Black & White

The Idea of Racial Purity

On this episode of BackStory, the Backstory hosts look for the roots of America’s obsession with race, and ask why the line between black and white has remained so bold despite centuries of racial mixing.

Were the categories of “black” and “white” already in place when Africans first came to America, and if not, when did they take shape? How did the founders think about race, and what are we to make of the contradictions between the public writings of men like Jefferson and their behavior in private? What is the “one-drop rule,” and where did it come from? In what ways have religion and science affirmed and challenged notions of racial difference? It’s not hard to see the progress that’s been made on the road to racial equality, but what have been the major setbacks and reversals along the way?

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[MUSIC PLAYING] PETER: This is BackStory with us, the American Backstory hosts. I’m Peter Onuf, 18th Century Guy.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers, 19th Century Guy.

BRIAN: I’m Brian Balogh, 20th Century History Guy. And with us is a 21st century guy who needs no introduction.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I’m the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I’m married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave owners, an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters.

BRIAN: When then candidate Barack Obama gave his now famous race speech in 2008, it became clear that he intended to cross more than one major color line that fall. Not only would he be the first mixed race president, he seemed to be saying he would also be the first president to discuss race frankly and openly. He had a point. For much of the past 200 years, we Americans have spent a lot more time protecting racial boundaries than challenging them.

ED: And so for the rest of the hour today on BackStory, we’re going to examine the history of the line between black and white. Where did the concept of race come from in the first place? And what’s American about it? And how much progress have we made? By the end of the hour, we hope to have some answers.

PETER: We’re going to begin today in the early days of our nation’s history. It was then that one of history’s most infamous romances took shape, infamous because it transgressed a color line and it involved one of America’s founding fathers. I’m talking, of course, about Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings.

The story goes that in 1787, while Sally was still a teenager, she crossed the Atlantic to join Jefferson in Paris. There, they began an affair that lasted many years and produced four children, all of whom were eventually freed by Jefferson. Over the years, substantial evidence has emerged about all of this. And yet some still insist that there was no affair, that Jefferson and Hemings were nothing more than master and slave. I recently sat down to discuss the persistence of the controversy with Annette Gordon Reed, author of The Hemings’ of Monticello, An American Family. Annette, who has made it her work to strip the infamy from the Hemings story explained that the story begins long before Jefferson was even on the scene.

ANNETTE GORDON REED: Sally Hemings was the daughter of Elizabeth Hemings and John Wales, who was Jefferson’s wife’s father. So she was Jefferson’s wife’s half sister. And she and her family came under Jefferson’s ownership when John Wales died and Martha, Thomas’ wife, inherited his land and property, which included human property, namely the Hemings’ and about 135 other enslaved people.

And the Hemings family was pretty much installed as the house servants at Monticello. And the women helped Martha Jefferson when she was plantation a wife. Sally Hemings’ brothers were personal attendants to Jefferson and a butler. So this family that was Jefferson’s in-laws, if slaves had been in law that way, were part of the daily existence of Tom and Martha Jefferson all the way up past Martha’s death in 1782 and until Jefferson’s death in 1826.

PETER: So one of the implications of this, Annette, is that Jefferson has to be fully aware of the broad ramifications of the liaison that he might begin with Sally Hemings, that is the idea of his suddenly being carried away by sexual impulse and exploiting a young slave girl just doesn’t make sense.

ANNETTE GORDON REED: It doesn’t make sense because he was evidently in this for the long haul. And in those days, with no birth control and certain attitudes about abortion, I mean, to begin a liaison with a woman would mean that you would have– I mean, she could have had 14 kids. And he knew that he was continuing the same thing that his father-in-law had done by having six children with Elizabeth Hemings, that he would be continuing that into another generation of people, sort of more deeply enmeshing these families together. So, no, this is not a thoughtless– this can’t have been a thoughtless thing on his part.

PETER: Annette, a lot of the fascination with the relationship between Hemings and Jefferson reflects our own kind of prurient sensibility. This is sort of gossip page stuff. And the most pointed charges against Jefferson by people who are deeply disillusioned with Jefferson are that he raped Sally Hemings. How do you respond when people say to you, Annette, let’s get to the heart of the problem, this is a question of rape?

ANNETTE GORDON REED: Well, I don’t like categorical statements, bright line rules. And the rule is that if you’re a slave, you can never consent to have sex with a master. Well, really you can never consent to have sex with a white person because every white person during that time period had incredible amounts of power over all black women. So there’s no possible consent rule to my mind is a shorthand that may describe the situation in general.

But you have to look at individual people’s lives. And if they are in Paris, it bothers me to think that he could rape her, somebody could say he could rape her, and they know for a fact that she would just say, OK, I’m still going to go home with you. And that her brother’s, who would have known this too, even after they’re emancipated, they give gifts to Jefferson.

They visit him. The treat him like an in-law. They don’t treat them like somebody who’s raping their sister. And I would rather look at the situation from their perspective to try to gauge what this relationship meant to them rather than having a sort of edict about black and white sex and slavery.

PETER: In effect, the strong statements about rape are a way of erasing Sally Hemings and other African Americans.

ANNETTE GORDON REED: Exactly. When you look at the life of Elizabeth Hemings, Mary Hemings, Sally Hemings’ older sister, these are women who form liaisons with people that ended up benefiting their children in many, many ways. And it struck me as I was writing this that this is not unlike the kinds of strategies and the kinds of things that women, free women, women throughout history, have been forced to do because of women’s subordinate status in the world.

And that is to say seek some level of stability and assurance of protection for their children by their relationships to men. And some people call it marriage. But they call it other things. And you have to be careful about that.

PETER: Well, the story of enslaved Africans and African Americans struggling against slavery is usually focused on resistance and the push for freedom.

ANNETTE GORDON REED: Or resistance of a particular definition, resistance in the way men resist, killing people, conflict, that that is the sort of ultimate form of resistance. But, I mean, Sally Hemings freed four people and herself. I mean, in some of these insurrections nobody was freed.

PETER: So, Annette, you’ve thought a lot about race and what it means to us today and what it meant to your subjects. How has your thinking evolved on these subjects?

ANNETTE GORDON REED: Well, one thing that I’ve come to see is that race remains a very, very important thing to whites. I mean, I would say that white Americans– and I think black Americans as well, some group of them as well– are still not comfortable with the idea of interracial mixture. The idea that Jefferson could buy and sell people, separate mothers from their children, and that would not appall people, but the thing that says that now his image is tarnished is that he got into bed with a black woman, I think is very instructive to me.

And it’s instructive to black Americans watching people have this kind of reaction. And it’s back to what I said before about race, how important it remains for people to have this notion of a white, pure, founding father, and how his engagement with her changes that and makes people feel alarmed about him. I’ve never, you know, this is so not, to my mind, important about him in terms of him as a world figure.

PETER: Annette, thank you for joining us on BackStory. It’s been great to talk with you.


PETER: Annette Gordon Reed is a professor of law at New York Law School and professor of history at Rutgers University Newark. She’s the author of the Hemings’ of Monticello, An American Family, winner of the 2008 National Book Award and the 2009 Pulitzer Prize.

BRIAN: Well, I want to ask you, Peter, as our 18th century guy, and Ed, as our 19th century guy, you know, Annette asked us to think about race the way people thought about it back in the oldie days. But I’m curious to know how did Jefferson think about race?

PETER: Well, you know, Brian, all you have to do is read the notes in the state of Virginia where we have Jefferson’s most famous statements about race and racial difference. And you’re going to be grossed out. This is where he talks about black inferiority, where he talks about bad smells, about their lack of intelligence, about all they can do is sing a tune. And they’ve got good hearts, but they don’t have good minds.

He thinks he’s being a natural philosopher. And this is a growing conversation across the Atlantic in the Enlightenment period. We usually think of the Enlightenment as a good thing. And in many ways, it was.

But the downside is this new idea of categories, of trying to sort out creation in ways that make sense. And what it leads to are these exaggerated notions of difference. So Jefferson certainly thought that there was a big difference.

But his idea was that you needed to get rid of the slaves. I mean, you needed to emancipate them. But you had to expatriate them. You had to get them out. Why was he worried about that? It’s because of the temptation that enslaved black women presented to masters like Jefferson.

ED: You know, a lot of people have really obsessed about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. But something important to remember is that this was not uncommon at all. This is something that you would have seen all across the South, including urban and rural. You’d also have poorer farmers, white farmers, having sex with enslaved women. And you’d have people in the middle of the social order as well.

BRIAN: Let me ask you, when did that end? Did that endure throughout the 19th century even after slavery? Or was slavery really the key?

ED: Slavery is really the key because as soon as black people were able to police the boundaries of their homes under emancipation, they did that. So you have the paradox of the white South becomes obsessed with racial mixing while it’s in sharp decline.

BRIAN: So, Ed, I understand with emancipation African Americans being able to police their own boundaries better. I get that. But why the white obsession with this race mixing?

ED: That’s a great question. Part of it is temptation doesn’t go away just because the power to fulfill a temptation does. That’s a large part of it.

And so you found that white men were under the strong suspicion that white women felt the same attraction to African American men that they felt toward African American women. And now the African American men were free. That threat seemed a lot more real.

BRIAN: So they had to self police in order to protect their women.

ED: Yeah. I mean, we don’t want to exaggerate. You know, there were still been a rite of passage for some young white men to patronize black prostitutes. And they were still deeply advantageous for some black women to establish liaisons with a white men. But as something that was just generally looked beyond, it faded away with remarkable speed.

BRIAN: Well, we do have to take a short break. When we get back, we’ll talk more about the idea of racial purity in American history. And we’ll hear from some of you listeners.

PETER: We’ll be back in a minute. Don’t go away.


PETER: This is BackStory, the show that looks at the present through the lens of the past. I’m Peter Onuf, your guide to the 18th century.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers, your guide to the 19th century.

BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh, guide to all things 20th century. We’re talking about the idea of racial purity in American history and the reality of racial mixing. We’ve already started a lively conversation on the subject at, and our producers have invited a few of the people who left comments there to join us on the phone.

PETER: First up today, we have Jonathan calling from our hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia. Jonathan, welcome to BackStory.

JONATHAN: Hi, good to be on.

PETER: Well, we’re talking about race today. And do you have something on your mind?

JONATHAN: Yes, I was wondering, since you guys were historians, in the mixed race community, a lot of people tend to identify using blood quantum, so saying that I have one parent who’s Asian, one parent who’s Latino, therefore I am half Asian, half Latino. And that’s always struck me as a sort of weird way of looking at race since it kind of presumes that if you have, you know, one grandparent of race A and three grandparents of race B, that you’re somehow three times more B than A. And I guess I was just wondering if you guys could sort of talk about maybe historically how that view of race in the mixed race community came to be and whether there are any kind of alternative ways people have looked at it.

ED: Yeah, it has been the definition for centuries. And I think that’s a great way of putting it, the blood quantum. But it is based on sort of a unitary belief that blood and the body are in one race, all of one unified form. And the idea then that if you have people of different so called races mixing, it must literally be different forms of a blood as well as soul or spirit that is also mingled as well.

PETER: Ed, I think there’s another dimension to this. And that’s legal dimension. And it goes back to inheritance. That is, establishing who gets to inherit, all the way from succession to kingship, who’s going to be the next King, and to succession to property. So there’s a legal interest in defining who has a right. And that becomes biological in our modern understanding.

BRIAN: And I would also say, Peter, that it does seem that because there is much more reference to race, and eventually biologically based race in the law itself, that has really encouraged people to define themselves racially in terms of these fractions as opposed to ethnicity, for instance. The irony is that now, in an era of affirmative action, we are back to being encouraged legally in some instances to define ourselves racially, when we apply for college for instance. Jonathan, would you like a portion of this conversation?

JONATHAN: I’m [? loving ?] what you say, I think, is kind of interesting about there are other ways of defining people selves, like such as through ethnicity rather than simply fractionalization and if you had any input on kind of why people are doing– I mean, you sort of mentioned, you know, college admissions, affirmative action, as one.

BRIAN: Jonathan, I’m going to simply say that a lot of people define themselves in opposition to kind of prevailing attitudes in society. So when slaves arrived from very different countries in Africa, for instance, they didn’t necessarily think of themselves as Africans or necessarily even black. But they were injected into an environment where it was to their advantage, certainly politically, to begin to identify around their common racial traits.

ED: Yeah, it’s interesting. When we think about when enslaved people first came to British North America, by this time there had been over a century of mixing all around the Atlantic world. And by the time the first enslaved people showed up here in 1619, questions of going Native or mixing with Indian blood with the English was already very well established. And the idea of purity was something that people would not have considered a very achievable goal because everybody was mixing crazily.

So the point being is that this has a long history. And I think what we’re looking for is a new language. We’ve basically had the same language for 400 years now, a proportionality of blood. So I think Jonathan’s great question is to sort of shake us lose from what seems like a natural way of thinking, which is obviously, when you think about it for a second, completely false and misleading.

BRIAN: Yeah, thank you, Jonathan.



BRIAN: You know, Peter, you were talking earlier about Jefferson’s scientific notions of race. But there must have been broader just cultural attitudes towards race long before Jefferson.

PETER: Yeah, I like to credit Jefferson with everything in American history. But he didn’t invent race.

ED: Even the terrible stuff.

PETER: That’s right. But when he’s making these observations and starting to think scientifically, as he claims, about race, he’s part of a new development. Race doesn’t mean, in the 18th and 17th century, what it means now. It refers to any group that has an identity of some sort.

It could be an ethnic group. It could be a religious group. The English race. The Irish race. In other words, race just means group. And those terms often get confused with each other.

ED: So the irony is that there was slavery for well over a century before there was an idea of race to explain it, that white Virginians would explain slavery by black people being non-Christian, by being outlandish, by being somehow prisoners of war. And they eventually began to look for a larger explanation to explain why is it that they are slaves and we are free? And since we are, it must be natural in some way. But we forget that it took generations to evolve this sort of idea that, well, it must be because they are different kinds of people.

BRIAN: But, Ed, the constant there is that they’re slaves. And so what you’re saying is that our notions of racial attributes are really derived from the enslaved status of these people.

ED: Yeah, that’s right. Literally, we can go back in the 17th and 18th century and watch white Virginians, sort of one law and one act at a time draw an ever clearer, neater, artificial division between black and white because these lines keep blurring because people keep procreating, keep falling in love, keep going to the same churches. And so white Virginians and other southerners have to self consciously create this category of negro.

BRIAN: So I’m curious, if slavery is so crucial to the very categorization that we’ve been talking about, what happens when you take slavery out of the formula?

ED: Well, the idea of race becomes even more important. Without all the power of slavery to hold black people in subjugation, what’s left other than just sheer violence is the idea of blackness and law associated with that. So we begin seeing, almost with the moment of freedom, white southerners begin experimenting with laws to define ever more tightly what constitutes a negro. And they decided that even if there were one drop of black blood, as the metaphor went, in a person’s veins, that person was therefore black.

BRIAN: So what you guys are saying though is the law is really crucial here because when the law defines blacks as property under slavery then people don’t sweat the details on race. But once that law is exploded then the South comes up with extraordinary legal means of defining race in new ways.

ED: Yeah, it’s almost Orwellian, you know. Race is not what you can see. It’s what is inside in some almost viral sense.

And so it becomes very scary, if you think about reading novels of William Faulkner about this hidden stains of blackness and so forth. And, you know, it’s a big theme around the turn of the century in black and white authors of suicide and a discovered racial identity. And so it becomes kind of an obsession.

BRIAN: Ed, sadly, this obsession, as you call it, remains with us deep into my own century, the 20th century. In fact, more than half the states in the United States had anti-miscegenation laws, as they were called, well into the 1950s. They weren’t really eradicated until the Supreme Court ruled against this kind of legislation in the Loving decision in 1967.

Loving was about a white man who married a black woman from Caroline County, Virginia. They got married in DC. And quite a honeymoon they had. They came back and were arrested for violating Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act. I mentioned Loving because it’s very relevant to what we’re talking about but also because Peter is just bursting at the seams trying to get a caller on here who wants to talk about Loving. Peter, take it away.

PETER: We have Madeleine on the line calling from New York, New York. What’s on your mind?

MADELEINE: Well, actually I am calling because my friend Ken Tanabe and I, we run a nonprofit here in New York City called the Loving Day Project. We throw a Loving Day celebration every year. The thing we find very consistent is that the Loving decision is very rarely known in our generation.

Everyone knows about Rosa Parks and Brown versus Board of Education. But what do you think, as historians, needs to happen for a big case to become well known history? And what can the Loving Day Project do to make everyone aware of the case?

BRIAN: Well, Madeleine, to answer your question about from our perspective as historians what happens to get publicity for cases, certainly, you’ve done a lot. And that’s an important piece of the story. But generally what happens is anniversaries, deaths.

As you know, Mrs. Loving died very recently. So I saw a story about this in the New York Times, which was built around her death. But in fact, the story talked about the community that both the Lovings came from in Caroline County, which ironically turned out to be a community that was inhabited by a lot of mixed race people, irony of ironies. So death is one thing that brings people’s attention back to historical decisions.

But much more importantly, and this is where I started noticing Loving popping up again in the news, and that’s analogies. And now the analogy is can gay people marry each other? And that analogy is on Fox News. And it’s in the New York Times. It’s all over with a lot of references back to Loving.

PETER: I think, Brian, that’s a great point. But you also said something I thought was very, very interesting. And that is that in Caroline County there were mixed race people. In other words, Loving isn’t the beginning of race mixture.

People have been crossing boundaries from the beginning of time. And the notion of racial purity and policing racial boundaries is an exception to the rule. It’s that post Civil War period until Loving, you might say. Bracket it by that decision. You’ve got a century in which Americans, North and South– we don’t want to make any exceptions– are trying to fix a boundary.

ED: That’s exactly right. And the original question here about how do you get more attention for Loving? Loving seems anomalous that people are going, OK, guess what year it was that it was decided that people of the different races could marry. People would be appalled that it’s 1967. That late, you know?

And even though that’s only a little more than a decade after the big landmark changes in Montgomery and Brown, it feels like a world has changed by 1967, this kind of artifact of it. But the point is it was a big deal because the whole drift state power was to police these things ever tighter. And then suddenly it pivots into greater equality. So I think you have, in terms of marketing however, a great name. Loving Day.

BRIAN: Yeah, I was going to add. That’s another ingredient.

PETER: Yeah, Virginia is for the Lovings. Yeah.

MADELEINE: I know. We couldn’t have asked for a better name.

PETER: Thank you so much for calling us.

MADELEINE: Thank you so very much for answering my question.

PETER: OK, we got another call, guys. It’s from Arlington, Massachusetts. It’s Awinja calling. Awinja, welcome to BackStory.

AWINJA: Thank you.

PETER: We’re talking about race today. You have some question or insight you’d like to share with us today?

AWINJA: Well, when I came in from Kenya, I went straight to Montpelier, Vermont and stayed there for two years and then moved to Philadelphia. Now, the interesting thing was I actually felt at home and felt connected in Montpelier than I did when I moved to Philadelphia, even though in Philadelphia I had more people that looked like me. And so my question is why is that? What is that phenomena?

PETER: Oh, I think that’s a great question. And Montpelier is one of my favorite places. It’s the smallest state capital in the country. It’s like a big village, isn’t it? I mean, it really felt that you knew people in Montpelier, didn’t you?

AWINJA: I did feel at home. I met friends, and I was myself. In Philadelphia, I was a person of the same skin color. But I just didn’t walk, didn’t talk the talk, and I disappointed them.

PETER: So that’s really interesting what you’re saying about not being comfortable in Philadelphia even though you could see yourself as you walk down the street, that is, people like you. Why do you think that is? What’s your theory about this?

AWINJA: Well, let’s fast forward 10 years later and I have a daughter with mixed race. And in her class there’s one mixed race child and another black child.

BRIAN: Awinja, where are we? Are we in Philadelphia or Arlington now?

AWINJA: We are in Arlington, Massachusetts. For the longest time there was a lot of friction between my daughter, who was 10, and her classmates. And at the end of the year my daughter told me that I just don’t understand why– I’ll call her Mary– doesn’t understand why I don’t know what MTV is or I don’t know who Beyonce is or I don’t know what BET is.

BRIAN: Right. So you’re saying because her skin color is darker, there are a certain set of cultural expectations.


ED: And it’s interesting too the way that it’s encoded in popular culture, the examples you used, you know, BET, MTV, and Hip Hop music, all these different kinds of things. At the same time that we think that race may be diluted a little bit because people are marrying across racial lines, it’s encoded and emphasized over and over again every day in our popular culture. And so even though 70% of the people who listen to Hip Hop music are supposedly white, that’s actually a pressure for Hip Hop to be very black rather than for it to be diluted.

BRIAN: But you’ve also put your finger on one of the themes of this show today, which is we want to be color blind. We want to be accepting. We want to be forgiving.

But there is still racism out there. And because there’s racism out there, you got to choose a side. And people who are mixed, they literally get caught in the middle on that. Or often they choose sides.

ED: But, Brian, can’t you choose more than one side?

BRIAN: Absolutely.

PETER: You’re framing this in binary terms. You’re one thing or another. And often the question, as Awinja’s daughter faced, questions, are you with us or against us? Are you one of us? Are you not? But there’s a positive assertion of diversity that I think is increasingly being heard. I am both, and I’m proud to be both. Am I being too optimistic?

ED: Yeah, I think you are.

PETER: Oh, come on.

BRIAN: Come on, Ed. Tell us.

ED: Well, it’s only in the sense that, you know, being a little black doesn’t really make sense in the United States. You know, this goes way back, you know, the one drop rule. If you have any, as they say, black blood in you at all then you are black.

BRIAN: Yeah. But I want to get back to our caller and ask what do you think your daughter’s mixed race has to do with your own immigration from another country? I mean, that would seem to complicate things even further.

AWINJA: Yeah. One of the interesting things that we joke about, me and my husband, is he grew up Midwestern, white middle class. And I grew up in Kenya. We don’t know anything about raising a child who is black in this country.

BRIAN: You raise, I think, a terribly important point. We tend to talk about identity as though it is ours to choose. And in fact, in so many instances, and certainly historically, it’s the case that the identity that people have is the one that in essence is imposed upon them by others. Whatever I might think in my own mind, everyone else out there is looking at me as X or Y or Z. So when we talk about identity, it’s really not always up for grabs.

PETER: Thanks for that great call. It’s been fun talking to you, Awinja. Thanks.



BRIAN: It’s time for another break. When we get back, we’ll ask whether there’s any difference between race consciousness and racism.

ED: If you’d like to join us on a future episode of BackStory, have a look at our website to see the topics we’re working on. We’re at

PETER: Don’t go away.


PETER: This is BackStory, the show that looks to the past to explain the America of today. I’m Peter Onuf, and I represent the 18th century.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers and I represent the 19th century.

BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh, historian of the 20th century. We’re talking today about the history of the color line between black and white in America. And as we do on each of our shows, we’re fielding a few calls on the subject from people who have already left comments at org.

PETER: Next up, we have Daniel calling in from Kirksville, Missouri. Daniel, welcome to BackStory.

DANIEL: Thank you. Hello.


DANIEL: Well, speaking of racial purity, I don’t know whether you’re aware of this but Kirksville is the birthplace of Harry Laughlin, who was one of the foremost voices for eugenics in 20th century American policy.

BRIAN: Do you know a little bit more about Laughlin? You want to tell us a little bit about his life story?

DANIEL: Well, I’m not an expert on it. But if I recall, it’s between World War I and World War II. He was writing some articles on animal genetics. He was a veterinarian and began to get interested in the emerging field of eugenics.

And his articles attracted the attention of– forget the fellow’s name. But he ran a center for eugenics in upstate New York. So Laughlin traveled out there and wound up becoming one of the foremost authorities in America on eugenics before World War II. Then, as I recall, some of his writings were applauded by Hitler and some other leading Nazis.

PETER: Yeah, this is a good chance to talk to our listeners about eugenics. We like to think that that’s a European problem. Daniel mentioned Hitler. And this happened in America, didn’t it?

BRIAN: Yeah. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, racism developed a real kind of scientific age to it, a real biological basis.

ED: Or pseudo biological.

BRIAN: Or pseudo biological basis. But that didn’t mean that it wasn’t being practiced at the leading scientific institutions around.

PETER: Well, Daniel suggested that it had something to do with a guy who knew about animal breeding. And probably that’s the real source of eugenics is the scientific breeding of animals for desired qualities. And that takes on a lot of steam in the 19th century.

BRIAN: Now, the way this played out in the United States domestically is a number of people, who we call progressives today, argued that if we’re going to compete with other nations we really need to maintain our racial purity. And to them that meant that we needed to maintain our whiteness. We needed to make sure that the white race did not become mongrelized or diminished by mingling with these lesser people’s.

And we actually built that into our laws. There were laws against miscegenation in the south long before the 20th century. But even in the north there were efforts to make sure that white people were not overtaken by immigrants of color.

ED: Yeah. My mother was told, when she graduated from college in 1938, from a women’s college, that she and her fellow graduates should go out and multiply. Be fruitful and multiply. It’s a great competition among the races and if–

BRIAN: And you’re lucky she was told that, Peter.

PETER: Well, in my personal case, I’m very, very grateful to that message that she got.

ED: Well, in your case, I think she just added, Peter. I’m not sure that would be multiplying.

PETER: Daniel, thanks for bringing up this really interesting topic.

BRIAN: Thank you, Daniel.

DANIEL: You’re welcome.


ED: That’s rapper KRS-One back in 1990 in a song called, fittingly enough, “The Racist.” And when he’s talking about the racist, everybody knows what he’s talking about. But people might be surprised to know what the word racism was not in widespread usage in the United States until after World War II. Americans learned that word from using it to describe the horrors of the Nazi regime.

PETER: So we need the Germans to show us a model for–

BRIAN: But Ed and Peter, what would you call white attitudes towards African Americans? Or what did they call white attitudes towards African Americans in the 18th and the 19th century, if not racism?

ED: They would have called it common sense.

PETER: Yeah, it was nature. It was nature.

ED: Nature or religion, perhaps, even.

PETER: The great debate in the 19th century is over poly-genesis or mono-genesis. Do we all come from the original parents? And good Christians would say Adam and Eve, of course. They’re the father and mother of us all. Or did we have separate creations? And full blooded racism, as we came to call it, is a product of poly-genetic thinking, that is that there are multiple creations and they’re of a different order.

ED: Yeah, I don’t know, Peter. It strikes me that if you think about evangelical Christianity, that they still believe in Adam and Eve, obviously. And so they had to go to some elaborate links to define, OK, well, let’s see. Gosh, where could races come from if there’s only two original humans?

