Part of the trouble with all the rhetoric about
American Exceptionalism is, whether praiseworthy or critical, it usually
ignores the rest of the Western Hemisphere. People who claim that the U.S.
isn't exceptional tend to compare this country to the forms and functions of
the Eastern hemisphere. People who claim that the United States IS
exceptional...compare local forms and functions to the eastern hemisphere.
But there's a country north of the U.S. that
complains about being America's ignored younger sibling, and there's an ENTIRE
CONTINENT south of here that doesn't even bother asking the U.S. to acknowledge
them because there's no point by this point.
I don't think the U.S. is especially exceptional
myself -- the bit about throwing off the yoke of Monarchy is something the
rest of the world has done by now, and the U.S. was (ahem) not exactly (ahem)
willing to help them do it. Rather, I believe that the Western Hemisphere as a
whole ought to be considered as exceptional and distinct from the Eastern,
primarily because the vast epidemics of the 1500s depopulated both South and
North America to the point that whoever moved in was moving into a place that
no longer functioned like the Eastern Hemisphere.
Not that the issue of losing 90% of a population
to disease is distinct to the Americas...Eastern Africa itself saw vast
territories depopulated because of the Rinderpest plague of the 1890s, and many
of those lands are still inhospitable because the Tsetse Fly moved into them.
But that is on a regional as opposed to a
What happened to the Western Hemisphere will never be
fully understood on a level more detailed than "they all died",
because the Smallpox spread into the interior well before Europeans got there.
All we know is that one spanish explorer wrote that he could smell the
cook-fires when he was well out to sea, and by the time another explorer came
along, they said "gee this place is empty".
But that is all known by history books, and can
be found within the text of many apologies written for the devastation. What is
not known, and little regarded, is the difference between French, Spanish, and
English treatment of a conquered people.
The French, in Canada, were there for fur. Maybe
a little colonizing, maybe a lot of conversion, but the primary goal was beaver
fur. Slavery was more profitable in their Caribbean territories anyway. Plantation slavery was POSSIBLE in their Carribean holdings. Imagine trying to grow sugarcane in Quebec!
The Spanish were moving into territory that has
been so well-populated in the first place that losing 90% of the natives meant
that there were plenty still around. (Mexico has, for most of human history, been the population center of North America.) So they set up the Encomienda system and
turned the locals, the Mexica and others, into serfs. And pretty much the same
thing happened in the Andes.
The Spanish themselves, having all these Indians
around, whom the colonizers were marrying, were committed enough to Racism and to European Christian Dominance that they set up complicated lists of racial hierarchies
based on who was THIS much mestizo versus THIS much Spanish.
The English...didn't do that.
They didn't want mestizos
in the slightest.
As to why their treatment of Indians was so
different than the Spanish method of colonization...it's not entirely clear.
The Spanish, after all, had JUST finished kicking out the Jews and the Moors
from Spain, so you'd think they would be committed to segregation in their
conquered territories, right? But within a few generations of the Encomienda system
you had all these mestizos all over the place, and suddenly the new
Mexicans greatly resembled the old Mexicans. Why would the Spanish let that
happen if their noble families invented the concept of Whitness in the first
place? Remember, these were the people who came up with the terms "clean
blood" and "blue blood" to indicate that they had no Jewish or
Moorish ancestors. How could their colonists intermarry with the locals so
Perhaps the people who came over to conquer were
not so interested in blood purity as the nobles. That is hard to measure. What
is more certain is that the former Mexica empire was extremely well-populated,
to the point that wiping out 90% of them meant they still outnumbered the
Spanish colnists by orders of magnitude. The Encomienda system was set up to
give the Spanish control of lots of land at once, but they were never going to
be able to control it without keeping the Indians around. So the natives became
serfs on the land...
And the structure of the Encomienda is where the
intermarriage became an incentive for the natives, because mixed-race kids were
not legally bound to the land. Bit of an oversight on the part of the Spanish,
you might say, or perhaps an act of mercy? Either way the Spanish set up a
system whose incentives were set towards absorbing the colonists into the local
But as for the English...they were not interested
in setting up any such serfdom. They were, after all, free people, committed to
free men working the land. Nor, indeed, were there a significant number of
Indians left to work the land, after the initial epidemics swept through. Which
meant that the farms the English developed were worked by English people...or
slaves, more likely if you were south of the Pennsylvania colony. Either way,
the means by which the English handled their faming situation meant that their
opinion of Africans developed differently than the Spanish opinion. In the
Southern United States, Black people were slaves and that was that. In the
North, they were slaves, and also free...which made them a potential threat.
Too close, too much like the English, yet not enough. The contempt neighbors
have for each other, perhaps.
I am not certain why the English settlers were
unwilling to intermarry with the natives. Perhaps they were, and there were few
enough that the addition of Indian gnetic material into the English population
made no difference. But historical records from the time period indicate that
there was a significant amount of prejudice against Indians that would have
precluded this action. Indian wars of the 17th century and 18th century, as well as reports that have clearly scrubbed away someone's positive account of living
among the natives. There was a genuine animosity against the Indians. There was
no sense of Benevolent Overlordship like the Spanish had. Perhaps, each man and
woman being free on their own land, they felt that the Indians represented a
greater threat to them, which then had to be eliminated. Perhaps, for their part, the Indians
who dealt with the Thirteeen Colonies were more beligerent than the Mexicans.
Then again, the Mexicans were plenty beligerent in the first place, and disease
does not discriminate against warlike people.
In any case, the English pattern of exclusion was
set by the 1700s, and coincidentally they were devising slave codes at the same
time to clarify the legal differences between slaves and free people. Slaves
can't marry free people, slaves can't do this, slaves can't do that...the
concept of "misegenation" was stamped into law and memory. Meanwhile,
the Spanish were drawing up complicated racial hierarchies to deal with the
vast population of mixed-race people in their own colony.
