What Is & Isn’t Being Said: 2. “Race” and the Racialized Society


[I have since added some needed clarification to this post, beginning with “Correcting (my own) Normativity of Whiteness: 1. From the Arrival of the First African Slaves to ‘Partus Sequitur Ventrem’.”]

As we concluded the last post,

[T]here is nothing particularly pernicious about the social construction of race as such, any more than there is in the construction of genos, ethnos, or phulé [in the New Testament]. The insidiousness of the concept comes when a society, consciously or unconsciously, constructs racial distinctions for the very purpose of division, systematic subjugation, and a permanent caste system. And this brings us to our next post, “What Is & Isn’t Being Said: 2. ‘Race’ and the Racialized Society”.

We will now discuss “race” in the racialized society as we find it today, particularly in the United States. I ask only that you forgive the relative length of this piece; it will prove fruitful context for the topics that will follow. Also, I would like to make explicit that this discussion is in no wise intended to ignore the plight of other minority people groups in American society. Much of what is said here can apply to the experience of other race and ethnic groups as well, though there is a very definite distinction of degrees, length of history, and legal specificity within racialized institutions. As Condoleezza Rice once said, “I do think that America was born with a birth defect; it was slavery.”

Last, this is a discussion about the social construction of race in America and the racialized nature of its society. As such, the impression left may be that there were no white men and women who saw and knew the vileness of slavery, segregation, and discrimination based on race. But this was certainly not the case. There were thousands of white men and women who objected to these practices. These men and women put the lie to the claim that racism and man-stealing were “just a product of the times,” and thousands gave their lives to end slavery, while some in later generations would stand valiantly against Jim Crow. But the fact is, they were unfortunately unable to stem the tide of racialization in America.

From Indentured Servitude to Slavery—Ancestry and Phenotype

When the “first” African slaves were purchased from Dutch traders in Jamestown in 1619, the practice of indentured servitude was not foreign to Europe and its colonies, but was then not restricted to Africans, and was by law limited to a specified term of years. At the time, Africans were respected as farmers and cattlemen, with identifiable cultures, sophisticated systems of government, as well as arts, crafts, and industry, and African servants labored alongside of white men and women, both in Europe and the Americas. But this all quickly changed. The African John Punch is considered to have become the first permanent slave in the colonies when he was sentenced to life long servitude for a failed escape attempt, though his fellow white escapees received only additional years. By the end of the 17th Century, one state after another would legalize lifelong slavery for Africans and those of African descent, and through legal changes such as Virginia’s “Act Concerning Servants and Slaves,” Partus sequitur ventrem, laws guaranteeing that Christian baptism did not free, all buttressed by the argument that permanent slavery was in the best interest of African souls, slaves became the permanent property of their masters—they and their children. By this time, the slave trade was in full and legal swing. Millions of men and women stolen from West Africa were sold to the American (and other) colonists. By the beginning of the 18th Century, the “Negro” was the only people group subject to legal life-long servitude and by 1750 constituted 20% of Colonial America’s population.

It was in this period (and what would follow) that the “Negro race” was socially carved out. There was for sure a roughly common continental heritage and a roughly common set of phenotypical properties observable, but these features did not formerly indicate a slave class. A people originally of differing ethnicities and tribes were stolen from their lands, their families disassembled, and were purchased and traded like cattle without respect of actual common heritage. And this was the given lot of Africans alone in the American Colonies, especially as Natives Americans were increasingly considered less “useful” labor, and the supply of West African labor had become abundant. Permanent servitude belonged to the “African” alone.

The original justification for this treatment of the African was that it was for their own good. A temporal subjugation with the potential reward of Heaven was thought to be in the African’s best interest. But soon color and “thickness” of skin, “wooliness” of hair, and the general stature of the African became justification enough for their forced servitude. Based on common phenotypical features, it was argued that God had fit the African race for manual labor. George Whitfield, in 1741, argued before the Trustees of Georgia that “Negro” slavery was necessary for the welfare of his colony, for it was clear that God had made the Georgian soil and climate for the African laborer. These phenotypical distinctions became so important to the identity of the subjugated class in the minds of early Americans that states like Mississippi would pass laws presuming that a black man was to be considered a slave unless he could produce papers (which he had to purchase) to prove otherwise.

“Scientific Racism,” “Biblical” Racism, and the Black Church

Having their cultural histories destroyed, their families permanently torn apart, and laws preventing their education, the perception of the “Negro” as a lower form of humanity—if human at all—became an increasingly acceptable justification for their forced servitude. Thomas Jefferson wrote the following in 1781:

Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one [black] could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous. …[N]ever yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never see even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture.

