White Supremacy and Privilege: Legacies of Slavery
Richard D. Brown—
Everyone reading this enjoys privilege. Some possess athletic or intellectual gifts that set them apart; and those possessing sight, speech, hearing, and physical mobility are privileged. Those possessing the capacity to love and to be loved are privileged.
Because these are not “man-made” social or cultural privileges, we accept them as “natural,” God-given entitlements—as are the temperamental skills required to maintain ourselves in society. When we are victors in a race, score well on exams, or win admission to an elite school, we regard success as reflecting our own talents. We succeed in competitions, we believe, through our own efforts. And that is undeniable.
But success is also substantially based on “natural,” unacknowledged privileges, from sight and speech to emotional and intellectual capacity. We overlook such privileges because we compete with similarly privileged people. Like the Yankees in baseball or the Patriots in football, who play by the same rules as their opponents and win on a level playing field, we have no special privileges.
Alas, that story is incomplete, because in addition to “natural” privileges, there are social and cultural privileges. One, obviously, is money. People try so hard to get it and keep it because they understand the privileges it commands—physical, emotional, social, and political—which endure across generations. Another is an attractive appearance. One might say “good looks” are natural. But attractiveness is also socially prescribed, which is why standards of beauty—in hair, eye color, physiognomy, and body type—vary among cultures.
Privileges, we must acknowledge—natural, social, and cultural—are a fact of life. Should we, then, just “get over it” and accept them? Yes, if we are content to exclude people who are “others” by disability, ethnicity, race, wealth, class, gender, appearance, or sexual orientation. But the United States was founded on the idea that privilege, especially hereditary privilege, does not belong in a republican society. Patriots should cast a critical eye at privilege.
The contradiction between slavery, the absolute embodiment of hereditary privilege, and its obverse, hereditary disadvantage, is absolute. Hereditary privilege and disadvantage were inherent in slavery’s culture, its economy, politics, and social arrangements. Law and custom ended unfree labor for whites in the early American republic as even property-less white men gained the vote. So to justify slavery white Americans needed a racial ideology, and scholars would make racism “scientific.” Among whites, racism flourished in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Often, we think, northerners were not truly racist because northern states abolished slavery after American independence, whereas southerners reinforced slave codes and expanded slavery across the southern United States. But only part of this story is accurate.
Northern states abolished slavery and prohibited it from the Northwest territory chiefly to assure that the land would be for white people. After Congress banned slavery north of the Ohio River, Ohio required non-white settlers to prove their free status with a $500 bond. Other Old Northwestern states—Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota—welcomed European immigrants but not people of color. When southerners entered Indiana and Illinois and tried to introduce slavery, white voters defeated them, maintaining their states as white bastions. Anyone who celebrates the antislavery credentials of the Northeast and Old Northwest must acknowledge antiblack antislavery as far more popular than abolition.
These discriminatory policies rested on popular negrophobia—a dislike among whites of people of color, especially African Americans. Consider, for example, a Connecticut episode of the 1830s. In 1831 Prudence Crandall, a Quaker, opened an academy for white daughters of aspiring gentry in Canterbury, located in virtually all-white Windham County. The following year she allowed a local black girl to attend. White parents responded angrily, withdrawing their daughters. Forced to close, Crandall decided to re-open as an academy for black girls. Now, with abolitionist backing, Miss Crandall’s academy welcomed two dozen daughters of prosperous northern African Americans. But locals mobbed it, closing it down. The next year Connecticut enacted a statute allowing local authorities to veto enrollment of out-of-state persons of color. This 1833 “Black Law” came after Wesleyan University had, at the insistence of white students, expelled its only black student, and two years after New Haven barred a college for men of color. Why was educating a handful of African Americans so objectionable to white people in a state where blacks, at less than 3% of the population, posed no economic or political threat to whites?
The answer is negrophobia, racism. The origins of white prejudice were several hundred years old and connected with the non-Christian, “savage” origins of captured sub-Saharan Africans. After the Portuguese and Spanish developed the slave trade, the English and French followed. Anglo-American slavery would embed negrophobia in the minds of North American whites. Consider their reasoning. Heathens, bought and sold like beasts, could not be the equals of free Englishmen and Americans, nor could people living outside Christian rules of marriage and sexuality be equal. How could illiterate people be equal? Those whose features were so different and skin so dark were beneath the “lovely White and Red” of the English, as Benjamin Franklin put it in 1751. Franklin disparaged “Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes,” as well as most “Germans,” for “what we call a swarthy complexion.” To him whites were “Superior Beings.”
In the Revolutionary era, even some who believed in ending slavery, like Thomas Jefferson, doubted whether African Americans could be equals. Because blacks lived chiefly as dependents, as farm laborers, house servants, or artisans, many whites—but not all—believed they lacked the capacity to be equal citizens. After 1780, when northern states gradually abolished slavery and southern states allowed masters to free slaves, the number of free blacks multiplied rapidly. Consequently, whether they should be equal citizens was a serious question.
Initially, in roughly half the states, blacks could be equal citizens, more or less. The few black men who owned land and paid taxes like white men could vote. Yet though African Americans fought in Revolutionary armies, they were widely excluded from militia service; and when voters eliminated property requirements for whites, they usually kept them for persons of color. When black voters tipped an election, the “backlash” against free black suffrage gained momentum. After blacks moved to cities, seeking work opportunities and community, influential northern whites complained. When African Americans were out of work, as happened seasonally, or when disabled by sickness or injury, they might become public charges—because, unlike white residents, they often lacked family resources. If they did not become inmates of poor houses, officials grumbled, they showed up too often in urban statistics of drunk and disorderly persons. Since, as a group, they brought little capital, and on average paid few taxes, many whites saw African Americans as a tax burden. Regarding public schooling, the same authorities who condemned black illiteracy often excluded black children.
The experiences of Lemuel Haynes, born in West Hartford in 1753, are instructive. Son of an African slave father and a white mother, as an infant Haynes was indentured to a pious white family in Granville, Massachusetts. Taught early to read and write, and freed from his indenture in 1774, he joined Granville’s minutemen. He expressed his commitment to freedom in 1776 by defending black equality in an abolition tract (unpublished until 1983). Then, after training with a pastor, he became a traveling evangelist. After marrying a white school teacher—they would have ten children—in 1785 he was called to a church in Torrington, Connecticut. Here Haynes became the first African American ordained in the United States. Yet a racist incident led Haynes to move to the Rutland, Vermont, Congregational church in 1788. Here he proved an outstanding preacher, recognized in 1804 by an honorary degree from Middlebury College. But in a growing and gentrifying Rutland, a black pastor for a white congregation was becoming suspect. Haynes resigned in 1818, because his congregation “discovered” he was black. Haynes had baptized children and performed marriages and burial services for hundreds of his neighbors for thirty years; but he could no longer satisfy genteel Rutland. Haynes believed the issue was race—slavery’s legacy of negrophobia.
All this would just be history if the negrophobia bred by slavery had died with slavery in 1865. But in 2019 we all know that negrophobia survives. Obviously, the recent rise of white nationalism reawakens negrophobia. But that explicitly racist ideology, thankfully, is a fringe doctrine. More troubling is the persistence of conscious and unconscious negrophobia in many of us. This “implicit bias” possesses many manifestations: the difficulty of African Americans hailing a taxicab, or the suspicion in department stores directed at blacks. More critical is the exposure to police misconduct—tragic for Sandra Bland who was “driving while black,” and most recently when panicky white officers killed Botham Jean and Atatiana Jefferson in their own Texas homes. And one can think of subtler ways in which American culture favors virtually all things white, and few things black.
White privilege is so much a fact of American life that white Americans can overlook it. Yet we cannot escape this condition, regardless of our complexion or national origin, so we must raise our awareness. To deny white privilege is to deny fact. But whites need not feel guilt since few set out to create white privilege. Instead, white people should recognize white privilege, and by that awareness seek to mitigate it. By calling it out, we promote equality. If Americans recognize the privileges of wealth and class, of talent and beauty, of temperament and health—and take steps to level the playing field, as with financial aid, accessible buildings, sign language—let us also seek to level the playing field regarding white privilege. Affirmative action programs are a beginning; but nothing less than a change in consciousness is required to erase negrophobia and the prejudices affecting all people of color.
Richard D. Brown is Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of History, Emeritus, at the University of Connecticut. His previous books include Knowledge Is Power: The Diffusion of Information in Early America, 1700–1865;The Strength of a People: The Idea of an Informed Citizenry in Early America, 1650-1870; and the coauthored microhistory The Hanging of Ephraim Wheeler: A Story of Rape, Incest, and Justice in Early America.