RACE - THE POWER OF AN ILLUSION
EPISODE TWO: THE STORY WE TELL
(00:46 - DVD Scene #2)
NARRATOR: "All men are created equal." "All men are created
equal." It's the lofty and revolutionary ideal at America's core.
Yet it was written at a time when some inhabitants were held in
bondage, and others were being dispossessed of their lands. How
did American society justify unequal treatment based on skin color
and national origins? How did it reconcile that contradiction?
America created a story - a story of race.
ROBIN D. G. KELLEY, HISTORIAN: Race was never just a matter
of how you look, it's about how people assign meaning to how you
THEDA PERDUE, HISTORIAN: We have the idea that it's somewhere
written in stone that there are these fundamental differences
between human beings. We don't realize that race is an idea that
evolves over time, that it has a history, that it is constructed
by society to further certain political and economic goals.
NARRATOR: Created over four centuries, race has become a powerful
and enduring narrative. Moments in America's past reveal how this
idea took hold and became the lens through which we view our world.
(2:25 - DVD Scene #3)
Thomas Jefferson, a Virginia slaveholder, penned the revolutionary
words proclaiming human equality in the Declaration of Independence.
He also wrote a lesser-known influential document, Notes on the
State of Virginia. Written in response to questions from France
about the American colonies, the book reads as a kind of sales
pitch for America. Notes on the State of Virginia was not about
race, but among Jefferson's descriptions of rivers and seaports,
mountains and climate, he expressed his views on the inhabitants
of the new land-people from America, Europe and Africa.
ACTOR (reading from NOTES ON THE STATE OF VIRGINIA): I
advance it, as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally
a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are
inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.
PAUL FINKELMAN, HISTORIAN: It is possible to make the
argument that Thomas Jefferson is the first person to truly articulate
a theory of race in the United States, and in effect, he has to
do so. He has said in the Declaration of Independence, that we
are all created equal. Well, if in fact we're all created equal,
and if in fact we're entitled to our liberty, then how can he
possibly own 175 slaves, and going up to about 225 slaves at the
peak of his slaveholding?
NARRATOR: In Notes Jefferson's words appeared to justify slavery
at a time when many slaves were admonishing the founding fathers
for espousing freedom while continuing to support a system of
KELLEY: The problem that they had to figure out is how
can we promote liberty, freedom, democracy on the one hand, and
a system of slavery and exploitation of peoples who are non-white
on the other?
JAMES HORTON, HISTORIAN: And the way you do that is to
say "Yeah, but you know, there is something different about these
people. This, this whole business of inalienable rights, ah, that's
fine, but it only applies to certain people."
IRA BERLIN, HISTORIAN: The moment when we become a nation
is critical for our understanding of both American nationality
and race. We accept the notion that all men are created equal,
but then, perhaps, some of those people who are enslaved are not
quite men. That is we'll keep our ideas of American nationality,
but we'll write certain people out of the human family.
(5:25 - DVD Scene #4)
NARRATOR: The suspicions of black racial inferiority raised
by Jefferson had evolved over time, shaped in part by an intense
need for labor in the American colonies. In 1619 when the first
Africans arrived in Virginia, religion and wealth, not physical
appearance, defined status. Blackness and whiteness were not yet
clear categories of identity.
PERDUE: They were more likely to distinguish between Christians
and heathens than they were between people of color and people
who were white. They regarded a person's status in life as somehow
more fundamental than what color they were, or what their particular
SCOTT MALCOMSON, AUTHOR: The different ways in which those
hierarchies of social class and social power became filled in
with the content of race, so that the lowest class would be a
black class, and the highest class would be some particularly
pale white class, ah, that was a very gradual process.
