You called me a race-baiter? What exactly is that?
The basic premise of "race-baiter" is that the discussion at hand does not involve race. The person being called a race-baiter is being accused of distracting from whatever real problem might exist with a conspiracy theory that blames the current situation on racial inequality, racial bias, or otherwise trying to bait the listener into discussing race instead of solving the actual problem. In reality, the accusation of race-baiting, like most childish name calling, is a way to avoid discussion, and shame the other person for a topic that makes you feel uncomfortable. The phrase “race-baiter” first appeared in our language around 1961, but the meaning has been around much longer.
“The accusation of race-baiting, like most childish name calling, is a way to avoid discussion, and shame the other person for a topic that makes you feel uncomfortable.”
To put “race-baiter” in context, we also need to understand what “race” means historically. That poses a challenge because race is not actually a thing, or at least it wasn’t a thing until its invention in the mid-1600s when the people that would later be called “Americans” ran into a serious problem. Hang on for some history you might have missed in school. The problem came as the new colonies killed, plundered, and drove existing indigenous civilizations away from the eastern parts of the continent, by the 1630s and 40s this left vast amounts of forested land “free” to be cleared and farmed. Some of these farms were small plots claimed and worked by settler families, while many others were larger lots of 100 acres or more and given to freed planters and larger investment groups from Europe.
The new wealthy land owners and investors needed bodies to do the back breaking work of clearing and farming that land, lots of bodies, so they started offering “free passage” to anyone who would sign on as an indentured servant, usually for 5-7 years. This labor pool quickly proved to be too small for the financial opportunity being presented, not only did these servants leave when their term expired, indentured servants cannot be abused into unacceptable conditions of hard labor based on a system of travel debt, that can only be accomplished by the taking of personhood, by fully taking possession and ownership of the body.
“Indentured servants cannot be abused into unacceptable conditions of hard labor… that can only be accomplished by the taking of personhood, by fully taking possession and ownership of the body.”
By greed and opportunity the land owners also went to poor countries like Ireland and Africa where they could purchase impoverished or kidnapped humans at very little cost, chain, beat, and abuse them until they performed the work. This system had immediate high returns, but eventually as more of the servants were set free, there was a growing poor, non-land owning population asking to be paid to work, wanting to have families, and own land as a part of the colonial dream. The division of classes between wealthy and poor grew to a tipping point, where the impoverished population and the slaves they worked beside began to rise up against the wealthy land owners. In some cases such as the nearby French colony in Saint-Domingue these uprisings eventually caused the overthrow of the colony and the creation of the nation of Haiti, run entirely by the former slaves. In order to avoid this kind of apocalyptic end to the burgeoning business of sugar cane, tobacco, and the newly forming industry of cotton, the land owners slowly crafted a new more sustainable system of labor.
They did this using the method of divide and conquer, by creating a new kind of caste within the classes. This was what was needed to convince a portion of the poor population to fight against the remainder. The traditional way of dividing classes is by wealth, however in this case they devised a way to use skin tone as the separator and called it “race” instead. The land owners told the lighter skinned slaves and servants that they were on the same team, and if they helped keep their darker skinned friends in line, they could get all kinds of perks like freedom and someday maybe land. This didn’t sound right to a lot of people, so to help the story along they started to talk about darker skinned people differently, they said they were less intelligent, lazier, had biblical curses from God on them, or maybe they weren’t human at all, just another animal that needed protection, food, and work to keep them busy.
“The traditional way of dividing classes is by wealth, however in this case they devised a way to use skin tone as the separator and called it “race” instead.”
In this new system the impoverished “whites” were given low paying work as overseers and managers. Poor “blacks” moved quickly from indentured servants to a caste of permanent slave, along with their children’s, children’s, children, etc. This poor white containment system for black slaves worked so well the land owners continued to import thousands of new slaves from Africa for the white managers to contain and abuse for the next 200 years. With a world class economy, free labor, and a labor control system maintained primarily by, and founded in the new invention of race, the slave system even funded a war to make the colonies their own country. With liberty and justice for all… if you were male, and a land owner, and white. Everyone else was excluded.
What does that all have to do with race-baiters? The slave system was working so well, more land was needed for the ever growing farm production. This was acquired again by force, from the already displaced indigenous families by continuously pushing them farther west. New states were formed as speculators, and land owners, flooded into the Shenandoah Valley and down the Mississippi for the longer southern growing seasons, and distance from the rising chorus against race based slavery in the north. They created a new economic center in the Louisiana territory, where slave labor flowed in, and money in the form of cotton flowed out. The slavery itself also changed, it was no longer the slave torn from his or her family, who lived and died in one place, it was if possible more horrible, with human bodies bought and sold from place to place like the cows and pigs that shared the auction block. With sometimes thousands on a single plantation, living in rags, in open shelters, worked with the sun literally into the ground, without proper food or water, a heavy lash always within reach and employed daily. This was the dawning of chattel slavery, this was the shift from “personhood” to “thinghood” for the American slave. The people who opposed this expansion were called abolitionists, they would sometimes sneak down south and free People of Color. The slave owners fought back violently, and legally, they said the abolitionists were trouble makers, and rabble rousers trying to incite rebellion and invent race problems in an otherwise peaceful system. That’s right, abolitionist = race-baiter.
