In the Shameless Category: The White Slavery Movement

Jan 18 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Black people are scary

The White Slavery Movement, as I mockingly refer to it here, is the product of the “white” (aka Anglo-Saxon or European) imagination. It is not a movement (as would be argued by its authors) to enslave whites, but rather a movement to argue that whites are being enslaved, a method by which whites are re-realized not as oppressors but as oppressed.

If it is oppression, it is an interesting form of oppression, because as Care2 points out,

With Republican majorities in 20 state legislatures, Tea Party activists and the GOP have wasted no time narrowing the curriculum and starting an assault on diversity education.

That’s a lot of power for an oppressed racial category. And interestingly for an oppressed racial category, the racist rhetoric and imagery of the pre-Civil Rights Era seems to be in place and functioning as before. Obviously, we need to try to make some sense of this.

Some folks never made it past the nineteenth century

Because it is important to know what we are talking about when we use terms like “white” and “black” I will say this at the outset: I use the term “white” guardedly, just as I would the nineteenth century pseudo-scientific term “Caucasian” since so-called whites are neither white nor Caucasian (I consider myself neither and habitually check ‘other’ when given a choice on documents). The property “whiteness” is a product of the imagination, a thing that has achieved almost holy status among 21st century American conservatives just as it did an earlier dominant group called the English.

Some use 21st century Photo Shopping to stay in the 19th century

Let it be understood: Racial categories are social constructions. There is only one race: the human, as any anthropologist will tell you. Yet we persist and insist in seeing ourselves as belonging to categories which we often misname “races” rather than “ethnic variations.” Still, such terms have a use even if they are arbitrary and relative. We have to be able to talk about things, after all and definitions parse the world.

But we have to understand their limitations as well as their uses. As Albert Mosley writes:

“Most of our theories are only approximately true, and the concepts they invoke are applicable only relatively. This is true whether we are dividing matter into particles, dividing history into eras, or dividing mankind into races. The theory and taxonomy we use depend to an appreciable extent on our interests.”[i]

Some definitions stick around; it’s in our interest to keep them in place. But what defines a group or category?

“Most people are born into groups with a distinct identity based on race, language, religion, or culture, and their personal identity is shaped by factors transmitted by that group or one they are subsequently adopted into. People’s perceptions of us are shaped our group affiliations, and our perceptions of ourselves are shaped by how others identify us.”[ii]

But how did we get to the place we are at with our understanding of the world? Where did all these colors come from?

“Racial concepts were socially constructed between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries to distinguish human groups (white, black, yellow, and red people) and preserve privilege for those designated white. It is in recognition of this that anti-discriminatory and affirmative action public policies were introduced.”[iii]

So whites created these racial concepts in order to preserve privilege and now cling to them with die-hard fanaticism for the same reason. It has often been argued, ingenuously I think, that these affirmative action policies are themselves racist, since they privilege (it is said) one “race” over another. But one group (the white) is already privileged over another; the very need for such policies is due to racism, as a response to social imbalances created by it, in order to “level” the playing field. The need for the latter is proof of the former.

Some have suggested simply getting rid of these troubling categories, as if that would make the problem go away. This must seem a very appealing solution to the Bush Set, with their penchant for redefining or legislating problems out of existence. But Mosley makes a valid point:  “we should not assume that eliminating the use of racial categories in our descriptions would eliminate the use of racial categories in our actions.” At best, he says, “our problems would no longer be ‘racial problems.’”

Mosely asks “why racial categories should be viewed as somehow inherently pernicious” since eliminating them would reduce blacks to the status of “mere social constructions” which is absurd.

