America's Struggle With Racial Morality

05/10/2017 09:11 am ET Updated May 22, 2017

When it has come to race, America has always struggled.

From its inception, racism, or perhaps more accurately white supremacy, was a part of the American foundation. The phrase “we the people” included in the Preamble to the Constitution did not categorically exclude blacks from the rolls of American citizenship; some states actually allowed Africans Americans to be citizens on the same terms as were white people. But there was an unspoken understanding that black people were not really American citizens. They were described as being only 3/5 of a person in order to dilute their voting strength. They were looked upon by too many as property, in spite of the words “all men are created equal” found in the Declaration of Independence.

Many whites simply did not …and do not …believe that.

White supremacist attitudes were not solely a Southern condition, either. In fact, the earliest Americans, those white Pilgrims who came to the New World from England, brought with them their prejudices and biases against black people. According to some scholars, the seeds or the roots of white supremacy were brought to this land by and through Puritan theology. They believed, many of them, that God created black people inferior and also that God created black people to be the chattel, or property, of white people. The origin of America’s white supremacy, then, is or was in the North.

Of course, the idea spread. By the time of the Civil War, white supremacy was part of the very foundation of America and despite those who say the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery, it had everything to do with slavery and the belief of white supremacists that to have slaves was their God-given right.

We in America do not like to face our foundational immorality as concerns race. When the current administration began its work to deport illegal immigrants in this country, it was apparent that the immigrants being targeted were primarily people of color, many of whom, but not all, who are Muslim. America, it seems, has always wanted to protect the white race from associating with “imperfect” people, which included people of color of color, as indicated by its involvement in and acceptance of, the eugenics movement. Our beloved America labeled certain people “feebleminded” and felt it morally acceptable to perform forced sterilizations of them and/or institutionalize them until they were past child-bearing age, because they wanted a “pure” and untainted race. Anyone who was “inferior” according to standards set at that time, were fair game to be either sterilized, institutionalized, or worse.

There came to be known such a thing as “scientific racism,” in which scholars of the time fully believed. According to Madison Grant, author of The Passing of the Great Race, “the Nordic race was superior to all other races and responsible for all progress.” He said, “We Americans must realize that the altruistic ideals which have controlled our social development during the past century, and the maudlin sentimentalism that has made America an asylum for the oppressed, are sweeping the nation toward a racial abyss.” (from Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, Eugenics and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck, by Adam Cohen, p. 59)

The eugenics movement in America was a response to globalization. There were too many people who were not white coming into the United States and in the mid 1920s, the eugenics movement erupted, evolved and thrived in response to America’s changing demographics.

When it comes to race, America has flunked the test of basic decency.

What is striking is that God-loving and God-fearing people participated in and supported the eugenics movement and its practices, including forced sterilizations and life-long institutionalization. Protestant churches supported it, with pastors preaching about the morality of purging the “dross” of humanity. (p. 60)

Thoughts of that movement come to bear when thinking about America today. What does “make America great again” really mean? To many, the phrase is dog whistle language meant to convey the idea that white supremacy has been threatened and must be restored. The administration’s intent to examine Haitian immigrants to see who has committed a crime sounds alarmingly familiar of words used to attack and control people in the past.

There have been no institutions which have been consistently willing to help get rid or racism, not the church or the government. Richard Rothstein writes in The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Governments Segregated America that it was the federal government which made policies which mandated and supported racial segregation. “At every step of the way,” Rothstein writes, “the government and our courts upheld racist policies to maintain the separation of whites and blacks – leading to the powder keg that has defined Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston and Chicago.”

In spite of vehemently denying that race is a factor in American life, the truth of the matter is that race has always been a factor, and a significant one, in this great land. Americans will not own it but denying its presence and the poison it has spread over everything done here will not change the reality. Some of the statements made about the poor, many of whom are people of color, expose the white supremacist mind-set which undergirds much of how this country has been run.

As concerns race, “good people” have essentially dropped the ball on practicing essential and basic morality that is required to treat human beings fairly and equitably. We can talk about our “values” all we want, but at the end of the day, when it comes to race, America has flunked the test of basic decency.

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