If an American citizen were to be interviewed in 2013 about whether or not racism was still a problem in America, most people would probably answer no, citing the election of Barack Obama for two presidential terms as a reason to consider America post-racial; however, 2016’s presidential election of Donald Trump shed light on the stark realities of America’s persisting racist climate. Despite an overwhelmingly common misconception among a subset of naively hopeful voters within the United States, the election of a black man does not amend the deep-seated racism on which this country was established. The notion of race and the nonsensical hierarchy of race that quickly followed was established by white colonizers in an effort to justify slavery and the genocide of Indigenous peoples. The social elite of a newly budding America effectively secured their financial successes through the use of non-white bodies— the exploitation of slaves provided free labor while the extermination and forced removal of Indigenous peoples freed up land to be settled. Wealthy white men, many of whom had integral roles in the founding of this new nation, saw America as a blank slate on which to craft a new system that would directly benefit them, as well as to secure their carefully cultivated privilege for their posterity. The writings of Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s most notoriously racist founding fathers, as well as the writings of Elias Boudinot, a wealthy mixed-blood Cherokee man, contributed to both the heavily racialized foundation of America and the maintenance of an intrinsically racist sociopolitical climate in which America resides today.
“All men are created equal,” is, arguably, Thomas Jefferson’s most well-known written statement— a staple within the Declaration of Independence. The aforementioned claim by Jefferson has been used throughout history as one of the many ways to prove that America is a land of opportunity with a government crafted to protect its citizens. Jefferson’s “Notes on the State of Virginia” seemingly lies in direct contradiction to his call for equality in the Declaration of Independence. “Notes on the State of Virginia” details the ways in which Jefferson perceived black people to be physically and psychologically inferior to white people, and should be considered nothing more than second-class citizens. Many of his descriptions are not new to the contemporary reader— Jefferson’s writings played an integral part in cultivating the mindset that helped lay the foundation for America’s unrelenting white-supremacy problem.
Today, white-supremacy is represented in the media through talking heads such as David Duke and Tomi Lahren. Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard and self-described advocate for European-Americans, was unrestrained in his support for Trump’s virulent campaign. In a 2016 National Public Radio interview, Duke, who was running for Louisiana State Senate, was asked if he thought Trump voters were also his voters. “Of course, they are,” adamantly proclaimed Duke, “. . . I represent the ideas of preserving this country and the heritage of this country, and I think Trump represents that as well” (Domonoske). The heritage of this country, despite the insistence of the dominant narrative, is not the rags-to-riches fairytale that is taught in public education systems throughout America. The heritage of this country is one of settler-colonialism, genocide, and the manipulation of the oppressed. When Duke claims that he wishes to preserve the heritage of the country, he is not referencing the supposed story of equal opportunity America boasts, he is referencing the come up of white Americans and their fixture of control within society. Tomi Lahren, much like Duke, preaches about racism against white Americans. In an interview with Charlamagne tha God, a rapper and radio personality, Lahren complained about being a target of racism by commenters on her videos who called her a “racist cracker” (Tomi). For someone who regularly screams about “liberal snowflakes”, she is quick to call herself a victim of racism for being called a cracker.
The problem with claims of white people experiencing racism is that, by definition, it is impossible for white people to experience racism; the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, an organization created by educators “dedicated to building an effective movement for social transformation,” define racism as racial prejudice plus institutional power (Cushing). In other words, racism is a result of people within a group that hold social power and are actively carrying out racial prejudices and discrimination in order to maintain their oppressive social and institutional control. Since people of color lack the social and institutional control to actively oppress white people, they are not, by sociological definition, being racist. Lahren’s inability to grasp such basic notions is, in some ways, reflective of Thomas Jefferson’s inability to recognize the humanity of slaves— they both make faulty claims that are selected exclusively to support their racist rhetoric.
