Brooklyn Historical Society Lecture-Not Always Black and White: A History of Race During Reconstruction


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Pat Young

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In the Antebellum South, communities of free mixed-race Americans were not uncommon. Neither “black” nor “white” by modern conceptions of race, these communities suffered when Reconstruction solidified racial divides, and ideas like the “one drop” rule and Jim Crow laws began to take root. Author Daniel Brook explores these communities in his book, The Accident of Color, and dives into how a more complex idea of ethnic identity can challenge the oppression of racial absolutism that continues to exist today.
 
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This is a subject that has gotten some academic attention, although the people involved are smallish in number.

In New Orleans for sure, mixed race "colored" people were the biggest losers. The city and its environs went from having a tri-racial hierarchy of blacks, whites, and mixed people, to a biracial one. Privileges that so-called 'black Creoles' had as a kind of middle-caste were lost.

One scholar, whose name I don't recall, suggested that many mixed race people simply started passing for white. I understand there is something of a small mixed-race diaspora from the New Orleans, and probably Charleston (and perhaps the Pensacola/Mobile region, among others), in which European-looking people with some African descent went North to live their lives as whites, gaining the privileges thereof, but severing ties to African Americans, including family members.

This is the one time head of the NAACP, the intriguingly named Walter White.

Walter_Francis_White.jpg


Describing himself, White said "I am a Negro. My skin is white, my eyes are blue, my hair is blond. The traits of my race are nowhere visible upon me." Both of his parents were slaves. The oral history of his mother's family is that they were descended from William Henry Harrison, who would become a president of the United States.

The story goes that he survived the Atlanta race riot of 1906, which included an attack on his family. He later used his ability to pass for white to be an investigator for the NAACP, which he would lead later in life.

- Alan
 

Pat Young

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This is a subject that has gotten some academic attention, although the people involved are smallish in number.

In New Orleans for sure, mixed race "colored" people were the biggest losers. The city and its environs went from having a tri-racial hierarchy of blacks, whites, and mixed people, to a biracial one. Privileges that so-called 'black Creoles' had as a kind of middle-caste were lost.

One scholar, whose name I don't recall, suggested that many mixed race people simply started passing for white. I understand there is something of a small mixed-race diaspora from the New Orleans, and probably Charleston (and perhaps the Pensacola/Mobile region, among others), in which European-looking people with some African descent went North to live their lives as whites, gaining the privileges thereof, but severing ties to African Americans, including family members.

This is the one time head of the NAACP, the intriguingly named Walter White.

View attachment 300893

Describing himself, White said "I am a Negro. My skin is white, my eyes are blue, my hair is blond. The traits of my race are nowhere visible upon me." Both of his parents were slaves. The oral history of his mother's family is that they were descended from William Henry Harrison, who would become a president of the United States.

The story goes that he survived the Atlanta race riot of 1906, which included an attack on his family. He later used his ability to pass for white to be an investigator for the NAACP, which he would lead later in life.

- Alan
Race is a lot more complex than I was brought up to believe.
 
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Race is a lot more complex than I was brought up to believe.
Yes. As I know you've come to appreciate, "race" in the United states is a social construction, not a physical one. The Wiki page on White says "Of his 32 great-great-great-grandparents, only five were black, and the other 27 were white." Genetically, Walter White was European. But he was raised in African American culture, and thus he had a black "identity."

- Alan
 

Pat Young

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Yes. As I know you've come to appreciate, "race" in the United states is a social construction, not a physical one. The Wiki page on White says "Of his 32 great-great-great-grandparents, only five were black, and the other 27 were white." Genetically, Walter White was European. But he was raised in African American culture, and thus he had a black "identity."

- Alan
In one of my law school classes we discuss persecution based on race. 20 years ago when I asked students what "race" is, they would answer that it was "color" or "ancestry." Now they say a "social construct."
 
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If race is a social construct then it is possible to remove a whole category under Human Rights legislation.

Just a thought.
 
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If race is a social construct then it is possible to remove a whole category under Human Rights legislation.

Just a thought.
Race, as a social construction, creates/contrives hierarchies. Hierarchies bestow certain privileges to those at the top of the hierarchy, and deny them to those at the low end, and there are people in the middle. Human Rights legislation ideally should ensure equal opportunity to individuals who may be victims of discriminatory practices based on hierarchies such as race. Or at least that's my understanding.

Pat may have a better response to this.

- Alan
 

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Hi Alan,

I'm not sure I'm any more enlightened by your response, but let me give it a go.

The heirarchical nature of the social construction of race bestows privileges on some people and not others. This can be seen by discriminatory practices concerning those individuals.

So, we construct the idea of race and based on that we discriminate.

