When Donald Trump asks his supporters to go to certain neighborhoods to “watch” at the polls on Election Day, he clearly has never known, has forgotten, or does not care about the painful, tragic, and racist history of voting in the United States. He does not remember the days when African Americans faced torture and terrorism for exercising their constitutional right to vote. He does not remember that the franchise was restricted to white citizens in many states where slavery was against the law. Remembering history, we as a nation will not go back to those days.
It is important to remember that the founders did not trust ordinary people. To this day, the president and vice president are not elected by the popular vote. When the Constitution was first adopted, qualifications for voting rights was a state matter. In most states, the franchise was restricted to white men who held property. In the early 1800s only five state allowed free black men to vote – New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and North Carolina. Later as voting rights for white men expanded with some states dropping the requirement that voters own property, the property requirement remained for black men. After the Nat Turner rebellion, blacks lost the right to vote in North Carolina.
African Americans were second class citizens throughout the United States both before and after the Civil War. Between 1820 and 1850 blacks in Philadelphia and other cities were the targets of mob violence with their offense being “uppity behavior.” Thus, whiteness carries with it social, economic, and political privilege.
In the PBS documentary “Africans in America”, historian Margaret Washington comments on racism in the north.
“So it would seem as though the nation itself had an attitude that African Americans were inferior. And if you look at some of the laws that were in existence in the northern states, African Americas were not supposed to ride on streetcars; African Americans were not supposed to ride on steamers. The whole idea of Jim Crow and segregation of the races really originates in the north. African Americans couldn’t vote in the north. African Americans couldn’t vote in most states, even if they owned property.”
Any white immigrant coming into the country had more rights than blacks. Washington says: “So while immigration became a form of economic and social mobility for whites, it became a form of degradation for African Americans.”
Because social, economic, and political privileges were reserved for white people, whiteness becomes an important category. In the same documentary, historian Noel Ignatiev observes:
“So definitely white people gained from the system of racial supremacy. Without that whiteness itself would have been a meaningless category. It would have only been a physical description like tall.”