Frederick Douglass (1867) on race and integration in the US

I had heard of Douglass, but man oh man, I had no idea of his brilliance.

His “Composite Nation” speech is full of wisdom and hope, offering a path to that “shining city on a hill” that Americans have had such a hard time reaching — mostly due to a desire to preserve “tradition” over “progress.”

(Listen to this Malcolm Gladwell episode on a segregationist in the 1970s — a man who has many imitators, led by T***p, in today’s America.)

Here are some excerpts that deserve your attention:

  • “We have for along time hesitated to adopt and may yet refuse to adopt, and carry out, the only principle which can solve that difficulty and give peace, strength and security to the Republic, and that is the principle of absolute equality. We are a country of all extremes—, ends and opposites; the most conspicuous example of composite nationality in the world. Our people defy all the ethnological and logical classifications. In races we range all the way from black to white, with intermediate shades which, as in the apocalyptic vision, no man can name a number. In regard to creeds and faiths, the condition is no better, and no worse. Differences both as to race and to religion are evidently more likely to increase than to diminish”

NB: Most racists insist that Whites are biologically better than Blacks; some even asserted that Whites and Blacks evolved as separate species that could not mate! Listen to Scene on Radio’s “Being White” podcast series to understand the origin of racism (Portuguese slavers needed an excuse to justify their infernal trade).

Douglass goes on to address the “Yellow Peril” that was (infamously) battled with exclusionary laws that were enacted in 1862, strengthened in 1882 and not fully repealed until 1965:

  • “Repugnance to the presence and influence of foreigners is an ancient feeling among men. It is peculiar to no particularly race or nation”
  • “They will come as individuals, we will meet them in multitudes, and with all the advantages of organization. Chinese children are in American schools in San Francisco, none of our children are in Chinese schools, and probably never will be, though in some things they might well teach us valuable lessons. Contact with these yellow children of The Celestial Empire would convince us that the points of human difference, great as they, upon first sight, seem, are as nothing compared with the points of human agreement. Such contact would remove mountains of prejudice.”
  • “It is worthy of special remark, that precisely those parts of that proud Island [Britain] which have received the largest and most diverse populations, are today, the parts most distinguished for industry, enterprise, invention and general enlightenment. In Wales, and in the Highlands of Scotland, the boast is made of their pure blood and that they were never conquered, but no man can contemplate them without wishing they had been conquered. They are far in the rear of every other part of the English realm in all the comforts and conveniences of life, as well as in mental and physical development. Neither law nor learning descends to us from the mountains of Wales or from the Highlands of Scotland”
  • “But it is said that the Chinese is a heathen, and that he will introduce his heathen rights and superstitions here. This is the last objection which should come from those who profess the all conquering power of the Christian religion. If that religion cannot stand contact with the Chinese, religion or no religion, so much the worse for those who have adopted it. It is the Chinaman, not the Christian, who should be alarmed for his faith. He exposes that faith to great dangers by exposing it to the freer air of America. But shall we send missionaries to the heathen and yet deny the heathen the right to come to us? I think that a few honest believers in the teachings of Confucius would be well employed in expounding his doctrines among us.”
  • “To the minds of superficial men, the fusion of different races has already brought disaster and ruin upon the country. The poor negro has been charged with all our woes. In the haste of these men they forgot that our trouble was not ethnographical, but moral; that it was not a difference of complexion, but a difference of conviction. It was not the Ethiopian as a man, but the Ethiopian as a slave and a covetted [sic] article of merchandise, that gave us trouble.”

My one-handed conclusion is that all men (and women) were created equal, but they were not — and in many cases — are not treated equally in the US. That’s a pity for our country, a hypocrisy for our reputation, and a reality that needs far deeper discussion, soul-searching, and reflection.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you?


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Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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