The North Is Not Innocent


Three weeks ago (prior to Harvey, Irma, Jose, and Katia), I wrote about the US’s original sin of racism and posited, citing data on health, poverty, and educational attainment in the deep South (all depressingly poor), that maybe God is punishing them.

That shouldn’t be read as an exoneration of the rest of the country.

In some ways, the deep South is the shadow for the entire rest of the US. We push unwanted negative aspects of our society onto white Southerners, which lets the rest of us white people conveniently pretend we’re not also implicated.

I’m not saying that those of us who aren’t from the South say (out loud) anything like: “All white Southerners are racist, and racism only exists in the South. None of the rest of us white people are racist, and no racism exists outside the South.” But I think many of us believe that, or something like it, on an unconscious or subconscious level.

“I’m from Pennsylvania! We were founded by Quakers and were always a free state!”

“My people never owned any slaves. We were seafaring New Englanders!”

“The territory that became our state wasn’t even settled before the Emancipation Proclamation!”

“My people came through Ellis Island after WWII!”

“There’s never been any ‘strange fruit’ hanging from the trees in this town!”

But don’t kid yourself: just because us Yankees (in some cases) outlawed slavery earlier than 1863 or never enforced the de jure segregation of Jim Crow doesn’t mean our hands are clean.

As The Green Man has pointed out, although the relationships may have been mediated by power and exploitation and violence and the fear of violence, in the South, no white child could EVER have grown up as my New England native spouse did, not even knowing a single black person until the fifth grade. In the South, black and white have lived together – not necessarily easily, not comfortably, not with comity, peace, love, and brother- and sister-hood – but without being able to pretend each other doesn’t exist since colonial days. As a result, as several of my black friends (and probably yours, too) have remarked, in some ways, they prefer the South. There are racists all over, but at least the subset of Southern white people who are racist don’t try to hide it, and either way, inter-racial interactions are often far less fraught down there, whether they’re with outspoken racists or with “allies” who’ve never really known any people of color and are super-weird and awkward as a result.

In the musical 1776 (which if you’ve never seen it, you really should), one of the most powerful scenes in the movie happens just before the Southern delegation walks out. The Founding Fathers have been wrestling over whether or not to secede from Great Britain, and the fledgling United States almost founders on the rocks of slavery. Edward Rutledge, a South Carolina planter and delegate to the Continental Congress, sings “Molasses to Rum to Slaves”:

If you have five minutes to invest, watch the video. The point is: South Carolina and Georgia and Virginia planters aren’t the ones jumping on ships, sailing to the west coast of Africa, snatching people, and bringing them back to the colonies to sell. That’s the self-righteous “we don’t own slaves!” New Englanders – and they’re the ones making bank on the “Triangle Trade,” too.

The Northern abolitionist movements, for the most part, wanted the enslaved Africans freed, but they sure as hell didn’t then want them as neighbors and fellow citizens. Free? Sure. Absolutely. But maybe those Africans should all be sent…elsewhere. Back to Africa. To the Caribbean. To the western territories. But certainly NOT next door, at the market, in church, in schools with WHITE PEOPLE! That won’t do.

Oh – and plenty of Northern states condoned slavery until – and even after – the Emancipation Proclamation, which did not, in fact, end slavery in the North. You just didn’t have big rice, sugar, tobacco, or cotton plantations up there, so it wasn’t so in your face.

Sure, the North fought to keep the Union together, and Lincoln emancipated the enslaved in 1863. But there were draft riots across the North, as rich men paid Irish refugees from the potato famine (who at the time weren’t really considered to be “white,” which required one to be male, native-born, and a property owner) to take their places, and they didn’t particularly want to go off to fight and potentially die to free enslaved Africans.

Moving forward not that many years to the Great Migration: as Jim Crow closed in on the South, many blacks looked around, thought “it HAS to be better up North” and hopped a train for New York, Detroit, Chicago, LA. And they were right – it was MARGINALLY better. You at least didn’t live under the constant fear of lynching, you had employment options other than sharecropping, and “sundown towns” were a rarity (although not nonexistent).

But city ghettos are a Northern phenomenon. Restrictive housing covenants and redlining kept blacks confined to over-crowded, poorly-maintained, inner city housing stock. Redlining further ensured that, even if you could save your money to buy a house, you couldn’t get a mortgage, which meant you bought a house “on contract.” If you’ve ever read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, you know how that works: you pay every month, but you don’t own the house or have any equity, and if you miss a month or are even late on a payment, the contract owner tosses you and your family out on your asses, and you have no recourse. Think that ended back in the muckraking era? Nope.

Meanwhile, white Northerners – and Midwesterners, and residents of the high plains and the desert southwest and the Pacific coast – unaccustomed to being around non-white people, rioted. Chased the first black family from neighborhoods over and over. Blocked access to union membership – and good union jobs. Fled to the suburbs when black children began showing up in the public schools.

Us Yankees might not have had de jure segregation, at least after the end of the Civil War, but we sure as hell had – and still have, particularly when you consider the overlap between race and economic class – de facto segregation. (To learn more about the history of racism in the North, check out All Eyes Are Upon Us: Race and Politics from Boston to Brooklyn and The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.)

What’s my point?

My point is that, just as the South needs to deal with its shadows around slavery and Jim Crow, the entire country needs to deal with our shadow around blaming, whether consciously or not, our entire racist history on a few states where it’s just the most (and even that is debatable) blatant.

A good place to start may be to check out an anti-racism group, like SURJ, or the work of places like the Kirwan Institute.

Image found here (which is the Wikipedia entry ON redlining, and it’s of Philadelphia which is in “always a free state” Pennsylvania)

Like what you read? Follow me on Twitter @MrsWhatsit1.

3 responses to “The North Is Not Innocent

  1. Also, a good many people missed the historical point that even abolitionists thought the solution was shipping freed slaves BACK to Africa! Clearly, by that time most had been bred and born HERE – a bit like the DACA “Dreamers” of their day. Frankly, Northern poor whites did not want more competition for jobs. Few, if any, hands were clean!

  2. That is not exactly true. Many abolitionists welcomed black families into their communities & into their churches. & many white families, at all times, did the same. But continue the hate, by all means.

    • #NotAllAlbolitionists? Of course – notice I did say “for the most part,” not “all.” But just as #NotAllMen or #NotAllWhitePeople aren’t the point, neither is “but some abolitionists viewed black people as equal.” That’s not “continuing the hate” – that’s acknowledging the reality of history.

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