The Ever Evolving Definition of “Racism”? Part 2: Frederick Douglass


[W]hen humanity is insulted and the rights of the weak are trampled in the dust by a lawless power; when society is divided into two classes, as oppressed and oppressor, there is no power, and there can be no power, while the instincts of manhood remain as they are, which can provide solid peace. (Frederick Douglass, “There Was a Right Side in the Late War,” 1878, p. 629)

As we concluded in our last post, abolitionist David Walker (1796 – 1830) saw “color prejudice”—the closest phrase to our own post 1930’s “racism”—as not simply, or even primarily, hatred or dislike of others based on race or color. Nor did he consider 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. Last, the response of African Americans to these exploitative circumstances—including even hatred—was not itself considered “prejudice” by Walker, given the relation that existed between oppressor and oppressed.

Moving on to Frederick Douglass (1818 – 1895), we see many of the same ideas, though stated even more explicitly. As before, these posts are mostly just quotations from the abolitionists and civil rights advocates under discussion, as the purpose is to demonstrate their own understandings of “color prejudice” and “racism.” The claim is daily made that these definitions have been changed by modern antiracists, specifically by supposed adherents of Critical Race Theory. Over the course of this series, I hope to test this claim.

The Source of Color Prejudice: Slavery

Douglass addressed the nature of color prejudice directly in his 1848 article, “Prejudice Against Color,” asking,

Pray tell us what color? Black? brown? copper color? yellow? tawny? or olive? Native Americans of all these colors everywhere experience hourly indignities at the hands of persons claiming to be white. Now, is all this for color’s sake? (p. 99)

With great sarcasm, he begins by arguing that this “colorphobia” is not directed at black shoes, black picture frames, or even black statues, though figuring men and women:

If all foreign artists, whose collections are visited by Americans, would fence off a corner of their galleries for a “Negro pew,” and staightway colonize in thither every specimen of ancient and modern art that is chiselled or cast in black, it would be wise precaution. The only tolerable substitute for such colonization would be plenty of whitewash….

He next considers the claim that “prejudice against color” is simply “a law of nature,” a fact of human nature—like prefers like and rejects the dissimilar. But, he retorts, if Homer, Herodotus, and the Greeks were human, why then did they not display this “law of nature” when describing the great beauty and majesty of the Ethiopians, of Minerva, and or of Memnon? Why did Pythagoras and Plato travel to Ethiopia to learn wisdom? How was black Euclid received as the most brilliant mathematician of the ancient world? “However learned in the mathematics, they were plainly numbskulls in the ‘law of nature!’” (p. 100). What about black African Hannibal and black poet Terence? Their peers did not seem to know this “law of nature.” And, he asks, were “Origen, Cyprian, Tertullian, Augustine, Clemens, Alexandrinus, and Cyril” required to sit in the “negro pew”?

A law of nature, being a part of nature, must be as old as nature: but perhaps human nature was created by piecemeal, and this part was overlooked in the early editions, but supplied in a later revisal. Well, what is the date of the revised edition? We will save our readers the trouble of fumbling for it, by just saying that this “law of nature” was never heard of till long after the commencement of the African slave trade; and that the feeling called “prejudice against color,” has never existed in Great Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, the Italian States, Prussia, Austria, Russia, or in any part of the world where colored persons have not been held as slaves. (p. 100)

That is, “the grand cause is slavery” (“The Church and Prejudice,” 1884, p. 4). This, just as with David Walker, is the reason for color prejudice in America. This prejudice is not a law of nature, nor does it have much to do with “color” itself; the prejudice is meant to subjugate:

When a colored man is in the same room or in the same carriage with white people, as a servant, there is no talk of social equality, but if he is there as a man and a gentleman, he is an offence. What makes the difference? It is not color, for his color is unchanged. The whole essence of the thing is a studied purpose to degrade and stamp out the liberties of a race. (“The Civil Rights Case,” 1883, p. 692)

Douglass summarized this well in his brilliantly argued article, “The Color Line” (1881); we ought listen carefully:

