The Ugly, Fascinating History Of The Word 'Racism'
The Oxford English Dictionary's first recorded utterance of the word racism was by a man named Richard Henry Pratt in 1902. Pratt was railing against the evils of racial segregation.
Segregating any class or race of people apart from the rest of the people kills the progress of the segregated people or makes their growth very slow. Association of races and classes is necessary to destroy racism and classism.
Although Pratt might have been the first person to inveigh against racism and its deleterious effects by name, he is much better-remembered for a very different coinage: Kill the Indian...save the man.
"A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one," Pratt said. "In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man."
We're still living with the after-effects of what Pratt thought and did. His story serves as a useful parable for why discussions of racism remain so deeply contentious even now.
But let's back up a bit.
Beginning in the 1880s, a group of well-heeled white men would travel to upstate New York each year to attend the Lake Mohonk Conference Of The Friend Of the Indian. Their primary focus was a solution to "the Indian problem," the need for the government to deal with the Native American groups living in lands that had been forcibly seized from them. The Plains Wars had decimated the Native American population, but they were coming to an end. There was a general feeling among these men and other U.S. leaders that the remaining Native Americans would be wiped out within a generation or two, destroyed by disease and starvation.
The Lake Mohonk attendees wanted to stop that from happening, and they pressed lawmakers to change the government's policies toward Indians. Pratt, in particular, was a staunch advocate of folding Native Americans into white life — assimilation through education.
He persuaded Congress to let him test out his ideas, and they gave him an abandoned military post in Carlisle, Pa., to set up a boarding school for Native children. He was also able to convince many Native Americans, including some tribal leaders, to send their children far away from home, and leave them in his charge. (They had reasons to be skeptical of Pratt, given the dubious history of white promises to Indians.)
"These [chiefs] were smart men," said Grace Chaillier, a professor of Native American studies at Northern Michigan University. "They saw the handwriting on the wall. They knew their children were going to need to be educated in the ways of the dominant culture or they weren't going to survive."
For many Natives, Chaillier said, this wrenching decision came down to a grim arithmetic: the boarding school would provide their children with food and shelter, which were hard to come by on the reservations. "The reservations were becoming very, very sad places to be," she said. "These were places of daunting poverty. People were starving."
The Carlisle Indian Industrial School would become a model for dozens of other unaffiliated boarding schools for Indian children. But Pratt's plans had lasting, disastrous ramifications.
He pushed for the total erasure of Native cultures among his students. "No bilingualism was accommodated at these boarding schools," said Christina Snyder, a historian at Indiana University. The students' native tongues were strictly forbidden — a rule that was enforced through beating. Since they were rounded up from different tribes, the only way they could communicate with each other at the schools was in English.
"In Indian civilization I am a Baptist," Pratt once told a convention of Baptist ministers, "because I believe in immersing the Indians in our civilization and when we get them under, holding them there until they are thoroughly soaked."
"The most significant consequence of this policy is the loss of languages," Snyder says. "All native languages are [now] endangered and some of them are extinct."
Pratt also saw to it that his charges were Christianized. Carlisle students had to attend church each Sunday, although he allowed each student to choose the denomination to which she would belong.
When students would return home to the reservations — which Pratt objected to, because he felt it would slow down their assimilation — there was a huge cultural gap between them and their families. They dressed differently. They had a new religion. And they spoke a different language.
"These kids coming from the boarding schools were literally unable to speak with their parents and grandparents," Chaillier said. "In many cases, they were ashamed of them, because their grandparents and parents were living a life that nobody should aspire to live."
But Pratt's idea to assimilate Native Americans gained traction, and the government began to make attendance at Indian boarding schools compulsory. Families who didn't comply were punished by the government. "For a period in the 1890s, federal Indian agents could withhold rations [from families] to kind of forcibly starve someone out," Snyder says.
Tsianina Lomawaima, who heads of the American Indian Studies program at the University of Arizona, told our colleague Charla Bear that the government's schooling policy had more cynical aims.
"They very specifically targeted Native nations that were the most recently hostile," Lomawaima says. "There was a very conscious effort to recruit the children of leaders, and this was also explicit, essentially to hold those children hostage. The idea was it would be much easier to keep those communities pacified with their children held in a school somewhere far away."
