Christian enslavers did not believe they were prejudiced, segregationists did not believe they were racists, and our current president has declared that he is “the least racist person there is anywhere in the world.” Denying racism of “any form” is an American tradition, in fact, an institution of American life. As people of color increasingly find footing within traditionally white spaces, this institution of denial has evolved with ever greater creativity and robustness.
In our own day, those intent on protecting the institution simply claim that those of the past were indeed prejudiced and racists, but that was…the past. Modern advocates of racial justice, they argue, are simply working from a new definition and understanding of “racism,” a definition which was changed in order to continue “agitation” beyond its necessity. In particular, Critical Race Theory is targeted for having introduced illicit elements into the concept, viz., any elements that go beyond bare personal hatred and/or overt discrimination based on “race.”
In this short series, I intend to test this claim. I intend to work organically through representative abolitionists and civil rights activists from the previous centuries, including David Walker (1796-1830), Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963), Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), and Stokely Carmichael (1941-1998), and then assess modern definitions and understandings of “racism” in light of these historical expressions. We first turn to David Walker.
[Note: I am here presenting the ideas of other men and do not endorse every word or idea. Unfortunately, I must explicitly point this out given the heated nature of these discussions. Further, there will be many block quotes throughout this series, as my hope is to convey the thoughts of the activists under discussion, not so much my own interpretations.]
David Walker (1796-1830)
Walker’s Appeal, in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America, Written in Boston, State of Massachusetts, September 28, 1829
The above text was written by a free African American owner of a used clothing store on Brattle St., Boston. He was a fiery abolitionist who not only cared for the poor black men and women in his neighborhood but also aided escaping slaves through the shipping port nearby. His Appeal is an impassioned argument for emancipation, end to oppression, and elimination of the prejudice found throughout the United States. He appeals to Scripture, to reason, to the laws and speeches of American politicians, and argues for the justice of violence in response to African Americans’ violent subjugation.
Of course, the word “racism” is nowhere found in the piece; the term did not come into use until the late 1930’s, largely as descriptive of Nazi ideology. “Color prejudice” would be the most accurate corresponding term in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Accordingly, Walker begins his Appeal with a plea that readers would “dispense with prejudice long enough to admit that we are men, notwithstanding our improminent noses and woolly heads, and believe that we feel for our fathers, mothers, wives and children, as well as the whites do for theirs” (p. 7)—at least long enough to hear him out and consider his arguments. From the beginning of the piece, therefore, we see that the “prejudice” targeted in the Appeal is a prejudice based on dehumanized assumptions of those bearing the marks of “blackness,” as socially understood in early 19th century America.
Prejudice and Inferiority
Notably, for David Walker, this “prejudice” was not just a dislike or hatred of men and women based upon skin color, but an assumption of, or belief in, the inferiority of black Americans. After recounting a litany of cruelties perpetrated against African Americans, Walker refers to a final abuse, the claim of inferiority, as the “crown” of white cruelty:
I will give here a very imperfect list of the cruelties inflicted on us by the enlightened Christians of America.—First, no trifling portion of them will beat us nearly to death, if they find us on our knees praying to God.—They hinder us from going to hear the word of God—they keep us sunk in ignorance, and will not let us learn to read the word of God, nor write–If they find us with a book of any description in our hand, they will beat us nearly to death—they are so afraid we will learn to read, and enlighten our dark and benighted minds—They will not suffer us to meet together to worship the God who made us–they brand us with hot iron–they cram bolts of fire down our throats—they cut us as they do horses, bulls, or hogs—they crop our ears and sometimes cut off bits of our tongues—they chain and hand-cuff us, and while in that miserable and wretched condition, beat us with cow-hides and clubs–they keep us half naked and starve us sometimes nearly to death under their infernal whips or lashes (which some of them shall have enough of yet)—They put on us fifty-sixes and chains, and make us work in that cruel situation, and in sickness, under lashes to support them and their families.—They keep us three or four hundred feet underground working in their mines, night and day to dig up gold and silver to enrich them and their children.–They keep us in the most death-like ignorance by keeping us from all source of information, and call us, who are free men and next to the Angels of God, their property!!!!!! They make us fight and murder each other, many of us being ignorant, not knowing any better.—They take us, (being ignorant,) and put us as drivers one over the other, and make us afflict each other as bad as they themselves afflict us—and to crown the whole of this catalogue of cruelties, they tell us that we the (blacks) are an inferior race of beings! (p. 74)
Throughout the piece, Walker writes of this inferiority as a final addition to the miseries already suffered by black Americans; “[t]he Christians, and enlightened of Europe, and some of Asia, … add to their miseries … into which they have plunged them, tell[ing] them that they are an inferior and distinct race of beings” (p. 22).
