A Letter and the Legacy of “Not White” in the USA

Posted in Articles, History, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy, Slavery, Social Science, United States on 2014-11-04 18:29Z by Steven

A Letter and the Legacy of “Not White” in the USA

Nursing Clio: Because the Personal is Historical

Adam Turner, Co-founder and Technical Editor

With the events of the past months, and as Austin McCoy discussed here on Nursing Clio last week, it should be clear that white privilege is still alive and well in the United States. Despite the optimism following President Obama’s election six years ago, and the Republican Party’s tweets, we do not yet live in a society where the color of your skin doesn’t matter. To make matters worse, while the discussion should be about how best to fix the problems of racial injustice and economic oppression in the United States, substantial numbers of people refuse to even accept that it’s a problem. They prefer to believe that those who suffer from systemic poverty, police violence, and a biased justice system get only what they’ve earned by being lazy, or breaking the law, or acting badly.

This message comes most clearly from pundits like Bill O’Reilly, who continue to argue that white privilege died with the end of legal segregation in the 1950s and 1960s. More than that, they assert that white Americans are the new victims of discrimination. Going after O’Reilly feels like a cliché at this point, but unfortunately his arguments aren’t nearly as fringe as they should be. People who argue that white privilege doesn’t exist often do a few things:

  1. They point out that state-sanctioned slavery and segregation are over.
  2. They use anecdotes to try to prove systemic change, such as that “the most powerful man in the world is a black American, and the most powerful woman in the world — Oprah Winfrey — is black!” (that’s O’Reilly again).
  3. They suggest that people of color who are not African American benefit from policies designed to address the legacy of slavery that also discriminate against white Americans.

All of these arguments assume that more than 300 years of discrimination and racism can be wiped out by one generation’s worth of civil rights protections (and very little effort to address economic equality). The Supreme Court certainly seemed to believe this when they started dismantling the Voting Rights Act. Based on this assumption, they conclude that white privilege no longer exists, and therefore policies designed to break cycles of inequality discriminate against white Americans. For many white-identified Americans, these conclusions make a lot of sense, especially in light of the economic recession.

This assumption, and the denial of white privilege, misunderstand both the depth and the breadth of racial injustice in the United States.

To get a sense of what I mean, let’s step back 90 years to 1924 to glimpse the long and personal echoes of racism in America. In the spring of that year, a new mother in Virginia received a letter from the head of the state’s Bureau of Vital Statistics. It read:

This is to give you warning that this is a mulatto child and you cannot pass it off as white. A new law passed by the last legislature says that if a child has one drop of negro blood in it, it cannot be counted as white. You will have to do something about this matter and see that the child is not allowed to mix with white children, it cannot go to white schools and can never marry a white person in Virginia. It is an awful thing

The head of the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics, and the man who sent this heartbreakingly cruel letter, was Walter Ashby Plecker. Plecker, along with two other men, led Virginia’s most powerful white supremacist organization, the Anglo-Saxon Club. Together they played a key role in the passage of Virginia’s 1924 Act to Preserve Racial Integrity (the “new law” to which he refers in this letter). The 1924 law, one in a series of laws passed in Virginia during the 1920s based on racism, nativism, and eugenics ideology of the time, explicitly divided people into just two racial categories, “white” and “colored,” and forbade marriage (and thus implicitly sex) between the two. Virginia wasn’t the only state with such a law, but it became famous as the origin of the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case that overturned these laws…

Read the entire article here.

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