"This was the dawning of chattel slavery, this was the shift from “personhood” to “thinghood” for the American slave"
"This challenge to the wealth of our nation was met by the large plantations of the south; a new industry grew within the existing system."
For another 50 years the nation seethed under the burden of slavery, this was not just a southern problem, racism was a national cancer, the southern states simply bore the visible wounds. The pressure from multiple abolitionist movements, a violent anti-abolitionist backlash that swept the nation, and lawmakers threatening to force the issue was too much. One by one the southern states seceded from the union, each one saying they were leaving to protect the institution of slavery as a right of their state to continue if they chose. The north fought back to keep the country together, and 750,000 American bodies fell to settle the question. Near the end of the war, President Lincoln freed the slaves by proclamation and used the army to enforce the proclamation as they swept through the south. Those who had enjoyed generational wealth on the backs of slaves, along with the lower classes they employed, continually lashed out at the north, calling it the war of northern aggression, they said there was no race problem or slave problem if the north would just stop inciting it. They also claimed that the war was not even about slavery but states’ rights, accusing the north of being, in other words, race-baiters.
After the war the north sent down a lot of people to fix the race problem that everyone fought and died for. They made sure the slaves were actually freed, built schools for black students, created jobs, put former slaves in positions of political power, and took land from the rich white folks to give to the freed slaves. This time period was called Reconstruction, the land owners and even the poor white folks in the south found this unbearable, they called the government workers, carpet baggers and scalawags, and said there was no racial disparity, the blacks were free and that was fair enough, the carpetbaggers were only there to fix a race problem that didn’t exist. Race-baiters.
"This time period was called Reconstruction, the land owners and even the poor white folks in the south found this unbearable, they called the government workers, carpet baggers and scalawags"
When the reconstruction efforts ended the southern states had to find a way to replace all the free labor they used to get from slavery, but slavery was illegal… so they started writing laws that would let them close the schools, take back the jobs and land, restrict areas and services to whites only, and even arrest and fine black folks for crimes like spitting or loitering. Then make them “work off” the sometimes growing fine by renting them out to land owners to do hard labor without pay.The laws were called Jim Crow laws and promoted a separate but “equal” way of life. This is also when the Ku Klux Klan was formed by former Confederate officers to reclaim white supremacy by lynching and torturing blacks in terrorist attacks for generations to come. When anyone pointed out the unfairness of all this they were branded trouble makers, disturbing the peace of happy communities and causing a race problem that did not exist. Race-baiters.
These still intolerable social conditions continued for another 80 years, by the time the 1950s and 1960s came along the civil rights movement was sweeping through the south challenging segregation at every turn. Leaders like Gloria Richardson, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkins, and Malcom X along with freedom riders and others were of course accused of being trouble makers, and creating problems. The term race-baiter was coined to throw at these men and women. I still remember my parents talking about them in that light. “Things were peaceful, then these leaders started filling black folks heads with nonsense about how segregation was oppressive” That this country had already come a long way since slavery, and there really was “no racial problems anymore.” Then with the advent of instant news on our televisions, buses were burned, activists were abused and murdered, and Selma happened. The whole country saw it, and like each generation before, could not explain what they saw without acknowledging that race was still a problem.
Today people from all walks of life are talking again, talking about problems like police brutality, mass incarceration, overall justice system bias, education inequality, income inequality, housing discrimination. All of which target and impact black and other minority communities far more than their white neighbors. It seems like we can’t go one day without hearing someone bring up a social problem wrapped in the context of race. We also can’t hear those discussions without the familiar response that the speakers are troublemakers, pot stirrers, and yes race-baiters, creating a problem by going around talking about it until it exists, if they would just keep quiet this would all go away.
Looking back at this country, ever since race became a thing there were always two sides to the conversation. On one side we see white folks protecting a way of life that allows for the mistreatment of People of Color, but relative peace. The other side has always been black folks and white folks that can see the damage to our society and are demanding change.
“We have a race problem in this country, the solution will be complicated and uncomfortable, and it lies on the other side of our own fear.”
This is it, the day has come for our generation to stand up, face this country’s original sin of slavery, and the ripples of damage still born by us all. There will be no true peace until we heal the open wounds left by centuries of fear and mend the damage that our generation has inherited. It’s time to embrace and honor our differences, it’s time to stop trying to sink the other side of the same ship we are sailing on by hiding, ignoring, and shaming this problem away. We have a race problem in this country, the solution will be complicated and uncomfortable, and it lies on the other side of our own fear.
You called me a race-baiter. With our shared history as the backdrop, that throws me together with all the slaves, abolitionists, reconstruction workers, anti-segregationists, civil rights activists, freedom riders, and social justice advocates from the last 400 years of America that have spoken up to say we have a problem to fix… Thank you, and you’re right, I am a race-baiter. Now get up, come with me, united we stand.