Racial Tensions from Past to Present

Working at the retail store, Urban Outfitters, I encounter all kinds of people – from African Americans to Irish to English. The atmosphere in Urban Outfitters is very diverse and we see people on vacation from places such as France and Germany come in to shop. We play music from all over the world and have shirts that display things from different cultures everywhere. I’ve never had a problem with somebody complaining about something or someone being racist or prejudice until the other day. Recently we received a shirt that depicts a monkey wearing all kinds of gold jewelry, or “bling.” One of my coworkers, Miguel, was greeting in the front of the store, which is where the shirt is located, and an African American woman came in. Miguel greeted her and she seemed like a really nice person. However, when she saw the shirt, she became very upset. She started yelling at Miguel, saying that the shirt was racist and depicted African Americans in a very negative manner. She complained to my manager and said that she was planning to take it up with the district manager of the Urban Outfitters stores.

In the history of America, African Americans have been looked down upon as sub-human, animals even. The shirt depicted them as a monkey which takes us back to the days of slavery when whites tried to justify the fact that they owned other human beings as slaves by saying that African Americans were savages, less than human, animals. The fact that we are selling that shirt at Urban Outfitters shows just how extensively history and the past influences the way that different races and people feel and act towards each other in the present.

Initially, American colonies didn’t even have African American slaves. The major form of labor came in the form of white indentured servants. These indentured servants came from Europe to try and make enough money to start a new life in America, the “land of freedom.” However, they were often stuck in a cycle where they would make just enough money each year to pay off their debts, and thus they were stuck laboring for others instead of themselves. Eventually, these white indentured servants became frustrated with their inability to purchase land of their own. In Virginia, especially, they became a threat to the stability of society and formed what became knows as a “giddy multitude.” After rebellions by the indentured servants, Bacon’s rebellion especially, the landowners found that they couldn’t control the lower class of whites, who felt that they had as much right to own land and have a chance for riches as the other white landowners. Hence, the landowners needed to find a new form of labor that they would be able to control.

African Americans were an obvious choice for a few different reasons. First, the colonies already had a number of African Americans working, basically, as slaves. Second, the colonies knew of the existence of the slave system from the example in the West Indies. Third, African Americans are a different race altogether, so the white landowners would be able to keep them as slaves not only in an economic sense, but in a racial one as well. They would be able to deny African Americans certain rights based on the color of their skin rather than their economic status.

In justification of their actions of enslaving fellow human beings, whites portrayed African Americans as sub-human. African Americans were viewed as “savages” that would force themselves upon the innocent white women if they were not controlled. They were also said to be less intelligent than whites. Dr. Samuel Morton even conducted a “scientific experiment” where he measured the cranial capacities of whites and blacks. He found that those of whites were larger and concluded that because of this, African Americans were mentally inferior to whites. African Americans were also seen as childlike, irresponsible, and lazy. Whites claimed that if they were freed, then they would not be able to take care of themselves or plan for their future and would become a burden to society. Therefore, the African Americans had to be “governed as children.”

Although we have come a long way from the days of slavery, the views that whites had of African Americans in the past has filtered through the many laws, relationships, and experiences to reside in people of today’s society. Although racism is less prevalent in the areas that aren’t in the South, it’s still visible and occurs every day. We hear stories of racial violence, such as the Rodney King riots where a mostly white jury acquitted four white police officers who were videotaped beating Rodney King when he was caught after a car chase. Though racial disagreements are not always as serious as this, they are still seen throughout our society.

Racial tensions from the past are not limited to African Americans and whites, however. There is an example of a very recent event that has led to people distrusting members of the Muslim community. A family friend who lived in the southwest told us a story of a Muslim family who lived near her. After the September 11th events, neighbors felt that because of the family’s religion and race and the way the family looked, it was possible that the family was part of the terrorist conspiracy. The neighbors were so awful and abusive that the family actually moved. Although it’s hard to believe, some people will take a look at an American’s race or religion and automatically judge them to have the same feelings and objectives as those who live in their home country.

Another example of this is what happened to the Japanese during World War II. After the bombing at Pearl Harbor, Japanese in America were placed in internment camps for fear that they would turn against America in preference for Japan. More than half of the Japanese that were place in the internment camps were born in America and many had never been to Japan or felt any connection to it. Congressman Robert Matsui said, years later, “How could I as a 6-month-old child born in this country be declared by my own Government to be an enemy alien?” And it’s true. Why were the Japanese Americans condemned to live in an internment camp on American soil when they had nothing to do with the attacks at Pearl Harbor? It was because of the way they looked – their race. It didn’t matter that some of the Japanese Americans were prominent figures in society. It didn’t matter that some had lived their whole lives in America and didn’t even practice any of the traditional customs that maybe their ancestors had practiced. All that mattered was that they looked Japanese and were, therefore, a threat to the safety of the other citizens of America.

Although we see many negative things between different races, not all are bad. Jews came to America from Russia in the hopes to be free of the religious persecution that was happening in their home countries. When they got to America, however, they found that the same thing that happened to them was happening to others because of race. Because of the fact that they had been through this before, Jews fought for justice not only for themselves, but for other oppressed groups as well.

Although we still have tensions left over from our past, history is still something that can be learned from. Our society has come so far and is so much more tolerant of all the different races and religions than in the past. Hopefully, we will continue to learn from our past mistakes and continue to grow together as opposed to apart.