To our reproach it must be said, that though for a century and a half we have had under our eyes the races of black and of red men, they have never yet been viewed by us as subjects of natural history. I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind. It is not against experience to suppose, that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications. (Notes on the State of Virginia)

This sentiment was increasingly reflected in the natural sciences of the time. The German naturalist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach published his On the Natural Variety of Mankind in 1775, a work that sparked the “science” of demarcating and cataloging various “human races.” Largely through the study of cadavers, Blumenbach asserted in 1779 that there were five races, the Caucasian race, the Mongolian race, the Malayan race, the Ethiopian race, and the American race, each with their own Biblical history to go along with their presumed natural history. Of course the first race, the race of Adam and Eve, was Caucasian (the “white” race) and all others were presumed to be historical degenerations. But Blumenbach did not in fact believe that the Ethiopian (the “black” race) was inferior to other races. But later American “scientists” such as Quaker turned Episcopalian Samuel Morton would claim definitively that Caucasians had the largest brains and that “Negros” (Ethiopian/Black) had the smallest, clearly showing the inferiority of the “Negro”, especially as compared to white race.

Running tandem with this period of “scientific racism” were the many “Biblical” justifications for the permanent enslavement of the “Negro.” Since the very first slaves had arrived on the continent, Christians had argued that purchase of slaves was justified because it would allow opportunity for the heathen people to be saved. (Though in practice, proselytization was avoided until laws were in place to assure that baptized slaves were not thereby freed). Next, they argued that the patriarchs owned slaves and that Paul, in particular, commanded slaves to obey their masters. (This was seen not only as a justification for enslavement, but a good argument for Christianizing their slaves.) But among the most powerful arguments of the time was from the centuries old so called “curse of Ham” found in Genesis 9. It was believed by many (and still is) that God had cursed to perpetual servitude the whole race born of Ham, and that the “Negros” were in fact these natural descendants. (See HERE for more.) Thus, not only was race-based slavery allowed, but it was decreed by God and was to be applied exclusively to the “Negro race,” a newly fabricated racial solidarity around the offspring of Ham.

But many slaves were nevertheless converted to Christianity during these centuries. Given their color and lineage, most were barred from worshipping with whites altogether, were not allowed to gather on their own for worship in any large numbers (in some places, no more than six), and were almost never granted full membership with its Biblical privileges. Even freedmen were subject to this segregation in the church. This led to, thanks in large part to Baptist polity, the creation of many independent black churches. The “First African Baptist Church of Savannah” was organized in 1773 by the fully licensed freed slave George Leile. Through much turmoil and persecution, Black churches became one of the only ways to worship in peace and share in all the benefits of church membership. Faithful believers, even in the South, would free their slaves to become ministers. It was the Baptists and Methodists which had the greatest impact on slave conversions, and with their aid, the invisible church of the African slave would find visible expressions, but not without great opposition from white Christians in both the South and the North.

A notable example of the exigencies of the time was the creation of the first African Methodist Episcopal church under the freedman Richard Allen. Allen was a brilliant preacher and even traveled with white ministers and fellow Methodists, having also preached in many white churches. In 1786, Allen became a minister of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, but was only allowed early morning services for his Black parishioners. But when he and other black parishioners had the God given audacity to attempt to worship in the normal service with whites, and worse, in the sanctuary itself, he and his companions were dragged out on their knees, while offering prayers for deliverance to the true God. In 1787, Richard Allen formed the first AME church. The AME, AME Zion, and National Baptist Convention are to this very day the largest Black denominations in the United States, born of the just desire of millions of disenfranchised believers to worship in peace and commune under the care of those who shared in their cultural struggle.

“Race” in the States and in the Nation

From the creation of the U.S. Federal Government until the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, various laws and court decisions codified the legal differentiation between the “Negro race” and the “white race,” as was already legally defined at the state level. Beginning with the Constitutional Convention itself, it was clear that slaves were either going to be accorded no legal status at all in the United States, or were going to be accorded limited status, and only for the purpose of empowering the Southern States in the National Congress. The Three-Fifths Compromise stated that only three of every five slaves would be counted as persons in the United States. This, in practice, meant that only those of African descent were partial persons, given that every slave holding state only allowed for the permanent and perpetual slavery of the “Negro.” Next would come the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850 requiring that escaped slaves be returned to their masters by every state in the Union, whether a free state or not. But the clearest statement of the period was, of course, the Dred Scott decision (1857) of the U. S. Supreme Court. In a 7-2 decision, the justices ruled that “a slave did not become free when taken into a free state; Congress could not bar slavery from a territory; and people of African descent imported into the United States and held as slaves, or their descendants, could never be citizens”(see HERE). The ruling specifically referenced the “negro, whose ancestors were imported into [the U.S.], and sold as slaves” and specified “the negro African race” as those not enfranchised within U.S. territory.

Within four years, the Southern states would secede from the union, and their interest in perpetuating race slavery were made perfectly clear. In the Constitution of the Confederate States (1861), we read,

In all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress and by the Territorial government; and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories shall have the right to take to such Territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the States or Territories of the Confederate States.

