Numerous ideological and conceptual influences have informed America’s historical, cultural, and institutional development. Among the most divisive and polarizing of these influences has been racism, which is the ideological belief that identifies race as the predominant factor determining the physical traits, mental capacities, physiology, and overall potential of humans. Racism further presupposes that historical development, cultural legacy, biological characteristics, and/or other factors make one race necessarily superior or inferior to another.

Such assumptions even contributed to the enslavement of one race by other races and ethnicities. Europeans abducted and forcefully removed Africans to America via the Atlantic slave trade beginning in the sixteenth century. The trade accelerated in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and continued into the mid-nineteenth century, even after it became illegal. The first US census, taken in 1790, found a racialized slave community of roughly 1 million, mostly in the southern states. Seventy years later, the nation’s slave population topped 4.5 million, about 400,000 of them in Mississippi. The majority of the state’s slaves were held in the Natchez District, in the southwest tier of the state along the Mississippi River. Racialized slavery in Mississippi was spawned and rationalized based on the culturally sanctioned belief that dark-skinned people were a deficient species of savages. In colonial America, this belief promoted and facilitated the development of structural, state, and systemic racism, as evidenced by slavery. This institutional racism, in turn, gave rise to a racialized American hierarchy that survived slavery and has endured because of its pervasive and ubiquitous attributes. According to one researcher, American racism has persisted and remains interconnected with “all major social groups, networks, and institutions across the society.”

Indeed, after the abolition of American slavery, racism became more pronounced, expansive, and mandated by law, especially in the South. By 1890, the region’s state governments began to enact new constitutions with an emphasis on black disenfranchisement and racial segregation, thereby ensuring societal adherence to the practice of separate but unequal facilities as well as to the additional dictates of an emerging southern Jim Crow culture. In Mississippi, white conservative Democrats, alarmed by predictions of a return to carpetbagger days and a second Reconstruction, engineered the convening of a state constitutional convention in 1890. The new Mississippi constitution targeted blacks for implied and race-specific segregation, separation, exclusion, and restrictions. Thus, in the late nineteenth-century South, racism became more than just a matter of culture and choice: it was a matter of law. In an 1896 Louisiana public accommodation case, Plessy v Ferguson, the US Supreme Court ruled that to mandate separate facilities for blacks neither implied inferiority nor violated the Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution. The ruling established the legal doctrine of separate but equal while providing judicial protection for states as they enacted laws mandating racial separation. For nearly sixty years this doctrine sanctioned the racial divide and institutional racism in America.

From the Jim Crow era through the civil rights period, popular culture also sanctioned the nation’s racial apartheid. At the turn of the century, journalists, academics, and social critics offered commentary on themes of black retrogression, savagery, bestiality, and criminality. Making an equally significant contribution to the gospel of racism were southern politicians such as Mississippi’s James Vardaman and Theodore Bilbo, who often resorted to demagoguery in vying for political office. These men emphasized racial stereotypes and used them to stoke white fears and intolerance.

Since the mid-twentieth century, racism has remained one of Mississippi’s unresolved societal ills despite the US Supreme Court’s repudiation of the separate but equal doctrine in its May 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Similarly, the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s failed to end American racism, though it did result in a surge of societal will that enshrined in federal law prohibitions against discrimination in public accommodations, voting, and housing. In addition, the civil rights movement fostered a vision of freedom for blacks that linked social justice and economic democracy. Nevertheless, Mississippi and the rest of the United States maintain vestiges and manifestations of racism.

Further Reading

  • Stephen A. Berrey, The Jim Crow Routine: Everyday Performances of Race, Civil Rights, and Segregation in Mississippi (2015)
  • George Fredrickson, The Black Image in the White Mind (1971)
  • Andrew Hacker, Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal (1995)
  • Winthrop D. Jordan, White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1850–1812 (1968)
  • Manning Marable, Beyond Black and White: Rethinking Race in America (1995)
  • Neil R. McMillen, Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow (1989)
  • Orlando Patterson, The Ordeal of Integration: Progress and Resentment in America’s “Racial” Crisis (1997)
  • Ronald Takaki, Iron Cages: Race and Culture in Nineteenth-Century America (1979)
  • Cornel West, Race Matters (1993)
  • Joel Williamson, A Rage for Order: Black-White Relations in the American South since Emancipation (1986)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Racism
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date June 6, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 14, 2018