During all the years of their bondage, the slave master had a direct interest in discrediting the personality of those he held as property. Every man who had a thousand dollars so invested had a thousand reasons for painting the black man as fit only for slavery. Having made him the companion of horses and mules, he naturally sought to justify himself by assuming that the Negro was not much better than a mule. The holders of twenty hundred million dollars’ worth of property in human chattels procured the means of influencing press, pulpit, and politician, and through these instrumentalities they belittled our virtues and magnified our vices, and have made us odious in the eyes of the world. … Out of the depths of slavery has come this prejudice and this color line. It is broad enough and black enough to explain all the malign influences which assail the newly emancipated millions to-day. In reply to this argument it will perhaps be said that the Negro has no slavery now to contend with, and that having been free during the last sixteen years, he ought by this time to have contradicted the degrading qualities which slavery formerly ascribed to him. All very true as to the letter, but utterly false as to the spirit. Slavery is indeed gone, but its shadow still lingers over the country and poisons more or less the moral atmosphere of all sections of the republic. The money motive for assailing the negro which slavery represented is indeed absent, but love of power and dominion, strengthened by two centuries of irresponsible power, still remains.

… [T]his prejudice really has nothing whatever to do with race or color, and that it has its motive and mainspring in some other source with which the mere facts of color and race have nothing to do. … The office of color in the color line is a very plain and subordinate one. It simply advertises the objects of oppression, insult, and persecution. It is not the maddening liquor, but the black letters on the sign telling the world where it may be had. It is not the hated Quaker, but the broad brim and the plain coat. It is not the hateful Cain, but the mark by which he is known. The color is innocent enough, but things with which it is coupled make it hated. Slavery, ignorance, stupidity, servility, poverty, dependence, are undesirable conditions. When these shall cease to be coupled with color, there will be no color line drawn. (pp. 653-654)

(There is much to unpack here, and we shall.) It is not nature. It is not color. It is the “shadow” of slavery that darkened the nation, even long after the slaves were emancipated. Though slavery was gone, the prejudice it produced—really, the justifications it produced—affected and infected every American institution:

I am compelled to say that while we have no longer to contend with the physical wrongs and abominations of slavery: while we have no longer to chill the blood of our hearers by talking of whips, chains, branding irons and bloodhounds; we have, as already intimated, to contend with a foe, which though less palpable, is still a fierce and formidable foe. It is the ghost of a by-gone, dead and buried institution. It loads the very air with a malignant prejudice of race. It has poisoned the fountains of justice, and defiled the altars of religion. It acts upon the body politic as the leprous distillment acted upon the blood and body of the murdered king of Denmark. In antebellum times it was the standing defense of slavery. In our own times it is employed in defense of oppression and proscription. Until this foe is conquered and driven from the breasts of the American people, our relations will be unhappy, our progress slow, our lives embittered, our freedom a mockery, and our citizenship a delusion. (“The Nation’s Problem,” 1889, p. 729).

The enslaver, for hundreds of years, “sought to justify himself by assuming that the Negro was not much better than a mule,” and this manufactured prejudice poisoned the whole well of the nation.

Color Prejudice: Inferiority as Justification for Exploitation

The next thing to note is that this color prejudice, as we learned from Walker, was not primarily a hatred of the “negro,” nor was hatred even necessary to this prejudice.

[P]eople in general will say they like colored men as well as any other, but in their proper place! They assign us that place; they don’t let us do it for ourselves, nor will they allow us a voice in the decision. (“The Church and Prejudice,” 1841, p. 4)

They loved the “negro”—so long as he stayed in his lane; that is, accepted his subordination. The heart of this color prejudice, as Douglass notes over and over again, was the assumption of the “original and permanent inferiority” of the black race. “It is his sad lot to live in a land where all presumptions are arrayed against him, unless we except the presumption of inferiority and worthlessness” (“The United States Cannot Remain Half-Slave and Half-Free,” 1883, p. 658).

But, according to Douglass, this was the very method Americans were accustomed to employing when they desired to exploit their neighbor. He gives as example the then recent attempt to annex Mexico:

When the United States coveted a part of Mexico, and sought to wrest from that sister Republic her coveted domain, some of you remember how our press teemed from day to day with charges of Mexican inferiority—How they were assailed as a worn-out race; how they were denounced as a weak, worthless, indolent, and turbulent nation, given up to the sway of animal passions, totally incapable of self-government, and how excellent a thing we were told it would be for civilization if the strong beneficent arms of the Anglo-Saxon could be extended over them; and how, with our usual blending of piety with plunder, we justified our avarice by appeals to the hand-writing of Divine Providence. All this, I say, you remember, for the facts are but little more than a dozen years old.