Unhappy, homesick students regularly ran away from the schools, and authorities were sent out to apprehend deserters, who were sometimes given asylum by Native communities who protested the mandatory school laws.
But since there was little oversight of the boarding schools, the students were often subjected to horrific mistreatment. Many were regularly beaten. Chaillier said that some of the schools were rife with sexual abuse. Tuberculosis or trachoma, a preventable disease causes blindness, were rampant. All of the boarding schools, she said, had their own cemeteries.
Chaillier said that Pratt wasn't always aware of these conditions. But these were the consequences of the popularity of his philosophies.
Chaillier, who is Lakota, told me a story that her mother often shared with her about her Indian school experience. One day, according to her mother's story, a young student snuck out from his room at night, fell into a hole being dug for a well on the school grounds, broke his neck and died. His body was put on display and the students were assembled, forced to view their schoolmate's corpse as a reminder of what happened to students who were disobedient.
But Chaillier's mother insisted that she didn't attend one of the bad Indian boarding schools. And she wanted Chaillier to attend one, as well. "If you were Indian, you went to Indian school," she said, describing her mother's feelings. Her mother felt that the Indian schools were a net good, even as they were calamitous for Indian cultures.
It's that ambivalence that makes Pratt's legacy so hard to neatly characterize.
"Richard Henry Pratt was an incredibly complex individual in many ways," Chaillier said. "Some of the worst outcomes that have happened in society have started out with someone thinking they were doing something good."
"For his time, Pratt was definitely a progressive," Snyder said. Indeed, he thought his ideas were the only thing keeping Native peoples from being entirely wiped out by disease and starvation. "That's one of the dirty little secrets of American progressivism — that [progress] was still shaped around ideas of whiteness."
Snyder said that Pratt replaced the popular idea that some *groups *were natively inferior to others with the idea that some *cultures *that were the problem, and needed to be corrected or destroyed. In other words, he swapped biological determinism for cultural imperialism.
Given the sheer scale of the physical and cultural violence he helped set in motion, was Pratt himself a practitioner of the very ill he decried at the Lake Mohonk convention? Was he a racist?
Over a century after he was first recorded using the word, we still ask that question — is she or isn't she racist? — in situations where no clear answer would ever present itself. We argue about the composition of the accused's soul and the fundamental goodness or badness therein. But those are things we can't possibly know. And as we litigate that question, other more meaningful questions become obscured.
Racism remains a force of enormous consequence in American life, yet no one can be accused of perpetrating it without a kicking up a grand fight. No one ever says, "Yeah, I was a little bit racist. I'm sorry." That's in part because racists, in our cultural conversations, have become inhuman. They're fairy-tale villains, and thus can't be real.
There's no nuance to these public fights, as a veteran crisis manager told my colleague, Hansi Lo Wang. Someone is either a racist and therefore an inhuman monster, or they're an actual, complex human being, and therefore, by definition, incapable of being a racist.
Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic, who often writes about race, is one of several writers and thinkers who has drawn attention to this paradox:
The idea that America has lots of racism but few actual racists is not a new one. Philip Dray titled his seminal history of lynching At the Hands of Persons Unknown because most "investigations" of lynchings in the South turned up no actual lynchers. Both David Duke and George Wallace insisted that they weren't racists. That's because in the popular vocabulary, the racist is not so much an actual person but a monster, an outcast thug who leads the lynch mob and keeps *Mein Kampf *in his back pocket.
We can ask whether Richard Henry Pratt was himself racist even as he decried racism. But that question distracts from the concrete and lingering realities of his legacy. It's far more valuable to wrestle with these two ideas at once: Pratt probably improved the material lives of many individual Native American children who lived in poverty and were at risk of starving. He also aggressively campaigned to destroy their cultures and subjected them to a panoply of miseries and privations.
Last Monday, a woman named Emily Johnson Dickerson died. She was the last person in the world who spoke only the Chickasaw language. That's a reality interlaced with the difficult legacy of Richard Henry Pratt.
In the century since Pratt used the word racism, the term has become an abstraction. But always buried somewhere underneath it are actions with real consequences. Sometimes those outcomes are intended. Sometimes they're not. But it's the outcomes, not the intentions, that matter most in the end.