History of Racism In The United States

History of Racism In The United States

Racism is the belief that one’s race, skin color, or more generally, one’s group, be it of religious, national or ethnic identity, is superior to others in humanity. 

The history of racism in the American landscape can primarily be traced back to the European colonization of North America beginning in the late 15th century. Various groups have bore the brunt of it, manifested in discriminatory laws, social practices, and criminal behavior directed toward a target group. The following are a list of just a few and their experiences. 

Racism against Native Americans

With the Europeans’ arrival on North America’s shores from Spain and England and their systematic plan to subdue and conquer the land, came racism and bigotry against Native Americans. Europeans believed the original inhabitants of America were heathens and savages who needed to be civilized through Christianity and European culture. This led to genocide, mass murder, 99 percent of their land stolen, attempts to wipe out Native American religion, culture, and traditions, as well as forced assimilation through institutions like residential schools and the establishment of “Indian reservations.” 

For hundreds of years, media portrayal of this continent’s first inhabitants as bloodthirsty savages has helped justify European abuses against Native Americans. There are significant  long-term effects of this treatment including the fact that according to the National Institute of Mental Health, Native Americans have the highest suicide rate of any ethnic group in the United States today.

Racism against African-Americans

Many of the Africans forcibly brought to America starting in 1619 arrived as slaves, kidnapped from their homelands in various parts of Africa. A number of them were known to be royalty and literate. African men, women, and children were stripped of their names and identities, forced to “Christianize,” tortured, whipped, raped and sexually abused, and in many cases, lynched or hanged at the whims of their white masters. At this time slavery was central to maintaining their vast properties and land. Families were separated through the process of buying and selling slaves. While not all Africans in America were slaves, a large number were, particularly in the southern states. For those Africans in America who were free, discriminatory laws barred them from owning property and voting. There was a belief in the intrinsic inferiority of dark-skinned peoples by the dominant white majority that held them back from full equality in the U.S.

Although slavery was ultimately outlawed and laws prohibiting discrimination against African-Americans passed, racism against this community continued. Lynchings post-1865 are just one example of this. White supremacists organized groups that propagated racism, hatred, and violence throughout the country. Most notable of these was the Ku Klux Klan.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are 100 active white nationalist and 99 active neo-Nazi groups in the country today. In October 2020, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf delared that white supremacist violent extremists “have been exceptionally lethal in their abhorrent, targeted attacks in recent years.” Six months later, Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas declared domestic violent extremism “poses the most lethal and persistent terrorism-related threat to the homeland today.” 

Violence and discrimination against African-Americans persists. According to a July 2020 poll, a large majority of Americans, 71%, believe that race relations in the United States are either very or fairly bad, a 16-point increase since February that year. The poll was conducted just a few weeks after the May 25, 2020, homicide of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, who was killed by the white police officer Derek Chauvin who while arresting him pressed his knee onto his neck. The incident was caught on video. Autopsy reports confirmed that he died by asphyxiation.

Longstanding police brutality and racism against African-Americans, scholars say, is a legacy of the brutal treatment meted out to them during slavery. Floyd’s death ignited protests against racism and police brutality that summer. Despite a pandemic raging across the country and the world, Americans came out in the thousands to demonstrate. 

In more subtle ways, systemic racism against African-Americans persists via discrimination from the cradle to the grave. These range from deep-seated inequality in housing and health to biased practices in employment and education

The Fair Employment Practices Commission has found that African-Americans face discrimination in one out of every five job interviews. The American Sociological Association notes that, “today employers use different phases of the hiring process to discriminate against minorities (e.g., recruiting from primarily white schools instead of through job training programs) and offer higher status jobs and pay to white employees. Reports of job discrimination against African Americans are correlated with darker complexion, higher education, immigrant status, and young age.”

Racism against Latin Americans

The story of Latin American discrimination goes as far back as 1492 with the so-called discovery of the New World. Spanish colonists began forcibly taking the wealth, lands, and lives of the “natives” in what is now known as Latin America. They also introduced African slaves to these lands and systematically oppressed both groups with forced conversions and labor, stripping them of their basic human rights and cultural heritage. Discrimination against Latin Americans has continued throughout the centuries in different parts of North America. 

What is today Mexico, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and California were once colonies belonging to Spain. In 1822, Mexican settlers, following the example of the American Revolution, rebelled against the Spanish government and won their own war of independence. By 1846, less than 25 years after Mexico became a free nation, the U.S. had invaded and entered into war with Mexico in order to obtain their territories north of the Rio Grande River and westward all the way to California. In 1848 Mexico surrendered to the terms set by the U.S., transferring ownership of New Mexico, California, Texas, Utah, most of Arizona, Colorado, and Wyoming for $15 million when the United States won the Mexican-American War. As part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, 55% of the Mexican territory was granted to the U.S. and with that land came new citizens. During that period the Mexican-American population grew considerably and emigration to the U.S. was popular for other Latinos from the 19th century and until today. 

As large American employers like the Southern Pacific Railroad exploited the use of cheap labor, anti-Latino sentiment grew. Latinos were barred from white establishments, segregated into urban barrios, and treated as a foreign underclass, even though many were U.S. citizens. This occurred not only with Mexican Americans in the Southwest, but with Puerto Ricans and other Latin Americans in the Northeast, and Cubans and other Caribbeans in the Southeast. 