In fact, claiming the inferiority of the oppressed has been the method of oppression employed by all nations seeking to exploit:

As between us and unfortunate Mexico, so it was with Russia and the Ottoman Empire. In the eyes of Nicholas, the Turk was the sick man of Europe—just as the Negro is now the sick man of America. So, too, in former years, it was with England and Ireland. When any new burden was sought to be imposed upon that ill-fated country, or when any improvement in the condition of its people was suggested, and pressed by philanthropic and liberal statesmen, the occasion never failed to call forth the most angry and disparaging arguments and assaults upon the Irish race.

Necessity is said to be the plea of tyrants. The alleged inferiority of the oppressed is also the plea of tyrants. (“The Future of the Negro People in the Slave States,” 1862, p. 482)

Along with this claim of inferiority came also the many false stereotypes and insipid tropes which served to bolster white Americans’ justifications for exploitation:

It is said that physically, morally, socially and religiously he is in a condition vastly more deplorable than was his condition as a slave; that he has not proved himself so good a master to himself as his old master was to him; that he is gradually, but surely, sinking below the point of industry, good manners and civilization to which he attained in a state of slavery; that his industry is fitful; that his economy is wasteful; that his honesty is deceitful; that his morals are impure; that his domestic life is beastly; that his religion is fetichism, and his worship is simply emotional; and that, in a word, he is falling into a state of barbarism.

Such is the distressing description of the emancipated Negro as drawn by his enemies and as it is found reported in the journals of the South. Unhappily, however, it is a description not confined to the South. It has gone forth to the North. It has crossed the ocean; I met with it in Europe. (“I Denounce the So-Called Emancipation as a Fraud,” 1888, p. 715)

Color Prejudice: Systemic and Adaptable

We must also acknowledge, as stated so clearly in these last sentences and elsewhere above, the systemic, institutionalized, and even normalized nature of color prejudice. In Douglass’ “Farewell Speech to the British People,” we read,

I am … not here to make any profession whatever of respect for that country [America], of attachment to its politicians, or love for its churches or national institutions. The fact is, the whole system, the entire network of American society, is one great falsehood, from beginning to end. (p. 55)

Later, he declared,

Mankind lost sight of our human nature in the idea of our being property, and the whole machinery of society was planned, directed and operated to the making us a stupid, spiritless, ignorant, besottled, brutified, and utterly degraded race of men. (“The Douglass Institute,” 1865, pp. 584-585)

Douglass spends many pages and many words describing in detail how black Americans were cheated in the courts, in politics, but especially in economics. The vast economic disparity between blacks and whites, owners and laborers, made clear to Douglass the systemic injustice of his day.

The implication is irresistible—that where the landlord is prosperous the laborer ought to share his prosperity, and whenever and wherever we find this is not the case there is manifestly wrong somewhere. This sharp contrast of wealth and poverty, as every thoughtful man knows, can exist only in one way, and from one cause, and that is by one getting more than its proper share of the reward of industry, and the other side getting less, and that in some way labor has been defrauded or otherwise denied of its due proportion, and we think the facts, as well as this philosophy, will support this view in the present case, and do so conclusively. We utterly deny that the colored people of the South are too lazy to work, or that they are indifferent to their physical wants; as already said, they are the workers of that section. (“Address to the People of the United States,” 1883, p. 677)

The vast disparity itself signaled the continuing systemic injustices fully equal black Americans suffered under.

But color prejudice was not only systemic, for Douglass, it was also adaptable in the face of social change. He describes three phases it had already passed through in his own lifetime:

It is important to notice and emphasize here the significant fact that there have been three distinct periods of persecutions of the Negroes in the South, and three distinct sets of excuses for their persecution. They have come along precisely in the order they were most needed. Each was made to fit its special place. First, you remember, as I have said, it was insurrection. When that wore out, Negro supremacy became the excuse. When that was worn out, then came the charge of assault upon defenceless women. (“Why is the Negro Lynched?,” 1894, p. 759).

And these methods were not confined to the South. Of the last “excuse” for persecution, he writes:

It was intended to blast and ruin the Negro’s character as a man and a citizen. I need not tell you how thoroughly it has already done its work. The Negro may and does feel its malign influence in the very air he breathes. He may read it in the faces of men among whom he moves. It has cooled his friends; it has heated his enemies and arrested at home and abroad, in some measure, the generous efforts that good men were wont to make for his improvement and elevation. It has deceived his friends at the North and many good friends at the South, for nearly all of them, in some measure, have accepted this charge against the Negro as true. (p. 760)

Full well our enemies have known where to strike and how to stab us most fatally. Owing to popular prejudice, it has become the misfortune of the coloured people of the South and of the North as well, to have, as I have said, the sins of the few visited upon the many. When a white man steals, robs or murders, his crime is visited upon his own head alone. But not so with the black man. When he commits a crime, the whole race is made responsible. The case before us is an example. This unfairness confronts us not only here but it confronts us everywhere else. (p. 763).

