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 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 hemispherical scale.

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'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 quickly?

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 population.

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, specifically.

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 old.

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 White People.

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.