The Nadir of American race relations (c. 1890 – c. 1940) was when racism got worse among White Americans after blacks were freed as slaves. This affected not just blacks in America but people of colour everywhere White Americans exercised power. Racism against one made racism against all easier and more likely.
- Jim Crow
- The Klan
- racial segregation: black ghettos, sundown towns, Indian reservations, etc.
- racial segregation as “natural”.
- scientific racism
- Social Darwinism
- forced sterilization
- Immigration Act of 1924
- blacks kicked out of Major League Baseball, the Kentucky Derby, the National Football League.
- Japanese American internment
- Mass deportation of Mexican Americans in the 1930s
- Loss of the black vote
- Southern white racist ideas of history:
- John Brown as a madman
- Lincoln as fighting to save the Union, not to free the slaves
- Reconstruction as black and Northern white misrule
- Indian boarding schools
- Black Brute stereotype
- Ideas about intelligence as hereditary, fixed, measurable by IQ tests and different by race
- white man’s burden (white imperialism)
- The Nadir itself as unnamed and unseen.
Back in the 1850s abolitionists had persuaded most white Northerners that slavery was wrong. In the early 1860s they fought and died in the Civil War to free the slaves. President Lincoln made that crystal clear in the Gettysburg Address. That generation of white Northerners was anti-racist enough to:
- pass and uphold laws that gave blacks equal rights,
- overturn state laws against mixed-race marriage,
- play professional sports with blacks,
- allow blacks into their neighbourhoods and schools,
- set up black schools in the South.
By the 1890s those whites were mostly dead and gone.
- gold was to be had by taking Native American land;
- white votes were to be had by giving immigrant whites advantages over blacks;
- brown countries were to be had for the taking, like Hawaii, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Cuba.
In short, power and wealth were to be had by not respecting the rights of people of colour. Racism excused these actions, which led in turn to more racist actions, which led to more racism and so on in a downward racist spiral.
What broke the spiral? Hitler. He took Nadir racism to its logical, terrible conclusions. He wiped out millions of Jews. By that time in America Jews were already white enough for that to seem shocking.
The weakening of Nadir racism was helped by:
- the breakup of French and British colonial empires,
- the Cold War, where America positioned itself as a champion of democracy,
- Truman desegregating the army,
- the Supreme Court desegregating schools,
- blacks getting the vote back.
This created an upward anti-racist spiral.
A new nadir? I first heard about the Nadir – the idea of it but not the name – in the 1980s when some were saying President Reagan was sending America into a new racist nadir. Events since then seem to bear that out:
- mass incarceration of black men,
- school resegregation,
- the more open racism of whites under President Obama,
- Gutting of the Voting Rights Act of 1965,
- Zimmerman murder trial verdict.
Source: mostly James W. Loewen, “Teaching What Really Happened” (2010).