Rachel Dolezal and other strange stories of race in America

We found out this week that the NAACP’s city director in Spokane, Washington is a white woman who has been pretending to be black for years. In fact, Rachel Dolezal has invented an entire mythology for herself complete with an ersatz family history and an incident of racially-charged hate mail that she appears to have faked.

Americans have a strange relationship to the notion of race. We tend to think of it as an immutable, empirically verifiable condition, but that is not the case. Ask a geneticist to define race and they will probably stare at you in confusion. Race is a cultural construct that evolved in our country as a way to justify and sustain slavery. It is not much inherited as imposed.

The disconnect between our racial assumptions and the real world has produced an endless string of odd outcomes down through the centuries. The Dolezal incident is perhaps a good excuse to go on a tour of some of the more counter-intuitive, strange, or ironic stories to emerge from our tortured relationship with race:

– It took time for the connection between “blackness” and slavery to congeal in American culture and law. A story from early colonial Virginia provides a glimpse of a time before that connection had been forged.

A slave from Angola named Anthony Johnson completed his contract around 1635. Lifetime slavery had not yet been established as an institution. Johnson obtained property and became a slave-holder himself, even owning white slaves. We know of him primarily from a suit he filed in the 1650’s to regain custody of a runaway slave.

– During this period, thousands of Irish were shipped to North America and the West Indies as slaves, including somewhere between 10,000 and 60,000 who were sent to the sugar plantations of Barbados.

– Many laws were passed in the Colonial period to create a presumption that dark-skinned people were slaves. On the other hand, there was never any law that expressly protected whites from slavery. That created a hole that anyone could theoretically fall into. A petition to the North Carolina legislature in 1800 survives to demonstrate this point.

In a strange twist, a white woman named Laura had been raised as a slave. When her situation was discovered a petition for manumission was submitted to the legislature. No action was taken on her petition, leaving her and any of her potential offspring to remain in bondage.

– Right through the height of the plantation era, there were a handful of freed blacks who managed to not only hold slaves, but to own them in significant numbers. It was a tenuous and irony-filled situation to be sure, but it did occasionally occur. As late as 1860, William Ellison, a freed slave in South Carolina, owned 63 slaves and a highly-profitable plantation. He was one of the wealthiest men in the state and a fervent supporter of the Confederacy.

– For poorer whites, slavery loomed as a constant potential threat if they could not definitively prove their heritage. The strange case of a white woman named Alexina Morrison demonstrates the problem. In 1857 in Louisiana, she sued to prove that she had been abducted into slavery. Her trial was a bizarre spectacle and the court case was interrupted by the Civil War. Technically, her case remains open and unresolved, a fitting irony.

– Radio and recorded music exploded as popular entertainment in the period after World War II. A unique niche developed around “race records,” recordings by black entertainers.

Despite their growing popularity, major outlets would not sell or play them, limiting the earning potential of writers and performers. A producer at Sun Records in Memphis made a name for himself by reproducing black hits with white artists. He got his big break when a handsome young white singer named Elvis Presley recorded “That’s Alright Mama.” The song had originally been written and recorded by Arthur Crudup, a black blues musician from the Mississippi Delta. Crudup continued to work as a field laborer and bootlegger and died in poverty. Mr. Presley, on the other hand…well, you may have heard of him.

– In 1961 John Howard Griffin published Black Like Me. The book was an account of his experiences traveling the in the Jim Crow South under an assumed black identity.

– In 1991, a successful white rap performer who called himself “Vanilla Ice” earned scorn for manufacturing a rough and tumble “urban” biography. He claimed “I’m from the streets. That’s where I learned to dance and rap.” Those “streets” were primarily in the affluent Dallas suburb of Carrollton. Mr. Van Winkle was eventually shaken-down by early Hip-hop pioneer Suge Knight. By turning the Sun Records model on its head, quite literally, Knight may have marked the end of an era in white financial exploitation of black art.

– A recent genetic study demonstrated an interesting fact about racial identity in the US. Across the southern states, between one in seven (South Carolina) and one in ten (Georgia) of each state’s white populations carry enough black ancestry to have qualified as black under those states’ Jim Crow laws. It may be unusual for a woman like Rachel Dolezal to try to “pass” as black, but passing as white was a crucial and successful survival strategy for millions of Americans under slavery and Jim Crow.