English behavior, in other words, started out
with a culture of ethnic exclusion, born perhaps out of circumstance, and
turned it into law.
As a result, the only sorts of people who were
going to have a good chance of moving into the interior of the continent were
White folks, with culture and genetics unchanged by interactions with Africans,
with the still-present desire to establish towns only for themselves, no Indians
allowed, thank you very much. (I'm not sure why the other Europeans who came to
North America followed this pattern, but they did.)
By the time slavery started to be abolished in
one state and another, the segregationist racism of English settlers still
held, and state after state hastily wrote laws establishing segregation to keep
newly freed Black people from having any cultural or genetic effect on White
populations. White folks wanted to remain pure. And after slavery was abolished
across the board in 1865, White folks in the southern states did everything
they could think of to make sure that Black people had no genetic or cultural
effect upon White populations. They also wanted to remain pure.
And when Black people seemed like they were
becoming a community more prosperous and influential than local White folks,
the White folks got real mad, and kicked the Black folks out. An American-style
Pogrom, you might say. Tulsa 1921 is the best example, but there were similar incidents in
Florida. You might say there were also similar incidents in New York City, but
the "slum clearing" projects of Robert Moses were the vision of a few
assholes in high places of power, not mass movements of malice from common
White folks like what happened in Tulsa.
The pattern of ethnic exclusivity became a
pattern of mass violence, not limited to young angry men but visible across all
demographics. Men, women, young, middle-aged, old...all of them were willing to
make utter beasts of themselves if it meant keeping black people either subjugated
or, in northern communities, out.
Much has been said of this malice, and I will not
dwell on it further, for it was well-documented, and the participants have
since been condemned for how horrible they were. What has been less-remarked
upon is the means by which the federal government itself established
segregation in the 20th century. Their influence was not merely
extensive, it was spread across the whole of the United States. It wasn't just
the racism of the GI bill. As Richard Rothstein enumerates in "The Color
of Law", every city that had federally-funded housing projects had to make
them exclusive to White people. Frequently this meant sweeping away
neighborhoods of working-class people that were racially integreated. The slums that Black people
found themselves in, well...someone wanted Black people to be there,
Rothstein doesn't know for certain why the
government did this. It's easy to blame Southern congresspeople for manipulating
the government towards this action. But the question is, why did it also happen
in the Executive branch? Why did everyone go along with the desires of the
Southerners? Rothstein posits that it was a matter of WASPs tryng to protect
their own sense of racial identity. The government, at the time, was still
dominated by east-coast White Elite folks, the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants of
Maybe this is so. It would fit with the pattern
of Northern states first abolishing slavery and then immediately setting up
segregation laws. The characteristic racism of the Northern states is
segregation, not subjugation like the South. "In the North they don't care
how high you get as long as you don't get too close; in the South they don't
care about how close you get as long as you don't get too high." I don't
know where that phrase comes from. I'm not sure anyone does, but it describes
the situation pretty well. The insane malice produced by the integration of the
Little Rock public schools was a matter of Black folks daring to rise out of
their subjugation; the same malice happens in the north when you try to
integrate a neighborhood.
What you have, over the course of 400 years, is
English people and their descendants explicity and violently preventing their communities
from becoming anything other than White. In the South, if White folks had to
live near Black folks they made sure to keep the racial hierarchy clear. In the
North the White folks didn't even let Black folks get close. And, in either
case, they kept the Indians on crappy reservations instead of making any effort
whatsoever to integrate them like the Spanish did.
And if that was all!
We have an immigration policy that seems like
it's designed to be confusing, expensive, and discouraging, and one that didn't
even let Asian people in until 1965.
And that is the shape of the United States. To a
certain extent, it is also Canada; while slavery was never going to be
economically viable anywhere north of Pennsylvania the English settlers in
Canada and their descendants were only moderately less awful to Black folks and
Indians than their southern coutnerparts. Remember what I said about White
folks kicking whole communities of Black folks out and taking their land? That
happened in Canada as well.
To a certian extent, it is also the whole of the
Western Hemisphere, at least when it comes to a landscape of curious
homogeneity. In the Eastern Hemisphere, the diversity of peoples is because a
lot of different peoples move into this territory and that territory; they
jostle for position but, barring the exception of the Mongols, they don't
manage to slaughter everyone, so you're left with a vast array of languages and
customs in any region the size of the U.S. But in the Americas, there were only
three big peoples moving into the territory, resistance to their conquest was
weak, and one of them was a bunch of purist assholes whose goal was America For
Not that Latin America has nearly the same
trouble with people violently trying to maintain segregation the way White
folks in the US do. Their circumstances steered them away from the very idea of
"blood purity" that the Spanish got rolling in the first place. Not
that it was a matter entirely of circumstance...the Spanish kings were very
much interested in keeping Indians alive to remain as serfs. They tried to curb
violence against Indians because Indians were the big source of revenue after
the Gold was all gathered.
The English colonies had no overseas directive to
keep the Indians alive. Who knows if they would have listened anyway? They were
Free Men. Many of whom stated explicitly that their freedom relied upon
subjugating other people.
When people talk about racism as if it were an
eternal, immutable, universal thing, remember that there are multiple versions
arising from specific historical and geographic circumstances. What you see in
the United States is not what you see in Latin America, and not what you will
see in Canada, nor in Europe, nor in China, nor anywhere else. The racism of
the Western Hemisphere started from the ways that each empire handled its
plantation situation. In discussions of racism the Western hemisphere must be
considered as a whole to understand what about the US version is distinct.