And they will sometimes look at the story of Cain and Abel, the two brothers who fought. And Cain kills Abel. And the argument comes then his punishment then was to be black.

Other people would look back at the Bible and say, no, you look later at the story of Noah in the arc. And you’ll see some of the descendants there. And there’s another punishment of Ham, who is marked forever with the sign of darkness and of being, therefore, the progenitors of Africa. So to answer Brian’s question, before there was a language of race, of racism, of science, there was a language of punishment, and of God’s hierarchy, right?

BRIAN: No, that’s a great answer. And to link it to your first answer, Ed, the first thing you said is common sense. And just to remind our listeners how many people were religious and that kind of religious understanding was equivalent to common sense in a way that it’s not today.

ED: That’s right. But the interesting tension in all that, which African Americans were able to exploit all the way through slavery and afterwards, is if they too are Christian then white Christians really have a very hard time explaining. Is heaven going to be segregated?

PETER: I think, Ed, you’re absolutely right that a notion of a single creation, that we’re all God’s children, is deeply, deeply subversive. And it was, of course, what African American’s in slavery and abolitionists who are working to destroy the institution, that was their fundamental appeal. It was an appeal often against science, the best science of the 19th century, on behalf of this fundamental theological proposition that we’re all God’s children.


ED: So I recently had a chance to talk about all this complex relationship between race and science and whether things are getting better or worse with a real expert on the subject, Professor Daryl Scott of Howard University. And I asked him how are we supposed to think about the relationship between science and race?

DARYL SCOTT: When slavery came to an end, it happened at a certain moment in time. And that was the moment in which scientific racism caught on in Europe as well as in America in a whole full-throated fashion. And so once the emancipated slaves are entering into the society and people are trying to figure out what should their place in society be, there is a growing discussion in scientific circles about the hierarchy of races that exist among mankind. And in all these hierarchies, people of African descent are thought to be at the bottom of the hierarchy. And so this became a justification for the continued exploitation of the freed people even though they were outside of slavery.

ED: So things would have been a lot better if emancipation had come in the sort of more Utopian moments of the 1830s when it was ending elsewhere, you think?

DARYL SCOTT: Absolutely so. And this is part of the difference between the fate of the blacks in the North versus the emancipated slaves in the South.

ED: So we can actually have the language of race get worse over time. But is there not a general trajectory by which we are becoming more enlightened about race or has it gone downhill in some ways as well?

DARYL SCOTT: Well, I would take a bold step to say that in the last 100 years, one facet of the war against racism has been won. And that is in the 1870s, there was a raging debate about whether people of African descent properly belong to humanity. And we know that this is an antebellum period debate. But these ideas continued on.

And I would dare say in the 19th century, many would still say black people were outside of humanity. The Negro is really a beast. And there’s a fundamental change that takes place even in the South. I mean, I’m struck. And I’ve always asked this question of students, why did public lynchings end in the South?

ED: And when was it that that happened?

DARYL SCOTT: This happens in the mid to late 1930s. Lynchings actually increased during the early years of the Great Depression. But by 1935– I usually use that as a rough dividing line– there is a precipitous decline in a particular kind of lynching, which is the public lynching, the spectacle lynching, as we call it, where whites would come from surrounding counties to participate in the lynching of a person accused of a crime but not tried, of course.

ED: And have their picture taken with the body afterwards, right?

DARYL SCOTT: Absolutely. Make postcards and send them to their friends. And so they disappear. And when we go forward just a little further, we will see George C. Wallace. And we know him to be the segregationist, main spokesperson. Segregation today, tomorrow, forever.

And we kind of overlook the fact that George Wallace was the first judge in Alabama to prosecute a white man for killing a black person. And what is consistent is probably that George Wallace never changed his mind about the inferiority of black people. But George Wallace and his generation had changed their minds about the humanity of black people.

ED: Wow.

DARYL SCOTT: And that’s what I’ve been trying to get at here in a conversation, that there’s been a shift. Whereas black people were questionably human as late as 1900 in most circles of the South, by 1940, within two generations, there’s this market shift where the racist grandfathers would not have known them. And once this starts taking place, particularly you get the interpersonal interactions in the schools, people start forming friends, and then you see people changing even more. But yet, and this is where it gets really thorny and this is where the story ceases to be a “Kumbaya” moment, it doesn’t prevent people from holding in place the stereotypes that existed 50 years ago about the relative quality of the races.

ED: Right. I see. So what you’re saying is that there is a kind of a sub stratum of assumptions about racial difference. And then on sort of the top of the water, all kinds of currents and waves and everything can be going on. So there’s both a profound continuity and constant change in what race means in America. Is that right?