If we remove race as an element then we also remove the possibility of heirarchy and therefore discrimination.

Sounds quite Utopian to me.

Human Rights legislation is built on the notions of race, religion, gender, etc. As we deconstruct things such as gender and race so there is a homogenous grouping of peoples who have no identity except the one they choose to construct, then we can quite literally remove any notion of discrimination, or the need to protect people against it, because there is nothing to base a heirarchical model on.

We've literally cut the legs out from under the notion that some people are privileged because no such people exist anymore.

How are you going to group them?

I may be wrong or confused. I won't know until we get further into the discussion, if it's not taking this thread off track.
 

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Well, now I'm really confused.

Or maybe that is the clarification I needed in terms of this thinking.

So, the groupings remain the same, but are accepted as 'social constructs' as opposed to being real/definitive groupings (based on the fact they are not considered to be 'natural' phenomena). I guess gender falls into the same category these days, but I still think you don't have a leg to stand on if anything that was once 'constructed' now becomes 'deconstructed'. If deconstruction is meant to end discrimination, I highly doubt such a Utopian concept will ever gain enough momentum to prove it's worth. Identity exists in these things. If we remove the value of identity, even if it's one that can be the basis for discrimination, then we remove the heart and soul of many things in my opinion.

Curious to know what would be considered natural phenomena these days ...
 
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Well, now I'm really confused.

Or maybe that is the clarification I needed in terms of this thinking.

So, the groupings remain the same, but are accepted as 'social constructs' as opposed to being real/definitive groupings based on the fact they are not considered to be 'natural' phenomena. I guess gender falls into the same category these days, but I still think you don't have a leg to stand on if anything once constructed now becomes deconstructed. If deconstruction is meant to end discrimination, I highly doubt such a Utopian concept will ever gain enough momentum to prove it's worth. Identity exists in these things. If we remove the value of identity, even if it's one that can be the basis for discrimination, then we remove the heart and soul of many things in my opinion.
The way I look at it is this: every social construct doesn't have to be hierarchical, that is, privileging some people and disadvantaging others.

Russians, Italians, Saudis, Brazilians, and Nigerians all have a unique cultural identity. I can prevent discrimination by simply treating them all the same. I don't have to strip away their cultural identity to treat them equally.

We can have social constructs that are anti-discriminatory and/or promote and enforce anti-discrimination. For example, if we teach our children that all people should be treated equally regardless of appearance, family background, country of origin, gender, etc, that promotes anti-discrimination. People might not naturally treat each other equally; it has to be taught and inculcated in them. (Whereas some societies openly teach that there should be hierarchies, and that some people are to be privileged.) And there must be laws to enforce equality, because some people will discriminate based on certain characteristics or features regardless of what they've taught.

That's the way I look at it. Pat might have better insight into this.

- Alan
 

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Hi Alan,

We have shifted in this conversation to 'cultural identity'. I was made aware of something during the week that I had not been aware of before. The notion of leave being awarded to employees for 'cultural holidays'. So, Chinese New Year entitles you to take leave, say, if you're Chinese or have a Chinese heritage. This seems akin to the notion you have raised.

It appears now we have to establish a 'cultural identity' in order to gain recognition which has me wondering where that leaves people who have assimiliated into new countries/cultures and no longer claim origin (or race). Which appears to me to be equally divisive. If not more so. I'm leaving religion out of this as, in my opinion it cuts across the board. So we create more difference, or highlight it, by removing difference in desconstructing one idea and replacing it with another.

I can see myself going round in circles with this one. What we have in common is the notion of identity.

What is the cultural identity of a black person in America as compared to a white person?

And to be honest, I'm with Jordan Peterson on this one. If there is one 'natural' phenomena that can be counted on, it is the phenomena of heirarchy. You cannot have a society that exists without a heirarchical basis. How that is established will vary, but people within cultural identities can just as easily discriminate against one another as they can against other cultures/races in the race to the top.

Without clearly defined lines, the notion of equality and discrimination is going to become ever more confused and confusing.
 
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Hi Alan,

We have shifted in this conversation to 'cultural identity'. I was made aware of something during the week that I had not been aware of before. The notion of leave being awarded to employees for 'cultural holidays'. So, Chinese New Year entitles you to take leave, say, if you're Chinese or have a Chinese heritage. This seems akin to the notion you have raised.

It appears now we have to establish a 'cultural identity' in order to gain recognition which has me wondering where that leaves people who have assimiliated into new countries/cultures and no longer claim origin (or race). Which appears to me to be equally divisive. If not more so. I'm leaving religion out of this as, in my opinion it cuts across the board. So we create more difference, or highlight it, by removing difference in desconstructing one idea and replacing it with another.