Rachel Dolezal’s case is certainly odd, but placed in the context of our racial history it isn’t all that remarkable.

As a Saturday Night Live performer, Eddie Murphy made a living alternatively ridiculing and capitalizing on stereotypes of African-Americans. A short film he made for the show spoofed Griffin’s Black Like Me. Here’s an example of what Rachel Dolezal was giving up by deciding to live as a black woman, according to Murphy:

http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/white-like-me/n9308

Enjoy Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s original version of “That’s Alright Mama.”

Chris Ladd is a Texan living in the Chicago area. He has been involved in grassroots Republican politics for most of his life. He was a Republican precinct committeeman in suburban Chicago until he resigned from the party and his position after the 2016 Republican Convention. He can be reached at gopliferchicago at gmail dot com.

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Posted in Race
26 comments on “Rachel Dolezal and other strange stories of race in America
  1. Rachel didn’t pretend to be anything at all. She is trans racial. From multiple perspectives therefore, she is black.

  2. Bobo Amerigo says:

    Dolesal is ‘strange.’

    Coach Bandera is what?

    http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/14/opinion/sunday/frank-bruni-baseball-and-black-history.html?ref=opinion&_r=0

    Have both whites chosen a black culture?

    By all accounts, both are effective. Is his way more acceptable because it involves sports? Or because she’s female?

    The NYT articles is worth reading.

  3. BigWilly says:

    If “Black” weren’t cultural, you couldn’t fake it. I think Richard Pryor had it right when he talked about going to Africa expecting to see African-Americans and instead saw only Africans.

    I thought the Liberals were going to solve this problem of African-Americanness through education, how much more money do you need to solve the it?

    I’ve mentioned the Sykes book before and I keep up with scientific advancements via a few websites and Facebook.

    I’m not betting the farm on the OOA theory.

  4. flypusher says:

    Update on the Tamir Rice shooting:

    http://www.vox.com/2014/11/24/7275297/tamir-rice-police-shooting

    Prosecutor McGinty, what are we missing here in a case that looks so glaringly obvious? Those cops screwed up big time by driving right up to the kid and never even giving him a chance to drop the gun and show his hands. I don’t blame then for thinking her was an adult or that the gun was real, but I do blame them for never giving him a chance to survive the encounter.

  5. goplifer says:

    By the way, for anyone waiting breathlessly for the free book promotion to begin it will start on Monday, rather than Sunday. Small glitch.

  6. EJ says:

    A prize goes to the first person to chime in with “See! I knew all reports of white people harassing black people were fake, and now we have proof!”

    The prize will be my exasperated facepalm.

  7. way2gosassy says:

    I found what she did to be rather strange as well even though by all accounts she has done very good work for the NAACP. She may have started out by “walking a mile in their moccasins” but we may never know what her original intent was. As of now the end result is she is somewhat accepted for who she is by the people she represents.

    • EJ says:

      I discussed this with my friend Maureen (who is black.) Her response was:

      1) Why would anyone choose to be black?

      2) You can join NAACP as a white person too, you know.

      • flypusher says:

        From a purely pragmatic perspective, dark skin would be a much better adaptive trait here in SE TX than pale skin. But all the cultural baggage humans gave attached to skin color cancels that out many times over.

  8. johngalt says:

    As a geneticist (though not a human geneticist) it is not exactly that race doesn’t matter. There are some differences one can observe between people from different origins that helped them survive their environment; the story of sickle cell anemia is a classic one. But the sameness amongst all humans far outweighs minor variations and there have been too many attempts to blame societal problems on genetics, based on essentially no evidence.

    • johngalt says:

      Oh, and I should clarify that a geneticists version of race (a lazy term) is a bit different than the average person. This is not based in skin color, but rather a cohort of individuals more genetically related to each other than to other groupings. Calling Africans a “race” is nonsense, because there is more genetic diversity in people from that continent than in all other humans combined. Tutsi and Luo might have more genetic differences than Irish and Vietnamese, though in both cases these are largely superficial.

