Race Relations In The US


Race Relations In The U.S. Essay, Research Paper

I’ve discovered the real roots of America these past few days

and decided that writing about it was better than killing an innocent

victim to soothe the hostility I feel towards my heritage. I picked up

a pen because it was safer than a gun. This was a valuable lesson I’ve

learned from my forefathers, who did both. Others in my country react

on instinct and choose not to deliberate the issue as I have. If they

are black, they are imprisoned or dead. As The People vs. Simpson

storms through its ninth month, the United States awaits the landmark

decision that will determine justice. O.J. Simpson would not have had

a chance in 1857. Racial segregation, discrimination, and degradation

are no accidents in this nation’s history. The loud tribal beat

of pounding rap rhythm is no coincidence. They stem logically from the

legacy the Founding Fathers bestowed upon contemporary America with

regard to the treatment of African-Americans, particularly the black

slave woman. This tragedy has left the country with a weak moral


The Founding Fathers, in their conception of a more perfect

union, drafted ideas that communicated the oppression they felt as

slaves of Mother England. Ironically, nowhere in any of their

documents did they address the issue of racial slavery. The

Declaration of Independence from England was adopted as the country’s

most fundamental constitutional document. It was the definitive

statement for the American policy of government, of the necessary

conditions for the exercise of political power, and of the sovereignty

of the people who establish the government. John Hancock, president of

the Continental Congress and slave trader, described it as “the Ground

& Foundation of a future government.” James Madison, Father of the

Constitution and slave owner, called it “the fundamental Act of Union

of these States.” “All men are created equal,” and endowed by the

Creator with the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the

pursuit of Happiness.” They either meant that all men were created

equal, that every man was entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of

happiness, or they did not mean it at all.

The Declaration of Independence was a white man’s document

that its author rarely applied to his own or any other slave. Thomas

Jefferson suspected blacks were inferior. These suspicions, together

with his prophecy that free blacks could not harmoniously co-exist

with white men for centuries to come, are believed to be the primary

reasons for his contradictory actions toward the issue of slavery. At

the end of the eighteenth century, Jefferson fought the infamous Alien

& Sedition Acts, which limited civil liberties. As president, he

opposed the Federalist court, conspiracies to divide the union, and

the economic plans of Alexander Hamilton. Throughout his life, Thomas

Jefferson, hypocrite, slave holder, pondered the conflict between

American freedom and American slavery. He bought and sold slaves; he

advertised for fugitives; he ordered disciplinary lashes with a horse

whip. Jefferson understood that he and his fellow slave holders

benefited financially and culturally from the sweat of their black

laborers. One could say he regarded slavery as a necessary evil. In

1787, he wrote the Northwest Ordinance which banned slavery in

territory acquired from Great Britain following the American

Revolution. However, later as a retired politician and ex-president,

Jefferson refused to free his own slaves, counseled young white

Virginia slave holders against voluntary emancipation of theirs, and

even favored the expansion of slavery into the western territories. To

Jefferson, Americans had to be free to worship as they desired. They

also deserved to be free from an overreaching government. To

Jefferson, Americans should also be free to possess slaves.

In neither of the Continental Congresses nor in the

Declaration of Independence did the Founding Fathers take an

unequivocal stand against black slavery. Obviously, human bondage and

human dignity were not as important to them as their own political

and economic independence. It was not an admirable way to start a new

nation. The Constitution created white privilege while consolidating

black bondage. It didn’t matter that more than 5,000 blacks had joined

in the fight for independence only to discover real freedom didn’t

apply to them. Having achieved their own independence, the patriots

exhibited no great concern to extend the blessings of liberty to those

Americans with black skin. Black people were thought of as inferior

beings, animals. “You can manage ordinary niggers by lickin’ em and by

given’ em a taste of hot iron once in a while when they’re extra

ugly,” one uncouth white owner was heard to say at a slave auction

shortly before the Civil War. “But if a nigger ever sets himself up

against me, I can’t never have any patience with him. I just get my

pistol and shoot him right down; and that’s the best way.” Certainly

the formal doctrines of the country didn’t apply to animals.

