Institutionalized Racism: This Nation Was Built on It!

By Donna Lamb

"This country was founded by white people, for white people!" How many times have I read those words in angry e-mails from white supremacists calling me a traitor to my race for what I wrote in my anti-racism or pro-reparations articles.

At first I just shook my head and laughed. But as I've continued to examine United States history to understand the roots of the racism that continues with such virulence today, I began to see that those angry white guys have a point!

From its inception, this country worked hard to create and maintain this system of interlocking, inter-supporting institutions – economic, educational, legal, military, religious and cultural – all to protect and advance white people while deliberately oppressing all others.

And here I was questioning it!

Land Theft

Take the way we acquired the land that became this country. First we massacred the Indigenous Peoples (the "Indians") and stole their land. Before our European invasion, there were between 9 and 18 million Indigenous People in North America. But by 1900 there were only 250,000 in the United States, and about 123,000 in Canada – less than 375,000.

From 1835 on, we targeted Mexico, our neighbor to the south, seizing, through contrived wars, half of their country, which became Texas, our Southwest and West Coast.


The Theft of Labor

Now, of course, we needed labor to develop this land, for land by itself doesn't create wealth. Land + labor = wealth.

During the colonial period, as agriculture and industry began to grow, there was a terrific labor shortage. There weren't enough white workers coming from Europe, and the European invaders couldn't enslave enough Indigenous People for the work. Therefore, it was enslaved Africans – kidnapped from their homelands, exiled to the "New World" and forced into slavery – who provided the unpaid labor that made the wealth of the Europeans possible.

The entire economy, in the North as well as the South – banks, shipping companies, insurance companies, you name it – was built on the backs of non-whites for whites. Indeed, slavery, and later wage slavery, combined with the rich resources of this stolen land, is what made the wealth enjoyed by many white Americans up to and including today.

How the "White Race" Was Invented

As Elizabeth (Betita) Martinez explains in her valuable article, “What Is White Supremacy?,” "The first European settlers called themselves English, Irish, German, French, Dutch, etc. – not 'white.'" But then, in order to protect themselves from rebellion by the poor, including of European descent, a small group of slave owners invented the "white race."

By 1760 the population in the colonies reached about two million – 400,000 of which were enslaved Africans. In the southern colonies, a wealthy gentry developed, such as in Virginia, where 50 rich white families were in control even though they were vastly outnumbered by people of color. In the Carolinas, there were 25,000 whites, 40,000 enslaved Africans and 60,000 Indigenous People.

In the early colonial period, over half of those who came from Europe were indentured servants. Class lines solidified as the distinction between rich and poor became more pronounced. Slave owners' well-founded fears of rebellion grew.

From the beginning, there were revolts by enslaved Africans. But, as Martinez states, what "the elite whites feared even more was that discontented whites – servants, tenant farmers, the urban poor, the property-less, soldiers and sailors – would join them to overthrow the existing order." As early as 1663, in Virginia, white indentured servants and enslaved Africans had united in organizing a plan to gain their freedom. Many other cross-cultural insurrections followed.

What to do? Divide and conquer. In 1691 Virginia's legislators created a new legal category: "Whatsoever English or other white man or woman, bond or free shall intermarry with a Negro, mulatto, or Indian man or woman, bond or free, he shall within 3 months be banished from this dominion forever." They had created the white race.

Certain privileges, denied to others, were given to all whites, including indentured servants. They alone were allowed to join militias, carry guns, buy land, and enjoy other legal rights. This made them "superior" to the Indigenous People and people of African descent.

So that, my friends, is how the white race was born as a racist concept to keep "lower-class" whites from unifying with people of color against their common enemy.

History Book Fairy Tales

As a typical white child born in the Midwest, I grew up believing that the United States was a great, kind and virtuous nation – and had been since its inception. I was taught that it all began when Columbus "discovered" America. Next, brave Pilgrims came here to attain religious freedom. Later, in the American Revolution, we nobly fought and won our independence from England. Then, due to the great courage and irrepressible spirit of our people, we overcame the Indians, and our country was able to expand westward until it became the vast, rich nation it is today, stretching gloriously "from sea to shining sea." Can't you almost hear the patriotic music in the background?

Oh, how little did I realize just how far from the truth my idyllic picture was! Only years later did I see that the foundation stones this country was built upon were the tombstones of the Indigenous, Mexican, and African peoples whom we murdered and robbed of their land and labor to create our country.

Selected Landmarks In White Supremacy

The real truth about how deeply entrenched institutionalized racism was and is in this nation can be seen in "Selected Landmarks in the History of U.S White Supremacy," compiled by the Challenging White Supremacy Workshop – only a few instances of which I can include here:

1630: First law specifically mentioning race.