Justice is often painted with bandaged eyes. She is described in forensic eloquence, as utterly blind to wealth or poverty, high or low, white or black, but a mask of iron, however thick, could never blind American justice, when a black man happens to be on trial. (“The United States Cannot Remain Half-Slave and Half-Free,” 1883, p. 658)

Social change required the justifications for subjugation to be nimble and adaptable to the ever-changing social circumstances of black advancement; again, they were not to be hated, but kept in their “place”:

A ship rotting at anchor meets with no resistance, but when she sets sail on the sea, she has to buffet opposing billows. The enemies of the Negro see that he is making progress and they naturally wish to stop him and keep him in just what they consider his proper place. They have said to him “you are a poor Negro, be poor still,” and “you are an ignorant Negro, be ignorant still and we will not antagonize you or hurt you.” (“The Reason Why the Colored American is not in the World’s Columbian Exposition,” 1892, p. 745)

Even the philanthropy afforded black Americans, according to Douglass, was merely for show from the beginning, like the body without the soul in the Epistle of James.

Our philanthropy melts itself away into maudlin tears at the story of his wrongs. Our sense of justice kicks the beam when his master’s cotton bales are in the adverse scale. Our religion whines and snivels over his sufferings, but cannot leave its formal devotions long enough to bind up its wounds. Our politics bellow in his behalf on the stump, but only employ his cause as a stalking horse for party effect, and to carry self-seekers into power. (“The Prospect in the Future,” 1860, p. 400)

In fact, even Frederick Douglass’ own friends were infected by the idea that black Americans were “originally and permanently inferior to the white race,” though in subtler, less conscious ways:

A good but simple-minded Abolitionist said to me that he was not ashamed to walk with me down Broadway arm-in-arm, in open daylight, and evidently thought he was saying something that must be very pleasing to my self-importance, but it occurred to me, at the moment, this man does not dream of any reason why I might be ashamed to walk arm-in-arm with him through Broadway in open daylight. (“The Color Line,” 1881, p. 655)

The Solution is not Color-Blindness, nor Individualism

Finally, what, according to Frederick Douglass, was the proper solution to the so-called “negro problem” in America? First, it was not color-blindness. Douglass believed that even slavery itself was instituted, defended, and justified at the national level without reference to color or race. They covered their color prejudice in “honeyed words,” said Douglass.

How have they done it? Why, by wrapping it up in honeyed words. By disguising it, and calling it “our peculiar institution;” “our social system;” “our patriarchal institution;” “our domestic institution;” and so forth. They have spoken of it in every possible way, except the right way. In no less than three clauses of their constitution may be found a spirit of the most deadly hostility to the liberty of the black man in that country, and yet clothed in such language as no Englishman, to whom its meaning was unknown, could take offence at. (“Farewell Speech to the British People,” 1847, pp. 55-56)

When Douglass made his defense of a Civil Rights Bill then recently struck down by the Supreme Court, he made clear the special need of protection for those of color. Given the social asymmetry of prejudice in America, white Americans were not in practical need of such protections, though even they would ultimately benefit from the resulting equity.

Bad, therefore, as our case is under this decision, the evil principle affirmed by the court is not wholly confined to or spent upon persons of color. The wife of Chief Justice Waite—I speak of respectfully—is protected to-day, not by law, but solely by the accident of her color. So far as the law of the land is concerned, she is in the same condition as that of the humblest colored woman in the Republic. The difference between colored and white, here, is, that the one, by reason of color, needs legal protection, and the other, by reason of color, does not need protection. It is nevertheless true, that manhood is insulted, in both cases. No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man, without at last finding the other end of it fastened about his own neck. (“The Civil Rights Case,” 1883, p. 688)

The solution is not to pretend that there is no color line, to minimize color, or to make it invisible, but to change society to the point that the color line carries no social weight, rendering it “harmless” to black Americans. Douglass addressed “The Convention of Colored Men” in 1883 with the following:

We are asked not only why hold a convention, but, with emphasis, why hold a colored convention? Why keep up this odious distinction between citizens of a common country and thus give countenance to the color line? It is argued that, if colored men hold conventions, based upon color, white men may hold white conventions based upon color, and thus keep open the chasm between one and the other class of citizens, and keep alive a prejudice which we profess to deplore. We state the argument against us fairly and forcibly, and will answer it candidly and we hope conclusively. By that answer it will be seen that the force of the objection is, after all, more in sound than in substance. No reasonable man will ever object to white men holding conventions in their own interests, when they are once in our condition and we in theirs, when they are the oppressed and we the oppressors. In point of fact, however, white men are already in convention against us in various ways and at many important points. The practical construction of American life is a convention against us. …

[I]n all the relations of life and death we are met by the color line. We cannot ignore it if we would, and ought not if we could. It hunts us at midnight, it denies us accommodation in hotels and justice in the courts; excludes our children from schools, refuses our sons the chance to learn trades, and compels us to pursue only such labor as will bring the least reward. While we recognize the color line as a hurtful force, a mountain barrier to our progress, wounding our bleeding feet with its flinty rocks at every step, we do not despair. We are a hopeful people. This convention is a proof of our faith in you, in reason, in truth and justice—our belief that prejudice, with all its malign accompaniments, may yet be removed by peaceful means; that, assisted by time and events and the growing enlightenment of both races, the color line will ultimately become harmless. When this shall come it will then only be used, as it should be, to distinguish one variety of the human family from another. It will cease to have any civil, political, or moral significance, and colored conventions will then be dispensed with as anachronisms, wholly out of place, but not till then. … When we consider how deep-seated this feeling against us is; the long centuries it has been forming; the forces of avarice which have been marshaled to sustain it; how the language and literature of the country have been pervaded with it; how the church, the press, the play-house, and other influences of the country have been arrayed in its support, the progress toward its extinction must be considered vast and wonderful.

… But until this nation shall make its practice accord with its Constitution and its righteous laws, it will not do to reproach the colored people of this country with keeping up the color line—for that people would prove themselves scarcely worthy of even theoretical freedom, to say nothing of practical freedom, if they settled down in silent, servile and cowardly submission to their wrongs, from fear of making their color visible. (“Address to the People of the United States,” 1883, pp. 672-673, 674-675).

Thus, the solution must be holistic—personal, systemic, and institutional change.

It cannot be solved by keeping back the wages of the laborer by fraud, as is now being done by the landlords of the South. It cannot be done by ballot-box stuffing, by falsifying election returns, or by confusing the Negro voter by cunning devices. It cannot be done by repealing all federal laws enacted to secure honest elections. It can, however, be done, and very easily done, for where there is a will there is a way.

Let the white people of the North and South conquer their prejudices.

Let the Northern press and pulpit proclaim the gospel of truth and justice against the war now being made upon the Negro.

Let the American people cultivate kindness and humanity.

Let the South abandon the system of mortgage labor and cease to make the Negro a pauper, by paying him dishonest scrip for his honest labor.

Let them give up the idea that they can be free while making the Negro a slave. Let them give up the idea that to degrade the colored man is to elevate the white man. Let them cease putting new wine into old bottles, and mending old garments with new cloth.

They are not required to do much. They are only required to undo the evil they have done, in order to solve this problem. (“Why the Negro is Lynched?,” 1893, pp. 773-774).


As with David Walker before him, Frederick Douglass is very clear that “color prejudice” is not a natural state of humanity. It is of recent origin in human history. It was also not primarily, nor even necessarily, hatred of others based on their race, but, rather, belief in the “original and permanent inferiority” of the black “race”; black Americans were acceptable so long as they remained in their “place”—a “place” that white Americans defined and policed. Further, this assumption of inferiority carried with it a complex of false stereotypes and insipid tropes that increasingly spread throughout the world and served to demean and dehumanize those marked for exploitation.

The reason for color prejudice, according to Douglass, was not color itself; “color,” he argued, “simply advertises the objects of oppression, insult, and persecution.” Rather, color prejudice was assembled in the womb of slavery, serving as justification for exploiting those of African descent. And this complex of manufactured ideas had affected and infected every American institution, the fabric of the nation, and even fellow abolitionists. The courts, the churches, and the economy displayed the vast disparities created by this prejudice, themselves proving the systemic nature of racial injustice.

Last, color prejudice was adaptable to changing circumstances. The justifications for subjugation were nimble and able to meet the moment as black Americans pushed against the social structure created for them. As such, the solution was not to ignore color, or pretend the color line did not exist, but to change the minds, hearts, institutions, and systems of American society to render the color line “harmless” and structurally insignificant to the well being of black Americans.

We will next move to W. E. B Du Bois.

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