Every seceding State made plain that its stated purpose was to maintain subjugation of the “African race” against the pressure of Northern abolitionists. The Texas declaration of secession was particularly clear:

We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.

And, of course, we have the speech of Senator Jefferson Davis to the Senate Chamber in 1860, just prior to becoming the President of the seceding Confederate States,

The condition of slavery with us is, in a word, Mr. President, nothing but the form of civil government instituted for a class of people not fit to govern themselves. It is exactly what in every State exists in some form or other. It is just that kind of control which is extended in every northern State over its convicts, its lunatics, its minors, its apprentices. It is but a form of civil government for those who by their nature are not fit to govern themselves. We recognize the fact of the inferiority stamped upon that race of men by the Creator, and from the cradle to the grave, our Government, as a civil institution, marks that inferiority.

Emancipation, Hatred, and Racial Segregation

Through the Emancipation Proclamation, applied in practice only by the advancement of Union soldiers, nearly four million men, women, and children were freed in the South. Through Martial Law and the creation of the Freedman’s Bureau, the North attempted to reconstruct the South, apportioning lands, jobs, a system of banking, hospitals, etc., to the newly freed slaves. This would ultimately end in disaster, with even the banks closing, eliminating most of the recently earned wealth of the former slaves.

Despite the righteous efforts of some, the War did little to alter the status of the “Negro” in the South. R.L. Dabney, former professor, Presbyterian minister, confederate chaplain, and chief of staff to Stonewall Jackson, captured the continuing “Christian” sentiment of the South in his Systematic Theology:

Thus, if the low grade of intelligence, virtue and civilization of the African in America, disqualified him for being his own guardian, and if his own true welfare (taking the “general run” of cases) and that of the community, would be plainly marred by this freedom; then the law decided correctly, that the African here has no natural right to his self-control, as to his own labour and locomotion. (his own guardian, and if his own true welfare. (Kindle Locations 21873-21874)

According Dabney, Thornwell, and other influential conservatives of the South, the proper expression of love toward our “Negro” neighbor was to limit his freedom—it was for his own good and the benefit of society at large. Sharing a common society on equal terms was unthinkable and would lead to a mixing of the “races,” a most undesirable outcome to most Americans in the 19th Century:

The offspring of an amalgamation must be a hybrid race incapable of the career of civilization and glory as an independent race. And this apparently is the destiny which our conquerors have in view. If indeed they can mix the blood of the heroes of Manassas with this vile stream from the fens of Africa, then they will never again have occasion to tremble before the righteous resistance of Virginia freemen; but will have a race supple and vile enough to fill that position of political subjugation, which they desire to fix on the South. (Dabney, A Defense of Virginia)

Beginning in the 1870’s, a vast system of so called Jim Crow laws were implemented in the Southern states to guarantee the perpetuation of “Negro” subjugation, through legal segregation and discrimination. To be sure, the South was in a rage; their hatred of the “Negro race” was possibly at an all-time high. And to make sure that the “Negro race” would continue to be separated from the enfranchised “White race” for perpetuity, many states even implemented so called “One Drop” rules, ensuring that any man or woman with even one drop of African blood would remain under subjugated status in the South. It is in this period that we also see the birth of the Ku Klux Klan and a tremendous general increase in violence and murder towards African Americans.

It would be wrong to assume this was only a symptom of the South’s loss of the War, or having lost its forced labor and attendant economic advantages. At the National level, the Supreme Court of the U.S. also upheld this system of segregation in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896, and the North maintained in its own way de facto systems of discrimination and segregation, along the very same color divide being legally implemented in the South.

Through practices such as racial steering as well as violence, Northern whites during this period birthed the black urban ghetto, a quintessential urban feature of contemporary American society, as the solution to the rise in the urban black population. Racial violence increased in urban areas as whites fought to protect their jobs and neighborhoods. Between 1917 and 1921, one black home in Chicago was bombed, on average, every twenty days. African Americans, often used as strikebreakers by northern industrialists, were viewed with contempt not only for their color, but also the economic threat they represented. Urban riots—at the time, whites attacking blacks—became a northern problem.” (Smith and Emerson, Divided by Faith, p. 42)

The Fully Racialized Society

When we come finally to the Civil Rights period of American history, W.E.B Du Bois’ claim that “[t]he problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line,” would prove him not only an accurate exegete of his own time, but an accurate prognosticator of what was to come. After 350 years of forced servitude, legal and de facto subjugation, segregation, and discrimination, all justified by the African American’s ancestry, black skin and “wooly” hair, and buttressed by junk science and specious “Biblical” exegesis, a hardened racial solidarity had become an unquestionable social reality in the United States. The “African race” began as a people forcibly removed from their native lands, cut off from their religions, torn from their families and allowed no enduring family ties in the New World; and this was only if they happened to live through the Atlantic crossing or did not commit suicide to escape the coming dehumanization. They were rejected by established churches—even beaten and murdered—largely under the hypocritical auspices of Christian verity. These men and women, originally of differing nations, ethnicities, tribes, and languages, were now socially united and legally delineated by the color of their skin and the color of their mother’s skin. By the time of the peaceful protests led in part by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it was clear to both blacks and whites that dark skin had become a social shibboleth of the permanent underclass.

