The principles laid down in America’s founding was a product of the Enlightenment Era and focused on scientific inquiry, individuality, and of course liberty. But the failing in the application of the America’s founding principles of liberty did not grant minorities the same rights. Though the founding fathers understood the importance of individual liberty, they failed to stress that these rights are for all men, not just all white men. This failure allowed America to fester with xenophobic tendencies which, although natural for humans to feel, belongs to the infancy of our species. In The Legacy of Race and Public Policy in Contemporary America, the authors capture the lasting infection of racism in America’s policy throughout the nations short history.
The reading begins in the early 1800’s with an observation from French aristocrat who no doubt wanted to see the great experiment that is America for himself. Alexis de Tocqueville correctly saw that America was founded and operated on three principles: Individualism, Social Equality, and Political Democracy – all important aspects of the Enlightenment period. Tocqueville quickly observed that, though America boasted freedom and equality, it did not even pretend to extend the same freedoms to the minorities in the county such as Blacks, Native Americans, and even East European Whites – which was apparently the wrong type of White. The biggest failing that Tocqueville noticed was the Three-Fifths Compromise drafted to appease the South and counted slaves as three-fifths a person for representation purposes.1 Many of the founding fathers “sought to make the revolution more radical, especially with respect t0 slavery and freethinking and the extension of democracy…” but failed to gather enough support to completely defeat slavery which leads to the seemingly continual pattern of small steps toward equality followed by embarrassing racist legislation.2
The next step toward equality was the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves after the Civil War. But, almost immediately, the progress was extinguished by the “Black Codes” which were “instituted under a Jim Crow system that treated blacks and whites differently under the law, despite the fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause”.3 In addition to the mistreatment under the law, many states and communities forbid blacks from learning to read or write in an effort to make success nearly impossible for the newly freed slaves. The “final nail in the coffin”, as the authors phrase it, is the court decision Plessey v. Ferguson(1896) which held that “state segregation laws were not a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause as long as facilities for blacks and whites were separate but equal”.4 This court-approved segregation did not improve the institutional discrimination that plagued the country as it failed to take the opportunity to end state-sponsored on the spot.
Another big step towards equality finds light in the 1954 court decision of Brown v. Board of Education when “the court declared state-mandated racial segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional” but is immediately overshadowed when the court let the states take their time and move slowly in regards to desegregation.5 But more Supreme Court decisions of the time made some progress such as outlawing white primaries that excluded non-whites, striking down racial covenants in regards to owning property, and even outlawed state laws that banned interracial marriage.
There have been other injustices done through American policy that affected more than Blacks in America. The author goes on to explain the anti-immigrant focused on limiting immigration from Asian countries specifically to “maintain the racial preponderance of the basic strain on our people and thereby to stabilize the ethnic composition of the population”.6 These limitations even extended to some Eastern Europeans. It is true that “the one thing that the recist can never manage is anything like discrimination: he is indiscriminate by definition.7 Racists of the time even eploy the made up notion of scientific racism – a perversion of evolution and science the further justify their institutions laws.
The pattern of small progress followed by more and more injustices continue throughout our nation’s history – acting as a festering embarrassment for generations to come. The lasting legacy of these injustices have now created an environment where civil rights are still infringed upon based on race. The effects of the injustices can still be seen today as some minority communities struggle to get back on their feet after continually being knocked down. The results are clear: the institutional racism within our own country has left minorities at a disadvantage but this leaves many questions to be answered. First, how can people think this is an appropriate way to behave? It is easy for people today to look back at these evil crimes and shudder, but did Americans let this go on for so long? Is it a lack of education? Or a taught behavior that is ingrained in racist’s primal mind? Another question I have is why is this institutional racism specifically brutal in America? At the time of the Civil War, the country was behind in equality for blacks – essentially an embarrassment to the global community. I know that xenophobia is a product of tribal in-group violence against anyone in the out-group, but what causes these deep and disturbing feelings of hatred in people?8 It is something I cannot understand, and yet “in some ways I feel sorry for racists…because they so much miss the point of being human and deserve a sort of pity. But then I harden my heart and decide to hate them all the more because of the misery they inflict”.9
- Ward, J.D., and Rivera, M.A. Institutional Racism, Organizations & Public Policy. New York: Peter Lang Publishing. pg 5
- Hitchens, Christopher. Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press. 2006. pg 68
- Ibid. Institutional Racism, pg6.
- Ibid., pg 6.
- Ibid., pg 7.
- Ibid., pg 8.
- Hitchens, Christopher. Hitch-22: A Memoir. London: Atlantic Books, 2010.pg266
- Shermer, Michael. The Mind of the Market:Compassionate Apes, Competitive Humans, and Other Tales from Evolutionary Economics. New York: Times Books, 2008. pg 206
- Hitchens, Christopher. Letters to a Young Contrarian. New York: Basic Books, 2001. Pg 109.