Walker even identifies the name by which white Americans referred to black Americans as a verbal symbol of their inferiority, an “othering” of their humanity as beastly or inanimate:
“Niger,” is a word derived from the Latin, which was used by the old Romans, to designate inanimate beings, which were black: such as soot, pot, wood, house, &c. Also, animals which they considered inferior to the human species, as a black horse, cow, hog, bird, dog, &c. The white Americans have applied this term to Africans, by way of reproach for our colour, to aggravate and heighten our miseries, because they have their feet on our throats. (p. 23)
Lest we think that Walker is only referring to a belief among some that Africans were indeed sub-human—a belief evil enough in itself—he later clarifies:
Some perhaps may deny, by saying, that they never thought or said that we were not men. But do not actions speak louder than words?—have they not made provisions for the Greeks, and Irish? Nations who have never done the least thing for them, while we, who have enriched their country with our blood and tears—have dug up gold and silver for them and their children, from generation to generation, and are in more miseries than any other people under heaven, are not seen, but by comparatively, a handful of the American people? (p. 16)
That is, the actions of white Americans proved more than their stated confessions. The way they treated African Americans, contrary to their own words and denials, proved their assumption of black inferiority. They “made provisions” for other people groups in American society, though also of foreign national origin, but not for black Africans.
The Cause of Prejudice: Slavery
Next, David Walker is crystal clear that the race prejudice found throughout American society was not natural. It was not the normal course of nature, nor just natural racial affinities, nor a natural “in group/out group” phenomenon characteristic of all people groups. “I say, from the beginning,” he writes, “I do not think that we were natural enemies to each other” (p. 68). What then is the cause of this racial prejudice? Walker answers: “[T]he inhuman system of slavery … is the source from which most of our miseries proceed” (p. 5). Slavery is the cause of international brutality among the peoples of mankind:
Though others may lay the cause of the fierceness with which they [enslavers around the world] cut each other’s throats, to some other circumstance, yet they who believe that God is a God of justice, will believe that SLAVERY is the principal cause. (p. 7)
While upbraiding the Christians of America, he further writes:
The preachers and people of the United States form societies against Free Masonry and Intemperance, and write against Sabbath breaking, Sabbath mails, Infidelity, &c. &c. But the fountain head, Slavery and oppression, compared with which, all those other evils are comparatively nothing, and from the bloody and murderous head of which, they receive no trifling support, is hardly noticed by the Americans. (p. 46)
Because of the institution of slavery—and not vise versa—Christian men were willing to make a distinction among mankind, a distinction proscribed by the Gospel itself:
Can the American preachers appeal unto God, the Maker and Searcher of hearts, and tell him, with the Bible in their hands, that they make no distinction on account of men’s colour? Can they say, O God! thou knowest all things–thou knowest that we make no distinction between thy creatures, to whom we have to preach thy Word? Let them answer the Lord; and if they cannot do it in the affirmative, have they not departed from the Lord Jesus Christ, their master? … I believe you cannot be so wicked as to tell him that his Gospel was that of distinction. … Or do they believe, because they are whites and we blacks, that God will have respect to them? Did not God make us all as it seemed best to himself? … But the Americans, having introduced slavery among them, their hearts have become almost seared, as with an hot iron, and God has nearly given them up to believe a lie in preference to the truth!!! (p. 49)
Further, slavery compelled Americans to view Africans as physically, mentally, and morally inferior, as described in Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia (discussed by Walker). Walker writes of the debasement which occurred “after” the institution:
Have they not, after having reduced us to the deplorable condition of slaves under their feet, held us up as descending originally from the tribes of Monkeys or Orang-Outangs? O! my God! I appeal to every man of feeling—Is not this insupportable? Is it not heaping the most gross insult upon our miseries, because they have got us under their feet and we cannot help ourselves? Oh! pity us we pray thee, Lord Jesus, Master.—Has Mr. Jefferson declared to the world, that we are inferior to the whites, both in the endowments of our bodies and of minds? It is indeed surprising, that a man of such great learning, combined with such excellent natural parts, should speak so of a set of men in chains. (p. 12)
