Disclaimer: This is very much a work in progress! It presents a short overview of my current understanding:
European Expansion: English Christians settled the east coast of North America in the 1600s. Most would become White Americans by the 1700s. They were part of the European Expansion, one of the largest human migrations ever.
Genocide: Unlike the Bantu Expansion, we know what these Whites did to the natives of the land they “expanded” into: those who did not die of European diseases were driven off their land, sold into slavery or killed – even women and children, even those who were fellow Christians, even those who had signed treaties.
The line of White American settlement moved westward across North America. By 1900 it had gone straight across the continent, straight across northern Mexico, taking in more farm land than in all of China. Where there had once been 20 million Natives, only 250,000 remained, living in poverty.
Indentured servants: In the 1610s English Christian planters of tobacco used forced gang labour of Europeans – convicts, vagabonds, homeless, “excess poor”, Irish, etc. Workers were paid little to nothing, were ill-housed and ill-fed, whipped and maimed, bought and sold. Those who outlived their contract of four to seven years (most did not), were freed and given some land.
Slavery: Starting in 1619, some of these indentured servants were black Africans. From 1640 to 1723 new laws stripped Blacks of their civil rights, bit by bit, till most became slaves. Slavery became racialized, hereditary, permanent – and mostly Black (sometimes partly Native).
Race: At first, the excuse for robbing others of their land or labour at gunpoint was religion. What Jesus would do. By the 1670s the excuse was race. That was when White Americans started calling themselves “Whites”.
Stereotypes: By 1700 Whites were stereotyping Blacks as:
- different looking in skin colour, hair and lips,
- disagreeable in smell,
- uncivilized, alien, foreign,
- immoral, dangerous, given to crime,
- ungrateful, rebellious,
- having disorganized families.
American Revolution: In 1776 White Americans declared their independence from the British Empire:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Thomas Jefferson wrote those words – while owning 175 Black slaves.
The Reform/Nadir cycle: In its finer moments, America tries to live up to those words:
- 1830s to 1870s: Abolitionists, Civil War, Emancipation, Reconstruction: Black slaves freed, given equal rights (but not 40 acres and a mule).
- 1940s to 1960s: Civil rights movement, anti-racist reforms.
But it is two steps forward, one step back: both periods were followed by a White racist backlash, a nadir of race relations, where the unalienable rights of Blacks and others lacking pure European blood became – alienable.
Enlargements: Meanwhile ideas of Whiteness, of what a “Real” American is, were enlarged to take in wave after wave of newcomers from Europe:
- early 1800s: British (English + Welsh, Scottish, Scotch-Irish);
- late 1800s: Northern European (+ German, Irish, French, etc);
- middle 1900s: European (+ Italian, Polish, Jewish, etc).
Anti-Black racism brought them together, across ethnic, religious and class lines. As Toni Morrison put it:
When they got off the boat, the second word they learned was ”nigger.”
- White Americans: the last 15,000 years – a different sort of history
- Black Canada: A brief history
- The three pillars of American white supremacy – see especially the third pillar, which I was not able to work into this post
- Stuff referenced in the post: