Dr. Ari Santas’ Notes on

History of Racism


A. What Is Racism?


Racism, as an idea and a practice, has evolved and continues to do so.  Many of us today conceptualize racism in terms of what it was—overt bigoted and physically violent behavior—and hence, in the absence of such practice, see no racial problems.   Although violence and bigotry is still very real, racism is not limited to these things.

  • Like sexism or classism, it involves more than conscious feelings of superiority on the part of some individual; racism exists as systems of domination and oppression, which continue to perpetuate themselves even after individuals cease to be conscious of the harm they do.
  • The violence becomes part of regular practice, is “justified,” and then slips into invisibility.
  • Most people think racism has always been with us, so there's a sense of inevitability for both "whites" and  people of color.” 
  • This feeling of inevitability is a great impediment to change, but when we see that racism was constructed in stages, we can begin to see that it can be deconstructed, or, dismantled. 
  • Once we see that since it was done, that it can be undone, we can begin to consider how we can undertake the task of undoing racism.


B. Historical Stages: Early On


There are three phases in the development and evolution of racism:

  • a precursor stage I call “pre-racism,”
  • a “race-making stage” in which race was constructed,
  • and an institutional stage—“institutionalized racism”—in which the construct became imbedded in the minds and institutions of American society.


Phase 1.  Pre-Racism: the promotion of cultural (and later, racial) superiority and the subsequent the belief in racial superiority emerging shortly thereafter (beginning around the 16th Century CE, continuing today in a more subtle form)

  • colonialism, especially in the Americas, and slavery were the precursors to racism (Loewen)
  • difficulties with the natives and slaves, anxieties over religious differences, and the phenotypic differences between Europeans, Native Americans and Africans conspired to encourage domination (Zinn)

C.  The Race Construct


After this initial stage, several mechanisms came into place to create what we today call race.


Phase 2. Race-Making: the institutionalization of racial supremacy through the creation of discriminatory laws and practices (beginning in the 17th century CE, and continuing into the 20th century, and in many respects still in existence)

  • initially, Africans who came to North America (they first came in 1619) had a status very similar to that of white indentured servants (Higgenbotham)
  • but escaped European servants were too hard to find, so there was a preference for identifying servitude with Africans and dark skin (Zinn)
  • in addition, alliances between white servants, Africans, and natives (as in Bacon’s Rebellion) created difficulties for the ruling elite, so laws were enacted to (Zinn, Higgenbotham):
    • discourage if not prohibit inter-group interaction,
    • severely punish whites who helped Africans escape or joined with native people’s societies, and
    • give disparate punishments for blacks and whites for the same crimes, hence creating feelings of superiority and resentment between the groups
  • religious differences were no longer justifying slavery since Africans were being Christianized, so laws were created to prohibit Christianization of  Africans
    • in 1748, Montesquieu wrote ironically: “It is impossible for us to suppose these creatures to be men, because, allowing them to be men, a suspicion would follow, that we ourselves are not Christian.” (Loewen, Montagu)
  • by 1705 Africans were legally removed from the family of man and relegated to the status of property. Africans came to be known as black (or Negro), black and slave became synonymous, and whiteness was born:
    • first legal reference to blacks as slaves came in 1659 (Higgenbotham)
    • casual killing of (black) slaves became legal in 1669 (Higgenbotham)
    • first occurrence of the term “white” as a racial category in law was in 1691 (Higgenbotham)
    • interracial marriage became punishable by law in 1705 (Higgenbotham)
    • first scientific use of term “race” was introduced in 1749 (Montagu)

D.  Racism as Superstructure


As the construct was set in place, racism became an idea alive in the minds of both oppressor and oppressed—it became a superstructure that supported and perpetuated the racialized structure of society.

Phase 3. Institutionalized Racism: the perpetuation of white status and superiority through the process of institutionalizing racist ideology in practice and internalizing it in human minds (beginning immediately following 1st stage, being strengthened in the 2nd stage, and continuing on today, though under a veil and most often denied to exist)

·        with the civil war came the end of legally institutionalized slavery, but shortly after this brief period of relative equality came a backlash:

o       the Hayes Compromise of 1876 removed federal troops from southern states

o       race theory hit its peak at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries (Richardson)

o       1912 Woodrow Wilson segregated the federal government (Loewen)

o       reign of terror (Tulsa, OK, 1921; Rosewood, FL, 1923, etc.) (Loewen)

o       racial prerequisites in immigration (until 1952) (Haney Lopez)

o       racial segregation in schools and churches replaced the programs of Reconstruction

o       racial segregation in housing and the making of the ghettos from the beginning in 1900 ‘til the peak in the 1970’s (Massey)

o       redling, blockbusting, and  steering became practices banking and real estate (Barndt)

·        the backlash is a testimony to the resistance of white to create an equitable society, and this in turn testifies to the power of internalized racism

·        the civil rights movement of 1950’s and 60’s challenged again white supremacy and changed much of the “re-legalized” racism, but again there was a backlash (People’s Institute):

o       Nixon’s War on Drugs as a war on Blacks (Haldeman[1])

o       Reagan’s presidency as counter-movement (consider Supreme Court vacancies and appointees)

o       changing racial demographics in the prisons since the 60’s and the last clause of the 13th amendment

o       scaling back of welfare, Affirmative Action, and other social programs (Barndt)

  • today there are overt inequities in practices such as hiring and promotion policies, lending policies, renderings of public services such as police and fire protection, and allocation of educational resources and treatment of students.

in many (but not all) ways, due to the backlash, the inequalities are worse than in the 70’s

·        these inequities are reflected in stats. in infant mortality rates, life expectancy, % of black vs. white populations in college vs. prison, % of  populations in poverty, black cents on white dollars earned, % of students in gifted programs in the schools, etc.

  • there are also hierarchical structures in place in all our institutions, which is a perfect vehicle for the exclusion of  and discrimination against non-majority groups




The preceding is based on our participation in the People’s Institute “Undoing Racism” Workshops and readings from the following works:


Barndt, Joseph.  Dismantling Racism: The Continuing Challenge to White America.  Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1991


Finkleman, Paul.  Ed.   Slavery and the Law. Madison: Madison House, 1997


Ignatiev, Noel, and John Garvey.  Race Traitor.  New York: Routledge, 1996


Haney  Lopez, Ian F.. White By Law: The Legal Construction of Race.  New York: NYU Press, 1996.


Higgenbotham, A. Leon. In the Matter of Color. Oxford, 1980.


Loewen, James.  Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.  New York: Touchstone, 1995.


Massey, Douglas. and Nancy Denton, American Apartheid. Cambridge: Harvard, 1993.


Memmi, Albert.  The Colonizer and the Colonized.  Boston: Beacon, 1965.


Montagu, Ashley. Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race, 6th ed.  Walnut Creek: Altamira Press, 1997


Richarson, Theresa, “Moral Imperatives for the Millenium: The Historical Construction of Race and Its Implications for Childhood and Schooling in the Twentieth Century,” Studies in Philosophy and Education, Vol. 19, No. 4 July 2000.


Zinn, Howard.  A People’s History of the United States.  New York: Harper and Row, 1980.



[1] Haldeman’s diary from 1969 states, “Nixon emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks.  The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”  (quoted in The Nation, Oct. 12, 1998, p. 9).