Nineteenth century American ethnologists certainly did not see blacks as “mere social constructions” but as evolutionary dead-ends. The idea of race was a very serious matter to them, and this mode of thinking seems to motivate many Americans still. As John S. Haller wrote of this thinking,

“Believing that failures in earlier stages of evolution had limited brain size and quality of the ‘inferior races,’ they suggested that, for all practical purposes, the Caucasian was the lone man in evolution. While the Caucasian maintained an active, progressive role in modifying the environment, the lower races broke into the modern world as mere ‘survivals’ from the past, mentally and physiologically unable to shoulder the burdens of complex civilization. Ethnology became a means through which both scientists and social scientists sought to estimate the relative value of the races, delineate social categories, and help justify the dynamics of race legislation.”[iv]

This situation created some very real problems for defining American identity. Looking at the Populist Movement of the late 19th century American South, Gerteis and Goolsby observe that “one problem is that American identity has largely been viewed in individualistic rather than collective terms.” They write that “the boundaries of civic membership have themselves been a central source of contention among Americans” and point out that “the tension between the civic ideals of America and its treatment of people of African descent is the most obvious problem.”[v]

In the category "not-American"

The authors ask if “American” means “something akin to ‘white’?” It seems so, even today.  Today’s Republicans have adopted Christianity and with it, the language of the Bible. They have embraced the concept of other to delegitimize certain categories: feminists, gays and lesbians, atheists, pagans, secularists, environmentalists, Latinos – and blacks.

Blacks became “racial others,” analogous, I think, to Biblical Canaanites, the “not-Jew,” or, in this case, the “not-American.” Apparently treating “brown people” as equal to whites turns whites into “racial others” simply because they have lost their position of privilege. They are now like everybody else, not special in any way.

As Warren and Twine point out, The 1965 Immigration Act changed America. U.S. immigration policy “no longer privileged European immigrants. Subsequently, immigration from Asia and Latin America has far outpaced European immigration. For instance, between 1820 and 1951, 84% of the immigrants to the United States were from Europe, whereas by the 1980s, 85% were from Asia and the Americas (excluding Canada).”[vi]

So is there a real threat to “white” Americans? That depends in part on how you view racial categories.

Racial categories are not static – including the category “white” and that it is therefore not possible to say that whites will become a minority category in the United States. “in the United States the ‘White’ racial category has expanded across time to include groups previously considered ‘non-White.’” They mention the Irish as an example, of a people who, since they were Celtic, were considered inferior to the “superior Anglo-Saxon race.” People who were once not considered white may in time be thought of in those terms. The Irish, after all, finally became white folks. So can you.

The Irish as non-white

This Anglo-Saxon race set up a paradigm to put itself at the top of the heap and as the dominant culture has maintained this status quo into the early 21st century. It used fear of blacks to keep blacks and whites in their respective places and it is using fear of blacks to do the same now. You can understand (if not forgive) their rhetoric better if you understand this: The election of Barack Obama represents a catastrophe to them: he is the other and he is the president. He seems somehow the escaped slave come back to demand justice; they can imagine no other outcome (a little projection here, perhaps?) than blacks on top at the expense of whites, who will now be at the bottom – in chains.

Playing to Fear of the Racial Other

It is not that whites are the downtrodden, let alone in danger of slavery (this is an egregious insult to historical black slavery in the Americas), but that these white folks have lost their place at the top of the heap, and they don’t like that. They don’t want racial equality any more than the religious right wants religious equality. They want to keep what they have – their privileged position, the current status quo. They have found their place in the sun and they don’t plan on sharing it with anyone else.


[i] Albert Mosley “Are Racial Categories Racist?” Vol. 28, No. 4, Multiculturalism (Winter, 1997), pp. 101-111

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] John S. Haller, Jr. “Race and the Concept of Progress in Nineteenth Century American Ethnology,”
New Series, Vol. 73, No. 3 (Jun., 1971), pp. 710-724

[v] Joseph Gerteis, Alyssa Goolsby “Nationalism in America: The Case of the Populist Movement,”
Vol. 34, No. 2 (Apr., 2005), pp. 197-225

[vi] Jonathan W. Warren, France Winddance Twine “White Americans, the New Minority?: Non-Blacks and the Ever-Expanding Boundaries of Whiteness,” Vol. 28, No. 2 (Nov., 1997), pp. 200-218. Data from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1994

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