If the “animals” were excluded from the rights of the people,

then naturally it followed that they didn’t deserve justice. Dred

Scott vs. Sanford stands as one of the most important cases in the

history of the United States Supreme Court. Most of the literature

deals with the controversial final decision, rendered on March 6,

1857, by Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney. “Once free always free”

became maybe once free but now back to work, nigger. This case was a

prime example of how even the American judicial system failed when

faced with volatile and substantive racial issues. Dred Scott was

declared to be still a slave for several reasons. 1) Although blacks

could be citizens of a given state, they could not be and were not

citizens of the United States with the right to sue in the federal

courts. In other words, “animals” couldn’t sue a fellow countryman. 2)

Aside from not having the right to sue in the first place, Scott was

still a slave because he never had been free to begin with. Owning

slaves was protected by the Constitution at the time, and Congress

exceeded its authority when it passed legislation forbidding or

abolishing slavery in the territories. The Missouri Compromise was

such an exercise of unconstitutional authority and was accordingly

declared invalid. So, “animals” were the white man’s property by

authority of the doctrines passed down by the Founding Fathers. 3)

Whatever status the slave may have had while he was in a free state or

territory, if he voluntarily returned to a slave state, his status

there depended upon the law of that slave state as interpreted by its

own courts. In Scott’s case, since the Missouri high court had

declared him to be still a slave, that was the status and law which

the Supreme Court of the United States would accept and recognize. In

other words, in the middle of the nineteenth century, “animals” better

just keep their mouth shut and work if they knew what was good for


What was good for them was making the master rich. The good

Reverend Jesse H. Turner of Virginia shifted from a Richmond pulpit to

a nearby plantation and explained his prosperity by saying “I keep no

breeding woman nor brood mare. If I want a Negro I buy him already

raised to my hand, and if I want a horse or a mule I buy him also…I

think it cheaper to buy than to raise. At my house, therefore, there

are no noisy groups of mischievous young Negroes to feed, nor are

there any flocks of young horses to maintain.” (Farmers’ Register X,

129. March, 1842) Whether it were cheaper to “breed” or to buy slaves

depended upon the market price at the time. Slave children were a

by-product that could hardly be controlled and whose cost had no

relation to market price. Often a woman for sale was described as a

“good breeder”. New-born “pickaninnies” had a value purely because at

some day their labor would presumably yield more than the cost of

their keep. The sex of the child was generally irrelevant as most

slave women did the same labor as men. Slave women cut down trees and

hauled the logs in leather straps attached to their shoulders. They

plowed using mule and ox teams. They dug ditches, spread manure, and

piled coarse fodder with their bare hands. They built and cleaned

Southern roads, helped construct Southern railroads, and, of course,

they picked cotton. In short, slave women were used as badly as men,

and were treated by Southern whites as if they were anything but

self-respecting women. From the black women who were even partially

literate, hundreds of letters exist telling of the atrocities

inflicted by “massa.” Both physical and sexual assaults on black women

were common at the turn of the century.

Nothing I have read captures the true devastation to the

spirit of the black woman during the eighteenth and nineteenth

centuries like Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” Sethe, the main character,

is the iron-willed, iron-eyed survivor of slavery at Sweet Home, where

one white youth held her down while another sucked out her breast milk

and lashed her with cowhide while her husband helplessly watched. Once

her owner discovers the location she and her children have escaped to,

she takes them to the back-yard barn to murder them and forever keep

them free from the unbearable life of slavery. She is discovered after

killing her infant daughter and taken to jail. In a heart-wrenching

passage, we learn that her reason for committing the infanticide was

“that anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came

to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so

bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up…Whites might

dirty her all right, but not her best thing, her beautiful, magical

best thing…She might have to work the slaughterhouse yard, but not

her daughter. And no one, nobody on this earth, would list her

daughter’s characteristics on the animal side of the paper. No. Oh

no.” (251)

The whole question of how to love in an inhuman system which

breeds children like horses results in inhumane choices. This theme,

Morrison carries throughout the novel. For women like Ella whose

“puberty was spent in a house where she was shared by father and son,

whom she called the lowest yet.’ It was the lowest yet’ who gave her a

disgust for sex and against whom she measured all atrocities,”(256)

nature mercifully quenches the life from the “white hairy thing,” the

freakish offspring from this monstrous childhood assault. For

Morrison’s women, sexuality is the reward and burden of their gender.

The unlikelihood that any female slave could survive sexual abuse,

lashing, thirst, hunger, and childbirth, yet continue to form milk to

suckle is Morrison’s comment on Sethe’s determination, and a tribute

to the countless black women who were victimized by the evil of the

white man.

