A History Of Racial Inequality In The United States

Racial equality is the concept or ideology that individuals or groups of people have the same moral, political and legal rights and social value irrespective of their racial characteristics. It is the belief that different racial groups should be treated equally and that no one race is inherently superior or inferior to another. It also implies that all social, educational, economic, legal or political institutions need to provide equal opportunities and support to everyone regardless of their racial characteristics such as skin color or facial features.

However, racial equality has a complicated history. While some parts of the world have made significant strides in comparison to others, the fact remains that racial equality has not always been the norm, nor has it been achieved fully in any part of the world. This is because racial equality has had to fight against deeply rooted perceptions of inequality and supremacy, in addition to political, legal, traditional and historic prejudices leading to racial discrimination and oppression. An example of the latter is that belief that the colonial powers were inherently superior to the conquered people. While racism exists in every part of the world, it has typically come to be associated with the prejudices different races in the world have faced at the hands of white colonials. However, the issue of racial equality in the U.S is more complicated than in other parts of the world because of the history of the nation itself. 

A Brief History of Slavery in the United States

To say that America was built by slaves would not be too far from the truth. Hundreds of thousands of Africans, free or enslaved, were heavily involved in the establishment and development of many different colonies in the Americas and the New World. However, many historians give significance to the ship The White Lion bringing 20 slaves ashore in 1619. The slaves had actually been seized from a Portuguese slave ship.

Enslaved Africans were thought of as a cheap source of labor in comparison to indentured servants. Thus, an increasing number of European settlers turned to using African slaves in North American settlements. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, Africans were kidnapped and sold into forced slavery, often by other Africans seeking profit. Slavery became a big industry in itself due to the high level of demand in cotton and tobacco plantations. While accurate figures are impossible, it is estimated that 6 to 7 million Africans were brought to the Americas as slaves in the 18th century alone. This in turn had an adverse effect on African nations and economies as they were deprived of the most able bodied men and women.

The slaves were treated poorly, punished harshly and rarely given the rights and protections provided to others by colonial laws. Many slave owners raped enslaved women, did not allow marriages between slaves to hold legal value, and divided families by selling or trading members. They lived in inhumane conditions, and were frequently treated with extreme violence and prejudice. The American Revolutionary War did not improve the situation at all despite 5000 black soldiers fighting for American independence. In fact, one of the first casualties of the Revolutionary War was a former slave, Crispus Attucks, killed during the Boston Massacre. 

If anything, the situation actually worsened for Africans Americans (enslaved or free). The new Constitution formally acknowledged slavery and went so far as to consider an enslaved individual to be 3/5th of a person for the purpose of taxation and representation in the Congress. However, the institutionalization of slavery gave birth to abolitionist movements; some even led by white Americans. Many former colonists began to link slavery with the oppression they had faced in British Colonial rule and sought to end it. Also, with the rapidly increasing industrialization of the North and the waning dependence on agriculture, slavery became relatively unimportant. However, the situation in the South offered a stark contrast where enslaved people constituted 1/3rd of the population and were an important part of the agriculture based Southern economy. This laid the foundation of the bloody American Civil War.

Slave Rebellions and the American Civil War

While there were many peaceful non-violent movements for the abolition of slavery, there were numerous violent and bloody slave rebellions as well. Some notable ones include the ones led by Gabriel Possier in Richmond (1800) and by Denmark Vesey in Charleston (1822). However, the one that had a lasting impact on the psyche of enslavers was the one led by Nat Turner in Southampton, Virginia in 1831. It involved more than 75 black men and resulted in the murder of over 50 white people until the black mob was overwhelmed by the state militias and white locals.

However, it was the American Civil War that brought a formal end to institutionalized slavery. The War ran from 1861 to 1865 and was fought between northern states that were loyal to the Union and southern states that had seceded or intended to secede from the Union to form the Confederate States of America. Things had been escalating slowly for a while over contrasting ideologies in regards to slavery until April 1861, when all-out war broke out almost a month after the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln – who held anti-slavery sentiments. 

The Civil War is considered the bloodiest war in American history with an estimated 600-750 000 deaths of soldiers and an unknown number of civilian casualties. The war resulted in a Union victory and the abolition of slavery. It led to the destruction of much of the infrastructure in the southern states. The number of slaves to have received their freedom as a direct consequence of the Union victory is estimated to be around 4 million.

Post-War Problems and Important Milestones

1.    The Emancipation Proclamation

President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on the 1st of Janurary, 1863, more than 2 years into the bloody war. It declared all slaves within the Confederate States to be free. However, it only addressed slavery in the states that had seceded from the Union and left the rest of the Union untouched on the issue of slavery. Also, the freedom it promised was conditional on the victory of the Union.

