Race facilitates rule. If race did not exist, the powers-that-be would have had
to invent it, for an ordered, hierarchical society requires an Other, preferably
physically distinct from Us.
The Other serves many purposes, sometimes providing a disposable work force.
|This illustration appeared on an 1835 broadside illustrating
John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem, “My countrymen in Chains.”
In the 16th century, the Catholic Church in cahoots with the Spanish throne
defended the enslavement of Native Americans by denying they were human. When
the natives began dying off in droves, leaving a potential labor shortage, the
Church threw its weight behind African slavery. Africans were presumed to be
both subhuman and exceptionally hardy, well suited for the wear and tear of
slavery in the New World.
African blood became a prerequisite to slavery. The powerful proudly proclaimed
slavery good for blacks, a conviction that informed the “black codes”
of the mid-19th century South. John Bailey’s The Lost German Slave Girl
exhumes and examines some of the laws that both created and crushed the Other.
While a slave could be raffled off or wagered at the master’s whim, freeing
a slave was fraught with legal obstacles. In Louisiana, anyone could halt the
manumission process by alleging the slave’s bad conduct. Indeed, freed
slave was such a threat to the social order that the former master had to post
a thousand dollar bond to guarantee the ex-slave’s immediate exit from
Bailey tells the fascinating true tale of Sally Miller, a New Orleans slave
who in 1843 was suddenly “discovered” to be white. Blacks could
not sue whites, but Miller sued her owner for damages in order to gain the freedom
that would automatically follow a court’s acceptance of her as a white
Was Sally white? The question had no objective answer. A parade of distinguished
citizens, whom she’d served as a slave, swore she wasn’t—but
as her lawyer repeatedly pointed out, they’d assumed she was black because
she was being treated as a slave. Compounding their subjectivity was their demonization
of her as Other, a strategy that conveniently masked the worst impulses of Us.
A key question at the trial was whether Sally had given birth to her son Lafayette
at the age of 10—for presumably, no white girl could have gotten knocked
up at so indecently early an age, and it was understood that even the youngest
black girl could seduce a white man.
Up North, free blacks remained the Other, though legally maintained oppression
took the more subtle form of opportunity denied. In Sarah’s Long Walk,
Stephen and Paul Kendrick’s earnest account of the mid-19th century fight
to desegregate Boston’s public schools, the authors describe a valiant
free black community under siege from poverty and prejudice. Black integrationists
became dogged activists: petitioning, boycotting and even suing, deploying black
lawyer Robert Morris in partnership with future senator Charles Sumner. They
lost—and the state’s top court came forth with a rousing endorsement
of “separate but equal” schools.
Boston’s black activists were so trapped by the larger society that the
story of their efforts has all the drama of fireflies trying to escape from
a jar. The book doesn’t get exciting until the Fugitive Slave Law essentially
busts the jar open, finally giving the black community white allies with clout.
Ultimately, the tumultuous times swept an entire slate of Know-Nothings into
the state legislature—and in 1855, they voted to desegregate the Boston
schools. The pendulum swung forward, breaking down the racialized legal fiction
of Other versus Us.
Today, the pendulum swings back. Fox News commentator Michelle Malkin’s
recent book, In Defense of Internment: The Case for Racial Profiling in World
War II and the War on Terror, calls on Us to lock up the Other. Malkin claims
that mass ethnic detentions are a prudent response to espionage and terror plots,
as if securing a haystack automatically serves to pinpoint a needle. Her guilty-until-proven-innocent
approach equates color with criminality and obstructs effective law enforcement.
Only in the movies does badass bullying expose conspiracies rather than recruit
new conspirators to the cause. Dragnets can’t substitute for field operatives
Most importantly, Malkin’s sleazy tract shows how readily our laws and
law officials become instruments of evil. The “black codes” and
segregation laws of yesteryear were not the freak consequences of unenlightened
times—they were the ordinary outcomes of those in power protecting their
self-interest through division and despotism. If we dismiss these laws as rogue
jurisprudence with no contemporary relevance, we are the rogues, oblivious to
our complicity in racism.