Westward Expansion has perpetuated white privilege into the 21st Century–redefining what it means to be racist
By: Ashley Seldon
December 10, 2018
I think everyone can agree that white privilege in the United States began the moment Christopher Columbus stole the America’s for himself, paving the way for 100 English settlers to the “New World” though it had already been home to multiple Native American tribes. Over two hundred years later, The American West and the new freedoms (and millions of hectares of land) that would come with it only added fuel to the tiny flame that would soon become white privilege in America. As the Gold Rush was making headlines nationwide as well as California debating on becoming a state, a sense of opportunity and hope for a better life spread. What many immigrants and blacks probably wished they had known prior, is that the benefits of the American West only reached a select group–white Americans. Derek Wainwright, an AP U.S. history teacher at Montville High School commented, “Almost immediately as California becomes a state and they start setting down laws, basically, all the laws were targeted for whites, they weren’t just discriminatory towards blacks but also towards Asians…and the huge influx of Hispanics. The laws were set up where whites got all the benefits and everyone else was a second-class citizen from day one.” Legislation like the Homestead Acts allowed the government to parcel out land only to whites. An often forgotten period is the “wild wild west” which Hollywood has glorified in many films and television productions. What media tends to leave out is that this is one of the few times in history blacks were treated (not perfectly) but nearly equal to whites as cowboys. Somewhere between ¼ or a ⅓ of cowboys in the west were African American. Why is this so? Wainwright says, “With the lack of government out there and the lack of legal codes [to restrict African Americans] they got some type of equality out there.” However, this was only because the United States government wasn’t established enough to keep black cowboys beneath whites. This culture of superiority plays directly into Manifest Destiny and the taking of land from Indigenous peoples. History as we know it was a series of broken government treaties and expanded land, “The story of one tribe is the story of all, varied only by difference of time and place,” as Helen Hunt Jackson wrote in her book A Century of Dishonor. Now it can be understood all of the violence between Indigenous people started by white Americans forcing for more land in order to grow more food for an increasing population. All with the mission to self-preserve the human species, however not for people of color, but white Americans. In Daniel Quinn’s novel, Ishmael, chapter nine offers a controversial insight on human population control. One of the main reasons humans continue to increase is the mass production of food, “‘Given an expanding food supply, any population will expand. This is true of any species, including the human,” (Quinn 136). White Americans felt they had the right to expand west because they wanted more money in their pockets and to continue the human population. Americans claim the frontier offered the promise of new beginnings because colonists were “suffocating” on the coast and needed room to prosper economically as their own boss. No other source explains this better than Frederick Jackson Turner’s Thesis, the Significance Of The Frontier In American History. Here the “American values” we know today were established, those concepts of strength, dominance, individualism, and courage contributed to the United State’s national identity. But to what expense? The extermination of Native American tribes that were perceived as being in the way of white American progression. According to Jackson’s A Century of Dishonor, Native Americans were perceived as a “barrier to civilization.”The fact that governments spoke of struggling to deal with Native Americans, ““…and to make suggestions as to the best methods of managing them,” (doc 129) As if Native Americans were to be moved and handled with the simplicity of an object versus being treated like humans. The freedom and opportunity from the frontier didn’t halt the idea of white superiority brought from Columbus but further perpetuated it down the timeline of American history.
For instance, with slavery, African humans were oppressed into a state of bondage, rape, punishment, separation from loved ones to work on stolen land to cultivate more cotton for the cotton kingdom. This was meant to boost the economy for the Southern slave owners (white Americans) which benefited the North with textile mills (white Americans). During industrialism in the late 19th century, is it said that between 1882 and 1900 there were 50 strikes waged against the employment of black labor amongst unions. Instead of poor, middle-class whites and blacks working together against a common enemy (white corporate America) they continued to see color. Carl Sagan, an environmental activist and author of Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future wrote, “Anything is better than grappling with the unbearable burden of being tiny.” That’s why white America fears the idea of one day being in the minority and out of power. This ignorance leads to neglect towards major crisis like climate change, mass incarceration, socioeconomic inequality, and media. The entire period of imperialism and expanding the empire of the United States beginning in 1870 ties into the idea that the world was made for man, something Daniel Quinn studies extensively in his book Ishmael, “The Takers [contemporary Americans] regard the world as a sort of human life-support system.” (Quinn 59). The United States government (headed by primarily white men) believed they were the higher power and that all smaller countries ought to submit to their superior influence. Through their belief of privilege, the U.S. government bullied other countries like Mexico, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Panama into conforming to their agenda and following their rules when ideally they’re their own countries. Would this be the same if our government had equal representation of Hispanics, Asians, African Americans, Native Americans, and whites, I personally don’t think so. The Civil Rights Movement is obviously one of the best examples of White America constantly needing African Americans to feel inferior so they could feel more important in the world. Look at political propaganda like the “War on Terrorism” and what it has done to instill fear in Muslim culture as well as propelling Americans to believe all Muslims ought to be perceived as a threat to the United States… There are memes
