Thinking of the United States as foundationally racist [American politics #5]

Ted Grimsrud—June 29, 2020

People in this country have greatly differing deep-seated views of the very meaning of the story of the US. I suspect these differences make achieving healing amidst our current crises extremely difficult. This is true especially as related to what the great thinker W.E.B. DuBois in 1900 looked ahead foresightedly to call the problem of the 20th century—the problem of the color line (from The Souls of Black Folk). This problem clearly remains one of the main problems of the 21st century, and it affects all our other crises.

Two versions of the story of the United States

Let me suggest that, even with all our diversity, we think of two main general perspectives on the United States story that are held by those who oppose racism and see the legacy of slavery in this country as a bad thing. The first perspective sees the United States as foundationally and systemically racist from the beginning down to our present day in spite of scattered attempts to move toward freedom for all. The second perspective sees the United States ultimately as a nation of freedom and justice, in spite of scattered missteps along the way. (I recognize that there are some in the nation who are not all that negative about either racism or slavery; my concern here is with people who would say racism and slavery are bad.)

The term “racism” is complicated—and later in this essay I will probably make it even more complicated. For now, I want to use “racism” in the sense defined by Ibram X. Kendi in his book, Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America: “My definition of a racist idea is a simple one: it is any concept that regards one racial group as inferior or superior to another racial group in any way. I define anti-Black racist ideas as any idea suggesting that Black people, or any group of Black people, are inferior in any way to another racial group” (p. 5).

My thoughts about these two perspectives were helped by a recent essay by Masha Gessen, “Why are some journalists afraid of ‘moral clarity’?” (on the New Yorker website, June 24, 2020). Gessen interacts with commentator Andrew Sullivan. She summarizes Sullivan’s description of the first view (which he opposes) that sees the US as “systemically racist, and a white-supremacist project from the start.” In this view, “the ideals about individual liberty, religious freedom, limited government, and the equality of human beings” were always secondary to the white supremacy project. “The liberal system is itself a form of white supremacy—which is why racial inequality endures.”

The second view (with which Sullivan agrees) tells the story of the United States as “primarily one of a nation of immigrants, the story of a society that, over time, enfranchised an ever-greater number of its members, and where the arc of history has bent toward justice.” This view then assumes a legacy of progress even against racism, witness the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. Continue reading “Thinking of the United States as foundationally racist [American politics #5]”