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Since America was first colonized in the early seventeenth century, racism has influenced social and economic status. The levels of prejudice vary greatly according to time and place, however, and other factors have often obscured the effects of racism on the American poor. In general, in terms of racism in America, the viewpoint of white Americans is assumed to be the dominant point of reference. British colonists were the first and most influential settlers of the area of North America that is now the United States, and their Anglo-Saxon heritage served as the foundation for the early United States. Although racism has been prevalent throughout America’s history, particular historical moments most clearly demonstrate the negative effect of racism. Striking examples include black slavery and its aftermath in the rural South; the nineteenth-century immigrant ghetto seen in Chinatowns and Jewtowns (as described by Jacob Riis); tenements; and the twentieth-century African American ghetto, illustrated in public housing, isolation in slums, and spiritualism.
The institutionalization of race-based slavery in the America is one of the earliest and harshest examples of the correlation between racism and poverty. In 1619, soon after the founding of Britain’s first permanent colony in Virginia at Jamestown, Africans were brought to North America. Although the influence of racism on the status of these “20 and Odd Negroes” is unclear, it is likely that these blacks were laborers, perhaps slaves, captured in an African war and sold by the victorious tribe. By the mid-seventeenth century, white American colonists specifically imported Africans as slaves because, among other reasons, their race was considered inferior to that of whites. The institutionalization of race-based slavery in America grew rapidly, and, by its eradication at the end of the Civil War in 1865, the states of the South had developed a social and economic hierarchy. At the bottom of this hierarchy were the “Negroes,” who, according to the white elites—both the plantation owners (the top of society) and slave-owning yeomen (the middle)—were biologically and spiritually inferior to whites and thus were born to be slaves. Slaves did not own property, often lived in ramshackle huts, did not enjoy legal rights of any kind, and did not even “own” themselves; therefore, black slaves commonly endured the worst conditions of poverty.
After the end of the Civil War, African Americans obtained legal freedom, but many remained in rural areas of the South as sharecroppers because farming was all that they knew. Consequently, emancipation did not immediately change the material prospects of most blacks, even though the moral victory of “owning” oneself may have been a small comfort. Sharecropping required farm tools, however, so poor freedmen were at the mercy of greedy country store proprietors, who gave loans for supplies with very high interest rates that most blacks were unable to pay off. Not surprisingly, most blacks in the South remained very poor. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many rural African Americans migrated to northern cities looking for work. Racism was very prevalent in the North as well, and blacks were forced to reside in run-down slum areas—away from the white areas of the city, but still close enough to cause occasional confrontations, such as the 1919 Chicago Riot and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.
Although African Americans have experienced the most visible racism, other immigrant groups have faced prejudice. Asians especially experienced strong racism, including laws limiting their immigration to America, and isolation in Chinatowns in American cities. Competition for jobs and housing exacerbated racism, as did “nativism,” a WASP (white Anglo Saxon Protestant) point of view that immigrants— especially from Ireland, Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia—are invaders in an established America, a threat to American ideals. Commercial and military interests also led to openly racist ideals, such as when, during World War II, America launched a propaganda campaign that portrayed Asians as buck-toothed, bespectacled savages in order to raise support for the war against Japan; moreover, the United States government interred Japanese Americans in detention camps. Racism has had a direct influence on poverty levels: most immigrants were already poor, and racism denied them the ability to merge with mainstream society. Forced to congregate in older areas of cities, such as in New York’s “Chinatown,” “Jewtown,” and “Little Italy,” or confined to isolated rural areas, as in the case of blacks in the South and Germans in the Midwest, racial minorities had fewer opportunities than whites to benefit materially.
Writers discussing the African American ghetto have often referred to the odd, inferior culture of the ghetto. White perceptions of Harlem in the 1920, as described in Carl Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven (1926), for example, illustrate racially biased views that African American neighborhoods are “wide open,” that is, strange. Vechten, an affluent white and devotee of the “art for art’s sake” school, prided himself on his knowledge and patronage of black artists, writers, and musicians in Harlem. Unable to escape ethnocentric prejudices, however, Vechten superimposed his own psychological darkness onto Harlem—best illustrated in the climax of Nigger Heaven, in which the femme fatale black female attempts to lead the WASP-ish black hero back to his cultural roots. Langston Hughes, one of the most famous African American poets, addressed the racist but well-intentioned condescension of his white patrons. In many of his poems, such as his 1959 “Theme for English B,” he asked why the color of his skin mattered.
The stigma of the African American ghetto as a dangerous and decrepit area remains strong, and reform measures such as urban renewal and public housing have only increased this perception. The 1960s “ghetto” riots—the most explosive of which was the 1965 Watts riot—also contributed to an increase in racial separation. Since the invention of the automobile in the early twentieth century, affluent and middle-class whites moved away from the central area of cities to the suburbs, leaving a concentration of impoverished minorities in the old urban core. One exception was the town of Watts, south of Los Angeles, which became a black-dominated area, or a “black island” in a “white sea.” Pejoratively referred to by locals as “Nigger Heaven” after Van Vechten’s novel, Watts suffered economically and became the site of low-cost housing. Ironically, the outbreak of violence in Watts increased white fear of African Americans and acted as a catalyst to increase “white light” from minority-dominated areas. The backlash was so strong that the mayor of Los Angeles, Sam Yorty, in order to obtain higher office, attempted to manipulate white fears of additional riots. Throughout American history, the incidence of such riots is small, because the effects of racism were deeply ingrained within mainstream American society and largely went ignored. However, racial prejudice has had a profound impact on America’s social, economic, and material makeup, and racism has had an even more significant impact on the American poor than the quantifiable data show.
- Atkins, Jacqueline M., ed., Encyclopedia of Social Work, 18th ed., 2 vols. (Silver Spring, MD: NASW, 1987);
- Callow, Alexander B. Jr., ed. American Urban History: An Interpretive Reader with Commentaries, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982);
- Goldfield, David R., and Blaine A. Brownell, Urban America: From Downtown to No Town (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1979);
- Horne, Gerald, Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s (New York: University of Virginia Press, 1995);
- Huggins, Nathan Irvin, Harlem Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971);
- Litwack, Leon, North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860 (Chicago: University Press, 1971);
- Patterson, James T., America’s Struggle against Poverty in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000);
- Sitkoff, Harvard, New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981);
- Thornton, John, “The African Experience of the ’20 and Odd Negroes’ Arriving in Virginia in 1619” in Stanley N. Katz, John M. Murrin, Douglas Greenberg, eds., Colonial America Essays in Politics and Social Development, 5th ed. (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2001).
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