NARRATOR: For the first fifty years in the American colonies,
most of the laborers were European indentured servants, many toiling
on tobacco plantations in wretched conditions. With fewer Europeans
braving the treacherous journey across the Atlantic, planters
facing a potential labor shortage turned to the transatlantic
slave trade, and gradually replaced indentured servants with African
HORTON: They found what they considered an endless labor
supply. People who could be readily identified and so when they
ran away they couldn't just meld into the population like Native
Americans could. People who knew how to grow tobacco, people who
knew how to grow rice. From their standpoint, the ideal labor
NARRATOR: Colony by colony, new laws made slavery permanent
and inheritable for black people. And for the first time the word
"white," rather than "Christian" or "Englishman" began appearing
in colonial statutes.
GEORGE M. FREDRICKSON, HISTORIAN: To what extent we could
say this was actually conscious strategy, or what extent it was
a result of a number of unthinking decisions that resulted in
this, but it did buttress a kind of social structure.
NARRATOR: As African slavery increased, lower-class Europeans
won new rights and opportunities. Some even became overseers and
bounty hunters responsible for policing the growing slave population.
FREDRICKSON: The ordinary white people are not going to
be complicit in this system unless they get something out of it.
My belief is that payoff was in a certain status, prestige, recognition,
ah, ego enhancement that ordinary white people could derive from
racism. And so there was a kind of bargain struck.
KELLEY: Many of the European-descended poor whites began
to identify themselves, if not directly with the rich whites,
certainly with being white. And here you get the emergence of
this idea of a white race as a way to distinguish themselves from
those dark-skinned people who they associate with perpetual slavery.
AUDREY SMEDLEY, ANTHROPOLOGIST: Slavery became identified
with Africans-blackness and slavery went together. That gave the
white American the idea that Africans were a different kind of
MIA BAY, HISTORIAN: There's a racial divide emerging that
people begin to, um, see as natural, and that's part of where
the idea of race comes from. It's just in, in, in the tendency
for people to see existing power relationships as having some
sort of natural quality to them.
(9:49 - DVD Scene #5)
NARRATOR: By the time Jefferson sat down to write Notes
on the State of Virginia in 1781, a plantation economy dependent
on slavery was deeply entrenched. Slavery had become so widespread
that to many whites it seemed the natural state for black people.
But when Jefferson turned his attention to Indians in Notes, what
appeared natural about them was their status as free people, brave
warriors protecting their lands. This led Jefferson to suspect
that Indians were not much different from Europeans.
ACTOR (quoting JEFFERSON): Their vivacity and activity
of mind is equal to ours in the same situation. We shall probably
find that they are formed in mind as well as in body, on the same
module with the "Homo sapien Europćus."
FREDRICKSON: The original view of the Indians was that
they were naturally white people, and they looked slightly brown
because of exposure to the sun and because of the way they treated
their skin. Jefferson felt that, among many people of that time,
felt that the Indians were good human material, and the problem
with them was not race but culture, that the Indians were savages
but they could be civilized.
NARRATOR: Jefferson and his contemporaries were also influenced
by European Enlightenment thinkers who believed that education
and environment could improve people. But when Jefferson wrote
about the Indians he had little direct contact with them. Most
Virginia tribes had been pushed west or killed off by war and
REGINALD HORSMAN, HISTORIAN: Those in direct conflict
with the Indians, those who were crossing the mountains to Kentucky
or Tennessee, didn't think of the Indians in an Enlightenment
view. They thought of Indians as savages who were trying to destroy
peaceful settlers coming in, and thought they should be driven
out or exterminated.
RICHARD ALLEN, POLICY ANALYST, CHEROKEE NATION: There
was an ever-encroaching white population who wanted our land.
As a people, we were hunters, as, you know, as anthropologists
would describe us as hunters and gatherers. We saw ourselves as
equal people. We were free people. We had always been free people.
NARRATOR: Many Indians fought to maintain their freedom and
land. Within a decade of Independence, wars with frontier tribes
like the Shawnee, Miami, Kickapoo and others threatened the stability
of the young nation.
PERDUE: The United States decided that the cheapest, easiest
way to avoid an Indian war along its entire frontier, and also
to acquire Indian land, was to quote "civilize" the Indians. Civilization
included Christian religion; it included an English education;
and commercial agriculture. If you can convert Indians from hunters
into farmers, if you could confine them to a small acreage, then
you would have all this surplus land, which could be opened to
ALLEN: The civilization policy was actually designed to
assimilate us into America. It was ultimately to make us farmers,
ah, to live like the colonists lived. The civilization policy
was to make us brown, white men.
