Friday, May 1, 2009

Guest Blog: Racial Identity In America

by Noahvose
From Open Salon, April 30, 2009

In the United States, people were considered black if they had even one drop of African blood, while Native Americans had to prove that they were Indian enough to be federally recognized. One couldn’t escape their race even if they wanted to, while the other has to sufficiently prove it. Why? At the beginning of every year, I ask this question to my students. By the end of the year, they know and understand the answer, and for better or worse they come to see the history of this country in a different light.
Those in power shaped the history and circumstances of Native and African Americans. And the differences in their identities can be understood by tracing the government policies that pulled their strings. It’s quite simple, really. It all came down to resources…property. With the growing reliance of cotton in the South, and the desire for free labor, whites “needed” more slaves. Slave importation had already been made illegal, and so slave owners had to rely on domestic trade and natural reproduction. The One Drop Law simply provided a greater number of slaves (giving a different meaning to the saying “once you go black, you never go back”).
For Native Americans, the desire by whites was different. They didn’t want the Indians; they wanted their land. The Allotment Act outlawed tribal ownership and divided reservations into family plots. Any land left over was sold to white speculators. Furthermore, treaties had promised permanent care for these wards of the nation.
The answer, again, was simple. The desire for resources was the same, but they had to change the strategy to acquire it. Now, they would require Indians to meet a specific blood quantum in order to receive the plots of land and annuities. The notion was that after time, and after enough racial mixing, Indians would disappear. And so would their claim to the land.

Both strategies worked brilliantly. But what about the unintended consequences? Like a pebble in a pond, we’re still feeling the ripples.
These different racial policies resulted in two very different struggles. For blacks, the final goal has been inclusion. So long denied entrance into white society, African Americans marched, fought, and died for their right to integrate. For natives, it has been the opposite. Encouraged, then forced, to assimilate into white society, Native Americans, instead, fought for their right to remain separate and unique.
In the book “Lakota Woman” Mary Crow Dog recounts her experiences in the 1970s as a member of the American Indian Movement. She puts it like this: “The blacks want what the whites have, which is understandable. They want in. We Indians want out!” “If the Great Spirit had desired me to be a white man he would have made me so in the first place. He put in your heart certain wishes and plans; in my heart he put other and different desires. It is not necessary for eagles to be crows.” –Sitting Bull vs "I want to be the white man’s brother, not his brother-in-law." – Martin Luther King Jr.
The ambiguous treatment of these groups reached an almost comical level during WWII, if many of the results weren’t so tragic. Black troops were still segregated in the military. They were forced into all-black units, always commanded by a white officer. On the ships going to Europe, blacks were required to stay on the lowest decks near the engine room and weren’t allowed on the upper deck at the same time as whites, if at all. The French govt. even petitioned the U.S. to send black prostitutes for the war effort, to spare their white prostitutes from sleeping with black soldiers.
On the other hand, despite repeated requests to have separate Native American units, natives were forced to integrate with white troops. The official policy predicted it would help them assimilate into the greater society when the war was over. However, if an Indian belonged to a tribe that was not yet federally recognized, he was placed in the all-black units (it’s usually here when my students finally laugh at the absurdity of this logic…they’ve looked behind the curtain, and they’re starting to get it.)
As a history teacher, I have wondered how much these policies have even affected how we are asked to teach our students. The Civil War lasted five years. The textbook my school uses dedicates three entire chapters to the war and the abolition of slavery, besides two additional sections in previous chapters that focus on the African American experience and condition in the South. The Indian Wars lasted approximately 25 years (if you believe the argument that the “Indian Wars” only started after the Civil War). In comparison, the textbook dedicates only 2 ½ pages in one section of a greater chapter called The Trans-Mississippi West.
Why the difference? I believe the answer is easily understood, though very unintentional. We can look back at the Civil War and be proud that America, in the end, did what was morally right. Not so with the Indian Wars. They were always seen, and perhaps still are, as unpleasant…but necessary. There was no happy ending, no celebration of final justice. So, we grant it a small section…and move on.
I believe we can even see the effects of these racial policies in the identities of the average American, today. The truth is, blacks and whites have mixed more than any other two races in this country. Indians and whites have mixed the least. Yet, I’ve never heard anyone brag, “You know, I’m part black.” If they’re not telling me about their distant claim to Indian ancestry, then they’re telling me how they wish they had some. I am no exception, having always identified more with my mother’s ancestry than my father’s. Why? Because she is Cheyenne, and he is German; because most of us would rather identify with the oppressed than with the oppressor. And so I dance at pow wows rather than Octoberfest. There’s not the same “need” to claim African descent, because the right thing was eventually done (though not completed).

They pulled the strings, and we’re still dancing.

Well…at least they gave us mascots.

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