Volume 33, Number 4

A History of “Whiteness” in America:
Something Done to Us that Affects All of Us

Fred Schepartz

My current employer places a great deal of emphasis on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. We are encouraged to join affinity groups and attend trainings, both internal and external.

Recently, I attended a pair of webinars with historian Jacqueline Battalora, “Whiteness Competency” and “Go Back to Go Forward.” The gist of her presentations is that “whiteness” in America is essentially an artificial construct that has led to centuries of oppression against People of Color and a warping of the perception of “white” people in terms of how they view themselves and people who are not white.

The presentation appears to be a distillation of her book Birth of a White Nation.

As Battalora lays it out, the story begins in early Colonial America in the 1600s. Not long after Black slaves arrive in America, there is a substantial influx of European indentured servants. She focuses specifically on the colonies of Virginia and Maryland where the main crop was tobacco, which was extremely labor-intensive.

According to Battalora, at that time, there was not a great deal of difference between Black slaves and European indentured servants. They viewed themselves as African or European, not Black or white. And their circumstances were very similar as well. Both as slaves and indentured servants, their rights were limited. They were bound to another but could eventually become free and thus enjoy the full extent of rights that were available at that time.

And in fact, Africans and Europeans viewed themselves as equals. They socialized together and often entered into marriages together. And by the 1670s, when conditions worsened due to a shortage of new available European labor, Africans and Europeans joined forces to fight the existing power structure.

Quickly came the backlash against this alliance. In 1664, Maryland passed a law punishing British women who married African men. Other laws passed imposing harsh punishments against indentured servants, including extending the years of servitude for minor infractions. At the same time, the number of enslaved Africans increased.

This all happened as the price of tobacco dropped, and taxes increased. And opportunities for freed people decreased.

In response, Africans and Europeans rose up in the form of Bacon’s Rebellion, which raged in Virginia for more than a year. For the united laborers, Bacon’s Rebellion was an opportunity to challenge the existing capitalist structure. However, in the wake of the Rebellion, this was an opportunity for British elites to assert their grip on power in the colonies.

Their response was divide and conquer, to create an underclass based on the color of a person’s skin.

In 1681, we see the first reference to “white,” with the passage what would be the first of many anti-miscegenation laws that specifically referenced “white” people and prohibited “white” people from marrying non-white people.

And think about how far reaching that would be. That law passed in 1681 and would not be overturned until Loving v. Virginia in 1967. And let us keep in mind that Roe was based on the same theory as Loving, so Dobbs could put that precedent in severe jeopardy.

More white supremacist laws quickly passed. Free Blacks could not hold office. Whites were required to be paid up front for goods including guns and powder. Free Blacks were prohibited from possessing weapons. Free Blacks were prohibited from testifying against Whites.

Thus, this artificial construct of “whiteness” quickly became baked into the fabric of America and would only get worse as a new nation was formed.

This process starts immediately with the Naturalization Act of 1790 that restricted citizenship to “any alien, being a free white person.” That means, to become a United States citizen one had to be white, and they cannot be a slave or an indentured servant.

From 1790 to the present day, we have seen laws and policies aimed at preventing People of Color from entering the United States.

And of course, over the centuries, at every level of government, there have been efforts to legislate white supremacy, to give whites the advantage in every imaginable sector, be it economic opportunity, housing, voting—you name it.

And while we saw great progress through the Civil Rights movement and more recently Black Lives Matter, there has been the backlash and the sense that we are going backwards. For instance, in the wake of the Supreme Court gutting the Voting Rights Act, we have seen stepped up racial gerrymandering to dilute if not disenfranchise Black voters.

At around this point in her presentation, Battalora paused to let attendees reflect on what they had just learned. She asked for one word to describe their emotions. Generally, the words chosen were sad and angry. One woman asked, “why don’t they teach this in school?”

I think we know the answer.

Myself personally, I did not know the specific history, but I was not necessarily that surprised. Still, it is quite mindblowing.

This truly is something that has been done to us, all of us.

But what if this had never happened?

Reverse engineering can be tricky and difficult to determine.

First, the United States is not the only country in the world that divides and conquers based on race.

Second, given the nature of capitalists, economic pressures would have eventually led to some sort of tightening of the screws against slaves and other non-freed people.

Still, I cannot help but thing how much better this country would be if white supremacy was not so ingrained and internalized by our society.

Since that presentation, I find myself reflecting on this history a great deal. I grapple with perceptions that are not perceptions that I want to have.

This question becomes that much more crucial as we head into this month’s election, an election that may very well shape the future of this nature for years, if not decades.

But before I start bashing the Republican Party as the party of white supremacy, I want to reiterate that this problem is the problem of all Americans. Liberals are not immune. After all, right here in very liberal Dane County, we see the greatest disproportionality of Black incarceration of any county in the country. The oppression of Black people has long been a bi-partisan effort.

But it is not the Democratic Party that screams about Critical Race Theory.

I believe some, much or most of the Democratic Party is willing to open its eyes to this history and the implications therein. The Democratic Party is way more diverse than the Republican Party, with way more People of Color in leadership positions.

Jim Clyburn’s endorsement of Joe Biden won him the South Carolina primary, which led to Biden getting elected president.

And it was the efforts of many, many Black activists who helped Biden get elected.

Meanwhile, it has gotten to the point where the Republican Party does not even pretend to not be racist. Giant Baby Man is openly racist. Again, they used gerrymandering to dilute the Black vote in various states. Following the 2020 election, they targeted urban areas with large Black populations such as Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Detroit and Milwaukee as places where they claimed that widespread cheating was happening when the only thing that was actually happening was that Black people were voting in large numbers.

The dog whistle has turned into a megaphone.

Recently, Sen. Tommy Tuberville gave a speech with blatantly racist language. And no Republican stepped up to denounce him.

And right here in Wisconsin, attack ads against Mandala Barnes, who is running against incumbent Senator Ron Johnson, have used racist imagery to attack Barnes, who is Black. The ads all feature crime, and all show Barnes’s face. Clearly, the ads attempt to scare white people by stoking deep-seated fears of Black people.

So what is to be done?

First, the election is next week. Do not sit this one out! Go out and vote. Urge friends and families to vote. If you have the time and energy, volunteer. Knock on doors. Make phone calls. Donate money if you can.

And very importantly, support Black candidates, especially candidates like Barnes who are being outspent by billionaires who are spending millions on racist attack ads.

Second, for the long term, educate yourself. Don’t just take my word for it. Go out and do the research. Learn for yourself this history and then reflect on it. This is not meant to say that anyone is a bad person, but go and look at your perceptions. Look at your pre-conceived notions, your implicit bias. We all have implicit bias. It would be difficult if not impossible not to considering the imagery we are constantly bombarded with.

But with awareness we can overcome.