The U.S. may have abolished slavery in 1865, but racial tensions still divide Americans more than 200 years later. From law enforcement’s use of extreme force to de jure segregation in society, Americans still hold prejudicial misconceptions and, sometimes even, hatred towards people of color. This sample history essay explores racism in America.
Background on American racism
For centuries, racism has been a prominent part of American society. When settlers first came to America, Anti-Federalists feared government interference with slavery and segregation, which they referred to as ‘tradition’ (Parry 2013). During the time of the revolutionary war, Patrick Henry, the same man who famously cried, “Give me liberty or give me death!” believed that it was important to protect the rights of plantation owners to own other humans as property.
Colonists shouted for freedom while simultaneously feared losing their slaves. This mindset, that one human life is worth more than another, contributed greatly to the racial tension and divide in America. Even now, almost fifteen years into the twenty-first century, racial tension is still thick in the air in the United States, as people protest all over the country over white police officers shooting black citizens. Despite all of the technological, societal, and ethical advancement our country has seen, the racial divide continues to be, and always has been, a problem.
History of slavery in America
Slavery was already a part of everyday life in Europe before it was brought to America. The Manifest Destiny doctrine created a culture which needed slaves to thrive. America’s first slaves arrived at the James River colony in Virginia August 1619 and were sold into slavery (EJI). Some of the slaves were from the Caribbean, while others were captured in West Africa. By 1680, African slave labor was the predominant source of farm labor in Virginia.
At the beginning of the Civil War, Virginia was home to the largest slave population of any other state (EJI). At the time, many Africans practiced Islam or various African folk religions, which discounted them from the law forbidding enslavement on Christians. Fearing that slaves may become educated on the Christian religion and convert, which would free them, colonists passed specific laws to prevent the freeing of slaves who might convert to Christianity.
Slave owner’s fears and laws designed to prevent rebellion
Later, laws were passed forbidding slaves from even gathering or being in groups for fear of rebellion, and in 1669, it became legal for slave owners to kill any slaves (EJI). Not only were African-Americans forced into slavery, subjected to all the horrors that accompany enslavement, but they were denied basic liberties like the right to be in a group. Thus, resentment towards the whites grew among the black communities.
In 1712, there was a high slave population in New York City. Due to the urban setting, slaves were given tasks to complete around the city, giving them the opportunity to plan a rebellion. Several ethnic groups took part in the rebellion, not just Africans:
On the 7th of April, rebels set fire to a building that was situated in the center of the city. Attacking the white people in the area with knives, hatchets, and guns, they killed nine and injured seven. The leaders of the rebellion committed suicide and twenty-one others were accused, tried, and executed.
Spain’s offer to save English slaves
Tensions caused by racism in the United States continued to strain. In the 1730s, Spain and England were warring over territory, so Spain offered freedom to any slaves who fled English colonies for Florida. Motivated by this, several slaves planned a rebellion in South Carolina. The group met on September 9th in 1739 at a general store where they killed two white people and stole firearms.
As the group of rebels grew to over eighty, they killed twenty more people and burned seven plantations to the ground (EJI). Once confronted by a militia, who ended up losing twenty men, forty-four rebels were killed and most of the survivors were executed. Known as Stono’s Rebellion for its proximity to the Stono River Bridge, it was the largest slave uprising to occur before the American Revolution (EJI).
The next notable rebellion occurred on January 8th in 1811. A Haitian man, Charles Deslondes, born into slavery, led an anti-slavery rebellion down the Mississippi. At they traveled down the river, they gathered more rebels and attacked plantations they happened across, destroying several plantations but killing only two, while ninety-five black people were killed. Mutiny like this continued to inspire others.
President Lincoln’s plan to reduce racial tension and abolish slavery
The violence and tension between whites and blacks boiled over when Abraham Lincoln was elected President and declared:
“Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free…” (The U.S. Civil War).
By the time he was elected, South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Texas, and Louisiana has already seceded from the Union, fearing that the new President would abolish the slave labor that kept the rich wealthy. On April 12, 1861, Confederate soldiers opened fire with cannons on Fort Sumter and officially began the Civil War (The U.S. Civil War).
Civil War and the incomplete victory for black slaves
While the eventual Union victory freed about four million slaves, it did little to dispel racial tension. Southern states still found ways to put restrictions on black citizens. With the passing of the ‘black codes’, they were able to control the labor and behavior of free African-Americans. The year following the war saw the inception of the Ku Klux Klan, which resisted the progress put forth towards establishing racial equality.
Joined with like-minded groups such as the Knights of the White Camelia and the White Brotherhood, they targeted blacks, but also some white people who supported equality, for violent attacks. Over ten percent of black legislators elected between 1867 and 1868 fell victim to brutal physical attacks, seven of whom were murdered (“Ku Klux Klan”).
Though nearly every southern state had a branch of the Ku Klux Klan, the most Klan activity took place in South Carolina, where five hundred masked Klan members attacked a local jail and lynched eight black prisoners inside (“Ku Klux Klan”). Though Congress passed laws that would greatly deter the violence of the Ku Klux Klan, it remains an active organization with thousands of members nationwide.
Evolution of racism and tolerance over the next century
After the economic depression in the early twentieth century, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the New Deal and enacted new laws to reform the unions and labor force. As laws were changing, social movements began to pop up all across the country, pleading for laws that would grant the black community more civil liberties (Parry 2013).
Reducing racial tensions by desegregating public schools
While not much changed in the next few decades, the United States’ success in World War II put the spotlight on American society. The racial inequality in America became more and more of an embarrassment to the country that was supposed to be an example of sovereignty. On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court unanimously decided that the segregation of public schools was unconstitutional.
This overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson verdict from which came the idea of ‘separate but equal’ (EJI). This sparked outrage in the south and twelve southern states resolved not to comply with the new laws, even if it meant the abolishment of their states’ public school systems.
Emmett Till and increased racism
The year 1955 saw one of the most infamous cases in the history of racial tension in America. A fourteen-year-old boy named Emmett Till left his home in Chicago to visit relative in Mississippi. While in a shop, it was alleged that Emmett acted ‘too familiar’ while speaking to a white woman.
A few days later, the woman’s husband and his brother abducted Emmett at gunpoint from his uncle’s house and beat and tortured him before shooting him in the head and dumping his body into the river (“Post-War Economic Boom and Racial Discrimination”).
Once put on trial, the men were found not guilty by a trial of twelve white males, despite testimony from Emmett’s uncle and a farmer who heard the men torturing Emmett (EJI). This case proved racism was on the rise in America, or, at least, it proved racism never left the great nation. One year later, the brothers gave an interview in Look magazine confessing to the murder and describing it in great detail.
As a result, many black residents stop shopping at stores owned by the brothers’ family, forcing the business to close. That was the only consequence that fell upon Emmett’s murders.
The bombing of Martin Luther King’s home and birth of the nonviolent movement
In January of 1956, the home of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was bombed while his wife and their seven-week-old daughter were home. Though no one was injured, an angry crowd formed near the reverend’s home.
He implored them, “If you have weapons, take them home; if you do not have them, please do not seek them. We cannot solve this problem through violence. We must meet violence with nonviolence.” (EJI).
In 1967, several KKK members were charged with abducting and murdering three black civil rights activists. The movie Mississippi Burning explored the prejudicial nature of the criminal case and covered the violence against black men and women during the Civil Rights Movement. Over the next decade, violence against black people continued, with bombings, riots, and lynchings. Schools closed rather than integrate and interracial couples were jailed for maintaining their relationships.
Racial tensions during the 1970s through 1990s in the U.S.
In the 1970s, there was a resurgence of white racial resentment as presidents such as Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon exploited white racism to gather support from the Republican Party (Parry 2013). There were three notable murders of black citizens that occurred in the decade that followed.
- In 1981, a black teenager named Michael Donald was beaten, strangled, and hanged by a Klansman in what is known as the last recorded lynching in the United States (EJI).
- In 1986, a group of white teenagers savagely beat two black teenagers in the street with baseball bats, killing one of them. Another black teenager, fleeing the attackers, ran into the street and was killed by an oncoming car.
- Three years later, in 1989, three black youths were attacked by a group of thirty white teenagers with baseball bats and guns. One of the black boys was shot twice in the chest and killed (EJI). Being the third murder of a young black man in the last decade, racial tensions were still thick in the air.
The Los Angeles riots and blacks’ refusal to accept racial injustice
The extreme violence displayed during the Civil Rights Movement was thought to be a thing of the past. Thirty years later, injustice towards blacks ushered in a new period of violence. In 1992, after police officers in Los Angeles were acquitted for beating a young black man despite being caught on tape. People were looting, setting fires, and rioting in the streets.
A crowd of black protesters beat a white truck driver after being dragged from his vehicle at an intersection (EJI). The National Guard responded to the unrest and military troops flowed in and out of the city for the next two days to calm the public, but there remained a military presence in the area for weeks. In the end, there were fifty-eight deaths, over three thousand buildings destroyed, and over a billion dollars’ worth of damage.
Racial injustice cases in the new millennium
While it would seem that the new millennium would inspire the turning of a new leaf, unfortunately, that was not the case. In 2007, a black student in Louisiana sat under a tree that white students usually sat under. The next day, the white students hung nooses from the tree and the administration did little to address the problem.
Black on white assaults and an innocent black mother with child
With racial tensions high, a white student was overheard by a group of black students about a white man beating a black boy. The black students attacked the boy, causing a concussion and minor injuries to his face and neck. Despite the relatively minor injuries, the attackers were charged with attempted murder (EJI). Though the charges were later reduced, it did little to dispel the racial tension.
One year later, in 2008, SWAT team members arrived at the home of Tarika Wilson, a black woman, to arrest her boyfriend on suspicion of drug dealing. When the police kicked in her door, they shot the unarmed woman and the fourteen-month-old baby in her arms. Tarika died and the baby had to have his finger amputated (EJI). This sparked outrage over police brutality against the black community, especially when the officer who killed her was charged with a misdemeanor and acquitted.
Racial profiling in the case of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman
In 2012, while walking home from a neighborhood convenience store, a seventeen-year-old boy named Trayvon Martin was followed by neighborhood watch coordinator George Zimmerman. Deciding that Trayvon looked suspicious because he was black, Zimmerman called 911 and was told by the dispatcher to leave the boy alone and let the police handle it.
Instead, Zimmerman confronted Trayvon and fatally shot him. George Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder and was acquitted (EJI). People of all races were outraged at the result, though some tried to insist that Trayvon was just another ‘thug’.
Michael Brown and current racial tensions in law enforcement
Currently, the United States is up in arms about the case of Michael Brown, an eighteen-year-old black boy who was shot six times by a white police officer in August of 2014. The officer, Darren Wilson of the Ferguson, Missouri police department, shot Michael twice in the head (Payne 2014). Despite Ferguson being sixty-seven percent black, there are only three black police officers on the force compared to fifty white officers.
The police did not provide the public with any clarity about the Ferguson shooting case for days and it is a common opinion that they mishandled the case. When Wilson was acquitted, the riots and protests began all over the country, in addition to several foreign countries (Usborne 2014).
People everywhere were disgusted by the implication that black lives are somehow worth less than white ones. Celebrities like actor Morgan Freeman, rapper Macklemore, and basketball player Derick Rose all expressed their dismay over the continued violence and racial divide in our country.
While it was difficult for the public to say who was truly at fault, it could not be denied that there was definitely a bias; eighty-seven percent of all traffic stops in Ferguson involve black drivers, while black people make up only sixty-seven percent of the community (Usborne 2014). This issue proved that racism is still alive and well in America and racial tension is remains very much a part of our everyday lives.
These issues affect all of us; when one group is being mistreated, we should all be concerned, because the freedom that only applies to some is not truly freedom. In the wake of the Michael Brown case, President Obama reminded American citizens that when it comes to problems like these, it isn’t just an issue for the races involved, it is, “an issue for America.” (Usborne 2014).
Though racial tensions in America are certainly still existent, perhaps putting the spotlight on them will inspire change in the future so that we can live in a country where all are truly created equal. Removing racism and discrimination is an integral part of correcting social injustices in the nation.
EJI: Equal Justice Initiative. A History of Racial Injustice. Web. 15 December 2014.
“The U.S. Civil War 1861-1865”. The History Place. The History Place, 1996. Web. 15 December 2014. http://www.historyplace.com/civilwar/.
“Ku Klux Klan”. History.com. A&E Networks, 2009. Web. 15 December 2014. http://www.history.com/topics/ku-klux-klan.
Parry, Robert. “The Long, Sordid History of the American Right and Racism”. AlterNet. Consortium News, 20 May 2013. Web. 15 December 2014. http://www.alternet.org/civil-liberties/long-sordid-history-american-right-and racism?paging=off¤t_page=1#bookmark.
Payne, Sebastian. “America’s racial tensions are on show for the world to see in Ferguson”. The Spectator. The Spectator, 2014. Web. 15 December 2014. http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/2014/08/americas-racial-tensions-are-on-show-for-the-world-to-see-in- ferguson/.
“Post-War Economic Boom and Racial Discrimination”. Understanding Race. American Anthropological Association, 2007. Web. 15 December 2014. http://www.understandingrace.org/history/society/post_war_economic_boom.html.
Usborne, David. “Michael Brown verdict ignites racial tensions that divide America”. The Independent. Independent.co.uk, 2014. Web. 15 December 2014. http://www.indepen dent.co.uk/news/world/americas/michael-brown-verdict-ignites-racial-tensions-that-divide-america-9883089.html.