BTSF in chronological order (most recent articles appear first):

Monday, August 4, 2014

Timeline of Racism (Part 1)

This post is intended to provide a brief overview of racism against African Americans in the United States since slavery, tracing the lineage that gives rise to our current situation. 

Clearly, the effects of racism extend well beyond what will be covered here, but the very vastness of the topic is what necessitates its limitation. Hopefully I, or others, will add subsequent BTSF posts to outline racism as it applies to other people groups and nations. 

By the time the Civil War ended in 1865, African Americans had lived in what would be the United States for nearly 250 years (though the first black person to arrive was an explorer who landed over 100 years before the Mayflower). During that time, the rest of the United States had established its presence in the world, acquiring wealth, stability, and influence across generations. Black Americans, on the other hand, were starting from nothing.

As the era of slavery ended, the Industrial Revolution influenced much of the U.S. economic environment. It was a significant factor in spurring wealth and prosperity, based largely on the sale and export of textiles made from slave-produced cotton. This explosion of productivity laid the groundwork for the American middle class, initiating acquisition of generational wealth outside of the established aristocracy.

By the time Black Americans were freed, this economic boom had passed them by. Not only were they unable to reap any of the tremendous profits from the cotton and textile industry generated by decades of their own labor, they were barred from work in most factories, often unable to even to solicit employment. They were largely entrapped by carefully crafted share-cropping schemes, anti-voting laws, peonage, and the early manifestations of Jim Crow.

Black folk also immediately found themselves subject to a new form of forced labor (see post: Slavery by Another Name). They were increasingly detained by law enforcement and rounded-up for trivial violations, with the slightest offense, real or fictional, resulting in imprisonment and hard labor.

As a result, these government-sanctioned racial policies resulted in a new source of abundant cheap labor, and industries such as coal mining and railroad construction flourished. White families recovered from the crippling effects of Reconstruction-era policies, grew with the developing middle-class, and passed on their wealth to future generations. In the meantime, black families, having yet to recover from generations of bondage, were losing thousands of their sons, bothers, husbands, and fathers to this new system.

Not long after came the Great Depression, while clearly affecting Americans of all races, was particularly bad for Black Americans. While national unemployment reached particularly nearly 25%, black workers experienced more than 50% unemployment.  They were the last hired, and the first fired, all while receiving less government and charitable aid to help them survive.

Calls were routinely raised for black workers to be summarily fired whenever there were white workers in need of employment. And as with all other points in U.S. history, even when black workers could get a job they were paid substantially less than their white counterparts. The little social and economic mobility black families had accumulated since emancipation was essentially lost.

FDR's New Deal was an important step for economic recovery, but Black Americans were often unable to avail themselves of its programs. A key component of the New Deal, the National Recovery Act (NRA) of 1933 was soon referred to by Blacks was nicknamed the 'Negro Removal Act', or 'Negroes Robbed Again' since its projects "rarely employed Blacks and maintained racist wage differentials when they did." If employers felt new regulations and wage minimums decreased their payroll capacity, Black workers were the first to go.

There was also significant discrimination in enrollment for programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which also maintained that "segregation is not discrimination." Though programs like the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) might originally have been intended to help Black sharecroppers, most federal funds went to White landowners. Thus, when fields and livestock were destroyed to increase market prices, thousands of Black farmers lost their jobs, and were often evicted from the land they share-cropped.

One of the most lasting effects of the New Deal was the establishment of Social Security, but because of specific occupational exclusions, many Black workers were ineligible for enrollment. Jobs such as maids and farm workers (some of the few jobs that were available to Black folks at the time) were explicitly excluded from Social Security. Ta-Nehisi Coates recently noted that "when President Roosevelt signed Social Security into law in 1935, 65 percent of African Americans nationally, and between 70 and 80 percent in the South were ineligible.”

Thus, one of the major vehicles for financial stability in the United States was completely unavailable to large portions of Black Americans. While the country struggled through its largest economic depression, Black families were once again prevented from securely establishing themselves in society.

Read part two to see how racism in the United States continued to evolve after World War II...


  1. Good post. I don't know how you have hope that things will get better in a system like this. Have you read Native Son? It makes so much more sense in light of this information. Hard stuff.

  2. Hope in Christ. Hope in ultimate redemption of a broken world that is beyond our capacity to achieve on our own, or even to imagine.

    I haven't read Native Son. I keep meaning to. The list is so long...

  3. Thanks for this. I needed to learn it.


Creative Commons License
By Their Strange Fruit by Katelin H is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at @BTSFblog