CHAPTER THREE: The History of American (White) Exceptionalism
Every October Americans pause to celebrate Columbus Day. Children are taught that the Italian navigator discovered America. Parades are held in his honor and tributes tell of his skill, courage and perseverance.
Historians, archaeologists, anthropologists and other scientists and scholars now know that Columbus did not discover America. Not only were native Americans present when he reached the New World, but also Africans, Asians and Europeans, among others, had been sailing to the Americas thousands of years before Columbus ventured across the Atlantic.
Of the various people who reached America before Columbus, Black Africans appear to have made the most contacts and to have had the greatest impact. During the 19th and 20th centuries, several scholars wrote books and articles about this subject and urged the academic establishment to change primary and secondary curricula across the country to reflect the great contributions of African people to early America. Unfortunately, such pleas fell on deaf ears; so again this October our children are being taught the myth that Columbus discovered America. – Legrand H. Clegg II
Columbus did not discover America. Other Europeans, Asians and yes black Africans beat him to it yet American history generally only acknowledges the exploration of white Europeans. Said another way, whatever happened prior to white people doesn’t count. Current history books are racing in contradictory directions. Some seek to at least acknowledge the prior existence of at least Native Americans while others (led by Texas) seek to whitewash slavery making it seem almost voluntary and mutually beneficial and require the introduction of American Exceptionalism. The American Exceptionalism component seeks to justify everything done in the name of creating this country which generally happened at the expense of minorities who became forced labor or whose land was stripped from them using terms like Manifest Destiny or far more recently Eminent Domain.
Eminent Domain allows for the government to take private property involuntarily if for public use and the owner is paid a fair price. Eminent Domain has not been exclusively used against minorities but I can’t find a single example where it was specifically for their benefit. Recently Donald Trump tried to take an elderly woman’s land using Eminent Domain so that he could expand a casino parking lot. Was that truly for the public use? Recent interpretations have expanded “public use” to extend to anything that might increase the tax base and therefore theoretically benefit the public. When local governments carve out space for new arenas and stadiums they most often take land in the heart of minority communities because it is “the cheapest” and improves the bottom line. The “fair price” is then determined and then imposed on the residents by those who have a direct interest in paying the least amount possible.
One of the main reasons for the American Revolution was “taxation without representation”. Britain imposed several taxes on the colonies who were not a part of the process in England where taxes were levied and had no representatives to speak on their behalf. No taxation without representations is not only one our founding ideals but our most lasting ones yet let’s see how that has been practiced.
America has never been afraid to tax many if not most of its citizens without fair representation. If you follow the history of voting rights in America and correlate that to people without representation it becomes clear. The people who made the decisions were white males with land. The list of those without representation includes but is not limited to; women, slaves, indentured servants, white men without land, Native American’s, Asians and free black men. The right to vote was never simply bestowed on any of these groups and had to be fought for via Women’s Suffrage, protests, civil disobedience, riots and more. The white men with land saw every concession as a loss of power and took then and take now every opportunity to keep the playing field from being level. They instituted literacy tests, poll taxes and let us not forget lynching’s. Where the KKK wore hoods and primarily met and acted in secrecy. White Councils walked prominently in the daylight and included many communities most prominent citizens. In place of literacy tests (still being advocated by some on Fox News to eliminate the “low information voter”) we have the new Voter ID laws. If a woman marries or divorces and her new name does not exactly match her ID she may not be allowed to vote. Students with photo ID from State colleges may not be allowed to vote whereas a gun license is acceptable because demographically gun owners fit the acceptable profile. Poll taxes have not been eliminated, simply revised as the cost of compliance with the new laws may include ordering a certified birth certificate or paying fees for a government ID. There is also limiting the number of voting locations in urban (read minority) locations, causing long lines and discouraging voters. Alabama recently attempted to reduce the number of polling and registration locations in majority black counties to so few as to impose an incredible hardship for those wishing to register and/or vote.
In May of 1787, each of the 13 Colonies sent representatives to Philadelphia for a Constitutional Convention sometimes known as the “Secret” Constitutional Convention. It was not that the convention was kept secret to protect the lives of the attendees. The war was over and they could openly meet where they pleased. It was the proceedings that were kept secret as James Madison explained to Thomas Jefferson who was in Paris at the time, to “secure unbiased participation” of the delegates. They didn’t want anyone to feel inhibited lest their comments be repeated elsewhere.
One topic of discussion was how the people would be represented in Congress. Larger states wanted representation based on population whereas smaller ones wanted equal votes per state. It was ultimately decided that the upper house (the Senate) would have the same number of representatives for each State. It was the lower chamber (the House of Representatives) where the problems arose. It was generally acceptable to base representation on population but the slave holding states were an issue.
Slave states wanted slaves to count as population though they couldn’t vote and had no rights. Non-slave states didn’t want their influence decreased based on counting slaves. It was at this convention where the compromise was agreed to that in the slave states, each white person was considered a whole person yet every slave only counted for 3/5th’s of a person. The point generally made is the slight of considering a black person only 60% of the value of a white one. The point missed is that they had no rights at all… making their legal status 0% of white people. Throughout American history, the term American Exceptionalism seems to derive most meaning from one of its root words… except!