In the late 1920s, anti-Mexican sentiment spiked as the Great Depression began. As the stock market tanked and unemployment grew, Anglo-Americans accused Mexicans and other foreigners of stealing American jobs. As fears about jobs and the economy spread, 2 million people of Mexican descent were forcibly removed or “repatriated” from the country even though up to 60% of them were American citizens. The impact on Spanish-speaking communities was devastating.

Today, an estimated 54 million Latinos live in the U.S. and around 43 million people speak Spanish. Although Latinos are the country’s largest minority, anti-Latino prejudice and discrimination is still common, impacting housing, employment, education, and legal realms for Latino citizens and legal residents. Anti-immigrant sentiment has been commonly used in political campaigns, such as President Trump’s insistence on the construction of a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. 

Racism against Japanese-Americans

Following Japan’s December 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, racism against Japanese-Americans intensified. Like Muslims after the 9/11 attacks, Japanese-Americans were targets of harassment, discrimination, and government surveillance. Members of the community lost homes, jobs, and businesses. But the worst blow was the February 1942 Executive Order signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt that authorized the internment of Japanese-Americans. They were now deemed enemies of the state. Over half of the 120,000 Japanese-Americans sent to the internment camps were born and raised in the U.S. and had never set foot in Japan. Half of those sent to the camps were children.

The Executive Order allowed for the forced exclusion of Japanese-Americans from certain areas to ensure “security against sabotage and espionage and property.” Some of those imprisoned died in the camps due to a lack of proper medical care. Others were killed for not obeying orders.

According to a 1943 report published by the War Relocation Authority which ran the camps, Japanese-Americans were housed in "tarpaper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind." These overcrowded accommodations were bleak and surrounded by barbed wire. President Roosevelt himself called them "concentration camps."

Racism against Chinese-Americans

When former President Donald Trump implemented the 2017 Muslim Ban that barred immigration of Muslims it was not the first time a group had been targeted. The act had a precedent: The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This law prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers. It was rescinded in 1943. However, like Japanese-Americans, Chinese-Americans faced open discrimination in housing, education, and employment. From the fears of the “yellow peril” that restricted immigration to the U.S. to whites, to Trump referring to the COVID-19 pandemic as “Chinese virus” and “Kung flu,” this prejudice remains. The latter incidents have been linked to a significant rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Racism against Jewish-Americans

Although Jews first arrived in America over 300 years ago and enjoyed a certain level of religious freedom, anti-Semitism was acceptable and common socially, and was legal in some cases. For example, some states in the late 18th century barred those who were not Christian from voting or holding public office. These barriers were later removed, principally with the enactment of the Bill of Rights.

The exclusionary Immigration Act of 1924 was also used against Jews. During the Holocaust in Europe in the 1940s, a ship carrying over 900 primarily German Jewish refugees was denied permission to land on U.S. soil. The ship was forced to return to Europe, but only one-third of the passengers survived the genocide of Jews on the continent at the time.

The Ku Klux Klan, one of the most virulent and violent hate groups in America, did not just direct their rage at African-Americans. Jews were also a target. And this hate still results in violence today. On October 27, 2018, a lone 46-year-old gunman killed 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. The shooter was linked to antisemetic groups on social media.

Discrimination against Jews was practiced in some cases in the workforce, and they were denied  entry into a number of resort areas and social clubs. Colleges also practiced discrimination by limiting their enrolment. In a number of cases, Jews were forbidden from buying certain types of property. 

Racism against Muslims

Islamophobia is the term that has been coined to describe the current hostility toward Islam and Muslims in the United States, manifested in prejudice, harassment and discrimination. Former President Donald Trump routinely used Islamophobia as a prime tactic during his election campaigns. He also put the practice into law by implementing the Muslim Ban in 2017, which led to serious mental health consequences for Muslims. 

Views on Islam and Muslims remain negative, even 20 years after the 9/11 terror attacks and the subsequent wars on Iraq and Afghanistan. Muslims in the U.S. have been subject to 700,000 interviews by the FBI, wiretapping, phone surveillance, and racial profiling. Added to this is the rhetoric of hate and misinformation fueled by so-called terrorism experts, right-wing authors, television and radio talk show hosts and personalities, as well as countless blogs and websites that demonize Islam and Muslims and automatically link them to terrorism.

It has also led to attacks on Muslim members of Congress. Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) has long been targeted, with the most recent incident occurring late last year, after Colorado Republican Representative Lauren Boebert jokingly suggested she was a terrorist, while relating a false incident to supporters.

The full details of our American history are not likely to be taught in conventional textbooks. It is up to us to recognize that these versions of history are a snapshot told typically by a white male perspective. In order to reach full understanding, each story, each incident, each long narrative must embrace a multidimensional view which takes into account various perspectives and experiences. It is incumbent upon us to make educating ourselves about the entire history of our country and its people a life goal, inshaAllah. Each perspective matters - it mattered when these events took place and it still matters today in the way it impacts each and every one of us.

Wendy Díaz and Zahirah Lynn Eppard also contributed to this article.

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