The Race Factor: How Far We've Come

If the polls are accurate, for the first time an African American is poised to take the nation's highest political office. We can appreciate just how momentous this is by looking back in history.
12/01/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Let's not allow an alleged race-based murder plot on the part of two Tennessee skinheads to dampen the hopeful spirit of the day. If the polls are accurate, for the first time an African American is poised to take the nation's highest political office. We can appreciate just how momentous this is by looking back in history.

In working on my book Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson, I was constantly reminded of how deeply ingrained racism was in America for over a century and a half after the nation's founding. Twelve American presidents, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, owned slaves. The presidency was in slaveholders' hands for fifty of its first sixty-four years. A slave-owner, John Marshall, was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court for over three decades and was succeeded by another one, Roger Taney, who held office until 1864. Speakers of the House were almost all slave-owners, as were presidents pro tem of the Senate.

Even some of the greatest pioneers of freedom shared the view that blacks were inferior to whites. Jefferson wrote that blacks were "much inferior" to whites in reason and "dull, tasteless, and anomalous" in their imaginative powers. Lincoln, though strongly opposed to slavery, thought free blacks must be shipped abroad because he thought there was a physical difference between whites and blacks races that forbade their enjoying equal rights in America. He said, "What I would most desire would be the separation of the black and white races." This view that blacks must be shipped out of the country because of racial differences was shared by another antislavery luminary, Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Meanwhile, Southern slave owners built a society based on racist views. Alexander H. Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, declared that the South had achieved "the highest type of civilization ever exhibited by man," because "its cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery -- subordination to the superior race -- is his natural and normal condition."

In the era before the Civil War, only two blacks had held political positions in the U. S. -- both from the North and both in minor government jobs. After the war, black political involvement rose as a result of Northern Republicans' efforts to refashion Southern governments and compensate for centuries of slavery. But it wasn't long before white supremacy made a vicious comeback. Reconstruction collapsed. Whites stripped blacks of power in the voting booth. One Southerner wrote, "Every Democrat must feel honor bound to control the vote of at least one Negro, by intimidation, purchase, keeping him away or as each individual may determine."

Then came the 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which made segregation legal, followed by six decades of Jim Crow, lynchings, and the economic and political ostracism of blacks. It was not until Brown v. Board of Education, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King Jr. that the oppressive weight of legalized segregation began to lift.

Thanks to the civil rights movement and its aftermath, blacks have opportunities today that were unimaginable fifty years ago. True, we have not reached complete equality and justice. Racism still rears its ugly head, as in the Tennessee skinheads' foiled plan to assassinate Obama and shoot or decapitate 102 black people.

Overall, though, America has come a very long way from its racist past. Next Tuesday, millions of Americans of all ethnicities will cast ballots for an African American presidential candidate. Whether or not Obama wins, that fact itself is astonishing and inspiriting. Let's not forget our nation's history. Let's rejoice in our progress.