The Proclamation also lead to the acceptance of black men into the Union’s armed forces. By the end of the war, an estimated 200000 black soldiers are thought to have fought for the Union and their freedom. The Proclamation enabled the Union to take the moral high ground and added strength to the military as well as the political authority of the Union over the rebelling states. 

2.    The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments

The 13th (1865), 14th (1868), and the 15th (1870) Amendments to the U.S Constitution are often called the Civil War Amendments. These were the first amendments to the Constitution in 60 years and were designed to improve racial equality for the newly emancipated slaves. The 13th Amendment banned slavery and every other form of involuntary or forced labor except as a punishment for a crime. 

The 14th amendment redefined citizenship to include African Americans by stating that all individuals born or naturalized in the United States are to be considered citizens regardless of race. It overturned a previous Supreme Court ruling (Dred Scott v Sandford, 1857) that said that a member of the black community was not eligible to be a citizen. It also affected the laws regarding political representation by changing the status of a black person to that of a whole person instead of as 3/5th of a person as defined by the original constitution. 

The 15th Amendment addressed the voting rights of African Americans and prohibited governments to deny a person to vote based on race or past servitude. While this law provided some legal protections to black voting rights, governments could still deny voting based on other reasons such as poll taxes and literacy.

3.    Reconstruction Era

President Johnson, in mid-1865, announced his plans for Reconstruction, a period of American history that lasted until 1877. This era lead to the 3 amendments to the Constitution that addressed freedom from slavery, citizenship and voting rights. However, President Johnson took a more lenient approach toward Reconstruction. Under President Johnson, all land that had been confiscated from the Confederacy and allotted to former slaves reverted to its prewar owners. In his view, the southern states had not lost the right to govern themselves and were allowed to retain their rights to determine voting requirements and other state level matters. On the other hand, the southern states were told to uphold the abolition of slavery, loyalty to the Union and pay off their own war related debts.

This leniency led to the creation of legislation (in the southern states) that aimed to restrict the freedoms and opportunities available to the former slaves. However, this created friction in the Congress. Johnson’s refusal to sign the Congress’ Freemen’s Bureau and Civil Rights Bills into law would lead to a decline in support for the President and eventually led to his impeachment in 1868. As a result, the Civil Rights Act went on to become the first major bill to become a law despite an executive veto.

The Congress elections of 1866 resulted in a victory for what are often called Radical Republicans. They wanted to punish the South and prevent the ruling class from staying in power. It was during this time that the 14th and 15th amendments came to pass. However, there was great and, often, violent opposition to the Radical Reconstruction. Many southerners were unwilling to accept that their former slaves could vote, and therefore have a say in the politics of the country, and hold political office. This lead to the birth of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). There was a wave of terror caused by beatings, lynching and massacres often directed at Republican leaders as well. The 1877 withdrawal of Union troops that had been placed in the South by the Radical Republicans worsened the situation for African Americans once again as there was an increase in the efforts to restrict their newly acquired rights.

4.    Progressive Era

The progressive era was a period of activism, social changes and legal and political reforms that many consider to have started in the 1890s and ended in the 1920s. While this era was more focused on social, political and economic reforms in the United States, race was an important consideration in these reforms. Black communities worked to reduce the social and economic inequality by upgrading schools, expanding business and employment opportunities, fighting for political representation and the right to vote, and engaging in legal action to reduce injustice and inequality.

5.    Jim Crow Laws, Poverty, Segregation and Other Issues

The end of the civil war the 3 Civil Rights Amendments transformed life for African Americans, especially those living in the South. They were no longer subjected to the brutalities and problems associated with enslavement such as sexual assaults without legal recourse, forced relocations away from friends and family and being traded like commodities. However, the problems were far from over.

They had received freedom from slavery but not from racial prejudice and discrimination. Southern states enacted laws that would come to be known as Black Codes aimed to restrict the given liberties and create obstacles in the alleviation from poverty for the former slaves. While African Americans were now allowed to marry, own property and sue in court, they were not allowed to serve on juries, testify against whites or serve in militias and in numerous government departments.

While the black community found themselves free from slavery, they also found themselves living in extreme poverty. As slaves had been denied even basic education, most found themselves unable to progress economically and, to a certain degree, were not free from their dependence on the former slave owners for their livelihood. A lot of former slaves became sharecroppers, paying white landowners to lease their land. The payment usually came in the form of a disproportionate share of the crop.

The black community had unprecedented freedom, but it did not protect them from social discrimination and segregation. Racial segregation in the US meant that African Americans often could not use the same facilities, services and opportunities including housing, healthcare, education, employment and transportation as white Americans. This segregation even extended to the armed forces. For example, blacks could only serve in black units that were often under the command of white officers.

