Extending the White Frame: The Eighteenth Century to the Twentieth Century

During the eighteenth century whites in North American colonies varied in their racial framing and discriminatory treatment of African and Native Americans. In some cases the two groups suffered similar discrimination within the colonies. For instance, in one 1705 colonial statute blacks, Indians, and criminals were all barred from holding office. In other cases, colonial whites were more concerned with black than Indian ancestry. Thus, some colonial laws asserted that all those with just one black great-grandparent were legally a “Negro,” while only those with one or two Indian parents were legally an “Indian.”1

The anti-Indian part of this era’s white racial framing was somewhat different from that for African Americans. During this period whites sometimes did assert positive views of Native Americans and, as we will see in the case of leaders like Thomas Jefferson, they periodically depicted them as human, albeit usually paternalistically as lesser humans than whites. The white framing of indigenous peoples was still often negative, even viciously so, yet sometimes mixed with positive commentary and not as universally negative as for African Americans. One reason is that Native Americans were usually part of separate nations rooted in their own territories and regularly fought back collectively against white attempts to take their lands. Some Native American groups made alliances with white Americans against the British, and Native Americans were much less often in enslaved positions within white communities. Native Americans usually had access to certain types of collective resistance to enslavement unavailable to Africans torn from their homelands. From the earliest contacts, European American leaders and intellectuals sometimes offered, albeit often backhanded, compliments about Indian courage, intelligence, and cooperation against the British.

Eventually, many whites came to frame Indians—especially once they were killed off, died off from white diseases, or forced beyond white-controlled territory—as heroic symbols of the Americas and its natural strengths. In contrast, “negroes” were not seen by most whites as really American or as having major positive characteristics that should be recognized, but rather were framed negatively as subordinated labor and contrasting symbols of darknessopposite to dominant whiteness. Indeed, Native American images were added by whites to U.S. money, such as the commonplace “Indian-head” penny and nickel, because Indians were viewed as heroic vanishing symbols of a white-conquered “American wilderness.”

Historian Winthrop Jordan suggested that Native Americans and African Americans were both viewed early on as “primitive” and as “two fixed points from which English settlers could triangulate their own position in America: the separate meanings of Indian and Negro helped define the meaning of living in America.”2 However, prior to such contacts the European invaders already had a strong positive identity as Christians and “civilized” Europeans. Thus, it was these European Americans’ choice to create and name the social positions of “Indian,” “black,” and “white,” in their imposed system of racist framing and oppression. From the beginning these whites, especially the powerful among them, generally controlled the dominant racial framing for all groups and imposed new social identities on those who were not European. They appropriated for themselves a “white” racial identity.

Killing Indigenous Peoples: White Framing and Identity

In the eighteenth-century American colonies, the national-origin and religious diversity among European-origin groups created significant interethnic tensions. Over time, however, these European-origin groups came to be seen as fully white. Seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century European American wars against Native Americans, and later the British, were important in solidifying diverse nationality groups into one “white nation.” Whites’ racial consciousness and, thus, white racial identity were strongly reinforced during the Native American wars and the late 1700s revolutionary war. Being white early became central to the definition who was a real “American” in the dominant racial frame.

Whites grouped diverse Native American societies together as “savage” and “treacherous” and came to use the collective word “Indians” for them, a racialized framing that not only imposed a common racial identity on them but again rationalized the use of violence. Indians who fought back were asserted to be less than human and depraved murderers, a part of the antiIndian subframe of the white racial frame. Like their predecessors, eighteenthcentury colonists often framed Indians as animals—“beasts of prey,” as Colonel John Reid put it in 1764 or as “animals vulgarly called Indians.” And as a “race” who had no right to their lands, as Hugh Brackenridge put it in the 1780s.3

In this revolutionary era, the white framing of Native Americans asserted that there were essential links between their supposedly inferior character and biology and their allegedly inferior cultures. According to historical researchers, the recorded accounts by white soldiers who fought in the “Indian wars” emphasized their biological inferiority and otherness. In contrast, a superior white racial identity was proclaimed by these soldiers, as well as by white writers in back-home newspapers. Reportedly, white officers in the military units were less likely than rank-and-file soldiers to assert openly their unifying whiteness, but they did discuss in negative ways the color and physical characteristics of Native Americans—sometimes even terming them “blacks” and making a connection in their negative framing to black Americans. Ordinary soldiers, from different areas of the country, created unity among themselves by emphasizing their white identity as a sign of racial superiority, whereas many higher-status officers—elite white men—already had a strong sense of white unity and racial superiority. Ordinary soldiers also linked their increasing political rights to their asserted white racial identity. They pressed for explicit recognition of their symbolic and concrete racial capital. The white colonial elite had to entertain the idea of universal white male suffrage because of their alliance with ordinary white soldiers in fighting the Indians and the British army.4

This early assertion of a strong white racial identity and the acceptance of racial privilege by ordinary whites provide examples of the “public and psychological wage of whiteness” later described by the sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois. Over centuries this identity-based racial capital has been created and bestowed by powerful whites (usually men) on ordinary whites to reduce social class tensions. Powerful white men have been good at consciously spotting societal conflicts and strategically crafting solutions for them. From this revolutionary era to the present, most working class and middle class whites have accepted a higher position in the racial hierarchy (i.e., white racial identity) and racial privileges (white symbolic and status capital) from the powerful elite in return for giving up much of their own class struggle against that elite, a struggle that would likely have brought them significant political-economic benefits. Ordinary whites are thus victimized by the dominant white frame because it insists on a race-first identity that trumps a class identity that might lead to class revolt and alliances with people of color. Still, although the white working and middle classes do not have the societal power and resources of the white elite, they have received many privileges and socioeconomic resources that stem from their generally advantaged position in the racial hierarchy. The dominant white racial frame has long included a strong sense of superior white racial identity and its privileges.’

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >