Opening the Racist Closets of History: Seven Well-Meaning Americans

Two young black men pass Klan marchers in downtown Salisbury, 1964. (Don Sturkey, 1964 NC Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill)

It seems as if everyone—except his racist supporters—are recognizing the obvious: Donald Trump is a racist. But racism extends far past Trump and his voting band of angry Americans. The growing recognition of Trump’s racism must rouse a growing recognition of racist ideas wherever they are found in America and in American history. Otherwise, what’s the point? What’s the point of resisting a president and leaving his racism free to reign among supporters and opponents alike?

Contrary to popular conceptions, American history does not bequeath a clear-cut battlefield of racists squaring off against antiracists. The history is much more complex and contradictory. Some Americans articulated both antiracist and racist ideas. Some of America’s greatest warriors against anti-Black racism have been some of America’s greatest enforcers of racist ideas. We can no longer flaunt their antiracist achievements and hide their racist ideas about Black people being in some way inferior. Trump’s bigotry should rouse us to uncover racist ideas wherever they may be found—even in our own minds, even in the minds of our heroes.

Let’s open the closets of history.

William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879) ~ Founder/Editor of The Liberator

William Lloyd Garrison is well known and well admired—and rightfully so—for popularizing the antiracist demand for immediate emancipation in the decades before the Civil War. But Garrison also popularized one of the most racist ideas of the 19th century: that slavery had literally dehumanized enslaved Blacks and made them inferior to free Whites. “Nothing has been left undone to cripple their intellects, darken their minds, debase their moral nature, obliterate all traces of their relationship to mankind,” Garrison wrote in the preface to The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845). It was one antiracist thing to say slavery was dehumanizing, it was yet another racist thing to say slavery did dehumanize Black people and sunk them “in the scale of humanity” below free White people.

Walter Francis White (1893–1955) ~ NAACP Executive Secretary (1931–1955)

After courageously passing for White during his remarkable investigations of southern lynchings, Walter White took the helm of the historic NAACP. While at odds with NAACP founder W.E.B. Du Bois, White transformed the NAACP into a powerful litigating and lobbying outfit that broke the legal back of segregation. White envisioned equal opportunity for African Americans civilly, but never culturally. White believed the “development of an intensive Negro culture” ultimately “works a greater loss upon” us all. Under White’s command from 1931 to 1955, the NAACP “embraced an ideology of extreme cultural assimilationism,” as acclaimed historian David Levering Lewis explained. As his archenemy Mississippi segregationist Theodore Bilbo wanted to rid the nation of African American bodies, White wanted to rid the nation of African American culture. Neither Bilbo’s segregationists nor White’s assimilationists fully accepted African Americans—their bodies, their cultures—as equal.

Bill Cosby (1937–) ~ Comedian and Actor

The Cosby Show featured brilliant comedy and relatable storylines from 1984 to 1992. The stereotype-defying, upwardly striving Huxtables probably persuaded away the racist ideas of many. And yet, their negligible experiences with discrimination simultaneously reinforced the racism of post-civil rights propagandists who were claiming the end of racism and blaming inferior Black behavior for persisting racial inequities. Bill Cosby emerged as the representative of those Black elites blaming poor Blacks for their condition, deploying the same racist ideas about the Black poor as their racist White counterparts. In 2004, Cosby infamously took his blame game on the road, looking down upon poor Blacks as inferior parents, circulating unproven stereotypes. “The lower economic people are not…parenting,” Cosby grumbled at a NAACP gala in 2004. “They are buying things for kids. $500 sneakers for what? And they won’t spend $200 for Hooked on Phonics.” It was a classic case of class racism—Black elites classing the Black poor as inferior.

John Marshall Harlan (1833–1911) ~ Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court

Justice Marshall Harlan is best known for his courageous role as the lone dissenter in Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court ruling that upheld southern segregation statues. “The Great Dissenter,” as Harlan came to be known, first employed the term color-blind in his dissenting opinion in Plessy. “Our Constitution is color-blind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens,” Harlan famously wrote. But few Americans know what Harlan stated before this. “The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country. And so it is,” he wrote. “I doubt not, it will continue to be for all time, if it remains true to its great heritage and holds fast to the principles of constitutional liberty.” Constitutional liberty as the great heritage of White people? The Great Dissenter never dissented on this racist idea.

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896) ~ Abolitionist and Author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s gripping Uncle Tom’s Cabin was so influential that when President Abraham Lincoln met her in 1862, he reportedly quipped, “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” Stowe’s horrific depiction of slavery turned millions onto antislavery. But she hardly turned anyone onto antiracism. Stowe lectured in the preface about Black people’s “lowly docility of heart, their aptitude to repose on a superior mind and rest on a higher power, their childlike simplicity of affection, and facility of forgiveness.” In her paternalistic “concluding remarks,” Stowe called on White northerners to free and teach Blacks until they reached “moral and intellectual maturity, and then assist them in their passage” to Liberia, “where they may put into practice the lessons they have learned in America.”

Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) ~ 16th President of the United States

“I am not nor ever has been in favor of making [Black people] voters or jurors,” or politicians or marriage partners, Abraham Lincoln insisted in a Senatorial campaign debate back in 1858. Physical differences between “the white and black races…I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social equality. And…while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” He carried some of these ideas into the presidency and figured out ways to expel Black people from the nation. I admire Lincoln for doing what I believe nearly all of his predecessors would not have done: signing the antiracist Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. But it is not admirable that his emancipation decrees were about something else: saving the Union—a United States with or without slavery. Instead of the Great Emancipator, he should be remembered as the Great Savior. “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do that,” Lincoln wrote in 1862, weeks before announcing the Emancipation Proclamation. On the eve of his death in 1865, he had finally come around to supporting a very limited form of Black male suffrage. But he never did quite come around to antiracist ideas of racial equality.

Earl Warren (1891–1974) ~ 14th Chief Justice of the United States

Chief Justice Warren is best known for writing the unanimous landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which overturned Plessy v. Ferguson and outlawed de jure racial segregation. But do you know why Warren and his peers decided that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal”? Warren quite astonishingly agreed with the lower court’s finding that southern schools had “been equalized, or are being equalized.” Warren had been led to believe that “segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children.” It tended to “retard” the “educational and mental development of negro children and deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system.” To Warren, segregated schools were not having a detrimental effect on White children. He decided that separate Black educational facilities were inherently unequal and inferior because Black students were not being exposed to White students. Thus integration became—and it remains—a racist one-way street: inferior Blacks being bused to superior White spaces.

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Ibram X. Kendi

Ibram X. Kendi is Professor of History and International Relations and the Founding Director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. His second book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Nation, 2016), won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction and was a New York Times Best Seller. Follow him on Twitter @DrIbram.

Comments on “Opening the Racist Closets of History: Seven Well-Meaning Americans

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    We’re segregated schools having an effect on White children? If so, what were those effects?

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      Probably the most meaningful effect was that many White children grew up without knowing any Black children or adults. This meant that White children in segregated schools grew up learning about Black Americans from the media and their friends and family, many of whom held racist or stereotypical views. And when schools were desegregated, many of those children made the decision as adults to move to the suburbs to ensure their own children were kept away from Black Americans. It’s likely that most parents made the decision to move to segregated communities unconsciously and we can’t draw a straight line, but the effect of segregated schools endures.

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    Dr. Kendi,

    Without knowing much about Garrison beyond what’s been popularized, I’m not sure I follow your conclusion about him; I’m particularly curious about the distinction you make between slavery being dehumanizing and slavery actually dehumanizing. Do you mind expounding on that?

    I read it as Garrison not necessarily stating that Black people are subhuman, but rather an acknowledgement that everything whites did, including slavery, was designed to make such a statement reality. I suppose one may view this with a semantic distinction between what slavery did versus what it attempted to do, but regardless, it seems Garrison is implicitly stating that its purpose was to strip Black people of their humanity to the degree that they and others view them as subhuman.

    Your last line about Black people being lower in humanity than a *free* white person seems to support this, as you go on to quote a line Garrison’s claim that a white slave can “sink as low … as the Black one.” I take this as Garrison saying that slaves are, or are seen as, subhuman because they’re slaves, not because they’re Black.

    You could very well be right on Garrison’s opinions, I’m just having trouble understanding it as the logical conclusion of this quote.

    Here’s the context I’m using:

    “Let the calumniators of the colored race … henceforth cease to talk of the natural inferiority of those who require nothing but time and opportunity to attain the highest point of human excellence. It may, perhaps, be fairly questioned, whether any other portion of the population of the earth could have endured the privations, sufferings, and horrors of slavery, without having become more degraded in the scale of humanity than the slaves of African descent. Nothing has been left undone to cripple their intellects, darken their minds, debase their moral nature, obliterate all traces of their relationship to mankind; and yet how wonderfully they have sustained the mighty load of a most frightful bondage, under which they have been groaning for centuries! … Admitting this [a white American sailor’s response to being enslaved for three years] to have been an extraordinary case of mental deterioration, it proves at least that the white slave can sink as low in the scale of humanity as the black one.”

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    Thank you for your nuanced analysis of racism in the context of “well-meaning” Americans. This is the level or critical analysis we need in our national discourse. This helps especially well-meaning people (like me) reflect on the racism we all have inherited and must be intentional to change.

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    Love what you guys post – I thank you all for your input. I have to disagree with the lumping in of Cosby however. “blaming inferior Black behavior for persisting racial inequities” – that is taking Cosby out of context, he CRITIQUED and rebuked OUR BEHAVIOR as opposed to saying our racial inequities in totality are solely because of us. (JUST AS DR. UMAR JOHNSON, CLAUDE ANDERSON, FARRAKHAN and many others have rightfully critiqued our behavior) He has publicly acknowledged numerous times that we have been VICTIMS of ruthless oppression and that is the ROOT to our present inequities. This widely used concept of “Black elites blaming poor Blacks” is misused, over-used, divisive and in desperate need of better evaluation. I don’t know of any TRUE black elites, I do know of MANY blacks that are deeply confused and misguided! But that falls under those that are rich, poor and in between. Elite seems to imply old money, since when do we have such old wealth? And how would Cosby, a man that grew up marginalized and disenfranchised suddenly become a part of such a class of elites? And from what racism are these “black elites” able to escape? Cosby clearly has not escaped it. Has he not had to be five times as excellent to get the same amount of accolades as his white counterparts? Has he not been crucified for these recent allegations beyond what many white counterparts have been? Has he not been black-balled for trying to own a network as MANY of his white counterparts have been able to do successfully?

    And how does a man who DEDICATED his entire art to our peoples ADVANCEMENT get a one paragraph REVISIONARY HISTORICAL EVALUATION OF MERELY BEING “WELL-MEANING”? He wasn’t just well-meaning, he was no less than an actual activist! And his activism had actual, empirical positive affects on our peoples existence. One’s activism is not confined only to marches, jailings and beatings.

    And lastly, it is (in my opinion) extremely self-defeating and divisive to place blacks who become wealthy into this derogatory “sunken” place of “black elites”. If black wealth basically means you are no longer able to lovingly critique, rebuke or challenge your own people, then what is the point of “giving back” if you can’t then shed light on how others can follow your path?

    It obvious to many that this rich and powerful man DID NOT have to take a tour to talk to his people (from his heart). Many believe (as I do) that he didn’t do it do demean, but instead, he did it as a show of LOVE. And for argument sake, lets say he did it to demean us, for what would he gain by doing this? Did he profit by going on these tours in his old age? The same type of love elders used in our past, he used as an elder. He simply played his designed role. One can disagree with him, sure. We can also blame white racists for taking his comments out of context, and using them for their own racist agendas. But couldn’t that be said about ANY leader who speaks. Aren’t things always taken out of context by those who have no good intentions to help our cause? To negate his love for us as a people, and paint it as somehow insincere and even worse in cahoots with White Supremacy is (In my opinion), sad. I find it interesting, when we tear down these men and sort of place them among the wolves in sheep’s clothing category, while we remain silent as a constant barrage of actual white supremacist propaganda by present day popular entertainers goes basically unchallenged. In fact, not only unchallenged, but glorified! We tear down anyone who dares to point a finger at our own mis-steps, leaving only those who have little to no consciousness to lead our people into further despair.

    Again, I deeply appreciate your article, heart and views, while I obviously disagree with this part of it. This response is not to demean nor disrespect. Just one mans opinion. We must be able to have meaningful dialog and critique ourselves without it meaning that we are merely “well-meaning”, but racist. And we must let go of this idea that the black middle and upper class is at war with the black lower class. I have not found that to be true in MOST cases. Instead I have found that there are a slew of blacks (all classes) that are desperately tying to reach, teach, inform and empower our people (of all classes) so that we all can rise to new levels.

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      Although Dr. William Cosby should be afforded high regard and much love for his career of successful activist artistic struggle in the money jungle of the US entertainment industry, and for his personal and financial contributions to African-American community interests, we should not ignore certain serious failings, despite the current attacks on him for other alleged missteps. The “elite” ethos of celebrity and success–fame and riches in an American Dream– probably can skew the judgement and actions of the most well-meaning of us.

      During his infamous remarks and self-righteous tour of bourgeois indignation Cosby chose to indict poorer African-Americans for dysfunctional attitudes and behavior, but– unlike Farrakhan, Umar Johnson, and other such commentator/critics of our social condition– he refused to call out white supremacy/privilege as a factor in the mix of social forces and influences. He stated pointedly that white folk had no blame in the matter, giving white America a free pass. A stark denial of systemic racism and institutional power. Indeed, Cosby’s early tirades (one, in particular, at Howard University) were so assimilation-oriented and self-serving that he even disparaged the name Muhammad as being an example of low-life ignorance! His outrage was genuine, but itself exemplary of a surprising ignorance and lack of deep identification with the masses of his people. He was only half right, at best, and the deficit in his argument revealed it to be merely another Blame-the-Victim offering.

      We African-Americans need to engage in wholesome analysis–self criticism AND criticism of the oppressor– in order to develop effective action. Our condition is not a matter of either/or; it requires attention to both concerns, at the same time.

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    Good stuff but when is the black intellectual/leadership going to pay more attention to problems that blacks can and must fix for themselves verses being experts on racism? Until we have it out with ourselves we’ll always have the internal problems we have today.

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