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Racism in the age of empire
Interviewer: In Chapter 17 you write, "Just as American ideas about liberty and self-government had circulated around the world in the age of revolution, American racial attitudes had a global impact in the Age of Empire."J Would you elaborate on that?
Eric Foner: Well, we’d like to think, and correctly, of the world impact of some of our highest ideals—individual freedom, self-government, democracy—and certainly those ideals have inspired people in many other countries. But it’s also important that some of our perhaps less noble ideas and practices have also had a worldwide impact. In this period at the end of the nineteenth century, beginning of the twentieth century, American segregation affected the way the people of South Africa were implementing apartheid; American anti-Chinese legislation was picked up in Australia in what they called the White Australia Policy that they inaugurated in 1901 when Australia became self-governing. Canadians watched our efforts to restrict immigration from Asia and they adopted those policies as well. The failure of Reconstruction in the United States was seen in these white settler societies as indicating that nonwhite people were not really capable of self-government. People in other countries cited what happened in Reconstruction in the United States to say, look, we don’t need to give black people the right to vote because they tried that in the United States and it didn’t work. This was a distorted view of what happened in Reconstruction, but that distorted view affected racial thinking in other places. So as the American system of Jim Crow, segregation, disenfranchisement of black voters, Asian exclusion is implemented in this country, other countries are watching what we do and are learning racial policy from us as well.
Labor in the West
Interviewer: And who would you say provided most of the labor in the West for these enterprises?
Eric Foner: The West was an incredibly diverse region. The labor was provided by all sorts of people. It was probably more diverse racially than the East, because the East got a lot of immigration from Europe. The Chinese were playing a major role in certain areas in western life—building railroads, working in factories. Mexican laborers were working in agricultural employment. And of course there were immigrants from Europe—Scandinavia, Germany—who were setting up farms on the prairies and in the Dakotas, etc. And of course there were also native-born Americans moving west from older states. So the labor force in the West was a tremendous conglomeration of people, from immigrants and native-born to white, black, Mexican, Chinese. You name it and they were working to the West.
The Populist movement
Interviewer: What do you see as the significance of the Populist movement in the late nineteenth century in the North and South?
Eric Foner: The Populist movement was really the last great political upheaval or uprising of the nineteenth century, and one of the great citizens' movements of all American history. Populists consisted of small farmers by and large, both in western states and in southern states. They put forward a different vision of politics and freedom in which they called on the federal government to actively promote the interest of small farmers by becoming a lender, by offering credits, and by undercutting banks and merchants who they claimed were impoverishing farmers with fraudulent activities and high interest rates. They also tried to bury the legacy of the Civil War. They insisted that northern and southern farmers could join together. They even had a colored farmers' alliance in the South trying to bring in the black population. The issues of the Civil War were dead, they believed, and should not be allowed to obscure the need for cooperation between farmers of all regions of the country. So the Populists had a highly ambitious set of goals.
Interviewer: You write that segregation in the South was to some degree about separation of the races but also about establishing and enforcing white supremacy and the domination of blacks. Could you explain that?
Eric Foner: Segregation, which became entrenched in the South in the early twentieth century, particularly after the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision gave it a legal go-ahead in 1896, was in some ways a system of separation. There were black institutions and white, black entrances and white, black graveyards and white, black drinking fountains and white—you name it, every kind of activity had a black and white component. And despite the Supreme Court saying that facilities and institutions needed to be separate but equal, they were always separate and unequal. Nonetheless, separation was not the only and perhaps not even the dominant purpose of segregation. Segregation was part of the larger system of white supremacy. Blacks and whites came into contact with each other all the time in the South. You couldn't just push them apart. Segregation was part of the system that was meant to ensure that when they did come into contact, it was the whites that held the power. It went along with limiting blacks, not allowing them to hold many jobs. Skilled jobs were for whites, unskilled jobs were for blacks. It went along with taking away the right to vote for blacks, so they had no political power. So segregation was really a part of a system of power in which white supremacy dominated any kind of black aspirations.
Women's movement in the late 19th century
Interviewer: How were women's lives changing in the late nineteenth century, and which direction was the women's movement taking?
Eric Foner: In the late nineteenth century, more and more women's lives were changing in important ways. First of all, the birthrate had fallen enormously during the nineteenth century. By 1900 the average birthrate was about half what it was in 1800. It had dropped from 8 to 4, which was an enormous drop, and this drop obviously reflected changes in people's lives in many, many ways. More women were going out to work at this period. The rise of the industrial economy was creating factory jobs, clerical positions, and white-collar positions in cities; in short, industrialism was opening up more employment opportunities for women. So there were new opportunities for women, and this in turn reinvigorated the movement for the right to vote, which had more or less disappeared during and after the Civil War. Now, with women moving into all these other areas, it became even more intolerable that they had no political voice whatsoever.
Jim Crow and segregation
Interviewer: In your discussion of Jim Crow, the system of segregation that took hold in the late nineteenth-century South, you say that the point of the system was not so much to keep the races apart as to ensure that, when they came into contact, whites held the upper hand. Could you expand on that?
Eric Foner: We tend to think of segregation as separation of the races, and in some circumstances, that's the case. For example, you have black schools and white schools. You have black entrances to public buildings and white entrances. On the railroads, you had a black car, and cars for whites. That's the separation part. But segregation goes much further than that, because black and white were coming into contact with each other all the time. Most blacks worked for white people. They were employed by them, so they were always in contact with them. If they had to deal with the government, they were in contact with sheriffs, and justices of the peace, and school board officials, etc. Segregation was part of a comprehensive system of racial inequality, not separation. This wasn't like taking Indians and putting them on a reservation somewhere. Black and white lived among each other all the time. It was inequality that segregation was trying to enforce. Those black schools were not only separate, they were markedly inferior; the government didn't fund them nearly as much, the facilities were terrible, they were overcrowded. Those black railroad cars were always inferior. Any facility for blacks was always less satisfactory than those for white people. It was part of putting blacks into a subordinate status, as second-class citizens, from which it was very hard to get out, because the whole legal structure was meant to enforce white supremacy.