Institutional Racism: This Nation Was Built On It! Part Two

Institutional Racism: This Nation Was Built On It!
Part Two

Donna Lamb

by Donna Lamb
April/May 2002

As a typical white child born in the Midwest, I grew up believing that the United States was a great, kind and virtuous nation–and had been since its inception. I was taught that it all began when Columbus “discovered” America. Next, brave Pilgrims came here to attain religious freedom. Later, in the American Revolution, we nobly fought and won our independence from England. Then, due to the great courage and irrepressible spirit of our people, we overcame the Indians, and our country was able to expand westward until it became the vast, rich nation it is today, stretching gloriously “from sea to shining sea.” Can’t you almost hear the patriotic music in the background?

Oh, how little did I realize just how far from the truth my idyllic picture was! Only years later did I see that the foundation stones this country was built upon were the tombstones of the Indigenous, Mexican, and African peoples whom we murdered and robbed of their land and labor to create our country.

The real truth about how deeply entrenched institutionalized racism was and is in this nation can be seen in “Selected Landmarks in the History of U.S White Supremacy,” compiled by the Challenging White Supremacy Workshop–only a few instances of which I can include here:

1630: First law specifically mentioning race.

1637: New England colonists’ first massacre, which killed 500 Indigenous people.

1662: Virginia enacts law stating that if an “Englishman” begets a child of a “Negro woman,” the child will take on the woman’s status, i.e., that of a slave. This law makes slavery hereditary.

1755: Massachusetts offers a bounty of 20 pounds for the scalp of a male “Indian,” and 10 pounds for the scalp of a female or child under 12.

1776: Declaration of Independence states “all men are created equal…with certain inalienable rights…Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” But this declaration, which becomes the basis for the ideology of US “democracy,” does not include Indigenous People, Africans and European women.

1789: Constitution of the United States protects slavery and the slave trade in 12 different places, without ever mentioning the words. All rights and privileges of life under the Constitution and the Bill of Rights exclude enslaved Africans and Indigenous People.

1790: In its first session, Congress enacts Naturalization Law of 1790, which specifies that only free white immigrants are eligible for naturalized citizenship. All others are expressly denied civil rights, the right to vote and the right to own land. This law is not completely wiped off the books until the McCarran Walter Act of 1952!

1830: Indian Removal Act called for forcible removal of the Choctaw, Creek, Cherokee, Chickasaw and Seminole nations from Southeastern states. This caused the Cherokee Nation’s Trail of Tears, during which 25% of their population dies.

1835: Colonists in Northern Mexican territory of Texas declare war on Mexico.

1836: Victorious US colonists establish Texas as an independent nation.

1845: US government annexes Texas.

1846: US government declares war on Mexico.

1848: US defeats Mexico and “purchases” over one third of the Mexican nation for $15 million. The land includes the future states of California, Texas, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, parts of Colorado and Wyoming.

US and Mexico sign Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo, which promises to protect the lands, language and culture of Mexicans living in the ceded territory. But Congress refuses to pass Article X of the treaty, which would protect the ancestral land titles of the Mexican peoples. Instead, Congress substitutes a “Statement of Protocol” under which Mexicans–speaking English in US courts with US lawyers–must prove that they have legitimate title to their own lands.

The Statement of Protocol thus becomes the “legal” basis for the massive US land theft from Mexicans in the conquered territories.

1850: Congress passes Fugitive Slave Law which provides that: 1) only a sworn affidavit from a white is needed to claim a Black person is an escaped slave; 2) the Black person has no rights to challenge that claim in court; 3) federal marshals are empowered to capture the runaways and to deputize assistance from other whites; 4) commissioners who hear testimony about the status of an alleged runaway will be paid $10 for each person sent into slavery, but only $5 for each person set free.

1857: US Supreme Court decides Dred-Scott case. Dred Scott was an enslaved African who followed his owner to a free state and then sued for his freedom. The Court said that Scott was still a slave, that the Constitution specifically excludes Blacks from its rights of citizenship, and that no African has any rights a white man is bound to respect.

1862: Congress passes Homestead Act that allows Western (i.e. Indigenous) land to be sold to “anyone” who could pay $1.25 an acre and cultivate it for five years. Indigenous People, Blacks and non-European immigrants are excluded from this provision.

The same year Congress also passes the Morrell Act, creating land grant colleges in each state; and the Railroad Act, assuring a coast-to-coast railway. These two acts also gave way lands that belong to the Indigenous Native Nations.

During the Civil War, Congress gives 100 million acres of Indigenous lands free to the railroads. Within 10 years, 85 million acres of Indigenous lands are sold to European homesteaders, 71 million acres to land grant colleges, and 155 million acres to the railroad companies.

The U.S. Government was selling and giving away land they did not own.

1865: The 13th Amendment abolishing slavery is passed. However it contains a little known provision: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” (emphasis added) In other words, it lays the basis for the enslavement of imprisoned people, a disproportionate number of who would be peoples of color.

1882: Congress enacts Chinese Exclusion Act preventing Chinese people from coming to the US. Thus, the Chinese become the first nationality to be barred expressly by name.

1908: US and Japan make a Gentleman’s Agreement that limits the number of Japanese immigrants to the US.

1924: Johnson Reed Immigration Act sets restrictive quotas on immigrants from Asia, Africa and Latin America.

1942: Roosevelt signs Executive Order 9066, authorizing internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans living in California, including those who are American citizens.

1952: McCarran Walter Immigration Act repeals the exclusion from citizenship provisions of the 1790 Naturalization Act. However, it keeps the quota system based on national origins.

And this is only the tip of the iceberg! So the next time a white supremacist tells me this country was created by and for whites, maybe I’ll just answer, “I know it was–and I’m doing my damnedest to make it different now!”


Donna Lamb is a feature writer for The African Sun Times and a weekly columnist for the San Antonio Register. Articles by her on issues of social and economic justice have appeared in newspapers nationwide. She can be contacted at

Also by Donna Lamb

  • The Multiracial Activist – December 2001/January 2002: The “Be-You-Tiful Hairitage” of Locks Celebrated in Brooklyn
  • The Multiracial Activist – February/March 2002: Institutional Racism: This Nation Was Built On It! – Part One
  • The Multiracial Activist – February/March 2002: Multi-racial Gathering to Protect Civil Liberties

    Copyright © 2002 Donna Lamb and The Multiracial Activist. All rights reserved.

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