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"The reading of these documents enabled me to utter my thoughts, and to meet the arguments brought forward to sustain slavery… There was no getting rid of it… The silver trump of freedom had roused my soul to eternal wakefulness. Freedom now appeared, to disappear no more forever.” -- Frederick Douglass, on reading "The Columbian Orator"

The Italians and the Irish came to the US, most with very little, except the clothes on their backs, as the saying goes. Most suffered from hunger or homelessness. Or worse, both. Without employment or with life-threatening employment in the mines or on railroads, their situation, at first was, precarious. In short, Italians and Irish lacked the qualifying identity as members of the privileged Anglo-Saxon community… Temporarily.

Their status as second-class citizens lasted only as long as being designated “white American” eluded them. Being white and free meant something. Once the Italians and the Irish gained the prized status - “white American,” previously closed doors opened.

What would it mean, however, to be white and free when African Americans were also free -- what did whiteness mean?

Enslaved Blacks weren’t free. Americans hadn’t anticipated freedom for the entire population. "White" became synonymous with free and safe while "black" became synonymous with enslaved and dangerous. It’s not surprising that Americans cultivated a way of thinking concerning the presence of free Black people. After the “unimaginable” happened, writes Khalil Gibran Muhammad, in Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, frightened white Americans in the 19th Century had to deal with free Black people.

The Presence of Black People

White Americans conceptualize the Irish and Italians as people posing no “‘threat to Anglo-Saxon purity.’” But for the influential Harvard scientist and writer Nathaniel S. Shaler, writing in 1884, the “presence of black people in America” represented “‘a danger to America greater and more insuperable than any of those that menace the other great civilized states of the world.’”

The existence of African Americans in America, free African Americans in America, became a problem to be solved. What do we do with Black people who are free? Black people who begin to think themselves equal to white Americans?

Becoming White and Staying Black in America

In my college days, I remember reading about the last days of Richard Nixon’s presidency. He stands (or is he kneeling?) for hours before portraits of his predecessors in the White House… Is he lamenting a lost war on crime and drugs? Or is Nixon recounting the successful rise in the incarceration of Black Americans?

In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander recalls that one of Richard Nixon’s most influential advisers, H. R. Haldeman, revealed that his boss believed the ills of America were due to the presence of Black people. “‘He [President Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks…’” Nixon certainly knew his history! He certainly knew how to reach the hearts and minds of America -- calling for “law and order" did the trick.

Shaler's Ideas Never Died

Writing his first article on what he called, the “Negro Problem,” Shaler, writes Khalil Gibran Muhammad, argued that the assimilation of Black people into white society would pose a grave danger not just for America, but for the entire “civilized” world.

Shaler recognized that men of science, men of the industrial age, and men of the modern world had “inherited this predicament from the seventeenth-and eighteenth-century fathers.” The “Negro Problem” was an inheritance. What of racial purity? The previous generation of slaveholders had been “too stupid to see or too careless to consider anything but immediate gains,” Shaler explained, and now white people have a problem: “terrible things,” he argued,” “await a nation bent on handing ballots to beasts.”

According to Muhammad, Shaler did well to sell his “Negro Problem” and his agenda to solve it, with an “unbiased” mind, of course. Shaler is followed by other “unbiased” minds such as the “pioneering racial demographer” Frederick L. Hoffman who, like Shaler, supports his ideas about race with statistics, “especially racial crime statistics.”

In the post-emancipation era, other scientists join Shaler and Hoffman. Hinton Rowan Helper thought to produce research that would prove what anyone with eyes could see—the inferiority of African Americans. His research would bring to the study of race, particularly the “Negro Problem,” “credibility” and “objectivity.”

Samuel George Morton, a physician and naturalist, begins collecting “eight hundred skulls” in 1820. By 1849, writes Muhammad, Morton’s research of skulls confirmed with certainty that the English, the German, and the white American were racial superiority to the African American. For sure. He, Morton, studied the skulls! Morton’s protege, Josiah C. Nott, thought to call his research on the “Negro Problem” “‘nigger business’” or “‘niggerology.’”

Academia was cashing in on supplying credible and objective “facts” to support the ideology of white supremacy in the US. The contribution of Americans scholars in “Anglo-Saxon civilizationist discourse” put a “Eurocentric spin on white supremacy,” writes Muhammad. For historians, naturalists, political scientists, sociologists, and others, the study of “race” results in the belief that democracy’s origins begins and ends with the Anglo-Saxon. Democracy is a good idea, so long as it is an idea developed and practiced for and by Anglo-Saxons!

Shaler and Helper. Jefferson, J. Q. Adams, and Jackson. William Byrd II and Robert Beverly. Thomas Nelson Page and Thomas Dixon Jr….

The 19th Century, the philosopher Friedrich Hegel offered his declaration on Africa and Black people and their descendants. In the history of “Ideas,” Africa and it’s offspring are absent. Africa has nothing to offer the world because it’s a “darkness” that has no history.

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Misleading Statistics

“The more I studied the situation,” wrote Ida B. Wells, “the more I was convinced that the Southerner had never gotten over his resentment that the Negro was no longer his play thing, his servant, and his source of income.” In her autobiography, Crusade for Justice, Wells describes how her crusade against lynching began when three of her friends (owners of the People’s Grocery Company in Memphis) were lynched while she was away in Natchez, Mississippi.