Restaurants, offices and even public places were within their legal rights to refuse services to African Americans. Segregation even extended to schools and graveyards. Some states even required separate textbooks for black and white students. In fact it was not uncommon to see signs outside towns and cities stating that members of the black community were not welcome to enter or stay. Segregation came in two forms – De Jure segregation that was mandated or allowed by the law and state and de facto segregation which, to an extent, continues today and was based on personal prejudices facilitated by the inaction of the state. The landmark ruling of Brown v Board of Education in 1954 started the process of integration enforced by the law. However, it wasn’t until the Civil Rights Act of 1965, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 that formal legal segregation came to end.

These discriminatory laws are commonly referred to as the Jim Crow Laws. While these were predominantly enacted by the Southern (former Confederate) States, they were, in effect present in most parts of the United States to varying degrees. Black rights organizations, various peaceful civil and social movements and, even, violent riots from the early to mid-20th century all played a part in bringing about relative racial equality.

Prominent Civil Rights Groups

1.    National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)

The NAACP was founded in 1909 to counter the ongoing violence faced by the black community at the hands of white supremacists such as the KKK. The organization was formed by the prominent civil rights leaders of the time to fight against social, political, educational, and legal inequality that members of the black community were subjected to. It is the largest civil rights organization in the country with over 2200 branches and chapters and over 2 million activists today. 

2.    Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)

CORE is an African American civil rights organization that played an important role in the Civil Rights Movement. It was founded in 1942 to fight for social, political, economic and legal equality for everyone regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, ability, religion or sexual orientation. The founding members included white and black members, as well as members of both genders. It sought to apply nonviolent principles and tactics to bring an end to segregation and inequality.

3.    Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)

The SCLC, now known simply as the Southern Leadership Conference, is an African American civil rights organization that played a pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther king Jr. was the SCLC’s first president. The history of the SCLC can be traced to the Montgomery Bus Boycott following Rosa Parks’ arrest and mistreatment after refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. The boycott lasted for over a year and resulted in the desegregation of the city’s public transport.

4.    Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)

The SNCC was a civil rights organization founded with the intention to encourage black student involvement in the civil rights movement. Ella Baker, then a director of the SCLC, set up the first meeting of what would eventually become the SNCC – a more radical branch of the civil rights movement. It aimed to encourage civil leaders to look beyond integration and aim for overall social change.

Black white handshake bridging racial divide
Outside a freedom school in Indianola, Mississippi in 1964, where grassroots organizing took place.

The Civil Rights Movement

While black people had received freedom from slavery and had made successful strides toward achieving racial equality, it wasn’t until the Civil Rights Movement led by prominent activists including Martin Luther King Jr that the African American community was truly able to challenge white supremacy. It all began with the Brown v Board of Education ruling in 1954 that allowed Reverend Brown to send his child to a white school. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, restaurant sit-ins and a range of other successful campaigns followed that culminated in the March on Washington to the Lincoln Memorial attended by almost a quarter of a million people to hear Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream,” speech. These efforts resulted in the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. 

Racial Issues in the 21st Century

Black Lives Matter Fist

African Americans are no longer fighting for the right to vote or freedom from slavery. However many believe that the battle for racial equality is far from over. For example, a poll conducted by the W.K Kellog Foundation found that:

  • 74% of the respondents felt young people of color do not get adequate social support
  • Nearly 2/3rd of responded stated that they were in a better financial condition than they were in a few years ago. However, 82% showed concern that white people doing the same jobs were likely to be better paid.
  • 52% reported feeling that the general portrayal of African Americans in the media tends to be negative.
  • 60% agreed that there is progress in the access to quality health care.
  • Nearly 1/3rd of the respondents expressed concern that black children do not have access to the same quality of education as white students.
  • 44% reported that they knew someone who committed suicide or was killed.
  • 74% felt that there was little to no improvement in the efforts to reduce crime in predominantly black neighborhoods.

You do not need to look at polls or conduct extensive academic research to know that race-based issues still exist in the United States. You only need to turn on the TV or have a look at the abundance of social media platforms available today to come across racial prejudice or injustice. 

i) https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/racial-equality
ii) https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/slavery#section_4
iii) https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured-documents/emancipation-proclamation
iv) https://www.history.com/topics/american-civil-war/reconstruction
v) https://www.ushistory.org/us/35.asp
vi) https://www.history.com/topics/early-20th-century-us/jim-crow-laws
vii) https://www.naacp.org/about-us/
viii) https://nationalsclc.org/about/history/
ix) https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/zcpcwmn/revision/1

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