1637: New England colonists’ first massacre, which killed 500 Indigenous people.

1662: Virginia enacts law stating that if an "Englishman" begets a child of a "Negro woman," the child will take on the woman's status – i.e., that of a slave. This law makes slavery hereditary.

1755: Massachusetts offers a bounty of 20 pounds for the scalp of a male "Indian," and 10 pounds for the scalp of a female or child under 12.

1776: Declaration of Independence states "all men are created equal...with certain inalienable rights...Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." But this declaration, which becomes the basis for the ideology of US "democracy," does not include Indigenous People, Africans and European women.

1789: Constitution of the United States protects slavery and the slave trade in 12 different places, without ever mentioning the words. All rights and privileges of life under the Constitution and the Bill of Rights exclude enslaved Africans and Indigenous People.

1790: In its first session, Congress enacts Naturalization Law of 1790, which specifies that only free white immigrants are eligible for naturalized citizenship. All others are expressly denied civil rights, the right to vote and the right to own land. This law is not completely wiped off the books until the McCarran Walter Act of 1952!

1830: Indian Removal Act calls for forcible removal of the Choctaw, Creek, Cherokee, Chickasaw and Seminole nations from Southeastern states. This causes the Cherokee Nation's Trail of Tears, during which 25% of their population dies.

1835: Colonists in Northern Mexican territory of Texas declare war on Mexico.

1836: Victorious US colonists establish Texas as an independent nation.

1845 US government annexes Texas.

1846: US government declares war on Mexico.

1848: US defeats Mexico and "purchases" over one third of the Mexican nation for $15 million. The land includes the future states of California, Texas, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming.

US and Mexico sign Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo, which promises to protect the lands, language and culture of Mexicans living in the ceded territory. But Congress refuses to pass Article X of the treaty, which would protect the ancestral land titles of the Mexican peoples. Instead, Congress substitutes a "Statement of Protocol" under which Mexicans – speaking English in US courts with US lawyers – must prove that they have legitimate title to their own lands.

The Statement of Protocol thus becomes the “legal” basis for the massive US land theft from Mexicans in the conquered territories.

1850: Congress passes Fugitive Slave Law which provides that: 1) only a sworn affidavit from a white is needed to claim a Black person is an escaped slave; 2) the Black person has no rights to challenge that claim in court; 3) federal marshals are empowered to capture the runaways and to deputize assistance from other whites; 4) commissioners who hear testimony about the status of an alleged runaway will be paid $10 for each person sent into slavery, but only $5 for each person set free.

1857: US Supreme Court decides Dred Scott case. Dred Scott was an enslaved African who followed his owner to a free state and then sued for his freedom. The Court said that Scott was still a slave, that the Constitution specifically excludes Blacks from its rights of citizenship, and that no African has any rights a white man is bound to respect.

1862: Congress passes Homestead Act that allows Western (i.e. Indigenous) land to be sold to "anyone" who could pay $1.25 an acre and cultivate it for five years. Indigenous People, Blacks and non-European immigrants are excluded from this provision.

The same year Congress also passes Morrell Act, creating land grant colleges in each state, and the Railroad Act, assuring a coast-to-coast railway. These two acts also give away lands that belong to the Indigenous nations.

During the Civil War, Congress gives 100 million acres of Indigenous lands free to the railroads. Within 10 years, 85 million acres of Indigenous lands are sold to European homesteaders, 71 million acres to land grant colleges, and 155 million acres to the railroad companies.

The US Government was selling and giving away land they did not own.

1865: The 13th Amendment abolishing slavery is passed. However it contains a little known provision: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States." In other words, it lays the basis for the enslavement of imprisoned people, a disproportionate number of who would be peoples of color.

1882: Congress enacts Chinese Exclusion Act preventing Chinese people from coming to the US. Thus, the Chinese become the first nationality to be barred expressly by name.

1908: US and Japan make a Gentleman's Agreement that limits the number of Japanese immigrants to the US.

1924: Johnson Reed Immigration Act sets restrictive quotas on immigrants from Asia, Africa and Latin America.

1942: Roosevelt signs Executive Order 9066, authorizing internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans living in California, including those who are American citizens.

1952: McCarran Walter Immigration Act repeals the exclusion from citizenship provisions of the 1790 Naturalization Act. However, it keeps the quota system based on national origins.

And this is only the tip of the iceberg!

So the next time a white supremacist tells me this country was created by and for whites, maybe I'll just answer, "I know it was – and I'm doing my damnedest to make it different now!"

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