DARYL SCOTT: Absolutely. And I thought of all this. I mean, we all have to explain how there’s this enormous body of literature about racism in America. And there is an African American who is president of the United States.

Now, there’s some people say, the Barack Obama youth, they’re not racist. And, yes, I understand what they’re getting at. But at the same time, because I teach, and I have children, I can assure you that hierarchies are still in place. I have a friend whose son attends Harvard. And there is this notion that you don’t take classes with Asians be you black or white.

ED: But are they not assuming that Asians are somehow superior to themselves if they’re afraid to compete with them?

DARYL SCOTT: Absolutely. And that is the point because to be a racist, you don’t necessarily have to posit that your a race is superior. You have to buy into the notion that there’s a hierarchy.

And I guess what I’m arguing in part is there are many people in this society who have bought into hierarchies of race. They will never carry the stigma of being racist. But effectively they are still dividing humanity in very troublesome ways.

ED: Yeah. So it’s by its very nature that race always seems natural to the people who are living in that discourse. And after it’s over, we go what in the world where people thinking to fall for this kind of self deception and this kind of manipulation, right?

DARYL SCOTT: Absolutely. But people do have to have concepts that organize themselves or even divide themselves. And whatever we come up with, it’s usually something imprecise. Only a computer can show 256 million colors. We need something we can put a hand on and handle and make progress with. Or should we say take action with? I don’t want to say make progress, but take action with.

ED: Well, thank you so much, Daryl, for this searching conversation about the way that race has evolved and not evolved in American history.

DARYL SCOTT: Well thank you, Ed. It’s always a pleasure.

ED: Daryl Scott is a professor of history at Howard University.

BRIAN: Well, Ed, I know that you’re one for continuities. But it does seem that roughly the mid ’30s, using lynchings beginning to tail off as the marker, it does seem that acceptance into the brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity for African Americans is a pretty consequential moment.

ED: You know, I think we’re inclined, aren’t we, Brian, to think of actually World War II and the overt ugliness of Nazism as being when even white Southerners who were deeply persuaded of the undeniable reality of racial difference suddenly saw themselves cast in a different light.

BRIAN: Well, being so northern centric, I certainly teach it that way. But you putting it as white Southerners doing X or Y, I actually don’t really know whether the excesses of Nazism swayed dyed in the wool, white, Southern racists.

ED: Well, I wouldn’t use the word swayed. What it did was it undermined confidence that the world agreed, as the world had– the white world had for a half century– that what the white South was doing was just what the colonial powers were doing all over the world and what you would have seen in South Africa, that people had agreed there was a white man’s burden. And suddenly you see this horrible language in reality of Nazism, using that same language of difference and separation to lead to the horrors of the Holocaust. So it’s not that white southerners changed their minds and then dissolved segregation. It’s that when a growing middle class of black Americans, especially these veterans, came back and pressed their claims to American justice, when women like Barbara Johns in Farmville, Virginia, 16 years old, or Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama, said we have the same respectability and religion and self respect that you do, there wasn’t really a counter argument that the white south had.

BRIAN: Well, as much as I hate to say it, we’ve reached the end of the hour. But as always, the conversation continues online. And we’d love to hear your thoughts. Pay us a visit at, and let us know how much progress you think we’ve made on the subject of race over the course of American history.

PETER: And while you’re there, sign up for our podcast and have a listen at some of our past episodes. There’s a great one, or should I say a lovely one, up on our homepage right now that looks at the history of courtship in America. We’re also fielding your comments there for an upcoming show about the history of taxation. Again, we’re at Don’t be a stranger.

BRIAN: Today’s show was produced by Tony Field with Rachel Quimby and Catherine More. Jamal Millner mastered the show. [? Gabby Alter ?] wrote our theme. And BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.

PETER: Major support for BackStory is provided by the University of Richmond, offering a combination of the liberal with law, business, leadership studies, and continuing education. More information at Major support also comes from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, committed to the idea that the future may learn from past.

ED: Support also comes from the David A. Harrison Fund for the President’s Initiatives at the University of Virginia, UVA’s Miller Center for Public Affairs, the National Endowment for the Humanities, Carrie Brown Epstein and the W. L. Lyons Brown Junior Charitable Foundation, James Madison’s Montpelier, Marcus and Carole Weinstein, Trish and David Crow, J.M Weinberg, and an anonymous donor.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Peter Onuf is the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation professor of history at the University of Virginia. Brian Balogh is a professor of history at the University of Virginia and UVA’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. Ed Ayers is president and professor of history at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for VFH Radio at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

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