Racial and Ethnic Conflicts

The conflicts between different races and ethnicity seem to be a perennial problem in human history. There is one conflict that stands out: the American Civil War some 150 years ago. It involved people of the same race fighting over another one instead of two different races against each other. Apart from the human toll of 600,000 dead and 400,000 wounded, the war is characterized by the issues of slavery, racial prejudice, and economics.

In July 1776, the thirteen colonies in North America declared independence from Great Britain. In their joint Declaration of Independence, which is held as a sacred document, it is explicitly written: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

The US Constitution, adopted ten years later, was based on the spirit of the Declaration of Independence. However, the issue of slavery, already being practiced by several states in the South, was too contentious to be resolved. A compromise was reached where the Constitution did not abolish slavery initially. It tolerated slavery under the powers given to the states known as state rights (Article 4). It also defined the powers and limits for the Federal government (Article 6).

Have you wondered why the initial Constitution could conflict so directly with the spirit of the Declaration of Independence? The reason is that the US is a union of independent states that joined voluntarily by negotiation. That’s why it took more than ten years to hammer out the Constitution. Why did the initial thirteen States want to form the Union? The most urgent matter was collective defense against Great Britain, which was dispatching troops to put out the American independence movement. Thus the thorny issue of slavery was put aside to be resolved later.

After winning independence, the issue of slavery came to a head as the states grew increasingly apart. By 1860, the Union was divided into two camps: the Northern States that had benefited greatly from the Industrial Revolution; and the Southern States whose economies were dominated by large cotton plantations that relied on slave labor, about 4 million, mostly imported from Africa. The North detested slavery while the South had made it an institution on grounds of race and economics. The schism culminated in the secession of South Carolina in 1860, soon to be joined by ten other Southern States to form an opposing union called the Confederacy. The following quotes show the sentiments of the South:

“As long as slavery was looked upon by the North with abhorrence… there can be no satisfactory political union between the two sections.” (New Orleans Bee, Dec. 14, 1860)

“Our new government is founded upon…. the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race is his natural and moral condition.” (Alexander Stephens, Vice-President of the Confederacy, March 21, 1861)

So the Civil War erupted and lasted for four years with the defeat of the South in 1865. Initially, President Abraham Lincoln was careful to define the war as one for saving the Union and bringing the eleven rebellious states back to its fold. His view changed later to a higher moral purpose. He issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863 before the war ended. It was an executive order to free all slaves in the nation. By December 1865, the abolition of slavery was passed into law as the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution. The thorny issue of slavery, which collided head on with the spirit of the Declaration of Independence, was finally resolved through blood and tears.

Although slavery was abolished, racial discrimination in various forms including segregation continued in the South. By July 1964, the Civil Rights Act, called for by President John Kennedy and later acted upon by President Lyndon Johnson, was passed outlawing all kinds of racial and sexual discriminations.

After discrimination was outlawed, a subtle form of discrimination remains in American society. The fight for justice and equality continues to this day in the form of court battles, and victims’ exposing the discriminatory practices of the perpetrators. Since America is an immigrant society where people come from all over the world, the issue of race does not go away easily. Hence justice, equality, human rights, and democracy are only work in progress even in America, the oldest democracy of the world.

Are the Southern States better off without slavery and racial segregation? You can easily tell by their diversified economic development since the end of the Civil War. Although they may not want to admit it, they have become freer and richer by shedding the reliance on slave labor that had limited their potential only to the plantations.

As you know, slavery has been practiced for a long time all over the world, the perpetrators were usually absolute monarchs or dictators who could afford to employ an army to whip and supervise the slaves. Examples are the Pharaohs building the Pyramids, the Chin Emperor building the Great Wall, and Hitler building his war machine.

It is difficult for me to imagine the owner of an American plantation practicing slavery a couple of centuries ago. How many white men must be hired to whip and supervise the black slaves? Were the slaves housed in a concentration camp like what Hitler did? If not, were they housed in a shack next to the owner’s mansion? If I were the plantation owner, I could not sleep at night for fear of being knifed or choked. A slave must be full of anger and hate because of the way the owner treated him. Besides, a person is most dangerous when he has nothing to lose like a slave. For me, I’d be happy just owning a few horses and cows that help me work the field. Why bother to own slaves with all the troubles and amorality?

(April 2011)

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