(13:53 - DVD Scene #6)
NARRATOR: In Notes on the State of Virginia Jefferson
implied Indians could be assimilated in American society, but
he did not support assimilating black people. He wrote of "deep
rooted prejudices entertained by the whites" and of "physical
and moral differences" separating the groups.
HORSMAN: Jefferson seems to have thought about it as a
Virginia plantation owner who has been brought up amongst slaves,
and who at his heart of heart, I would suppose, finds it difficult
to conceive of those slaves are fully his equal.
NARRATOR: It was through those eyes that the man who wrote
the nation's credo "all men are created equal" put forth as a
"suspicion only" that "the blacks are inferior to the whites in
the endowments both of body and mind."
BERLIN: This difference is not simply a product of circumstance,
it's not simply a product of the environment, but Jefferson broaches
this possibility, ah, that it is something, much deeper, something
innate. Ah, we would say in our own language (Jefferson didn't
have this language), we would say, "genetic."
SMEDLEY: But, he says, "We will not be able to know this
until science gives us the answers." And so he calls on science.
FINKELMAN: He sets American science on the path of trying
to figure out what it is scientifically that makes blacks inferior
to whites. And of course, if that's the question the scientist
asks, then that's the question the scientist will answer.
HORTON: And so from that moment on, you start to build
a case that is specifically geared to tell the world that these
people are different. Theories of race are used to do that.
NARRATOR: In the next century as the nation expanded, so would
ideas about human difference. Science and slavery would help focus
the nation's attention on the nature of black people. Land would
propel native Americans into the racial spotlight.
(16:21 - DVD Scene #7)
ACTOR (reading from THOMAS JEFFERSON'S FIRST INAUGURAL ADDRESS):
A rising nation spread over a wide and fruitful land traversing
all the seas with the rich productions of their industry advancing
rapidly to destinies beyond the reach of mortal eye.
NARRATOR: The hopes expressed by Jefferson in his first Inaugural
Address were partially realized two years later in 1803 when the
United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France, doubling
the size of the country.
MAE NGAI, HISTORIAN: Jefferson believed that the United
States had a great future because it could expand through space,
that the agrarian ideal of American independence could be maintained
by expanding the country westward.
HORSMAN: Obviously there are very big problems with this.
The land was not empty. One did overrun Indians.
NARRATOR: At the time of the Louisiana Purchase dozens of
Indian tribes populated the vast, new territory west of the Mississippi.
And some Indian nations, like the Cherokee, still owned massive
tracts of land in the southeast.
PERDUE: Indians in the South lived in the region in which
wealth was very firmly grounded in land. Planters needed land
on which to grow tobacco, to grow cotton, to grow other staple
crops. Indians occupied that land. Indians owned that land. And
consequently, ah, Indians were under constant pressure for that
NARRATOR: In response to this pressure and defeats on the
battlefield, some tribes like the Cherokee embraced the government's
civilization policy first begun in the 1790s. They would put to
the test Jefferson's words: "We shall all be Americans. Your blood
will run in our veins and will spread with us over this great
PERDUE: Most people consider the Cherokees to be the great
success story of the "civilization" policy. The Cherokees were
able very quickly to transform, at least on a superficial level,
their culture. They made many accomplishments that led their supporters
to proclaim them to be "civilized" Indians.
NARRATOR: One of the largest tribes in America, the Cherokees
had lived in small villages in parts of what is now Kentucky,
Virginia, Tennessee, The Carolinas, Alabama, and Georgia. By 1819
they had signed treaties ceding over ninety percent of their land
to the United States. With the civilization policy, many Cherokees
had switched from being hunters to farmers, some even ran plantations
and owned slaves. Their children learned Christian religion and
English at mission-run schools. A Cherokee alphabet was created,
and in the 1820s, the Cherokee nation began publishing a bilingual
newspaper. They established a government and constitution that
was patterned after the United States.
ALLEN: The "civilization" policy was looked upon as a tool
for survival. We began to see that that might be the only way
for the Cherokee people to- to live in peace with ah, the United
States. Not so much that we wanted to become white people.
(20:16 - DVD Scene #8)
MALCOMSON: As the Cherokees became more and more prosperous
along more or less classic, white southern lines, the nature of
white government in America was changing. The federal government
had to appeal to a much wider base of white American men than
it had previously in the Revolutionary period. One of the main
interests of this demographic of less well-off white American
men was to get land so that they could become better-off white
American men. The main result of this, ah, which was from the
white point of view an expansion of democracy, and of democratic
representation of, or the inclusion of more and more people in
American democracy, from the Indian point of view was the gradual
empowerment of exactly the population which would like to take
what they had.
NARRATOR: Every year more white settlers arrived in Georgia
seeking to settle on what was still Indian land. The federal government
had promised to remove all Indians from the state in 1802, but
25 years later with the Cherokees appearing even more entrenched,
Georgia's legislature took action asserting: "The lands in question
belong to Georgia. She must and she will have them." The state
held a lottery giving whites title to Cherokee property.
PERDUE: Whites invaded their land; they killed people;
they stole their property; they forced them out of their houses.
Cherokees were really being pressed from all sides, it seemed.
NARRATOR: The pressure on Cherokees, and all Eastern Indians,
increased in 1828 when Andrew Jackson was elected president on
a platform championing opportunity for the "common man." Removing
all Indians east of the Mississippi was central to his agenda.
HORTON: When Jackson who speaks out in a kind a of populist
way, speaking for the little guy, speaking out against privilege,
his little guy, his citizen is increasingly a white, male citizen.
As America is becoming more democratic for white males, it is
becoming increasingly more race based.
MATTHEW P. GUTERL, HISTORIAN: It's believed that only
white people can maintain the land, preserve it, ah, protect their
own independence, and then using that independence, have some
sort of fitness for self-government that enables them to be proper
PERDUE: Nationalism begins to be, in many respects, equated
to race. People began to think that nations should be composed
of people who had inherent qualities in common: they thought the
same way; they believed the same things; they spoke the same language;
they looked the same. And this is very contradictory to the Enlightenment
notions of a united humanity.
(23:41 - DVD Scene #9)
NARRATOR: The conflict between Indian removal and America's
founding ideals surfaced during bitter national debates. In a
three-day speech to his fellow congressmen, New Jersey senator
Frelinghuysen asked, "If we abandon these aboriginal proprietors
of our soil, how shall we justify it to our country? How shall
we justify this trespass to ourselves?" But Michigan Territory
governor Lewis Cass provided a justification, one that used race
to focus on the nature of Indians, rather than the morality of
ACTOR (quoting LEWIS CASS on Indian removal): They have
resisted every effort to meliorate their situation. There must
then be an inherent difficulty, arising from the institutions,
character, and condition of the Indians themselves.
NARRATOR: The Indian Removal Act passed in 1830. When some
tribes including the Cherokees resisted removal, President Jackson's
response reflected the government's shift in racial thinking about
ACTOR (reading ANDREW JACKSON'S FIFTH ANNUAL MESSAGE):
They have neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral habits,
nor the desire of improvement which are essential to any change
in their condition. Established in the midst of another and superior
race, they must necessarily yield to the force of circumstances
and ere long disappear.
ALLEN: The Cherokees felt betrayed that we were considered
savages. Jackson is remembered among Cherokees, uh, uh, as someone
to be vilified.
MALCOMSON: The identity of being Indian, or in this case
of being Cherokee, which they had been told for decades to abandon
as part of the past, as part of paganism, as, as, as a, a relic
of primitive times, they were now told was inherent in them, and
that they should in some way embrace it. They should not become
like white people, they should preserve themselves as Indians,
and not only that, they should preserve themselves as Indians
a very long way away.
NARRATOR: Cherokees vigorously fought removal against relentless
pressure, but finally in 1838, the United States Army forced them
to leave their homes at gunpoint. One fourth of the Cherokee Nation
died in camps or on the journey west that became known as the
Trail of Tears. By 1840 more than 70,000 eastern Indians had been
relocated west of the Mississippi.
GUTERL: The story of the Cherokee and their ultimate removal
was also about who could be civilized, and who couldn't; who could
be white; who could be a citizen of this country; and who could
reside within its borders. And as the country moves west, that
question gets answered in the same fashion over and over again.
NARRATOR: Eight years after the Trail of Tears, America went
to war with Mexico to acquire more land. Supporters of the war
argued that Mexicans were an inferior, mongrel race. A popular
guide for homesteaders described them as "mere Indians," barbarous
"savages" who "intend to hold this delightful region against the
civilized world." When the war ended in 1848, the United States
annexed one-third of Mexico's land.
NGAI: Most white Americans really believed the West was
for them, and for them alone. This was part of a whole philosophy
of Manifest Destiny of what impelled westward expansion, ah, throughout
the middle part of the 19th century. It was this idea that the
West belong to white Americans.
(28:27 - DVD Scene #10)
NARRATOR: As they continued their expansion westward, some
white Americans would use science to justify their actions and
support their belief in racial superiority.
BAY: During the 19th century there were lots of public
lectures on the races of man. Science was, because it was new,
was something people were avidly interested in. Science in the
19th century was expected to reveal all the mysteries of the universe.
HORSMAN: You even see specific references by this period
where they're saying, "Race is the great issue of the age."
NARRATOR: The nation's interest in race was more than idle
fascination. In the 1840s the question of whether slavery would
expand to newly acquired western lands was bitterly dividing the
nation and fueling attacks on slavery.
MALCOMSON: There was significant momentum towards the
abolition of racial slavery. But there were also very strong countervailing
trends. And in the end this created an enormous tension within
white society because it was caught in this contradiction that
BAY: As people begin to oppose slavery, the whole question
of what the difference between the races is, and what the status
of black people should be becomes more debated. In the context
of this debate over slavery versus anti-slavery, um, ideas about
race really flesh out.
(30:26 - DVD Scene #11)
NARRATOR: In 1846, five thousand people gathered in Boston
to hear, "The Plan of Creation in the Animal Kingdom," the first
American lecture by renowned Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz. His
scientific methods valued observation over speculation. Agassiz
was quickly pulled into the scientific question of the day: "Are
all people, no matter their physical features, members of the
same or different species?"
FINKELMAN: It's a debate between people who look at the
book of Genesis and see what they call a single creation, God
created Adam and Eve, and scientists who say, "Well, actually
these races couldn't possibly come from the same place. There
must be different and separate creations.
NARRATOR: Agassiz arrived in America supporting the theory
that all humans were united in a single creation. But he soon
began to rethink his position, after meeting one of America's
most distinguished scientists, Samuel Morton. A Philadelphia physician,
Morton owned the world's largest collection of human skulls and
had written two influential books documenting what he claimed
were innate differences among humans. One focused on American
HORSMAN: The foundation work was a work called Crania
Americana in which he argued that he was using purely scientific
methods to investigate the question of skull size, skull capacity,
which had implications for brain size which he thought was vital
in how races progressed.
FINKELMAN: Lo and behold, he discovers that white American
males are the smartest people on earth, followed in gradation
by the English, the French, and then other Europeans, and then
other races, with blacks always on the bottom. Ah, curiously,
some English scholars do the same thing. They discover Englishmen
are actually smarter than Americans, followed by French and other
Europeans. And guess what the French discover? That the French
are really smarter than both.
BAY: Somehow he managed to make sort of systematic errors
in favor of what was the, you know, the sort of understood hierarchy
of the races of the day.
LEE BAKER, ANTHROPOLOGIST: Samuel Morton drew wild conclusions
based on very careful studying and ranking of these skulls. I
don't care how many times you measure a skull, or even anything
physical about an individual, or a group of people, you cannot
predict their morality, their behavior, their achievements, potential
for achievement, but that was what was important about this idea
of race at the time.
HORSMAN: Southerners were actually delighted at what the
scientists were doing. They were hearing from, if you like, "non-special
interests," that there were huge differences between the races.
Now this meant that the South began to argue quite vigorously
that the best scientific opinion is saying that slaves cannot
exist within a free, white society and that they are inferior.
FINKELMAN: The ultimate defense of slavery is a racial
defense, that blacks are inferior, and therefore they are ready-made
slaves. God created them as slaves.
(34:19 - DVD Scene #12)
NARRATOR: "Why all this rant about Negro equality," asked
John Campbell in his book Negro-Mania, "seeing that neither nature
or nature's God ever established any such equality?"Josiah Nott,
a southern doctor and disciple of Morton, firmly believed that
black people were a separate species, and used science to wage
a vigorous defense of slavery.
HORSMAN: Though he was a good doctor, I mean for the period,
and ah well regarded as an expert on yellow fever, he immediately
starts to show from his very first writings, that when he writes
about race, he throws off really any scientific, ah, realism at
all, and writes from his prejudices. It seems so exaggerated it
looks like the publication you would get on a sort of dirty little
leaflet that some fringe organization has published, and yet it's
accepted scientific fact for a time.
NARRATOR: As these ideas told hold, pro-slavery advocates
argued that the enslavement of black people did not violate the
democratic spirit of America because Jefferson's term "all men"
did not scientifically include black people.
NARRATOR: In 1850, Louis Agassiz by then Harvard's most prominent
professor, told his fellow members of the American Association
for the Advancement of Science that "viewed zoologically, the
several races of men were well marked and distinct." Josiah Nott
wrote to Samuel Morton, "With Agassiz in the war the battle is
BAKER: Here was the most objective, the pinnacle of the
scientific man influenced by American racism, and who transformed
his deeply held belief in the unity of mankind. I think that says
more than anything else, that the power of the ideology of race
can change peoples' minds.
NARRATOR: Three years later, Agassiz contributed a chapter
to a forthcoming book co-authored by Nott. The 738-page Types
of Mankind was greatly anticipated. It pre-sold its entire first
BAKER: Types of Mankind was tremendously influential.
It was the first time that scientists pulled together all of the
research that justified the argument that African Americans, Native
Americans, Asians, et cetera were different species.
ACTOR (quoting JOSIAH NOTT in TYPES OF MANKIND): Nations
and races, like individuals have each an especial destiny: some
are born to rule, and others to be ruled. And such has ever been
the history of mankind. No two distinctly marked races can dwell
together on equal terms.
NARRATOR: Types of Mankind was one of the best-selling science
books of its day. Among the first to buy it were the United States
departments of State, Navy, and Treasury.
HORSMAN: Science and the politicians and popular opinion
weld together in a way that is extremely useful for both. The
politicians and the general population are very happy to have
scientific views to lean on which say that the fact that this
successful republic is not destroying Indians just for, just for
the love of it, they're not enslaving , ah, blacks because they
are selfish, ah, they're not overrunning Mexican lands ah because
they are avaricious for land, that this is part of some great
inevitability of science, of really the way races are constituted;
that is, the Caucasian race, and even certain branches within
the Caucasian race, are superior.
EVELYNN HAMMONDS, HISTORIAN OF SCIENCE: It's about a way
of sort of naturalizing a social structure which everyone understood
and clearly saw that the quote, unquote the "Negro," or in other
regions of the country, the Native American, or the Chinese were
at the bottom of the, the social and political hierarchy. And
if you can say that they are fundamentally biologically different,
then they should be.
(39:29 - DVD Scene #13)
NARRATOR: In the 1857 Dred Scott case, the Supreme Court decided
that people of African ancestry, enslaved or free, could never
become citizens of the United States. The opinion stated that
black people "had no rights which the white man was bound to respect."
HORSMAN: There's been a remarkable transformation because
if you are thinking say 50 or 60 years before in American history,
you have got Jefferson ambiguously talking about well he thinks,
possibly blacks are not quite the same capacity as whites, but
he isn't sure. But they get to the 1850s, people are writing there
are deep, irrevocable gulfs between the races.
NARRATOR: The conflict over slavery led the nation to war.
After President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation,
his administration consulted Louis Agassiz on how to deal with
the newly freed black population. Agassiz advised, "Beware of
how we give to the blacks rights by virtue of which they may endanger
the progress of whites. They are incapable of living on a footing
of social equality."
HORTON: If America had just looked the world in the eye
and said, "We hold these people in slavery cause we need their
labor, and we've got the power to do it." Now that would have
been much better because then when the power was gone, when slavery
was over, it's over. But what we said was, "There is something
about these people." By doing that it means, that when slavery
is over, that rationalization for slavery remains.
NARRATOR: In the late 19th century as the United States expanded
beyond its continental borders, ideas of racial difference would
become widely accepted at home, and help define a new role for
(41:54 - DVD Scene #14)
NARRATOR: At the turn of the century, popular culture promoted
stories of race as a unifying force of national identity. Race
was a common topic in the new monthly magazines.
BAKER: A whole new middle-class readership was interested
in reading about it. They had people from the House of Representatives,
Supreme Court Justices, expert scientists, writing in these magazines,
purporting their particular visions and views on the so-called
"race" question, the "Indian" question, the "Negro" question.
People consumed it without even understanding the science that
went behind it, that "hey, if this expert's talking about race
in the North American Review, it must be correct."
GUTERL: Popular magazines contribute to an emerging sense
of what is and what isn't American, who's white, who's not, who's
better, who's worse.
ROBERT RYDELL, HISTORIAN: The unifying principle is a
principle of, um, white supremacy, it's a principle of shared
racial identity, and if you are white or if you can be made to
identify with white-ness you are going to be considered to be
in. And that line of whiteness cuts across class lines and provides
a way to unify Americans on the basis of race.
(44:26 - DVD Scene #15)
HORTON: All through the late 19th century, there is this
constant message hammered at poor white people: "You may be poor,
you may have miserable lives right now, but the thing that is
most important, the thing we want you to focus on is the fact
that you are white."
NARRATOR: In 1898, the United States took possession of Guam,
Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines after defeating Spain in
war. When McClure's Magazine published the poem "The White Man's
Burden," Americans seized on the phrase that embodied the country's
new role as a world power. Rudyard Kipling's poem was a rallying
cry for empire and a racial justification to send American troops
across the Pacific to put down the Filipino rebels fighting for
independence from the U.S.
ACTOR (quoting RUDYARD KIPLING'S poem WHITE MAN'S BURDEN):
Take up the white man's burden, send forth the best ye breed.
Go, bind your sons to exile, To serve your captives' need; To
wait, in heavy harness, On fluttered folk and wild- Your new-caught
sullen peoples, Half devil and half child.
FREDRICKSON: Kipling wrote the poem to try to encourage
the United States to annex the Philippines. And clearly it probably
provided more support for the- um, those who want to take on the
"white man's burden." Because some of the imperialists said, "Oh,
we can bring them along, maybe not to equality, but our little
brown brothers, we can advance them in civilization."
NARRATOR: Even advertising took up the phrase. Pears' Soap
claimed to be "a potent factor in brightening the dark corners
of the earth as civilization advances." Not all Americans supported
the Philippine war, but race fueled the arguments of many anti-imperialists
as well. One southern senator declared, "We of the south have
borne this white man's burden of a colored race in our midst since
their emancipation and before. It was a burden upon our manhood
and our ideas of liberty before they were emancipated. It is still
RYDELL: If you look at the way Filipinos are represented
they are represented not as Filipinos. Some Filipinos are portrayed
as being akin to African Americans. Some are portrayed as being
akin to Native Americans.
GUTERL: Use of the imagery of African Americans and Native
Americans would have been important because these were familiar
peoples. Their "faults" were familiar to the citizens of the republic.