The three men were arrested, and the police proceed to conduct a raid (on a Sunday morning) under the pretense that “others” might be involved in a “conspiracy.” Hundreds of men were “dragged from their homes and put in jail on suspicion.” Sunday and Monday night, writes Wells, Black men guarded the jail; but they relaxed their guard on the third night, thinking the “crisis” was over. A white mob entered the jail on the third night while Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart were sleeping.

It was March 9, 1892. Wells, on returning to Memphis, wrote of what happened to African Americans in town and urged African Americans to stay in town. “I felt that one had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap.” The whites put out a call to burn down the press—Wells’ Free Speech newspaper. “For the first time in their lives the white people of Memphis had seen earnest, united action by Negroes which upset economic and business conditions,” writes Wells. And then the whites took action. On March 27th, the mob destroyed the building housing Wells’ newspaper.

In the meantime, the lynching continued. The justification for the lynchings was linked to the “criminality” of African American men. After all, hadn’t our best minds addressed the “Negro Problem” by explaining why African Americans naturally resorted to crime? To raping and stealing? The discourse of the privileged, learned men who used statistics to charge African Americans with all manner of crimes.

The creation of images of African American men as rapists and thieves and of African American women as lascivious not only stirred up white fear of African American people but also represented the way white America viewed African Americans in general. Criminal, until proven otherwise. If ever! The average white American need not have read Shaler’s warning of the “grave danger” America faced with the presence of free African American people as co-workers, neighbors, store owners, doctors, newspaper editors. The statistics and the images within “intellectual” narratives traveled well.

But so did Ida B. Wells. And she, too, armed herself with statistics and images. Wells spoke of history and a pattern of white violence. The more America lynched Blacks, the more she wrote and lectured and organized protest against customers, policies, and laws intended to maintain white supremacy.

Condemnation of Blackness

In Condemnation of Blackness, Muhammad acknowledges Wells as the first of her generation of Black scholars “to link the language of civilization with statistics to defend the race against charges of criminality.” Wells publishes, writes Muhammad, her first two pamphlets, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (1892) and A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States (1894) “at the same time that Hoffman authored his first articles.” That’s Frederick L. Hoffman again!

As Muhammad writes, Hoffman’s Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro, 1896, provides justification for the self-destructive behavior of white Americans. Chalk it up to “a diseased society” rather than a “diseased manhood and womanhood.” If white criminality is present, Hoffman declares, look to “economic inequality”!

Wells’ statistics turned the Anglo-Saxon “discourse on whiteness, civilization, and manliness” on its head by questioning the notion of white men as the picture of “innocence.” Wells’ image of a lynching, Muhammad writes, asked the reader to picture a typical lynching and recognize the reality of white violence. Lynching, Wells showed, was “an act of barbarity by white men.” These were the white men, Wells explained, who committed “barbarity” on innocent Black men for the “crime” of sleeping with white women while “they themselves brutally and boldly raped black women.”

W. E. B. Du Bois, Muhammad writes, denounced the work of scholars such as Hoffman and others who drew “‘absurd conclusions’ based on the ‘unscientific use of the statistical method.’” By 1911, Du Bois, in his capacity as research director for the NAACP, and as editor of the Crisis, makes a list of police confrontations with African American people, ending with the “excessive use of deadly force,” writes Muhammad. Du Bois found that in most cases, African Americans were engaged in “self-defense” against white men and police officers. “In cities across the nation, such violent confrontations with police officers would continue to show Black children and adults alike that justice was… ‘For White People Only.’”

As Wells and Du Bois understood, Hoffman’s text would provide the gun powder to target African Americans for execution for generations to come. And, indeed, Hoffman’s declaration that African American’s “self-destructive” behavior was the example of criminality in America still lingers as a belief held by many white Americans. African American’s “self-destructive” behavior is evident of the presence of a corrupt pathology—only made worse by education and religion. African Americans such as Wells and Du Bois, As activists, teachers, and Black church organizers in the 19th Century, the likes of a Wells and Du Bois, influenced a new generation of African Americans to pursue training a study in “education” and “moral training” in an effort to undo the damage done by white men such as Hoffman and Frederick Star, at the University of Chicago, who, in praising Hoffman’s work, validated the “educator” as an “unbiased foreigner.” The “white press applauded the violence” of white vigilantes, Wells noted in her day. In our day, we hear the applause for young white vigilante and murderer, Kyle Rittenhouse!

Current policies and laws follow the discourse that dehumanized Africans Americans since the end of the Civil War. These policies and laws have always been implemented to legalize and to further the use of violence in order to marginalize and disenfranchise Black people in the US.

How do we not recognize these pogroms as evidence in the rise of “lynchings,” carried out as part of a routine Sunday of worship followed by a “picnic” in the park, under a really good tree or two? Or maybe the violence takes place when a Black is in a car or is jogging or walking. Or sleeping.


The effort to disenfranchise Black America rather than confront the inequity at the root of a white supremacist version of “American freedom” is both our past and present. 

But Black Americans know there’s a future. And a history of resistance, too!

Lenore Daniels