That the white man committed evil there is no question. The

letters of the past reveal countless lives that were ruined or ended

because of racial slavery. Our forefathers had no virtues when it

required compassion for African-Americans. One cannot speak of

morality in terms of active or passive–there simply was no morality

concerning slavery. We as a people today must exist in a country that

was handed-down, literally, by hypocrites. For over two hundred years,

the leaders of our country eagerly allowed the oppression for which

they established the country to escape. How can we as descendants of

those people view the past and honestly feel a sense of morality for

the country?

To deal with our past realistically, it is necessary to view

the early leaders in their own terms: as frail, fallible human beings.

We could have admired them for many things: their courage and bravery

in the military struggle against Britain; their creativity in forging

a new government; and their service to a cause that captured the

imagination of people around the world. However, it is impossible to

admire the hypocritical Founding Fathers of this nation for betraying

the very ideals to which they gave lip service. It is impossible to

admire our early leaders for speaking eloquently at one moment for the

brotherhood of man and in the next moment denying it to the black

brothers and sisters who fought by their side and bled for their

profit. It is forever impossible to admire the thousands of white

settlers of America in light of the degrading treatment of the human

spirit, for considering “the labor of a breeding woman as no object,

and that a child raised every two years is of more profit than the

crop of the best laboring man.” (Jefferson, Thomas. “The American

Nation.” p. 352) The concern here is not for the harm that the Fathers

did to the cause which they claimed to serve as for the harm that

their moral legacy has left for every generation of their progeny.

Didn’t they realize the effect their actions would have on the growing

nation? Didn’t they know the black slave would not behave like a well

trained dog forever? After reading the facts, one can only speculate

that, no, neither did they realize nor did they care about the

misfortune of the black race. They were profiting from the degradation

of a whole race of people, and that was the driving force behind the

cracking whip. Having created a flawed revolutionary doctrine and a

Constitution that did not bestow the blessings of liberty to its

posterity, the stage was set for every succeeding generation of

Americans to apologize, compromise and criticize the principles of

liberty that were supposed to be the foundation of our system of

government and our way of life. Abraham Lincoln, the celebrated

president who “honorably” put an end to black slavery in America,

shared his true motives in a letter addressed to Horace Greeley on

August 22, 1862: “I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest

way under the Constitution…If there be those who would not save the

Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not

agree with them… What I do about slavery and the colored race I do

because I believe it helps to save this Union.”

I now relate with the anger in the voices of many contemporary

rap artists. I now see why certain black men look at white men with

anger in their eyes. I now understand why I was punched in the face by

an unknown black youth one day a few years ago as I walked out of a

Safeway supermarket. His one comment to me as he ran off was, “Sorry,

man. I just hate white people.” So do I, my brother. Now, so do I.


Berlin, Ira. “Free At Last–A Documentary History of Slavery, Freedom,

and the Civil War.” New York, NY: The New York Press, 1992.

Catton, Bruce. “The Dread Scott Case.” Quarrels That Have Shaped The

Constitution. Ed. Garraty, John A. New York, NY: Harper & Row,

Publishers, Inc., 1964.

Cooper, David. “Slavery Violates Human Rights” Slavery–Opposing

Viewpoints. Ed. Dudley, William. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, Inc.


Franklin, John Hope. “Slavery Left America Divided.” Slavery–Opposing

Viewpoints. Ed. Dudley, William. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press Inc.,


Freehling, William W. “The Founding Fathers and Slavery.” American

History Volume One, Pre- Colonial through Reconstruction. Ed. Maddox,

Robert James. Thirteenth Edition. Guilford, CT: The Dushkin Publishing

Group, Inc., 1995.

Garraty, John A. “The American Nation–A History of the United States

To 1877.Volume One.” Eighth Edition. New York, NY: HarperCollins

College Publishers, 1995.

Lincoln, Abraham. “Preserving the Union Should Be the Primary War

Aim.” August 22, 1862 Slavery–Opposing Viewpoints. Ed. Dudley,

William San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, Inc. 1992.

Morrison, Toni. “Beloved.” New York, NY: Penguin Books USA Inc., 1987

Phillips, Ulrich B. “Life & Labor In The Old South.” Boston, MA:

Little, Brown and Company, 1963.

Sewall, Samuel. “Slavery is Immoral.” Slavery–Opposing Viewpoints. Ed

Dudley, William San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, Inc. 1992.

White, Deborah Gray. “The Lives of Slave Women.” American History

Volume 1, Pre- Colonial through Reconstruction. Ed. Maddox, Robert

James. Thirteenth Edition. Guilford, CT: The Dushkin Publishing Group,

Inc., 1995.

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