99 White Superiority in America: Its Legal Legacy, Its Economic Costs
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99 White Superiority in America: Its Legal Legacy, Its Economic Costs DERRICK A. BELL A major function of racial discrimination is to facilitate the exploitation of black labor, to deny blacks access to benefits and opportunities, and to blame all the manifestations of exclusion-bred despair on the asserted inferiority of the victims. Two other inter-connected political phenomena emanate from the widely shared belief that whites are superior to blacks. First, whites of widely varying socio-economic status employ white supremacy as a catalyst to negotiate policy differences, often through compromises that sacrifice the rights of blacks. Second, even those whites who lack wealth and power are sustained in their sense of racial superiority and more willing to accept a lesser share, by an unspoken but no less certain property right in their "whiteness." This right is recognized and upheld by courts and the society like all other property rights. Let us look first at the compromise-catalyst role of racism in American policy-making. When the Constitution's Framers gathered in Philadelphia, it is clear that their compromises on slavery were the key that enabled Southerners and Northerners to work out their economic and political differences. The slavery compromises set a precedent under which black rights have been sacrificed throughout the nation's history to further white interests. Those compromises are the original and still definitive examples of the ongoing struggle between individual rights reform and the maintenance of the socio-economic status quo. Why did the Framers do it? Surely, there is little substance in the traditional rationalizations that the slavery provisions in the Constitution were merely unfortunate concessions influenced by then prevailing beliefs that slavery was on the decline and would soon die of its own weight, or that Africans were thought a different and inferior breed of beings whose enslavement carried no moral onus. The insistence of Southern delegates on protection of their slave property was far too vigorous to suggest that the institution would soon be abandoned. And the anti-slavery statements by slaves and white abolitionists alike were too forceful to suggest that the slavery compromises were the product of men who did not know the moral ramifications of what they did. The question of what motivated the Framers remains. In my recent book, And We Are Not Saved,1 the heroine, Geneva Crenshaw, a black civil rights lawyer, gifted with extraordinary powers, is transported back to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. There is, I know, no mention of this visit in Max Farrand's records of the Convention proceedings. James Madison's compulsive notes are silent on the event. But the omission 33 VILL. L. REV. 767 (1988). Originally published in the Villanova Law Review. Reprinted by permission. Copyrighted Material White Superiority in America 597 of the debate that followed her sudden appearance in the locked meeting room and the protection she is provided when the delegates try to eject her is easier to explain than the still embarrassing fact that these men-some of the outstanding figures of their timecould incorporate slavery into a document committed to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to all. Would the Framers have acted differently had they known the great grief their compromises on slavery would cause? Geneva's mission is to use her knowledge of the next two centuries to convince the Framers that they should not incorporate recognition and protection of slavery. Her sudden arrival at the podium was sufficiently startling to intimidate even these men. But outrage quickly overcame their shock. Ignoring Geneva's warm greeting and her announcement that she had come from 200 years in the future, some of the more vigorous delegates, outraged at the sudden appearance in their midst of a woman, and a black woman at that, charged towards her. As Geneva described the scene: As the delegates were almost upon me-a cylinder composed of thin vertical bars of red, white, and blue light descended swiftly and silently from the high ceiling, nicely encapsulating the podium and me. To their credit, the self-appointed eviction party neither slowed nor swerved. As each man reached and tried to pass through the transparent light shield, a loud hiss, quite like the sound electrified bug zappers make on a warm, summer evening filled the air. While not lethal, the shock the shield dealt each attacker was sufficiently strong to literally knock him to the floor, stunned and shaking. This phenomenon evokes chaos rather than attention in the room...