History 17B Lecture 2 Race and Segregation Page 1



I.     Race in Historical Context

A.  Color and superiority

Race has been attached historically and primarily to one attribute:  color - and the relationship between "race" and "status" has a long history.  Racial ideas were useful in the structuring of society in the 19th century to keep blacks as slaves in the South and Indians off of valuable land everywhere.  Thus, the recognition of race gave whites power; and this racial thought was ingrained within the American psyche after centuries of the assumption that whites were superior.
In the post-Civil War era, racial ideas, especially in the South, became even more pervasive as Southern whites sought to reassume control during and after the Reconstruction period.  We see this through competing ideological racial notions on the part of whites; through the pervasiveness of violence (lynchings and race rioting); and its institutionalization through legislation and American culture (through literature, movies, and advertising).  Both the actions of whites and the responses by blacks in the post-Civil War years would come to shape race relations in America for well over half a century.

II.   Racial Dislocation in the Reconstructed South

A.  Southern Racial Society

After the Civil War, the beaten South sought to cope with the severe social dislocation caused by the war and emancipation.  The abolition of slavery had robbed the South of its chief means of structuring Southern society through a hierarchical racial order.  Despite class differences among whites, there was racial unity in which even the poorest whites could still feel themselves a step above the lowest rung on the hierarchy.  Thus, putting race in a hierarchical order was not simply to keep blacks down, but to keep poor whites from directing their discontent at the upper-classes.  In other words, whites would have someone to look down on no matter how bad their own social or economic position might be. 

But the very social system of the South was subverted by emancipation and Reconstruction, and social institutions that had governed the South were no longer relevant.  Thus Southern Whites, upon retaking control of their state governments after the withdrawal of Union troops in 1877, sought to rebuild that racial hierarchy in a post-slavery south that would once again reassert white supremacy.  This lecture explains how they did that and what the response of African Americans was to this post-slavery racism that affected all aspects of American society.