I can see myself going round in circles with this one. What we have in common is the notion of identity.

What is the cultural identity of a black person in America as compared to a white person?

And to be honest, I'm with Jordan Peterson on this one. If there is one 'natural' phenomena that can be counted on, it is the phenomena of heirarchy. You cannot have a society that exists without a heirarchical basis. How that is established will vary, but people within cultural identities can just as easily discriminate against one another as they can against other cultures/races in the race to the top.

Without clearly defined lines, the notion of equality and discrimination is going to become ever more confused and confusing.

CC,

I don't have the bandwidth at the moment to address those questions. Perhaps others can weigh in.

I can add a couple of things. I use the word contrivance to discuss certain hierarchies. When we make unfounded and unreasonable assumptions about the capacity and dignity of people based solely on the way they look, for example, that's a contrivance. We can construct a society based on these contrived hierarchies, or we can construct a society that isn't. Even if we assume that hierarchies will always exist, we shouldn't tolerate contrived hierarchies that are grounded, not in fact or reason, but in fear, stereotype, superstition, "illogic"/"unreason", etc.

RE: What is the cultural identity of a black person in America as compared to a white person?

That's too big a question to answer here. But I will relate this story.

Barack Obama is biracial. His biological father was an African and his mother a white American. He was rasied in white/Asian households by white/Asian family members. He was asked in an interview why he identifies as black, and not white. He made the point that, as he grew up, people treated him as if he were "black." He didn't really choose to be black, society imposed it upon him because of how he looked. And it was imposed on him not just by whites, but by people of various ethnicities.

Whatever these identities are, people presume they exist and act accordingly. And of course, these identities mean different things to different people.


But [my negroism] was fitting me like a tight chemise. I couldn't see it for wearing it. - Zora Neale Hurston

- Alan
 
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Pat Young

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Human Rights legislation is built on the notions of race, religion, gender, etc.
But here you have the resolution of the issue. A person may be persecuted on account of religion, and religion is undeniably a social construct.

Race was described in 19th Century social anthropology as an intrinsic and immutable characteristic, yet if you look at the five racial categories used in the race "science" that prevailed for a century, few modern folks would recognize the groupings. However, persecutors do construct racial identities both for themselves and for those that they discriminate against.

In the 1930s in Germany the Jews were described as a separate race (not just a separate religion). Even those who had Jewish ancestors but who themselves were atheists were considered of the Jewsih race. So, Jews could be persecuted on account of race even though few non-Nazis claim that there is a Jewish race. In many instances, it is the persecutor who created the racial category.

In the 19th Century it was common for European race "science" to categorize people living in Asia as "Mongoloid." This grouped together people living in China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, etc. These were peoples who did not themselves think of themselves as forming a common "race." Their Mongoloid race was constructed for them by white Europeans.
 
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Yes. As I know you've come to appreciate, "race" in the United states is a social construction, not a physical one. The Wiki page on White says "Of his 32 great-great-great-grandparents, only five were black, and the other 27 were white." Genetically, Walter White was European. But he was raised in African American culture, and thus he had a black "identity."

- Alan
You contradict yourself. In one sentence you say “race in the United States is a social construction, not a physical one.” Two sentences later you say, “Genetically, Walter White was European.” So which is it?
 
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Race, as a social construction, creates/contrives hierarchies. Hierarchies bestow certain privileges to those at the top of the hierarchy, and deny them to those at the low end, and there are people in the middle. Human Rights legislation ideally should ensure equal opportunity to individuals who may be victims of discriminatory practices based on hierarchies such as race. Or at least that's my understanding.

Pat may have a better response to this.

- Alan
But here you have the resolution of the issue. A person may be persecuted on account of religion, and religion is undeniably a social construct.

Race was described in 19th Century social anthropology as an intrinsic and immutable characteristic, yet if you look at the five racial categories used in the race "science" that prevailed for a century, few modern folks would recognize the groupings. However, persecutors do construct racial identities both for themselves and for those that they discriminate against.

In the 1930s in Germany the Jews were described as a separate race (not just a separate religion). Even those who had Jewish ancestors but who themselves were atheists were considered of the Jewsih race. So, Jews could be persecuted on account of race even though few non-Nazis claim that there is a Jewish race. In many instances, it is the persecutor who created the racial category.

In the 19th Century it was common for European race "science" to categorize people living in Asia as "Mongoloid." This grouped together people living in China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, etc. These were peoples who did not themselves think of themselves as forming a common "race." Their Mongoloid race was constructed for them by white Europeans.
I presume you now use the term Asians when describing people from China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, India, etc. The Asians I know, a family behind me and another across the street, are really OK with that.
 



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