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Back | Programme Area: Identities, Conflict and Cohesion

Structural Racism and American Democracy: Historical and Theoretical Perspectives on the Civil Rights Movement (Draft)



The central difficulty in uprooting racism in US society is that structural racism predated the construction of national identity and the establishment of the state. US citizenship since 1790 was strictly defined by determining whether one belonged to the 'racialized other' group, or did not. Successive waves of immigrants from Western Europe quickly learned that identification with 'whiteness,' and isolation from American Indians and blacks, was the gateway to upward mobility.

Slavery existed in the United States from 1619 until 1865, and was followed by nearly one century of legal racial segregation, the US version of apartheid. In the Dred Scott decision of 1857, the United States Supreme Court defined blacks as 'beings of an inferior order and altogether unfit to associate with the white race&ldots;and so far inferior that they have no rights which the white man was bound to respect'. Blacks were first legally defined as private property; and after slavery was abolished, they were subordinated through political means. These included political disenfranchisement, the inability to run for public office, racial segregation in hotels, schools, hospitals and all public buildings, and widespread lynching. These policies and brutal practices created powerful social, cultural and psychological barriers between racial groups.

To escape the racial segregation and political terror of the US south, millions of African-Americans migrated to the northern states between 1910 and 1960. The proportion of blacks living in urban areas rose from 23 per cent to over 75 per cent. Blacks again encountered racial segregation in the north, but of a somewhat milder variety. Blacks were usually permitted to vote, serve on juries, run for public office, and have access to public accommodation. Nevertheless, a strict pattern of residential segregation, and the racial exclusion of blacks from many unions and from better-paying jobs, perpetuated a their marginalized status. Ghettoes-Harlem, Chicago's South Side, North Philadelphia-became highly concentrated urban areas of blacks, defined by widespread poverty, joblessness, inferior schools and poor housing.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Jan 2001
    From: UNRISD