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The Problem of Whiteness

Dec. 27, 2016
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UW-Madison Bascom Hall

Just like the Republican legislators who have been thrown into a tizzy, I really know very little about a course being offered at UW-Madison with the intentionally provocative title “The Problem of Whiteness.”

But as someone who has been white for a long time, I am very familiar with many of the ugly problems whiteness has created throughout our nation’s history, up to and including the recent presidential election.

I grew up in one of those nearly all-white small towns that responded overwhelmingly to the direct appeals to racial and religious bigotry by Donald Trump. But it wasn’t until I went away to college that I learned just how explicitly white superiority had been written into our nation’s laws from the very beginning.

Indiana University was where professors taught me in the first Article of the U.S. Constitution our Founding Fathers created a novel version of arithmetic to count African American slaves as three-fifths of a human being to give Southern states more representatives and greater political power in Congress.

It was factual, early American history that’s still politically relevant today. The very same subterfuge is used to increase the political power of small towns in Wisconsin’s Legislature and those of most other states.

The disproportionately black and brown inmate populations of state prisons located in small towns throughout Wisconsin are counted to give those mostly white, rural areas more representatives in the Legislature.

Counting minority populations they don’t represent increases the political power of small-town Republican legislators like state Rep. Daniel Murphy of Greenville to threaten to continue defunding higher education unless the University of Wisconsin stops teaching courses educating students about anything right-wing legislators don’t want them to know.

Like the nation’s history of legalizing white supremacy. There are plenty more examples throughout American history where that three-fifths-of-a-man chicanery came from.

Like the Dred Scott decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1857 that determined an African American slave had no right to sue a white owner for assault for beating him, along with his wife and daughter.

The court ruled Scott had no rights at all because “it is too plain for argument” that blacks “have never been regarded as part of the people or citizens of the state, nor supposed to possess any political rights which the dominant race might not withhold or grant at their pleasure.”

Equally ugly was Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. Ironically because of later protests over blacks pushed to the back of the bus. Homer Plessy was a black man objecting to blacks being forced to sit in the front railroad car, which filled with soot from the coal-burning engine.

In Plessy, the Supreme Court invented the transparent inequality of “separate but equal,” ruling that both blacks and whites had access to rail transportation, never mind that African Americans were choking on black smoke and whites rode in clean comfort in all-white cars farther back.

Trump’s Appeals to Bigotry

Examples of legalized abuse of people of color by whites continue throughout American history even under some of our most admired presidents.

President Franklin Roosevelt, whose New Deal revolutionized U.S. government to serve the American people, also shamefully permitted more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans to lose their homes and businesses and be imprisoned in concentration camps during the anti-Japanese hysteria following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

President Dwight Eisenhower carried out an inhumane program with the openly racist name Operation Wetback of forcibly deporting more than 1.5 million immigrant Mexican workers, leaving large numbers of them to die in remote Mexican deserts with little food or water.

Both of those ugly stains on American democracy, one by a Democratic president and the other by a Republican, were praised by Trump during his presidential campaign. Trump was justifying his own extreme proposals to ban people from entering the U.S. based on religion or nationality and to round up and forcibly deport more than 11 million mostly Latino immigrants.

The success of such appeals to bigotry gave us a new president whose election is publicly celebrated by the Ku Klux Klan and a recent gathering of neo-Nazis in Washington, D.C., demonstrating their enthusiasm for President Trump with stiff-arm salutes and cries of “Hail Trump!” and “Hail Victory!”

The latter phrase is the English translation of “Sieg Heil!” Who says Trump supporters are poorly educated? Many of them are bilingual.

Trump’s election, which shocked much of America and the world, was driven by overwhelming support from racially isolated, mostly white small towns and rural areas.

That would seem to suggest this country needs much more education about the damage racism has done to the American values of equality and equal treatment under the law.

By all means, higher education should be a place where students of every race who want to understand the source of many of our conflicts can learn about “The Problem of Whiteness.”

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