Bethany Berger’s wonderful article Red: Racism and the American Indian, 56 UCLA L. Rev. 591-656 (2009) was published last spring, but more recently found its way to my office. It’s never too late to congratulate Bethany on this fascinating, albeit hardly uplifting, story.
Bethany’s main point is easy to grasp. No history of the relationship between whites and Indians in the New World could plausibly ignore the virulent racism often found in the white community towards Indians. The same point could be made concerning the American history of whites and African-Americans. Yet the fact that racism clearly existed in both cases may obscure the ways in which racism takes on differing casts from one situation to another. This is the story Bethany tells so well.
Put most simply, white racism against African-Americans during our early and nineteenth century history was nearly always infused with white insistence on white superiority and a strict demand for racial separation. In contrast, Bethany shows, white racism against Indians was often targeted at Indians as a group or culture. Individual Indians were routinely encouraged to shed their native ways and assimilate into dominant, white styles of civilization. Quoting to great effect from a 1937 Dept. of the Interior publication, Bethany notes how Indian men who renounced the tribe were said to have “shot [their] last arrow and accepted the plow.” Indian women embracing assimilation had “accepted the work bag and purse” and acceded to the life of the white woman who “loves her home.”
Another example Bethany uses effectively to demonstrate this difference is the undeniable difference in attitudes toward intermarriage. While such marriages between whites and African-Americans were widely discouraged by dominant whites, Bethany shows that at times Indian women were urged to marry white men and assume white ways. As Bethany explains, white racism took on a hostile quality toward the tribe as a whole, sometimes blaming its culture, rather than inherent individual inferiority, for the Indian way of life.
In Bethany’s hands this story is told subtly and with richness I cannot capture here. A strong theme that moves between foreground and background involves the way in which differing strands of racism tended to serve white material interests. In the slavery era, whites wanted African-Americans to deliver unceasing labor. Separation and debasement fit well with this harsh objective. At times, however, whites sought different things from Indians, including excuses to steal Indian resources, and to break contracts with tribes. It became useful for whites to hold up the superiority of white civilization as a rationalization for increasing expulsion of Indians from North American land. Moving individual Indians from the tribe to the fold thus served a purpose that led to a group-targeted racism different from the sort used so wickedly against African-Americans. As Bethany puts it “On the eve of the American Revolution, Indians were the group whose disintegration and absorption would facilitate and justify the march of white American colonization, and Africans were those who would do the work when they got there.”
It would be a mistake to label the materialist theme as Bethany’s only, or perhaps even primary, contribution. Hers is a searching essay whose strength is capturing a complex story with many interwoven strands. Readers here will encounter important descriptions of how racism is introduced to the New World, a history of our courts’ often two-faced attitudes toward the idea of Indian sovereignty, and a fascinating description of how more recent civil rights rhetoric, developed to combat racism against African-Americans, has been deployed against tribal claims to self-determination.
But, I found Bethany’s insights on the ways in which racism could be manipulated and deployed differently in different contexts to suit the needs of the dominant race particularly fascinating. Granted, it’s particularly upsetting as well. Mainstream historians have ignored this chapter of the American past for far too long. We can be proud that Bethany is exploring it so forthrightly from the hallowed halls on Elizabeth Street. Bravo!