That is, white Americans, according to Walker, did not believe that Africans were naturally inferior, or sub-human, and therefore enslaved them. Rather, having enslaved them, they spun a web of dehumanizing justifications for perpetuating and increasing the institution of race-based chattel slavery. Back to an earlier quote, we see Walker specifically state several of the fabricated justifications for this oppression:
… and to crown the whole of this catalogue of cruelties, they tell us that we the (blacks) are an inferior race of beings! incapable of self government!!—We would be injurious to society and ourselves, if tyrants should loose their unjust hold on us!!! That if we were free we would not work, but would live on plunder or theft!!!! that we are the meanest and laziest set of beings in the world!!!!! That they are obliged to keep us in bondage to do us good!!!!!!–That we are satisfied to rest in slavery to them and their children!!!!!! … That if we were set free in America, we would involve the country in a civil war, which assertion is altogether at variance with our feeling or design…. (p. 74)
And last, as was often the case throughout American history, white Americans attempted to prove their own fabricated justifications by pointing to African Americans’ weakness as a people after nearly 200 years of oppressive servitude. Walker counters:
I do not know what to compare it to, unless, like putting one wild deer in an iron cage, where it will be secured, and hold another by the side of the same, then let it go, and expect the one in the cage to run as fast as the one at liberty. (pp. 12-13)
The Cause of Slavery, and Therefore Race Prejudice: Avarice
So, if the institution of slavery led to the debasing justifications of race prejudice, including assumed inferiority, what was the motivation for slavery itself? Was it hatred for Africans? Throughout the Appeal, Walker consistently points to “avarice” as the source—the unquenchable greed of “avaricious oppressors” (p. 5), “busily engaged in laying up money—derived from the blood and tears of the blacks” (p. 72).
The fact is, the labour of slaves comes so cheap to the avaricious usurpers, and is (as they think) of such great utility to the country where it exists, that those who are actuated by sordid avarice only, overlook the evils, which will as sure as the Lord lives, follow after the good. (p. 5)
[T]he whites, (though they are great cowards) where they have the advantage, or think that there are any prospects of getting it, they murder all before them, in order to subject men to wretchedness and degradation under them. This is the natural result of pride and avarice. (p. 28)
Whites, according to Walker, were willing to see their hearts turned to stone and suffer the mighty wrath of God for their wicked deeds, all because of avarice:
[I]t shows what a bearing avarice has upon a people, when they are nearly given up by the Lord to a hard heart and a reprobate mind, in consequence of afflicting their fellow creatures. (p. 46)
Thus, it is avarice which produced the race prejudice in the hearts and minds of white Americans, as they justified their oppressive actions by debasing their fellow man, leaving him in the wretchedness they had created for him. Walker later adds “fear” and “pride” as well, in a particularly powerful summary passage:
Man, in all ages and all nations of the earth, is the same. Man is a peculiar creature—he is the image of his God, though he may be subjected to the most wretched condition upon earth, yet the spirit and feeling which constitute the creature, man, can never be entirely erased from his breast, because the God who made him after his own image, planted it in his heart; he cannot get rid of it. The whites knowing this, they do not know what to do; they know that they have done us so much injury, they are afraid that we, being men, and not brutes, will retaliate, and woe will be to them; therefore, that dreadful fear, together with an avaricious spirit, and the natural love in them, to be called masters, (which term will yet honour them with to their sorrow) bring them to the resolve that they will keep us in ignorance and wretchedness, as long as they possibly can…. (p. 69)
The Asymmetry of Race Prejudice
