Racial segregation in America

When Dr. Phil McGraw interviews people on his TV show who have done very bad things, he often asks, “What did you say to yourself that made you think it was okay?”

That question could also be directed at nations, legislators, and political leaders who commit or tolerate atrocities. For example, “American South, Bible Belt indeed, what the hell did you say to yourself to make them think that racial segregation in America was okay?”

This, of course, is a rhetorical question, since the time in question occurred approximately sixty years ago. However, the answers may surprise you. The web of self-deception was wide and deep and ingrained at all levels of society. Entire generations of whites were born and raised in cultures where they were taught that blacks were inferior, stupid, lazy, and born to serve whites. Children’s games even featured blacks at targets that felt no pain.

Segregation and discrimination even had a name, Jim Crow, and he ruled with a heavy hand. Jim Crow laws were passed in many states between the 1870s and 1960s to keep blacks “in their place,” that is, subordinate to whites.

Who were these people? They were largely white Protestants from the south. About half had high school diplomas and less than 10 percent attended college. Their lives were narrow in focus and they did not trust Jews, Catholics, or recent immigrants, although most of them had never met one. They were suspicious of anyone they didn’t understand, but they could be extremely warm and caring to those with whom they were related. Blacks were so different from them as to be feared, which ultimately led to blacks being demonized and subjected to domination.

Racial segregation in the United States was supported by violence and threats of violence, including minor offenses. If a black man ran into a white woman on the street, he could be charged with rape. Blacks were not allowed to be buried in white cemeteries. You couldn’t force white nurses to care for blacks. The black and white military units were separate and the black troops always reported to the white commanders. In prisons, white inmates could not be forced to eat with black inmates. Any offense could result in a beating, a lynching, or even worse.

The seeds of reconciliation between the races, and between North and South, were discovered only when the United States was required to unite against a common enemy during World War II. However, it would take decades for those seeds to sprout.

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