The 1619 Project Read Along invites a broad readership to engage with chapters from 1619 in a “classroom without walls.” In this blog, I will join the ongoing conversation by reflecting on Dorothy Roberts’ essay “Race.”
In “Race,” Roberts explores how profit, power, and vice fueled the creation of America’s racial classification system. According to Roberts, white male colonists devised a caste system that enabled them to:
- Secure a sustained enslaved population.
- Fulfill their sexual desires for Black women without consequence.
- Maintain exclusive possession of the sexuality of white women.
- Ensure that only white people, specifically white men, had access to certain rights and privileges.
Roberts traces the formation and evolution of this caste system and its legal bedrock from the period of enslavement into the 20th century. With the ending of enslavement, race no longer dictated a person’s status as enslaved or free. It did, however, indicate what rights and privileges one was entitled to. Anti-miscegenation laws functioned to police boundaries of whiteness and ensure that only “purely white” folks remained at the top of the racial caste system.
One of the questions for this chapter asks readers if they have ever had to specify their race or ethnicity and how this made them feel.
Since childhood, my parents and I have indicated my race on countless forms, from health questionnaires to standardized tests and various applications. Except for moments when I beamed proudly over indicating my Blackness, I felt indifferent about marking my race. My Blackness was simply a fact of life. As Roberts points out, “The practice of dividing people into racial categories permeates our society. It has become so routine to identify people by race that most of us don’t think twice about it.”
I am not sure when I became aware of my Blackness. I do not recall ever having a moment where my parents had to sit down and explain to me our racial identity. I was born in a predominantly Black city, lived in a Black neighborhood, attended a Black school, and attended a Black church. Blackness was everywhere. It meant so much and seemingly mattered so little. This changed when I moved to a multiracial neighborhood where Black Americans were a discernible minority. By that point, I was a teenager who was slightly more aware of the world and was coming into more of a race and class identity. In this new place, race was evident, and it mattered. With each racial group came implications: a set of expectations and characteristics ascribed to an entire group. For the first time, I experienced overt racism and prejudice. Daily, I was bombarded with racial microaggressions.
To navigate this space, I sought to build solidarity with other Black people. To my surprise, within the silos of Black life in my multiracial neighborhood, I encountered people I recognized as Black who did not self-identify as Black. I met people with differing ideas about race and varied relationships with racial categories and identities. I became acutely aware that my understanding of Blackness was not universal. While the diversity in thought in my community prompted me to confront the intricacies of race, I clung tighter to meanings of Blackness that were familiar to me. In the unwelcoming environment where I resided, I wore my Blackness as a cloak of safety. Race was suddenly no longer just a fact of life. It was complicated, nuanced, and, at times, fluid.
The peculiar and complex nature of race in America can be explained by the history Roberts lays out in her essay. In clarifying that race is not a biological fact, but a created thing, Roberts encourages readers to think critically about racial categorization and its impacts. She points to a bevy of race-related issues in America today. She contends that we should look to the “creative work” of Black women activists to liberate us from the “damaging heritage” of racism.
Roberts’ suggestion to look toward Black women for solutions to the legacy of racism is logical since Black women were critical to America’s racial hierarchy. Roberts explains that the maintenance of this racial caste system hinged upon white men’s control of Black women’s sexuality and mythologies of Black womanhood. During enslavement, there was no moral argument against the rape of Black women because they were said to be licentious and, therefore, unrapeable. Roberts posits that the 20th-century manifestation of these mythologies is found in various arenas in American society, from popular culture to government policy: from the Jezebel caricature that permeated the media to the morally depraved Black mother utilized as the face of anti-welfare campaigns. Roberts further argues that today, we see it in the adultification of Black girls and the struggle of Black women survivors of sexual assault to be taken seriously. In the 21st century, just as in the 19th and 20th centuries, Black women are blamed for impacts that actually result from racist systemic inequities and exclusion.
In addition to encouraging critical engagement with race and racism, I think that Roberts’ chapter, and other essays comprising The 1619 Project, inspire a particular reflection for Black Americans, one that prompts us to look inward and assess how we may have internalized and come to believe white supremacist fallacies about who we are. We must then work to unlearn every lie we have ever thought about ourselves. This self-reflection and unlearning is a critical step in the path forward.