The Mind of Frederick Douglass

By Waldo E. Martin Jr. | Go to book overview

5. The Ideology of White Supremacy

The relation subsisting between the white and black people of this country is the vital question of the age," Frederick Douglass observed in 1854. To comprehend his view of nineteenth-century America, it is necessary to come to grips with his analysis of that era's race problem: the ugly, yet inescapable, specter of white racism that haunted both whites and blacks. The ideology of white supremacy or white racism in Douglass's time -- like today -- encompassed attitudes, beliefs, values, ideals, behavior, and thought on individual, group, and institutional levels. It subsumed antiblack prejudice and Negrophobia. In addition, it represented a deep-seated philosophy of black dehumanization. Predicated upon the assumptions of black cultural inferiority, black biological inferiority, or both, the ideology of white supremacy matured and gained intellectual respectability during the nineteenth century. It signified a rationale and a justification for white oppression of blacks. 1

As a victim and, more important, a survivor of the American racial impasse, Douglass developed a profound understanding of white supremacy. Indeed, the primary sources for his continuing analysis of the racial dilemma were his personal experiences as a black man in a white and racist society. His lifelong examination of the ideology of white supremacy touched upon its history, nature, causes, consequences, and possible remedies. The broad outline and major tenets of this examination, moreover, remained remarkably consistent throughout his life.

Even though Douglass often thought about the impact of white supremacy on blacks, he also pondered its impact on others, especially whites. His larger concern, however, focused on its effect on Americans as a people. Its social and moral as well as political and economic effect on his native land troubled him. Consequently, his Americanness in conjunction with his Negroness shaped his examination of the ideology of nineteenth-century American white supremacy. In addition, his reform commitment led him to believe that white supremacy could be alleviated.

To Douglass, the very idea of prejudice was utterly revolting. He deplored it in all of its manifestations, whether based on religion, class, color, race, or sex. "A moral disorder" and the consequence of a "diseased imagination," prejudice was irrational, evil, unnatural, and unjust. "Few evils are less acces-

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The Mind of Frederick Douglass
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface ix
  • Part One - The Shape of a Life 1
  • 1 - The Formative Years and Beyond 3
  • 2 - Abolitionism: the Travail of a "Great Life's Work" 18
  • 3 - The Politics of a Race Leader 55
  • 4 - Humanism, Race, and Leadership 92
  • Part Two - Social Reform 107
  • 5 - The Ideology of White Supremacy 109
  • 6 - Feminism, Race, and Social Reform 136
  • 7 - The Philosophy and Pursuit of Social Reform 165
  • Part Three - National Identity, Culture, and Science 195
  • 8 - A Composite American Nationality 197
  • 9 - Ethnology and Equality 225
  • Part Four - The Autobiographical Douglass 251
  • 10 - Self-Made Man, Self-Conscious Hero 253
  • Epilogue 281
  • Notes 285
  • Bibliography 309
  • Index 317
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