Essay: Nature of American Views About Race Beginning

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¶ … nature of American views about race beginning with early American colonist views about American Indians and culminating with views about blacks and the institution of slavery" without first acknowledging that the question is itself embedded within the culture of race of the United States. Thus, contained within this question is an implicit view of race and of what it means to be American that perhaps began when Columbus first set foot in Hispaniola but continues through the present day.

This question holds the de-facto assumption that to be 'American' means to be of white European descent. This is a position held not only by racist Tea Partiers hurling out the N-word to members of Congress at the healthcare protests, but also by most white Americans: a series of studies by psychologists Mahzarin Banaji and Thierry Devos in which volunteers were asked to associate either prominent people of color, or prominent white foreigners with an American identity found "that on a subconscious level people were using ethnicity as a proxy for American identity and equating whites -- even white foreigners -- with things American" (Vedantam) (Stein). When dealing with the identity of black Americans, the study found that black Americans tended to associate the prominent black people as Americans, but that white Americans were less likely to do so.

We see this assumption in action in the essay question by looking at what the question demands. It asks me to discuss early American colonist views about American Indians, instead of the views of American Indians to early American colonists. Both are American, are they not? Similarly when asking me to discuss views about blacks and the institution of slavery, again asks the question from the point-of-view that the American view is the non-black view; the white view when the truth is the white American view is but one voice in the collective history of the United States. That it is considered the dominant view even through today is the consequence of the last vestiges of a racial system originally enacted to prop up the institution of slavery (which was financially necessary) and create lines of division between the brown, black, and white underclass who posed a dangerous risk to the ruling class if they were to join forces. It is also indicative of the question which frames the question as "opinions of Native Americans" and then "opinions of blacks" as though the two histories did not overlap. In fact, studies show that in South Carolina, which was for most of American history the center of slavery, in 1708 its population included 3,960 free whites, 4,100 African slaves, 1,400 Indian slaves and 120 indentured servants, so rather than deal with the American view of race as separate narratives, since they really are not, I am dealing with them as overlapping narratives that stem from a similar source (Loewen).

The traditional historical narrative of the American Colonists views of the American Indians ranges from amicable but distant (think the first Thanksgiving) to one of cultural incompatibility based on the American Colonists viewed superiority leading to genocide (Battle of Little Big Horn, Trail of Tears and so on). The truth, as is often the case is murkier. While on the one hand there is a steady undercurrent that many Colonists viewed Native American's in pejorative terms: "Can anyone call the name of a single pure Indian of the Barbarous tribes who -- except in death, like a wild cat -- has done anything worthy of remembrance?" wrote Josiah C. Nott in 1854's, "Types of Mankind: Or, Ethnological Researches (Schmidt)," while U.S. Army surgeon Major John Vance Lauderdale said in 1866 "[E]very redskin must be killed from off the face of the plains before we can be free from their molestations. They are of no earthly good and the sooner they are swept from the land the better for civilization....I do not think they can be turned and made good law abiding citizens any more than coyotes can be used for shepherd dog (Schmidt). Similarly, Theodore Roosevelt wrote in his 1885 book Ranching in the Bad Lands, Hunting Trips of a Ranchman "The Indians should be treated in just the same way that we treat the white settlers. Give each his little claim; if, as would generally happen, he declined this, why then let him share the fate of the thousands of white hunters and trappers who have lived on the game that the settlement of the country has exterminated, and let him, like these whites, who will not work, perish from the face of the earth which he cumbers (Schmidt)."

At first blush it seems like a telling narrative of viewing the American Indian as less than the white American. This however, comes from seeing history through the lens of the elite. Reading these quotes closely an underlying theme emerges: not that they're inherently inferior, but rather that they represent a risk to the status quo. And in fact, a comprehensive view of history shows that Native Americans were a risk to the status quo -- thousands of white and black newcomers chose to live an Indian lifestyle so much so that Michel Guillaume Jean de Crevecoeur wrote in his Letters from an American Farmers, "There must be in the Indian's social bond something singularly captivating, and far superior to be boasted of among us; for thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of those Aborigines having from choice become Europeans (Loewen)." And while African-Americans were fleeing slavery in Indian society what did whites find so alluring that American colonialists fearing Indianization made it a crime for men to wear long hair, and enacted stiff penalties up to and including the death penalty for those whites who defected to the Indians and were caught (Loewen)? Benjamin Franklin said "No European who has tasted Savage Life can afterwards bear to live in our societies…All their government is by Counsel of the Sages. There is no Force; there are no Prisons, no officers to compel Obedience of inflict Punishment (Loewen)." Combined, these quotes show, not a narrative of distaste for American Indians and their societies, but rather grudging respect and resentment: American Indian lifestyle stood in direct opposition to the American Colonist ideology of progress -- the war between the people was not a race one, but a culture one, why else the desire to either assimilate or eradicate them? In fact, the American president George Washington believed that Native Americans were equals but that their society was inferior and thus formulated a policy to encourage the "civilizing" process which included the following six point plan:

1. impartial justice toward Native Americans

2. regulated buying of Native American lands

3. promotion of commerce

4. promotion of experiments to civilize or improve Native American society

5. presidential authority to give presents

6. punishing those who violated Native American rights (Miller).

Thus this image of the Native Indian "savage" was born out of a need to vilify the other; to maintain the social structures upon which the elite depended.

This vilification of the Native Indian is tied very closely to that of the vilification of black Americans. Although slavery had existed for much of human history, the kind of slavery started by Europeans in the fifteenth century was different, because it was the enslavement of one race by another and unlike earlier forms of slavery; the children of African-American slaves would be slaves forever and could never achieve freedom through intermarriage with the owning class (Loewen). The impetus for African slavery was simple, increasingly whites viewed the enslavement of whites as illegitimate but the enslavement of Africans became acceptable, because as the French social philosopher Monteqsuieu states "It is impossible for us to suppose these creatures to be men, because allowing them to be men, a suspicion would follow that we ourselves are not Christian (Loewen)." In other words, this narrative of blacks being somehow lesser than was necessary to allow for the continuation of a practice that increasing numbers of people found morally reprehensible; prior to the introduction of black slavery blacks were seen as exotic but not necessarily inferior: see the inclusion of a black Othello in Shakespeare's Othello. As Lowen brilliantly points out:

"As more and more nations joined the slave trade, Europeans came to characterize Africans as stupid, backward, and uncivilized. Amnesia set in: Europe gradually found it convenient to forget that Moors from Africa had brought up to Spain and Italy much of the learning that led to the Renaissance. (Loewen)"

In colonial America this amnesia extended into a forgetting that before the strict divisions of racial lines were codified into law thousands of African slaves served alongside European colonists, many of whom were indentured servants working under the same severe conditions as the African slaves their only recompense was the knowledge that at some point their slavery would end. It was under these conditions, that Nathaniel Bacon led a revolt in 1676, where poorer people regardless of… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Nature of American Views About Race Beginning.  (2010, March 31).  Retrieved December 6, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/nature-american-views-race-beginning/87848

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