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How Racist Ideas Shaped the Era of Reconstruction

Historians in the News
tags: racism, Reconstruction, African American history, Henry Louis Gates



Growing up, I’ve heard many definitions of the term racism, however just last year I read the best definition to date. In his critically acclaimed work, How to Be An Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi argues that racism is a marriage of racist policies and racist ideas that produces and normalizes racial inequities. Kendi goes on to say that racism is a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity and are substantiated by racist ideas. In Stony The Road, Henry Louis Gates Jr. proceeds to show readers how a powerful collection of racist policies instituted against Black people were substantiated by racist ideas about Black people. Stony The Road is where Gates offers readers a history of American racism in its second iteration: Jim Crow.

American racism’s first iteration was legalized enslavement of Africans and their descendants for benefit of the national economy. The racist idea that substantiated legalized enslavement was the myth of Black inferiority expressed by some of our nation’s founders like Thomas Jefferson, who said that “the Blacks… are inferior to the Whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” Following the Civil War, Reconstruction emerged as, what Gates calls, one of the most ambitious periods in American history. Here, Gates describes the imagination of what America was to be, had Reconstruction not failed, and the backlash that led to its failure— assuring that such strivings wouldn’t happen for another one hundred years.

Usually, scholars tend to focus on the racist policies that lead us to our current time. Yet Gates takes a different course in his text–spending the majority of the time examining racist ideas and how those ideas reinforced racist policies. Gates begins with Reconstruction. In chapter one, Gates tells of the gains made during Reconstruction; namely the thirteenth through fifteenth amendments and the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and of 1875. In addition to those major gains, Gates speaks about the work of the Freedman’s Bureau, the first Black members of Congress, and the various strivings of Black people post-slavery. He also speaks of the backlash that occurred due to and after reconstruction; from the Black Codes and President Johnson rescinding General Sherman’s Special Field Order #15 to various court decisions that did not protect Black voting rights and rescinded key parts of the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. Next came the doctrine of separate but equal. In a battle with liberty and justice on one side and anti-Blackness on the other, the latter proved to be the victor. What both accompanied and further followed were the racist ideas to justify court decisions, legislative enactments, and executive enforcement.

Read entire article at Black Perspectives

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