Tocqueville documented early American racism


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The Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in 1831. He described the society as Anglo-American where white Americans claim superiority over the Indians and blacks. He reported on a conversation with a man in Pennsylvania who claimed “The Negroes have an undisputed right of voting, but they voluntarily abstain from making their appearance...Why, the truth is that they are not disinclined to vote, but they are afraid of being maltreated; in this country the law is sometimes unable to maintain its authority without the support of the majority. But in this case the majority entertains very strong prejudices against the blacks, and the magistrates are unable to protect them in the exercise of their legal rights.” [Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York, NY: Literary Classics of the United States, 2012) (Kindle Locations 5116-5118)].Tocqueville’s observation was not just about Pennsylvania. He claimed “that in a certain portion of the territory of the United States at the present day the legal barrier which separated the two races is falling away, but not that which exists in the manners of the country, slavery recedes, but the prejudice to which it has given birth is immovable.”(Kindle Locations 6591-6593).

Tocqueville also commented on the conditions of Indians and concluded, “That the Indian nations of North America are doomed to perish.”(Kindle Location 6369) He believed that because the whites could not tolerate the moral integrity of the Indians, the Indians would be exterminated.

The civil rights aspirations of the Declaration of Independence were part of the American story even as white superiority continued be the strategy followed by white Americans. From the very beginning the words “all” and “equality” were far from a description of the social reality of America. Each phase of our history has been largely defined by our continuing struggle to find a way to realize this dream of equality for all. And at each point questions can be asked, why didn't people recognize the inconsistency between the high ideals and the reality? Why didn’t the first British settlers see themselves as outsiders moving into land that was already occupied by human beings with “unalienable rights?” Why didn’t the 1776 Revolution establish a society without slavery and with full participation of “all?” Why did whites decide to treat Mexicans and other Latinos according to the rules of racism rather than recognizing the equality of all people as the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo stated? And why do whites continue to racialize the relations between themselves and people from Asia and Arab lands?