I’m reading Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, and since he’s a Hamilton fan, he naturally makes a big deal out of the irony of southern slaveholding white supremacists like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson positioning themselves as the friends of equality and the little guy against Hamilton. And, of course, by our lights it is ironic. But it’s worth understanding the fact that this wasn’t really ironic at all by the lights of the time. Egalitarianism and white supremacy went hand in hand.
This is something Alan Taylor’s American Colonies is really good on. His point is that if you look at the European aristocrats who ran the governments that colonized America, none of them were big into racism. In their eyes an African slave, a (Native) American savage, and a European peasant are all about on a par — they’re the scum of the earth, to be exploited economically, and perhaps feared as a potential source of violence and disorder. European governments of the 16th and 17th centuries typically presided over multiple linguistic groups, and important aristocrats could have very diverse landholdings. This was a very class-bound society, and the division between the elite and commoners was much more important than any proto-national considerations. In one possible world, this mindset is transplanted onto American soil as a wealthy elite lords over a multi-cultural, multi-racial proletariat.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, especially in the territories that became the USA, a strongly anti-classist Jeffersonian (and later Jacksonian) ideology of white supremacy developed. It’s not, “on the one hand, racism; on the other hand, egalitarianism.” It’s “we’re all equal in our privileged whiteness.”
I thought of this when I read Ellis Cose on declining perceptions of anti-black bias among the younger generation of African-American elites. The United States is clearly a much less racist society in 2011 than it was 50 years ago. But it’s also become a much more class-bound society. Working class whites have seen a huge erosion in social privilege over and above the concrete economic struggles of the working class, and white elites have much less of a sense of solidarity with the white working class than was the case in the past. And African-American elites are increasingly just elites, living in the same neighborhoods and attending the same schools as white elites. That’s not to say we should believe in a “lump of justice” such that racial progress necessarily comes at the expense of economic equality. But there are multiple dimensions of inequality and social privilege, and tradeoffs between them do happen at the margin.