Though seemingly peculiar to modern Critical Theorists’ notion of “racism,” David Walker displays a clear asymmetry in his understanding of race prejudice. That is, given the historical circumstances and the relation of power, control, and oppression between white Americans and black Americans in the 1820’s, Walker did not believe that his own critique, even hatred, of white people constituted prejudice. We read,
I know that the blacks, take them half enlightened and ignorant, are more humane and merciful than the most enlightened and refined European that can be found in all the earth. Let no one say that I assert this because I am prejudiced on the side of my colour, and against the whites or Europeans. For what I write, I do it candidly, for my God and the good of both parties: Natural observations have taught me these things; there is a solemn awe in the hearts of the blacks, as it respects murdering men (Which is the reason the whites take the advantage of us) whereas the whites, (though they are great cowards) where they have the advantage, or think that there are any prospects of getting it, they murder all before them, in order to subject men to wretchedness and degradation under them. (p. 52)
He declares forthrightly that his observations are not due to “prejudice” for the people of his “colour.” Even more, he assumed a moral asymmetry of his own hatred of white Americans. He implies it is a simple matter of charity to admit hatred for the oppressor:
I speak Americans for your good. We must and shall be free I say, in spite of you. You may do your best to keep us in wretchedness and misery, to enrich you and your children, but God will deliver us from under you. And wo, wo, will be to you if we have to obtain our freedom by fighting. Throw away your fears and prejudices then, and enlighten us and treat us like men, and we will like you more than we do now hate you, (You are not astonished at my saying we hate you, for if we are men we cannot but hate you, while you are treating us like dogs.)…. (p. 79)
He believed his hatred to be justified by the circumstances, by the treatment that black Americans had received under white hands, and the systems, institutions, and ideas they had created to subject them.
But, he continues,
Treat us like men, and there is no danger but we will all live in peace and happiness together. For we are not like you, hard hearted, unmerciful, and unforgiving. What a happy country this will be, if the whites will listen.
For David Walker, the asymmetry was of white Americans’ own creation. If whites would treat them like men, renounce their inferiority, and institute a system based on equity, he would have no moral basis for his hatred; for, according to equity,
They have no more right to hold us in slavery than we have to hold them, we have just as much right, in the sight of God, to hold them and their children in slavery and wretchedness, as they have to hold us, and no more. (p. 14)
White Americans had assumed a right to subject black Americans, thus creating a relation of power which did not accord with the truth. The truth, for Walker, was that neither whites nor blacks had the God given right to subject the other; neither was inferior nor superior in relation to the other, whether naturally or institutionally.
In this state of society, and until African Americans are treated like men, there can be no love and respect accorded to whites:
[W]e ask them for nothing but the rights of man, viz. for them to set us free, and treat us like men, and there will be no danger, for we will love and respect them, and protect our country—but cannot conscientiously do these things until they treat us like men. (p. 75)
Again, for Walker, this stance was not properly prejudice. The relation of oppressor and oppressed imposed by whites itself created the asymmetry.
“Race Prejudice” and “Racism”
So, what have we learned from this short perusal of Walker’s Appeal? In sum, we have learned that race prejudice, as Walker understood it, was not simply a hatred or dislike of the other because of his race or color, nor was it in any sense natural. Rather, it was a presumption of the inferiority of black Americans, a presumption displayed more by the actions and institutions of white men than by their verbal professions.
Further, contrary to the thought of many modern Americans, this belief in the inferiority of black Americans was born of the institution of slavery itself, not the cause of the institution. White oppressors sought to distinguish, debase, demean, and “other” those whom they exploited for monetary gain. “Avarice” was the true source of race prejudice, including the dehumanizing justifications it produced.
And, finally, the response of African Americans to these exploitative circumstances—including even hatred—was not itself considered “prejudice,” given the relation instituted between oppressor and oppressed.