It should be no surprise that the language of protest itself would embody this institutionalized “color line.” Phrases like “Black is beautiful” and “Black power” expressed the sentiment of a people who realized that “beauty” itself in American thought and practice meant “White beauty,” and “power” was the exclusive province of white men, no matter how many African Americans should hold political office. The “Black Church” itself was forged as a separate entity, not because African Americans rejected white parishioners, but because for hundreds of years “Church” itself (like “beauty” and “power”) meant “White Church” in America—a church that allowed black and brown only on the periphery, with only second-class membership.

This is the history of racial divide; this is what the social construction of a racialized society looks like. And here we stand just over 50 years from the passage of the Civil Rights legislation, and Du Bois’ problem of the twentieth century proves to be the problem of the twenty first as well. Race is as much a feature of American society today as it was in 1964; the line that most clearly divides the American population is still the black/white color line. The median net worth of white families remains about 10 times that of black families, with the poverty rate among black Americans at 21.8% compared to 8.8% of whites. Only 22.8% of black Americans between 25 and 29 years old are college graduates, compared to 44.5% of whites. More black men are in prison than are enrolled in college. 1 in 9 African American males between the ages of 20 and 34 are in prison; blacks are imprisoned at 600% the rate of whites. The infant mortality rate of blacks is more than double that of whites. And on and on. Pick a category, and take a moment to Google the divide.

And this divide has held steady in the American church as well.

Seven major black denominations account for more than 80 percent of black religious affiliation in the United States. … Moreover, the remaining 15 to 20 percent of black Christians are scattered among numerous small black sects, the Roman Catholic Church, and the mainline white Protestant denominations. The overwhelming majority of the latter are in predominantly black congregations, despite denominational affiliation with white communions [emphasis added]. (Divided by Faith, p. 16)

In every area one can cull statistics, the color line proves to reflect 400 years of legal and de facto subjugation, segregation, and discrimination. And this should come as no surprise. How could a society construct a caste system around heredity and skin color for over 350 years and expect it to dissipate in just over one generation—simply because some legal restrictions have been imposed?

Conclusion to Parts 1 & 2

So, what is and isn’t being said? What isn’t being said is that race is a well defined biological classification. It is, as many have rightly pointed out, a biological fiction. This was also true of genos, ethnos, and phulé as used in the New Testament, as we’d shown in the last post.

But what is being said is that race, as with genos, ethnos, or phulé, though a socially constructed reality, is nevertheless quite real. To suppose that claiming “there is no such thing as race” answers the centuries long problem of the “color line” is not only to ignore or make meaningless 400 years of the consolidated struggle of a flesh-and-blood people group, but it also runs cover for the “color-blind” perpetuation of its current manifestations in American society. To conclude, professor and church historian L.H. Whelchel summarizes well:

It may be true that race was never really a well-defined objective conceptualization. But race certainly has utility as a social construct, as an intuitive awareness of collective identity not altogether reducible to material factors, and as a dynamic upon which people may sometimes mobilize and organize. Otherwise, the last 500 years would be no more than a figment of our collective imagination. Can we seriously doubt that those vested interests now loudly proclaiming to support color-blindness and race neutrality would not turn on a dime and suddenly discover intriguing new rationales for pointing out racial distinctions if they believed that doing so was to their advantage? The very same group of people, anthropologists, philosophers, historians, and other social scientists ensconced in the dominant group’s academic institutions, who defined and propagated concepts of race in order to rationalize the pursuit of slavery and imperialism, have now in their erudition deemed race to be a nonissue as they do their best to obscure racial designations. (History and Heritage of African-American Churches [Kindle Locations 130-138]).

We will next consider, “What Is & Isn’t Being Said: 3. ‘White Privilege‘.”

9 thoughts on “What Is & Isn’t Being Said: 2. “Race” and the Racialized Society

  1. stephen matlock January 6, 2019 / 8:32 pm

    I’m reading “Divided by Faith” right now, and I’m fascinated, in both good and sad ways, by the nature of the American Christian church & its relationship with race. The interviews with American Christians, from various races, show me that there is a ginormous, endemic, and perpetuated blind spot when it comes to race & acknowledging the existence of race.

    The first step to deal with a problem is to “see” it–to identify it, understand it, define it, name it. These essays you publish are helpful in that process.


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