      • Bobo Amerigo says:

        JG, you’re bringing up memories of high school for me, a time when I read a Reader’s Digest article containing some of the same information you’ve imparted here re minor variations, skin color doesn’t equal ‘race,’ etc.

        Innocently, I brought this information to a discussion in history class.

        I still remember how angry the principal’s daughter was (a classmate with matching cashmere sweater/socks for every occasion) and how certain she was that the races had to stick to themselves.

        Poor Coach, he looked so sad that his class discussion couldn’t resolve itself.

      • flypusher says:

        Race is like Tinkerbell- enough people believe, therefore the concept lives.

  9. Bobo Amerigo says:

    Dolezal sounds like a performance artist to me.

    Truly, I hate the whole check-a-box race thing. When I was working with a non-profit organization, grant applications frequently required a racial breakdown of attendees at specific events.

    ?

    Their goal was, I suspect, to try to determine if under-served communities were in fact being served. Short of asking each person their ‘race’, one can only conclude that any data supplied was bogus.

    These days, I tend to use ‘pan’ or ‘trans’ when a form requires me to pick a race. I’m kind of beige-y but I know we’re all out of Africa.

    • johngalt says:

      Still happens. Grant applications to the NIH for support of conferences have to detail attempts to ensure equity in gender, ethnicity, geography, etc. It’s mostly positive, actually. They also offer supplemental funding to existing grantees to bring in underrepresented minorities into graduate and post-graduate training programs. I can largely recruit Hispanic and Black students into my lab at no cost, because the NIH will give me the cost of their stipends/tuition/benefits over and above what they have already agreed to give me. It allows me to train more students than I otherwise could afford to do. About half my students have been Hispanic and those who have graduated to date have good jobs using their degrees in science. Is this worthwhile? I think so.

      • Bobo Amerigo says:

        I agree, JG. What you describe is worthwhile.

        My comment was really about the absurdity of determining audience members’ racial identify.I don’t know how to do that without really annoying the people you hope to impress/entertain/educate.

      • johngalt says:

        I agree that there is a challenge in “checking boxes.” One of my Hispanic students grew up basically on the border outside of El Paso, but to educated middle class parents. One was a DREAMer who had gotten her papers, but grew up very poor. Two had one Hispanic and one Anglo parent, but one had a terrible upbringing, the other a pretty good one (this one says she is “technically” Hispanic). Which of these really needs a helping hand with their education? Doesn’t matter as long as they can check the right box.

        The real minority in my graduate program are men. All four of the students I mentioned are female, as are 80% of the students in our Ph.D. program. Despite this, we have few problems with falling in love or crying, and I haven’t found any of them to be #distractinglysexy, despite what some dinosaurs might think.

      • Bobo Amerigo says:

        I thought the #distractinglysexy tweets were witty way beyond the scolding!

  10. bubbabobcat says:

    Speaking of tortured racial stereotypes and perceptions, 2 White convicted hardened killers (one a cop killer) is helped to escape prison by a middle aged White woman employee of the prison. Angry White guy with a lot of guns and homemade bombs (and an “armored” car? Really?) attacks a Dallas police station. And 9 White bikers killed in Waco over a perceived insult at a bar.

    Yet not ONE single mention or criticism of the pervasive thug White culture. Damned biased Liberal mainstream media.

    Tsk, tsk, tsk.

    • way2gosassy says:

      I know! It’s absolutely crazy the way a certain group of people never fail to extend their pointy little fingers at 12 year old little boys playing in a park, 17 year old kids with ice tea and a bag of candy or a 14 year old girl in a bikini at a pool party and squeal like the little piggy’s they are about what thugs these children are. White male adults are just poor, neglected, abused as children, came from a broken home or misunderstood bad boys.

  11. flypusher says:

    My reaction to Dolezal is the same as my reaction to Jenner’s big reveal: meh

  12. goplifer says:

    Dammit. My apologies for the crowd-sourced editing.

  13. stephen says:

    Interesting post. The first known ancestor of mine with my surname arrived in this country about 1725 as an indenture servant. Five years later his contract was done and he was freed. Mom’s people are earlier. Yes indeed slavery was not at first a black only affair.

    “Dolezal’s strange stunt is sits in a long line of absurd incidents.” Lifer you may want to edit this sentence.

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