African-Americans are second only to Native Americans, historically, in terms of poor treatment at the hands of mainstream American society. Although African-Americans living today enjoy nominal equality, the social context in which blacks interact with the rest of society is still one that tangibly differentiates them from the rest of America. This cultural bias towards blacks is in many notable ways more apparent than the treatment of other people of color, such as Asian immigrants, as is reflected in disparate wages and living conditions experienced by these respective groups. Common stereotypes hold the successful, college educated black man or woman as the exception rather than the rule, whereas Asians are commonly thought of as over-achievers. Although any bias undermines social interaction in that it shifts attention away from individual merit, the bias towards African-Americans can be said to be worse than most, and lies at the root of discrimination and racial tension.
In that discrimination is the result of an escalation of tension between African-Americans and the rest of society, this development is a new one in the history of race relations in American Culture. The first blow that was dealt in this race struggle between African-Americans and predominantly white Caucasian-Americans (hereafter referred to as blacks and whites) was, self-evidently, the enslavement of blacks by predominantly Dutch and English slave traders at the end of the 17th century. As a dispossessed people that were commonly regarded as chattle, colonial blacks had no recourse for reprisal. By contrast, whites had attempted to enslave Native Americans, who always managed to rebel or escape due to their knowledge of the terrain and ability to return to pre-established tribal communities. Likewise, Irish and English indentured servants were able to escape to ports, join colonial communities, or borrow money to buy their freedom. Rather than an escalation of racial tension, colonial America saw a categorical institutionalization of slavery unknown in the west since the fall of Rome. Although many liken slavery to the serfdom found in England and continental Europe, it must be remembered that according to English and Spanish common law, any serf could win his freedom by evading authorities for a year and a day, and that slave auctions were unknown.
Although slave riots were not uncommon in the Antebellum south, the driving force behind abolition was the moral opprobrium of radical Christian reformers in New England, who were inspired by the enlightenment and various religious revivals that condemned slave ownership. A black-lead, categorical response to the deplorable conditions afforded blacks in the antebellum South was nearly impossible due to almost-universal illiteracy. Whereas whites of the time were able to develop increasingly intricate pseudo-scientific rationales whereby blacks could be declared inferior, blacks possessed no means by which to respond and hence were unable to champion their own freedom, let alone equality. One notable exception was Frederick Douglass, a freed slave who had taught himself how to read. However, even such capable black men could not become pamphleteers promoting freedom among blacks, because of the woeful punishments waiting for black slaves that had covertly developed the ability to read. These included not only beatings but having one's eyes put out.
Between the end of the Civil War and the 1960's, race relations between blacks and whites cannot be characterized as one of escalating tensions, but rather one of the woeful continuation of past transgressions.
Although a brief hiatus existed during reconstruction where the federal government sought to institute social reforms that favored blacks and encouraged voting, the end of reconstruction brought an end of this. The infamous Jim Crow laws kept blacks in what was though to be their place on a state government level, and civic participation in the form of lynchings augmented these officiated prejudices with implicitly condoned terror.
The stalwart refusal of the black community to resort to violence against whites at this time can be attributed to a number of factors. Predominant among them is the socialization of most blacks, which happened via the church. Black communities were usually either southern or had strong ties to black communities in the south, and were brought up in small, faith-based communities. The black population in the United States was not without its own small victories; the NAACP and black colleges were both born of this era, and communities such as U. Street in Washington DC and Harlem in New York City became centers of black culture, which became instrumental in changing American entertainment during the Jazz age.
Black sentiments became radicalized in the 1960's, owing to the conclusion by many black leaders that peaceful incrementalism had afforded blacks little in 100 years of emancipation. This is reflected aptly in James Baldwin's 1963 work, "The Fire Next Time." In this book Baldwin recounts his own experience as a young black man growing up in Harlem, where he found preaching in a storefront church to be his only escape from the baseless life of inferiority afforded black teenagers and young people in America. Part of the book consists of a letter to his nephew, in which he writes:
This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish. Let me spell out precisely what I mean by that, for the heart of the matter is here, and the root of my dispute with my country. You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity. Wherever you have turned, James, in your short time on this earth, you have been told where you could go and what you could do (and how you could do it) and where you could live and whom you could marry. I know your countrymen do not agree with me about this, and I hear them saying, "You exaggerate' " They do not know Harlem, and I do. So do you. Take no one's word for anything, including mine-but trust your experience. Know whence you came.
Baldwin set a precedent among radical black leaders, insisting that black culture was not American culture and that the aims and objectives of the American government and white American society was one that did not reflect black interests. Blacks, according to Baldwin, were thought to deserve a separate fate from whites, forever relegated to the ghettos of the north and the poor farms of the south. In this since, their lifestyles reflected those of new white immigrants to the United States, but unlike these immigrants, whose lives improved as they were Americanized, black standards of living were to remain static.
Black radicalism, African-American critical theory, the Black Panther movement, and urban riots are all examples of how Black Americans were galvanized by Baldwin and his contemporaries. Although the archetype of the "angry black male" remains with us as a reflection of common perspectives towards black radicalism as an aspect of the civil rights movement, it must be realized that protest methodologies employed in the 1960's were far from race-specific. A comparison between race riots in Newark and the Watts section of Los Angeles and the draft riots that took place in Kent State and on other campuses reveals distinct similarities. It must be understood that the socialization of black communities and the perception of blacks as a separate social entity played as great a role in white perceptions as was reflected in the fervor or scope of black violence.
Even as school integration brought white and black children into contact, other federal policies worked to actively encourage segregation. After the Second World War, the Federal Housing Authority had granted low-interest home loans to GI's looking to buy a new home in America's then-new suburbs. Blacks, however, were denied these loans. Although desegregation was a victory, its mismanagement lead to white flight, which resulted in a socio-economic iron curtain between suburban whites and city-bound blacks. In effect, ostensive efforts at desegregation actually promoted segregation, which took on a geographic context. In this there was an escalation of race tensions: as whites saw integration as something that was forced on them by civil rights activists and social reformers, they opted to abandon the cities where they had traditionally lived rather than remain side by side with the blacks. Neighborhoods that were not open to blacks were considered to be "exclusive" and usually featured higher property values. In communities such as Shaker Heights, Ohio, a Suburb of Cleveland, the effect of home loan discrimination was coupled with the effects of real estate agents actively discouraged the arrival of black residents because they were thought to have a negative effect on the price of homes.