HAMMONDS: At the end of the 19th century race is a kind
of integrated totality. It embodied these sort of cultural, linguistic,
psychological, moral, and biological characteristics into the
concept itself. The concept is, is quite rich. It carries all
these kinds of connotations. There's not a gap between what the
regular person on the street understands about race and what scientists
or anthropologists or social scientists think about race.
NARRATOR: America crushed the Filipino independence movement,
and the Philippines became a U.S. territory. The United States
gained a strategic port in the Pacific, and began a campaign to
civilize another set of natives. The United States entered the
twentieth century as the world's most prosperous nation, and newest
(48:47 - DVD Scene #16)
NARRATOR: In 1904, St. Louis, Missouri staged a world's fair
to showcase America's achievements, and celebrate the 100th anniversary
of Thomas Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase.
BAKER: The 1904 World's Fair was America's triumph of
civilization, imperialism, and a new century. It was filled with
hope and optimism. The organizers wanted to show America's unbridled
RYDELL: People go to have fun, to be sure, but world's
fairs are not about entertainment, they're billed as the world's
NARRATOR: In neo-classic palaces of progress, fairgoers wandered
through technological and cultural exhibits. But on the other
side of the fair grounds, they were captivated by human exhibits-people
on display in their so-called "natural" habitats.
BAKER: They would have these exhibits of little brown
people to show, "Oh, that's a savage. Hmm. Look at the way they
carve that wood." And the barbarians, as you moved up the evolutionary
tree, "Oh, isn't that interesting, I see it's different than the
RYDELL: Fairgoers see an enormous number of people who
perhaps they have only read about, maybe never even heard about.
But here they are living flesh and blood, there to be seen. World's
Fairs are very adept at organizing categories of human beings
on this continuum from savagery to civilization.
NARRATOR: One fair organizer described it as "a practical
illustration of the best way of bearing the white man's burden."
On display for all to see were the subjugated people of America's
recent past. An exhibit titled "Old Plantation" served up a bucolic
view of slave life, and Geronimo, the legendary and recently defeated
Apache warrior, signed autographs for a fee.
RYDELL: Here you have not only American Indians put on
display as a kind of vanquished people, but you also have at the
fair a direct link made between Manifest Destiny on the home front,
and America's burgeoning drive to expand overseas.
(52:02 - DVD Scene #17)
NARRATOR: The Philippine Exposition, was one of the largest
and most popular exhibits. Created to demonstrate the benefits
of America's civilizing presence, the exhibit gave Americans a
chance to see the people they had recently conquered.
BAKER: Part of the world's fair was also about showing
where you were as a white citizen. And a lot of people took pictures
next to the so-called "savages," and having a white body next
to a dark body demonstrated how "civilized" they were.
NARRATOR: Nearly 20 million visitors to the fair received
an object lesson that connected an understanding of race to a
vision of America's future.
RYDELL: One of the metaphors that's constantly used over
and over again at the Fair is the metaphor of the highway of human
progress: "Who's in the fast lane?" "Are you part of this advancing
order of Caucasians, or are you somebody else, somebody other?"
MALCOMSON: White people saw their advance as being historical,
and this gave them an enormous motivation to see the lives of
people who were not white as being outside of history and not
part of this progressive advance.
GUTERL: Most Americans believed that race was one of the
most important parts of national life; that race mattered because
it guaranteed this country a future in the history of the world.
The United States would rise towards glory, towards history, towards
NARRATOR: After six months the St. Louis World's Fair closed
on December 1, 1904. Its grand exhibit halls demolished soon after.
But race, a story first told to rationalize deep social divisions
in a society that proclaimed its belief in equality, would be
carried forward into the 20th century and beyond.
HORTON: We are a society based on principles literally
to die for. Principles that are so wonderful it brings tears to
your eyes. But we are a society that so often allows itself to
ignore those principles. We live in a kind of heightened state
of anxiety because we know we aren't what we could be or what
we say we are.
(55:20 - DVD Scene #18)
<BACK TO TOP