still stereotyping all Muslims as terrorists, almost two decades since the drastic 9/11 attack on the United States. Immigration has become a very heated issue across party lines, and has lead to the longest government shutdown in United States history, under president Trump. Border security along the Mexican-American border and the idea of building a wall to block immigrants seeking asylum was a major promise Trump made to his Republican base. Just last spring, everyone publicly questioned the morals behind separating immigrant parents from their children at the border. The exploitation of ICE keeping children locked in cages in these “child detention centers” also angered many. These are people looking for safety away from violent gangs back home, and then they come to the United States because of stories of opportunity and prosperity only to be met with racial hostility and the consequences of decades of white privilege. Just this past December, A 7-year-old Guatemalan girl passed away from dehydration because of the United States Border Security’s abuse towards immigrant children. Let’s not forget Trump’s executive order to deport children who have lived in America their entire lives, “dreamers”. It’s gone past the point of white men abusing positions of power, it’s crossed the line of humanity. Hispanics are all now being perceived everywhere as illegal immigrants who rape and deal drugs because of how national politics portrays them using tactics like the Caravan to scare people. All so America can remain white and so white Americans can keep their jobs. There are still white supremacists around who are pro-Nazi, misogynistic, proudly sexist and homophobic parading around in 2019 because they fear one day that their kind, the “superior” will be in the minority which is both scary and sad. However, it is a cast that lingers from Manifest Destiny in 21st century the United States. White America has continued to live life through a clouded judgment that they deserve more and should be treated better than any other marginalized group (including white women and white members of the LGBTQ community). The fact of the matter is, the biggest threat to society today is white men . Of all the mass shootings we have had in our country, Columbine, Sandy Hook, Orlando Nightclub, the Charleston church shooting, the Vegas shooting, Stoneman Douglas high school, and so many more they have all been done by white extremist men. Alone in 2018, there have been 307 mass shootings and the majority of the gunman were white males. In October, Robert Bowers entered a synagogue with an AR-15 yelling “All Jews must die!’ before opening fire. He killed eleven victims and injured many others. Two young African American men were lynched in 2018 at the hands of a white Oklahoma family. For anyone who denies the issue of white privilege, they need a huge wake-up call. Our world is just so much more violent when white men have privilege. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4K5fbQ1-zps
And I wonder given all of this if we would still be so violent if white America didn’t act so privileged? How different would America’s history be and how different would our country look? If that precedent of Christopher Columbus stealing America or Manifest Destiny ideals hadn’t been set, then would America be so violent? Would white America feel so scared to lose its superiority? Obviously, the details of how history would’ve played out are unclear, but the point is there is a direct link between the violence in United States’ history and white men feeling privileged. Wainwright says, “I honestly look at slavery as the worst thing and the biggest mistake we’ve ever made in America, where we have an entire class of people, still to some extent today struggling to get over the history of slavery. It’s been 150 years but obviously, blacks still make less money than whites. They deal with incarceration problems at a much higher rate than whites. I don’t see how we could ever get past this slavery problem. I think it’s naive to think just because people moved out west it would end white privilege.”
Companies aren’t developing in these inner cities because rich privileged white men want to use their corporate tax break and cheap labor overseas versus benefitting our own country’s economy. CEOS could reduce both poverty levels and crime rates in cities but it’s all about adding to their own growing pockets.
White Americans don’t only contribute to violence in the United States but also a hazardous lifestyle regarding the environment. One of the leading reasons the Earth is accelerating towards catastrophe is humans feeling privileged. Specifically, our white counterparts because let’s think about the people who benefit most from our country remaining unsustainable? Rich, white corporate America.
The people who run fossil fuel companies or farmers who produce mass agriculture tend to be white Americans. According to the diversity in corporation leadership pie chart, 73% of corporate leadership is white men and women, 21% is Asian, 3% is Hispanic, 2% is African American, and the other numbers for Native Americans or Pacific Islanders are too small to muster. Clearly, those marginalized groups hold no place of power in corporate America and therefore are not contributing to the impact these companies have on the environment.
If people decide to live more like a Leaver as Daniel Quinn asks us to, those people lose their power on this small blue dot. Another thing Mother Culture runs, in my opinion, is money, and I don’t think oil company CEOs want to give up something that equates to power and influence in our society. Despite the fact, our Earth as Carl Sagan says is, “…a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark” people crave the idea of ruling its entirety because they believe it’ll mean ruling the Universe as the rest is unknown. The world won’t be able to progress as long as people believe money is such an important factor in their lives as well as allowing White Americans to hold these positions of power. Minorities, people of color, groups that have been oppressed (LGBTQ/women) understand how to live without privilege because they’ve been told their entire lives that they are lesser than. The Native Americans were said to be savages and needed to be wiped out to sustain the growth of white Americans. African Americans were locked into human bondage for centuries to sustain the success of white Americans to the point where Jim Crow had to be enacted, and now mass incarceration. All Muslims had to become potential terrorist threats so white Americans felt more superior. Hispanics had to be recognized as drug dealers so white Americans could paint themselves as the perfect image of what an America should be. Environmental sustainability regarding the health of the Earth, failing, helps white America retain its status of superiority. How do we change this? Stop allowing privileged people to rise to power who don’t don’t care about the longevity of the Earth, only the short-lived benefits for their own lives. Diversity is the best way to protect every American from hate. Discussing at the UN and listing out goals for the future of the environment clearly isn’t cutting it. We need government action, and to turn our belief of superiority into a new meaning. If the United States wants to be one of the leading countries in the world, then why not try to exceed in becoming a completely sustainable country for the Earth.
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