How The United States Became A Petri Dish For Racism

By David Grace (

[NOTE: I am a caucasian male over the age of forty.]

Black people never came to America as immigrants striving for a better life. They were brought here against their will and marketed as some sort of intelligent farm animals that could be used to work the land until they wore out and died.

Southerners saw them as clever animals, never as fellow human beings, as business equipment, not as fellow children of their Christian God.

After The Civil War Most Whites Never Thought Of Black People As Fellow Americans

In 1870 black people constituted about 13% of the U.S. population. As far as the 87% who were white were concerned, America was “our country” and black people were like a bunch of refugees who, uninvited, had suddenly swarmed across the border and didn’t really belong here but who stayed because they had nowhere else to go.

They were like some orphans who were grudgingly allowed to live in the attic but whom the home owners never really considered to be part of the family.

The Dynamics Of A Culture With A Dominant Group & A Subordinate Group

In 1870 we had a dominant group, the whites, comprising an overwhelming majority of the population, and a subordinate group, the blacks, who composed a small minority of the population.

The dominant group, the whites, not only outnumbered the blacks almost seven to one, they also, collectively, controlled virtually all the property, all the land, and all the money.

The subordinate group, the blacks, had no property, no land, and no money.

Over 80% of the whites were literate. The overwhelming majority of the blacks were illiterate.

The whites had a racial history they could trace back more than a thousand years. The blacks had no traceable history beyond the previous roughly one-hundred years during which they had existed solely as slaves.

Moreover, as far at least the 30% of the population who lived in the South were concerned, blacks were a genetically inferior sub-race that was fit for nothing other than to be slaves, that as a species black people occupied some genealogical niche somewhere above monkeys and someplace below homo sapiens.

That’s the world in which, against their will, American blacks found themselves in 1870.

To make matters worse, members of each group were instantly identifiable by the other. Unlike an ethnic minority like Italian-Americans or Irish-Americans, blacks couldn’t slip across the line, blend in, and disappear. Their physical differences prevented them from melting in the pot.

The Dominant Group Assumes Everyone Should Be Just Like Them

In any society the educated, property-owning and numerically dominant group is going to think of themselves as the winners, as the model of what all people should be like. They are automatically going to believe that however they do things is the way things should be done.

In the United States in 1870, as far as white people were concerned, the way white people talked was the way all people should talk. The way white people dressed was the way all people should dress. The manners and cultural practices of white people should be the manners and cultural traditions of all people.

In short, the white way was the right way and any other way was a sign of deviance or inferiority.

If white was right, then not white was wrong. If you were not white and you acted differently than a white person then whatever you did differently was seen as a confirmation that black people were more primitive, more simple-minded, less intelligent, less clever, and more violent than white people, as culturally and intellectually inferior.

The adjectives often heard were similar to those that were applied to native Americans: “primitive”, “tribal”, “stupid”, “savages” and “violent.”

And I think that for at least 25% of white American adults, that’s still the case today.

To Survive, The Subordinate Group Will Seek To Copy The Dominant Group

So, if you were a black person and you wanted to have any chance of success, you had to do whatever you could to appear to be as white as you could. You had to talk like a white person, dress like a white person, eat like a white person, and in every way possible pretend to be a white person.

Of course, that wouldn’t get you the respect of white people because they were going to take one look at you and know that you weren’t white, but at least you wouldn’t immediately irritate them by acting as if you weren’t white.

If White Is Right, Then Not White Is Wrong

Today, when one of those white people sees a black person who doesn’t talk like a white person or dress like a white person or act like a white person, they take that as confirmation that black people are intellectually or culturally inferior, or at least evidence of the inferiority of those black people who don’t act like white people.

Those white people would say to each other, “Have you heard how they talk? Have you seen how they dance? Have you seen how they dress?” with the implication being, “That just goes to show how low class/inferior they are.”

For a discussion of the stereotypes people carry around inside their brains, see my column:

The Pictures That Pop Into Our Heads. When I Say “Welfare” “Illegal Alien” “Businessman” “Drug Company” What Do You See?

To those whites every aspect of how a black person acts that is different from the culture of a white person is taken as proof of the black person’s intellectual and cultural inferiority. Why?

Because to them that difference proves how much they are not like us.

Those whites say to themselves: We are the smart ones; we are the successful ones; we are the educated ones; we are the sophisticated ones; we are the inventive, clever ones; we are the descendants of the people who built the cathedrals and invented the printing press, and they are primitive savages who came out of the jungle and became agricultural slaves.

For those whites, everything black people do that is different from what white people do reminds them that they are not like us and since we are winners they must be losers.

For these whites, the black people who blend in, talk the same way, dress the same way, act the same way as the dominant white majority get what those white people think are compliments:

“He’s the whitest black man I’ve ever known”, “He’s just like us”, or “He’s one of the good ones” all meaning “We white people are the gold standard so he should be congratulated (or at least not looked down upon) for working himself up to our level.”

Lying To Themselves

These whites don’t think they’re racists. If some pollster asked them, “Do you think black people are inferior to white people?” they would say, “Oh, no. I just love the black man who checks my groceries at the Safeway.”

But if they could vote by secret ballot on whether or not a black family could buy the house next door, they would X the “no” box every time.

For a more detailed discussion on this topic, see my column: The Most Harmful Racists Are The Ones Who Think They’re Not Racists At All.

— David Grace (

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David Grace

David Grace


Graduate of Stanford University & U.C. Berkeley Law School. Author of 16 novels and over 400 Medium columns on Economics, Politics, Law, Humor & Satire.