Is This the Beginning of the End of American Racism?Roundup
tags: racism, Donald Trump
IBRAM X. KENDI is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities and the director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. He is the author of several books, including the National Book Award–winning Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America and How to Be an Antiracist.
The united states has often been called a land of contradictions, and to be sure, its failings sit alongside some notable achievements—a New Deal for many Americans in the 1930s, the defeat of fascism abroad in the 1940s. But on racial matters, the U.S. could just as accurately be described as a land in denial. It has been a massacring nation that said it cherished life, a slaveholding nation that claimed it valued liberty, a hierarchal nation that declared it valued equality, a disenfranchising nation that branded itself a democracy, a segregated nation that styled itself separate but equal, an excluding nation that boasted of opportunity for all. A nation is what it does, not what it originally claimed it would be. Often, a nation is precisely what it denies itself to be.
There was a grand moment, however, when a large swath of Americans walked away from a history of racial denial. In the 1850s, slaveholders expanded their reach into the North. Their slave-catchers, backed by federal power, were superseding state and local law to capture runaways (and free Blacks) who had escaped across the Mason-Dixon Line. Formerly enslaved people such as Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, as well as journalists such as William Lloyd Garrison, stood in pulpits across the North and West describing the brutality and inhumanity of slavery. Meanwhile, slaveholders fought to expand their power out west—where white people who did not want to compete with enslaved Black labor were calling for free soil. Beginning in 1854, slaveholders went to war with free-soilers (and abolitionists like John Brown) in Kansas over whether the state—and the United States—would be free or slave. The Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, in 1857, implied that Black people and northern states “had no rights” that slaveholders were “bound to respect.”
Slaveholders seemed intent on spreading their plantations from sea to shining sea. As a result, more and more white Americans became antislavery, whether out of concern for the enslaved or fear of the encroaching slave power. Black Americans, meanwhile, fled the country for Canada and Liberia—or stayed and pressed the cause of radical abolitionism. A critical mass of Americans rejected the South’s claim that enslavement was good and came to recognize the peculiar institution as altogether bad.
The slaveholders’ attempts to perpetuate their system backfired; in the years before the Civil War, the inhumanity and cruelty of enslavement became too blatant for northerners to ignore or deny. Similarly, Trump’s racism—and that of his allies and enablers—has been too blatant for Americans to ignore or deny. And just as the 1850s paved the way for the revolution against slavery, Trump’s presidency has paved the way for a revolution against racism.
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