Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation
By Nicholas Guyatt
Review by Dr. Herbert L. Calhoun
This well-rehearsed book tells an unflattering story about how American settlers retained their racial virginity at the expense of their moral souls. According to the subtext of this story, both losts had everything to do with fears driving their own racial prejudices, and little to do with anything else.
The foreground (or context) of the book is made up of what seems like the author's infinite patience with, and endlessly intricate discussions of, all of the embarrassing but simple-minded and always transparent rationalizations and mindless dissembling used by the settlers to cover-up their own primal racial/sexual fears that remained thinly disguised in the subtext of the book. While England for its own reasons, was slowly moving away from slavery and racial prejudice, because of its own slave situation, the racial attitudes of the North American colonies, in the run up to and immediately following the revolution, was hardening. The importation of slaves exploded immediately after the revolution.
This pregnant subtext of hardening racial attitudes in the background -- as slipshod hare-brained proposals were being paraded in the foreground, was little more than mean-spirited colossally cynical ruses. The truth is that white prejudices were deep and strong because they were based on mostly primal fears about: imagined inter-racial sex between white women and black men (both slaves and especially freed black men), fears about imagined slave revolts and slave sexual retribution, fears about God's wrath for engaging in the brutality of slavery in the first place, and most of all, fears about the lost of labor and property that freeing slaves would entail. But also it had to do with the fears about what racial prejudice, engaging in the brutality of slavery, and the unacknowledged involvement in interracial sex in the shadows of the slave plantations with black women, would do to white people's own claims of moral and racial superiority, and thus to their claims of being more civilized through their Christian values and humanity.
In the minds of the best thinkers of the times, both the biblical meaning of human freedom and equality, as well as the constitutional meaning, led directly to the same inevitable outcome: equality of the races meant the open mixing of the races too. This inevitability could not be squared between the settler's racial prejudices their insatiable need for slave labor, and the high-faultin moral claims of both the Christian bible and the US Constitution about the equality of the races. White racial prejudices, then as now, trumped both the bible and the Constitution.
Male white settlers, and hypocritical leaders like Thomas Jefferson, hoped to avoid this inevitability by maintaining all the evils of the slave system as their own private preserve, while turning their heads away from both the bible and the U.S. Constitution, by dissembling and pretending to do just the opposite. Except that all of their disingenuous hare-brained schemes to do so, including amalgamation, colonization, isolation, and as a last resort, extermination (euphemistically referred to here as extinction), transparently followed the contours of their sexual and lost of property fears, exactly.
To the author's credit, the research in this book carefully tracks these developments, but then he tries to maintian a "morally upbeat" interpretation of all of this dissembling? Why do that? Why not allow the moral chips to fall where they may. Since all Americans are acutely sensitive to moral wrongs being perpetrated by our leaders, the author did not need to tell us how to suck eggs. This only made for an unnecessarily tortuous and messy and implicitly apologetic narrative. This book would have been so much better without all that.
But unless one bends over backwards (as the author did) to give "the liberal wing of the founding generation" the benefit of all moral doubt, there is nothing complicated about these 18th Century dissembling strategies: They all bowed to the altar of racial prejudice, full stop. The true intent of our founding fathers and those that followed, was always transparently self-evident: History will record that they were all die-heart white supremacists (including the much acclaimed Abolitionists), and thus moral pygmies in every respect - and clearly here I mean no disrespect to Pygmies.
Not to put too find a point on it, but white dissembling has not changed one iota, since. It certainly is no accident that the contours of white racial prejudices, denial and dessembling about race remains exactly the same today as it was in late 18th Century America. Today's white denial and dissembling strategies (under what author Tim Wise calls Racism 2.0), have led directly to the racial order we have inherited, adapted and perfected, and thus to the continued problems of racial divisions and segregation, mass imprisonment of feared minorities, poor schools, inner city dystopias called black ghettoes, with a mulatto as a figurehead of our twisted racially stratified and morally bankrupt racist democracy. Sadly, this author connected all the dots, and thus all he had to do was to tell the story revealed in his research without pulling any moral punches, but curiously and unfortunately he chose not to do just that at every turn.
I was disappointed in this fine book, as I was soo expecting the author to give a rousing conclusion that would have shown our founding fathers to be just what they really were: Emperors without any moral clothes. I thought he would have something serious to say about the colossal hypocrisy of the founding generation and how their moral cowardice set the parameters that vector directly to today's racial/social problems. But instead, like a good pseudo patriotic foot soldier, Mr. Gaskill, held his tongue, and whimped his way out of the book. Anyway the research is good, so Five Stars.
Editor's note: This review was written by Dr. Herbert L. Calhoun and has been reposted with permission. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.