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Growth Through Immigration, Racism

civic responsibilities, dual status, Protestant Christianity, vigilante groups, European empires

These broad categories only hint at the full ethnic and racial diversity of the American population; conversely, the use of separate categories masks the many characteristics Americans share. The United States has been described as a melting pot where ethnic and racial groups shed their specific traits and join with other Americans to create a new identity. The nation has also been described as a salad bowl where people of different backgrounds mingle at work and school, in civic responsibilities, and as consumers, but where cultural traits remain distinct.

In the 18th century American statesman Benjamin Franklin feared that Germans could never be assimilated because of their foreign ways. In the middle of the 19th century many thought that Irish Catholics would subvert the American way of life. At the end of the 19th century the Chinese, Japanese, Jews, Italians, and others were mistrusted. Yet these groups eventually became part of mainstream America. At the end of the 20th century, many people consider newer Asian immigrants, Spanish-speaking peoples, and Muslims as permanently alien presences. If the past is a guide, these groups too will meld into the general American citizenry.

The main exceptions to full acceptance remain Native Americans and African Americans. Native Americans have a dual status based both on the existence of reservations and vibrant tribal traditions, and on the prejudices of many non-Native Americans. African Americans bear the brunt of the oldest and most deeply rooted of American prejudices.

Initial contacts between Africans and Europeans often began with misunderstanding. Africans at first thought white-skinned people were ghosts looking for people to eat, since white was the color of death in much of Africa. Europeans sometimes assumed black-skinned peoples were followers of the devil and therefore sinful, since black was the traditional color associated with lies, sin, and evil in the Western world. Differences in religion, language, and customs also led to misunderstandings, even while economic similarities favored trade between African kingdoms and European empires.

When European merchants brought the first enslaved Africans to work in their New World, they justified the enslavement on the premise that Africans were not Christian and were supposedly not civilized—in other words, the Africans were considered culturally inferior. By the 18th century, many enslaved African Americans had converted to Protestant Christianity, spoke English, and expressed a desire for freedom. A few people of African descent had, against all the odds, become poets, doctors, almanac publishers, plantation owners, and antislavery activists. It became harder for whites to claim that Africans would always be culturally inferior. Pro-slavery whites then began to justify permanent enslavement by asserting that Africans were somehow biologically inferior to Europeans. Whites claimed that anything accomplished by people with black skin was inferior, that blacks were intellectually and morally incapable of self-government, and that blacks needed to be controlled by whites. This so-called scientific racism based on presumed biological differences was useful in slaveholding areas for protecting the economic interests of slaveholders and useful in non-slaveholding areas for uniting all the different, and potentially conflicting, European ethnicities under the label “white.”

Racial discrimination grew out of the practice of enslavement but outlasted the institution of slavery. European newcomers could find common ground with the majority of Americans by joining in the denigration of African Americans. Poorer whites or socially marginal whites could feel superior by virtue of their skin color, even if they were not economically successful or fully accepted by their peers. Racism helped to create a sense of unity among white Americans by defining who was a full citizen. Racism also united African Americans through shared experiences of discrimination and suffering. As a consequence, white racism also promoted a sense of unity among black Americans, no matter what their backgrounds.

Freedom in the wake of the Civil War was a first step in eradicating this prejudice. The civil rights era of the mid-20th century saw even more advancement, but prejudice against black Americans has not been entirely eliminated. At the beginning of the 21st century, a relatively small number of white people still opposed a race-blind America that would deny them a feeling of racial superiority. Some of these people form militia, fascist, and vigilante groups that use violence against African Americans, the federal government, and others who challenge their restrictive views. The majority of Americans, however, while sometimes reluctant to change, believe that all people are created equal.

Americans tend to think in terms of a biracial, separated society, even though whites and blacks have jointly built the United States, and even though the family histories of whites, blacks, and other races are often intermixed. In addition, the two groups share many beliefs (such as freedom, liberty, and civil rights) and customs (from poetry to sports and from work to holidays). Yet the idea of racial difference, of superiority and inferiority, still provides the basis for many social, cultural, political, economic, and religious divisions in the United States.

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