“Notes on the State of Virginia” begins with Jefferson addressing the foreseeable question of why not integration post-emancipation. His justification of segregation relies on archaic scientific observations that were widespread notions at the time his book was published; however, the justifications on which he heavily relies prove themselves to be both ludicrous and antiquated. Of the numerous offensive observations Jefferson makes, there is one that stands out in particular: “They seem to require less sleep. A black after hard labour through the day will be induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight or later, though knowing he must be out with the first dawn of the morning” (Jefferson 764). Jefferson’s reasoning is playing off a slave’s ability to cope with the atrocious working conditions to which they were forcibly subjected. He is taking strength and resilience and turning it into a perceivably negative characteristic— keep in mind that claims of “needing less sleep,” as well as the incorrect perception of heightened strength that developed as a fear-mongering tactic in the Jim Crow Era, go hand-in-hand with the caricaturizing of black people as animalistic. Both these misconceptions quickly evolved into the stereotype of the aggressive black man. Like many white writers describing non-white people in this time period, Jefferson is hyper-critical of the supposed differences he perceives between races. When he gets close to making a positive comment, he follows it up with a painfully negative statement. “[They are] at least brave and adventuresome;” Jefferson states at one point, only to continue with, “but this may perhaps proceed from a want of forethought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present.” It appears as though he can only recognize a positive trait to a certain degree, then he must promptly erase any perceivable inkling of respect for non-white people by discrediting any positive trait with the statement of an assumed flaw. The construction of his aforementioned observation is the written equivalent of luring a mouse to a trap with a piece of cheese, only for their necks to be snapped immediately after.
Jefferson’s bold claims against integration would cause many readers to question how a person who famously proclaimed, “All men are created equal,” could turn around and make such blatantly racist claims. However, despite the two bodies of work appearing to contradict one another, it is important to recognize that at this period of time, America was operating under the Three-Fifths Rule. Slaves were not considered to be men; they were not even considered as full people— they were considered to be three-fifths of a person. When drafting one of the most famous lines of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was not writing with slaves in mind— to him they were subhuman; he was writing to and about white people exclusively. The audience to which Jefferson is writing becomes blatant when the reader recognizes the subhuman standing that slaves held at this point in time.
Though the Three-Fifths Rule is no longer in technical existence today, there are laws within America’s mass incarceration system that exist as whisperings of this once popular rule. The Three-Fifths Rule was originally intended to, as defined in The New Jim Crow, “enhance the political clout of slaveholding states by including 60-percent of slaves in the population base for calculating congressional seats and electoral votes, even though [slaves] could not vote” (Alexander 114). Today, under the Usual Residence Rule, the Census Bureau counts inmates as residents of the area in which their prisons reside. These inmates tend to, but not exclusively, come from minority communities within larger urban areas; the areas in which prisons exist typically are rural and predominantly white. The number of representatives for state legislature is determined by population. Through this transference of population count, the Census Bureau is actively taking away from the number of representatives allotted to districts that house minority communities within metropolitan areas and increasing the legislative representation in predominantly rural and white areas (Alexander 114). While the Three-Fifths Rule was considerably more transparent in its intentions, the Usual Residence Rule functions in a similar, albeit more covert, manner.
Much like Jefferson, Elias Boudinot makes clear who his audience is through the way he writes about non-white people. Boudinot, though born within the Cherokee Nation, was of a wealthy mixed-blood family who sent him away to boarding school to be educated in the Western tradition. He is most well known as a traitor to his people—he was among a small group of Cherokee people who signed the Treaty of New Echota, which ceded the land on which Cherokee people resided to the federal government. Boudinot and the other signees left before they could be forcibly removed and were able to claim and secure the best, most agriculturally prosperous plots of land (Boudinot 591). As a result of the Treaty of New Echota, Cherokee people were forcibly removed from their homelands to Indian Territory, which is present-day Oklahoma. This landmark removal is famously known as The Trail of Tears. His assimilated way of thought rears its ugly head not only through his actions but through his writing as well. In his first letter as editor of the Cherokee Phoenix, Boudinot makes clear his intention to please the federal government through his avoidance of criticizing their heinous crimes at all costs, as well as through the self-deprecating language he uses when discussing Indigenous peoples.
The Cherokee Phoenix, a newspaper that was intended to be written by and for Cherokee people, produced its first letter from the editor that was not, in fact, written with the audience of Cherokee people in mind. Boudinot goes to great lengths ensuring that the Phoenix will not be used to “intermeddle with the politics and affairs” of the federal government (Boudinot 594). Additionally, when discussing his fellow Cherokee people, he is adamant in his claims that Indigenous peoples are still capable of assimilation and being removed of their “savagery.” “Sufficient and repeated evidence has been given,” he states, “that Indians can be reclaimed from a savage state, and that with proper advantages, they are as capable of improvement in mind as any other people” (Boudinot 594). Boudinot is perpetuating the notion of Indigenous people’s intellectual inferiority that was used by colonizers as a way to dehumanize Native people, making their extermination an easier feat. This tactic is a nod to the unabashed anti-Indian rhetoric within the media that was produced by the white elite around the time of Manifest Destiny.
Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow writes, “American Indians became a growing impediment to white European ‘progress’, and during this period, the images of American Indians promoted in books, newspapers, and magazines became increasingly negative.” Boudinot is proof that claiming Indigeneity does not make a person exempt from adapting to and abiding by a settler-colonial mindset. Boudinot is, arguably, engaging in assimilation from within the tribe, rather than the typical practice of an outside force pressing for assimilation. Rather than shipping children off to boarding schools on opposite sides of the country or outlawing traditional cultural practices, he uses his power within the Cherokee Nation to spread his westernized forms of thought and to make decisions that negatively impact the very same people for whom he claims to speak and represent through his position of power as editor of the Cherokee Phoenix.
Boudinot, a firm believer that assimilation was inevitable, sought to bury all traces of Indigeneity. In his letter to the public, he is directly advocating for the assimilation of Indigenous peoples. “. . . [I]t is not a visionary thing to attempt to civilize and Christianize all the Indians, but highly practicable” (Boudinot 595). This line is one of the most telling statements he makes that proves to whom he is actually speaking. If Boudinot were, in fact, writing to the Cherokee people, he would not be writing about Indigenous peoples in the third person and he would not be writing in such a tone that attempts to convince the reader of the possibility of assimilating Natives. Boudinot is writing to white people and the federal government under the guise of representing the Cherokee Phoenix as a whole. Boudinot has a bad habit of misrepresenting his tribe— he did so when he signed the Treaty of New Echota, something the Cherokee National Council actively spoke out against, and he did it again in his letter “From the Cherokee Phoenix to the Public.” Boudinot was a wolf in sheep’s clothing—he claimed Indigeneity, but his ideologies were that of a white man’s. His writings and actions are reflected in current misnomers regarding Natives— he boasts passivity in regards to the federal government’s heinous crimes against the people he claims to represent and seeks to prove that, despite the intellectual fragility of Indigenous peoples, they are still capable of adapting to white culture. Boudinot was an active participant in the erasure of Indigenous bodies and cultures.
Throughout history, Indigenous peoples have struggled with erasure by way of a number of different avenues— misrepresentations and legal regulations are among the most prevalent. Adrienne Keene, a Cherokee citizen and professor of Ethnic Studies at Brown University, writes, “Colonialism is still going on today, and part of that process are structural level policies and practices that seek to paint Native peoples as inferior” (Keene). The notion of Indigenous inferiority, created in an attempt to dehumanize and justify the genocide of Native people, has survived and flourished over the years by way of common stereotypes that developed at the time of colonization, and have not ceased in their development over the years. Additionally, many restrictive laws and regulations were put in place to stop Indigenous peoples from engaging in their traditional cultural practices, as well as to limit their upward mobility. The boarding school era is a prime example of such: young Native children were shipped off to opposite sides of the country and were typically around other children who did not speak the same languages. These boarding schools were notorious for physical and sexual abuse of its students. The goal was to “Kill the Indian, Save the Man,” a mantra made famous by Carlisle Indian School’s founder Richard Pratt, creating a false air of benevolence around the purpose of boarding schools— eliminating “savagery” was seen as a humanitarian effort at that time. The federal government traumatizes young Indigenous children through the westernized education system, prepares Native people for exclusively service-level jobs, and then wonders why graduation rates are so low and poverty is high among contemporary American Indians.
The federal government’s tactics to oppress Native and black communities are not much different from one another, they merely change forms and are concealed differently. Over the years these practices appear to dissipate; however, they are merely recrafted to adapt to the changing times. Jim Crow Laws emerged in response to the antebellum South’s struggle to reclaim white control as freed slaves were steadily working towards equality (Alexander 22). The era of Jim Crow Laws brought forth a new form of slavery. Former slaves were being arrested for minor crimes and fined heavily; the majority of those arrested did not have the financial capabilities to pay off their fines, so the state sold them off to a number of corporations throughout the South in order to work off their debts. In addition to forced free labor, convicts were stripped of their rights as citizens, many of those rights reflected the same ones that slaves lacked (Alexander 22).
Jim Crow Laws are clear examples of the ways in which slavery has altered forms over the years to adapt to the changing climate. For all intents and purposes, convicts, both in the Jim Crow era and in the present day, are slaves; the only difference between when slavery was legal and the years after emancipation, is that those who are subject to this system are referred to as convicts rather than slaves, and the abuse of these individuals is justified in their act of committing a crime. Thomas Jefferson’s assertion that black people can be no more than second class citizens has been maintained through years of institutional racism and fear-mongering. Though Jefferson has long since passed, his ideologies have remained deeply rooted within the federal government’s perpetuation of white supremacy. Many people think of white supremacy in the overt form— hooded Klan members and “whites only” water fountains; white supremacy does not have to be blatantly obvious in order for it to exist. In many cases, particularly in contemporary America, white supremacy has been disguised in the form of laws and regulations that prevent black and brown people from upward mobility. The racist ramblings of a former president and the self-deprecating descriptions by a traitor of his people have trickled down over the years, becoming less outwardly recognizable and adapting to an America that is attempting to become more socially conscious.
While social consciousness is making its way to the forefront of America, it plays an interesting dual role. Social consciousness, depending on the way it is learned and practiced, can do one of two things: it can either open the individual’s eyes to the atrocities committed throughout the development of America as well as shed light on the present problems riddling the country, or it can create a false sense of security in an individual, making them believe that a heightened level of social consciousness will instantly cure America’s ailment of racism. The voting results of the 2016 election prove this to be true. Saturday Night Live aired a skit on their post-election show that begged the question “Is America racist?” Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle, the only two people of color in the skit, laughed at their white friends’ surprise. The reactions of the white people in the room represented the subset of the disillusioned left that is subject to the notion of thinking that heightened social consciousness is the cure-all. While heightened social consciousness does aid in the unveiling of America’s structural racism, it is useless without the implementation of critical thought.
Slavery, despite the Emancipation Proclamation, as well as all the other ways America tries to boast its freedom-loving lands and laws, is still kept alive through seemingly well-concealed avenues of control. Racism, as Michelle Alexander explains, is highly adaptable (Alexander 10). This adaptability is made clear through the series of legal reactions America has had to the freeing of slaves and integration. With each step toward progress, American legislators have made counter steps to preserve archaic ideologies of race— emancipation was met with Jim Crow, devolving into the sham of “separate but equal,” and presently manifesting itself as restrictive laws regarding the presently and formerly incarcerated. Critical thinking contributes to a person’s ability to question and draw comparisons between blatantly racist laws of the past and covertly racist laws of the present. Without this ability, people will continue to stomach the dominant narrative of America’s rosy land of freedom instead of seeing America for what it is: a cesspool of genocide and greed. To say that America has distanced itself from slavery, racism, or any other form of bigotry is a sham. Slavery and racism are as intrinsically American as apple pie.
In this day and age, it is important that the writings of Jefferson and Boudinot continue to be read and analyzed through a number of different lenses in order to help draw connections between an antiquated America wrought with slavery, racism, and genocide, and contemporary America wrought with those same attributes in a subtler form. Both Jefferson and Boudinot express ideologies that are still reflected in present society, proving the adaptability of white supremacist notions. These practices are deeply rooted in the foundation of America through a series of lawfully implemented regulations and will take, presumably, decades to dismantle; however, change can be made at the individual level through social consciousness, the utilization of educational tools, and well-developed critical thinking skills.
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. N.p.: New, 2010. Print.
Boudinot, Elias. “From The Cherokee Phoenix to the Public.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, edited by Nina Baym, Robert S. Levine, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2013, 592-595.
Cushing, Bonnie Berman. Accountability and White Anti-racist Organizing: Stories from Our Work. Roselle, NJ: Crandall, Dostie & Douglass, 2010. Euroamerican.org. Web. 21 Apr. 2017. <http://www.euroamerican.org/Library/Resources/Occupy/White_Priv_Terms_Resources.pdf>.
Domonoske, Camila. “Former KKK Leader David Duke Says ‘Of Course’ Trump Voters Are His Voters.” NPR. NPR, 05 Aug. 2016. Web. 21 Apr. 2017.
Jefferson, Thomas. “From Notes on the State of Virginia.” The Norton Anthology of American
Literature, edited by Nina Baym, Robert S. Levine, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 763-765.
Keene, Adrienne. “When You’re Invisible, Every Representation Matters: Political Edition.” Native Appropriations. N.p., 17 May 2015. Web. 21 Apr. 2017. <http://nativeappropriations.com/2015/05/when-youre-invisible-every-representation-matters-political-edition.html>.
Tomi Lahren – Giving a Voice to Conservative America on “Tomi”. Perf. Tomi Lahren and Trevor Noah. Comedy Central, 2016. The Daily Show. Comedy Central, 1 Dec. 2016. Web. 21 Apr. 2015.