You can tell a lot about where a country is today by looking at its history, and probably in no country is this as true as in the U.S., because of our history of slavery and all the issues related to it today. It’s a depressing history, but as hard as it is to look at and as much as most of us would like to not talk about it, it’s informative and relevant to all the race vitriol going on in American politics.
So I went to this lecture given by Brian Gabrial, author of The Press and Slavery in America. He talked about how racism got into our heads and stuck so well, and basically it was because of messages in the press leading up to the Civil War (early 1800s).
At that time newspapers were basically it for news media, and they carried a lot of cultural sway in shaping public opinion. So if you look at newspapers at that time, especially in the South, what were they saying about blacks? It turns out the answer is ...basically nothing.
At the time, blacks were invisible in public life, and the only real stories about them were notices of “slave troubles” and how many slaves had to be killed (shot or hung) because of them getting out of line and scaring white people. White people who read these crime reports naturally got scared.
Even the 1798 Encyclopedia Britannica was in on it: it defined a Negro as “strangers to every sentiment of compassion, and an awful example of the corruption of man when left to himself.”
That gets a big WTF. Imagine using Google today and that’s what you get—the “accepted definition.” Holy shit. Tons of people today still basically believe this definition though.
Pro-slavery arguments in the press at the time clearly didn’t ask for a slave’s opinion, but they still gave one for him. The so called “positive good theory” said that by having Negros do hard labor, while whites would do the brain work, everyone would benefit--blacks especially would be better off than they would be on their own. The governor of South Carolina wrote editorials expressing this opinion during that time. It was a popular opinion in our country--less than 160 years ago!!!—that black people should be thanking whites for enslaving them.
So if you look at the press today, we’re in the same boat, just a little more coded, a little more sophisticated in our racism.
We have a president, who despite facts, is branding all immigrants as criminals, who issued an executive order to publish names of immigrants which will largely focus on nonviolent offenders, painting an entire group as public safety threats for offenses that are more likely to be traffic violations. That list is the same kind of list published 160 years ago. We deport people now rather than hang them, but evidently only because we can’t enslave them.
We have a huge part of our population that imagines gangs and gangbangers are running rampant in every city they’ve never visited and that people in hoodies are to be feared. This same white fear is around today, and we have a president who is fanning it to his advantage.
Anyway, the most powerful moment of the lecture came when an Iranian student in the audience raised his hand and told of his experience, questioning whether or not maybe it was just “in us” to fear the unfamiliar. He said that when he came to the U.S., he saw people with tattoos, with piercings--things, he said, that in his country people would associate with criminals. He said he was initially scared of these people (he quickly got over it, because, well...if you're on a college campus, everybody has a tattoo or a piercing, or both), but he had to meet them, attend classes with them, work with them on research. And his fear went away.
So it’s not in us—it’s culture. Culture is outside of us, and we let it in. Every culture has its evils, evils we let in, which are only to exorcised by getting to know the very people and things we fear.