“Historical research has shown that the idea of ‘race’ has always carried more meanings than mere physical differences,” the American Anthropological Association’s “Statement on Race,” reported in 1998. “Indeed, physical variations in the human species have no meaning except the social ones that humans put on them.”
In her deeply researched “A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama’s America,” University of Texas historian Jacqueline Jones details the lives of six African-Americans from the 17th to the 20th centuries, underscoring what she terms “the fiction of race … in all its adaptable destructiveness.” “Although the idea of race … changed substantially from one era of American history to the next,” Jones concludes, “its divisive power remained potent.”
Jones chronicles the lives of Antonio, a rebellious slave in 17th-century Maryland; Boston King, a fugitive slave in Revolutionary-era South Carolina; Elleanor Eldridge, an enterprising businesswoman in antebellum Providence, R.I.; Richard W. White, a light-skinned Union army veteran and Republican politician in post-Civil War Savannah; William H. Holtzclaw, the founder of an industrial school for blacks in Jim Crow-era Mississippi; and Simon P. Owens, an autoworker and “Marxist-humanist” in industrial and postindustrial Detroit. Their stories expose what Jones calls the “contingent mythologies” of race.
Jones interprets race as a historically grounded “political strategy peculiar to a particular time and place.” Throughout American history, she explains, race as an idea has been a malleable, fluid concept – one often conflated with class-based inequalities. At times, whites have invoked race to establish economic and political power over others. At other times, however, “structures of power carry their own logic, and their defenders believe these structures need no explaining.”
In the 17th-century Chesapeake, for example, planters used physical force, not philosophical or legal justifications, to enslave blacks. Later, responding to Northern abolitionists, Southern elites rationalized enslavement by defining blacks as perpetual adolescents – persons lacking discipline to labor on their own and requiring protection.
Antebellum Northern whites employed discriminatory laws and mob action, not racial theories, to exclude blacks from good jobs, schools and ballot boxes. After the Civil War, whites constructed the idea that blacks were congenitally unfit for freedom, unwilling to work and in need of harsh treatment to prevent them from becoming shiftless criminals. By the age of segregation, “structures of inequality had produced a largely poor and disenfranchised black population, thus perpetuating the stereotypes that produced it.”
Even in today’s allegedly “post-racial” society, Jones argues, people considering themselves “colorblind” nonetheless remain “willfully ignorant of, or indifferent to, the history that produced concentrated populations of impoverished black people.” Place (where people live) has replaced race in determining their economic and social destinies. Gerrymandering, for example, concentrates blacks in the fewest number of districts possible, weakening their voting strength.
Jones points correctly to the dreadful contemporary legacies of centuries of racial discrimination against minorities – blacks, as well as undocumented immigrants – that still bolster the foundations of American life. “Even in the absence of widespread, derogatory stereotyping,” she writes, “these structures – segregated housing, workplaces, and schools – perpetuated forms of inequality that no civil rights legislation, or enlightened rhetoric for that matter, could erode or erase.”
Jones makes clear that those victimized by racial classifications always have been the powerless subjugated by the powerful. Her differentiation between race as spurious science and as a ubiquitous and historical justification for subordination of minorities rings true. Race may be a mere smoke screen for power and class rule, but its noxious fumes have choked out lives, denying the very essence of human dignity, to many millions.
John David Smith is the Charles H. Stone Distinguished Professor of American History at UNC-Charlotte. His most recent book is “Lincoln and the U.S. Colored Troops.”