William Dorsey's Philadelphia and Ours: On the Past and Future of the Black City in America

By Roger Lane | Go to book overview

Chapter 2
Of Race, Sex, and Lynching

It may be argued that from the beginning there was a chicken-egg relationship between prejudice and American racial oppression, or even that racial attitudes grew up, after the fact, to justify a domination that preceded them. It is true at least that some specific stereotypes were conveniently tailored to specific social situations, as Thomas Jefferson's insistence that blacks are better suited to work under a hot sun than whites, require less sleep, and feel loss and other emotions less keenly. But the evidence is overwhelming that racial prejudice is even wider than racial oppression. And the fact that hostility to blackness, in particular, is built into the whole Indo-European family of languages has given hostility to Afro-Americans a character wholly different, in kind and degree, from the prejudice which dominant white Protestants have historically directed at other ethnic and even racial groups. 1

Two conditions helped to make the effects of prejudice especially painful in the years covered by William Dorsey's collection of clippings. First, in an age when science was enjoying more prestige than ever before, what passed for scientific knowledge of race was not helpful but hurtful, and gave apparent sanction to deep white fears of miscegenation or "amalgamation." Second, once legal domination through slavery and "black codes" was ended, and the Reconstruction effort had failed, race relations in the southern states were redefined largely through illegal violence. As peaceful coexistence seemed hopeless, forecasters turned to increasingly grim predictions about the future. By the late 1880s and 1890s the lynching phenomenon, drawing on racial and sexual fears, was seriously affecting the image and condition of blacks not only in the southern states but all across the country.

Popular journalism reflected the ambivalent and even contradictory feelings of white Americans toward black, as shown in the previous chapter. Confusion was one of the hallmarks, too, of the racial information and misinformation

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