The social elites of early America sought to manufacture racial divisions. Men of property and privilege were in the minority; they needed mechanisms to divide people who, in concert, might threaten the status quo. Individuals’ different skin colors were not sufficient to keep these people apart if they came to see their interests in common. Which is not to say that racism was merely a ruling class plot, but as Howard Zinn points out in chapters 2 and 3 of A People’s History of the United States, and as students see in this lesson, some people did indeed set out consciously to promote divisions based on race.
Because today’s racial divisions run so deep and can seem so normal, providing students an historical framework can be enlightening. We need to ask, “What are the origins of racial conflict?” and “Who benefits from these deep antagonisms?” A critical perspective on race and racism is as important as anything students will take away from a U.S. history course. This is just one early lesson in our quest to construct that critical perspective.
The Color Line lesson led to a discussion about how oligarchs defend their interests. We would come back to that throughout the school year because the students noticed how race was being used as a wedge issue again and again. . . .
When students learned how race had been created, how the structure of white supremacy had been constructed, they began to realize that it could also be destroyed. — Julian Hipkins III, high school U.S. history teacher, in “How American oligarchs created the concept of race to divide and conquer the poor” by Courtland Milloy in The Washington Post