Where does American racism come from? If asked such a question, Americans generally believe that slavery, often called “America’s original sin,” sparked racism. But, if they are reminded that slavery is gone but racism remains, they become quite perplexed. It is equally disconcerting that, while living in a racist certifying society, most white Americans are not even aware that they are racist and are surprised, even confused, when witnessing examples of blatant racism like the death of George Floyd or the shooting of May 14. in Buffalo, New York. A lot of white people get really mad when they have to deal with something that’s buried deep in their subconscious.
Why is it so deeply buried in America’s subconscious? Because it originated in Jim Crow segregation, not slavery as most people, even among black people themselves, tend to think. The slave system had a definite end point in history: the Emancipation Proclamation. Why didn’t racism end, like slavery, when Brown vs. Board of Education outlawed segregation in 1954? Slavery ended with the Proclamation, but racism, replacing slavery, only began with it. With the monumental Supreme Court decision, many structural remnants of segregation, such as “separate but equal” school segregations, were demolished. But, alas, what had grown silently and settled deep into the subconscious of white America could not simply disappear. Slavery was broken and forced to disappear, but segregation, now like the new garden of evil that pushed white America into insidious racism, only reinvigorated racism. Slavery chained black people physically, but segregation chained white people mentally.
Slavery was physically visible and painful, but once the chain was broken the slave was free. But segregation was a psychological system. During Jim Crow’s four generations of segregation, black people were free and equal on paper, but Jim Crowism kept them in a very strange, contradictory, and certainly racist position in society. Everyone in America was told that black people were ultimately “equal”, but they were kept “separate” in social reality. How did white America reconcile this obvious contradiction? Whispering to each other, and to their children, the ‘truth’: ‘Blacks aren’t really equal,’ they whispered and nodded to each other; they are only equal on paper; in truth, they are inferior, subhuman, and foreign to America and its superior white race and culture. White Americans, unable to say it in public, had to exchange this knowledge in subdued, hushed contexts of exchanged knowledge, greeting each other and whispering to their children the hidden truth about the American races.
American society could not openly admit or accept that their nation was racist. Thus, it was only in the depths of their hearts that they could recognize that, indeed, white people were superior to black people. Being neither the KKK nor George Wallace of Alabama, good Americans held it in their hearts, even convincing themselves that racism was gone from America. Many liberal Americans would be shocked if some sort of hypnotized confession exposed their deep-seated racism.
The few generations of segregation have turned white America into clever, albeit internally tortured, liars. Unlike open apartheid South Africa which built walls between white and black communities and brazenly killed and imprisoned black people, white America had to do so only in whispered campaigns and decisions resounding legalistic and moral sermons. The long shadows of American idealism, such as “all men are created equal” and “freedom and justice for all,” have also made them hypocrites.
Slaves were human machines and, with only minimal maintenance, were very productive for their owners. It would be contrary to human nature to voluntarily relinquish such privileges. As slaves were gone with the winds of Civil War, white America turned to psychological pleasure as a substitute for the physical privileges of slavery. In the absence of slaves toiling in the fields, providing cheap labor, white America had to indulge itself in keeping black people out of food outlets, hotels and neighborhoods, and from America of God. While slavery was purely a physical system of cheap productivity, segregation produced only psychological pleasures. But what kind of human pleasure do we get when we cause other human beings to suffer on purpose, like calling black people “N”?
Indeed, what pleasure did white America experience when tormenting black people in their segregated nation, or as they still do in their “open society” today, without physical benefit as dramatic or tangible as in slavery? Unlike the benefits of slavery, segregation provided only psychological privileges and pleasures to white America. Racism in post-Jim Crow America only continues this atavistic but utterly common human pursuit. It existed well hidden in the exchanges of whispered secrets between white people during segregation, and, now lodged deep in a subconscious whose existence is denied by all, even by confirmed racists, it does not go away for this very reason. Since it was formed in the recesses of the mind in a hushed way, it doesn’t need loud daily articulation to keep going. If two whites and a black enter an elevator or other confined space, two whites immediately form an unwitting and unspoken alliance between them and the black feels, however fleetingly but defensively, the racial mark of distinction between them. It’s so natural yet unconscious that neither side would even think about it for long. There are many secret ways to trade and enforce racism among white people. Even Trump supporters only use code words, led by Trump calling black people “dogs”, and that’s message enough among racist white people.
Jim Crow has the last laugh as segregation has scarred the American psyche as its permanent birthmark. Only massive national trauma can help white America break its crippling racist chains and exorcise its true inner demon.
Jon Huer, columnist for the Recorder and retired teacher, lives in Greenfield.