights of citizenship.

By the time of the Civil War, myths of race had hardened to presume a large underclass of dark-skinned menial laborers, men and women "nat­urally" inferior to whites in intelligence and moral sensibility. Yet these prejudices could not account for the growing number of people of African descent who were well educated and accomplished — and in some cases as "white" as white supremacists themselves. As a result, the notion of race became more flexible and abstract. Richard W. White, a Union veteran, looked "white," yet he earned for himself — through his service in the Mas­sachusetts Fifty-fifth Regiment and his aggressive push for civil rights for former slaves — a reputation as a "black" man. White became a loyal Repub­lican, assuming that the party of Abraham Lincoln was as dedicated to the full equality of the freedpeople as it had been to the elimination of slavery. However, by the latter part of the century, it was clear that, despite the massive loss of life during the Civil War era, the American partisan political system would fail to address, or redress, systematic forms of discrimina­tion leveled at black people. In fact, both the Democratic and the Republi­can Parties catered only to their own constituents — white men who could vote — and acted on the presumption that no partisan good could come of challenging racial ideas.

From the early nineteenth century onward, control over public school­ing in its various forms became a means by which whites could reserve for themselves specific privileges and economic opportunities. In the South, even rudimentary education such as literacy instruction seemed to threaten a political economy that relied on a large, subordinate agricultural labor force. In 1900 Mississippi politicians used the heavy hand of the state, and manipulated the fury of the lynch mob, to promote, once again, a baldly contradictory set of ideas — that first, black people were incapable of learn­ing, and second, black people must be prevented from learning at all costs. William H. Holtzclaw, a Tuskegee Institute graduate, founded his own small vocational institute for blacks in the heart of rural Mississippi, only to en­counter a violent hostility among whites to any plan or program that would improve the lives of black people still mired in a rural peasantry. Yet Holtz­claw's work as the principal of Utica Institute demonstrated that under cer­tain conditions money could speak louder than racial rhetoric in shaping the relations between local store owners and their black customers, the school's staff and students. The merchants' prospect of financial gain moderated the harsh project of race that might have otherwise threatened to destroy the school. Particular racial meanings derived from local conditions in the town of Utica during the early twentieth century.

In the second half of the twentieth century, a small group of industrial workers sought to weld diverse laboring classes into a unified movement; yet they had to contend with racial ideologies that not only were well entrenched and granted "scientific" credibility, but also were perceived by whites regard­less of class as necessary to their own well-being and the future well-being of their children. Transformations in the economy again produced wrenching dislocations for all workers, prompting whites to reprise their nineteenth-century practice of scapegoating blacks as the root cause of white unem­ployment. To counter these ideas of division and distrust, Simon P. Owens and others in his Detroit-based Marxist-humanist collective held that, as coal miners and factory workers, black people were uniquely positioned to lead the way in challenging new soul-deadening assembly-line technologies. By this time, generations of discriminatory laws and policies had produced whole communities marked by concentrated poverty — neighborhoods bereft of good schools, adequate health care, and decent jobs for men and women with little in the way of skills or formal education. In contrast to prevailing and mistaken notions of "race," Owens's focus on an entrenched division of labor as a key factor in African Americans' plight identified a determinant of intergroup differences that was at once concrete and meaningful.

Antonio, King, Eldridge, White, Holtzclaw, and Owens are the six pro­tagonists of this book, and yet a seventh figure too plays a critical role. This book takes its title from a recurring phrase used by David Walker in his brilliant, militant polemic, Walker's Appeal, first published in 1829. Walker, a native of North Carolina, had been born to a free mother and an enslaved father. By the 1820s he was living in Boston and playing a leading role in the fight against slavery. His Appeal draws from history, political theory, and Christian theology to expose the falsity of race. Walker argued that Euro­peans had devised a uniquely harsh system of New World slavery for the sole purpose of forcing blacks to "dig their mines and work their farms; and thus go on enriching them, from one generation to another with our blood and our tears!!!!" Gradually, white people, he wrote, concocted lies by which they "dreadfully deceived" themselves, ruses to keep blacks in ignorance and subjection — the idea that descendants of Africans "were not of the hu­man family," that they were "void of intellect," and that enslavement was their "natural condition." These notions mocked the equality of all people before God and amounted to the greatest deceit of all — that blacks "are an inferior and distinctive race of beings."

Walker adamantly refused to identify himself as a member of "the negro race"; different skin colors did not imply useful or significant distinctions among groups of people, he noted. Enduring "reproach for our colour," blacks all over the country regardless of legal status remained victims of whites' avarice and fear. Even those free from the yoke of bondage encoun­tered discriminatory laws that prevented them from getting an education and a decent job. Meanwhile, they had to suffer in silence as whites smugly dismissed their poverty as inevitable and eternal. Walker called on his black readers to throw off the cloak of servility and defend themselves against blows to the body and blows to the spirit — both kinds emanating from the myth of race. Prescient, he warned of a coming conflagration that would destroy the system of slavery; but like other abolitionists of the time, he failed to anticipate that, although slavery would die, "race" would survive and mutate into new and hideous shapes.

In a study devoted to the resonance of race, defining the terms white and black is essential. Like notions of race, these two remarkably dichotomous descriptors emerged from a fundamental imbalance in power among social groups. On slave ships transporting men, women, and children from their homelands to the New World, European captors became white and their Af­rican captives became black. Over time these two adjectives each took on multiple meanings, with white signifying "someone free and descended from free forebears," and black signifying "someone enslaved or descended from slaves." These contrasting associations were the result of political processes, when people in power foisted a "black" identity on people devoid of legal protection, and later, when members of the latter group embraced the term "black" as an act of solidarity among themselves. The terms "black" and "white" are used throughout this book, then, with the understanding that they distinguish between groups of people according to heritage, legal status, or collective self-identification, depending on the immediate context.

In the early twenty-first century, the words "race," "racism," and "race relations" are widely used as shorthand for specific historical legacies that have nothing to do with biological determinism and everything to do with power relations. The story that unfolds in the following pages suggests that racial mythologies are best understood as a pretext for political and eco­nomic opportunism both wide ranging and specific to a particular time and place. If this explication of the American creation myth leads to one overriding conclusion, it is the power of the word "race" to distort our un­derstanding of the past and the present — and our hopes for a more just future — in equal measure.

Excerpted from A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama's America by Jacqueline Jones. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2013.