Blog #31: Great-Grand Paternalist Racism

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In blog #30, I connected our current president with the racism of our history, including the ten presidents that owned human beings.  One reader felt I was getting a little “strident,” defined as “loud and harsh; grating.” “Strident” might be an appropriate reaction to 400 years of white supremacy, but my self-righteousness was evident in blog #30, when I basically declared, “They are the problem!”  It’s so easy to find enemies in anti-racism work.  And when I read the final lesson of last week’s blog that mentioned my great-grandfather (Lesson #145), I knew I had to explain more.

This lesson used my great-grandfather, William Howard Taft, to show how leaders who may not be blatantly racist often still prop up white supremacy. Was this familial revelation seeking absolution through confession? Perhaps – I can’t deny this unflattering urge.  But if it was a confession, it was timid and incomplete.

In explaining more fully, I will first defend William Howard Taft as kind, caring, and principled.  He probably believed, as he said in his inaugural speech, that he did not have “the slightest race prejudice or feeling.”  But it’s uncomfortable to admit that his actions revealed that, in serving a nation mired in white supremacy, he too was infected by racism.

As American Governor-General of the Philippines (1901-1904), Taft displayed a hitherto rare level of inclusion, socially embracing many darker skinned Filipinos and including them in development planning. While Taft meant it as a term of endearment when he called Filipinos his “little brown brothers,” it was what historian Creighton Miller called “paternalist racism.” Much worse, Taft allowed U. S. marines to repress with brutality rebels seeking self-rule.

When he became President, wary of offending those hostile to racial equality, Taft counseled caution.  To “minimize racial tension,” he appointed few Black people to federal jobs, and counseled Black citizens to stick to farming and trades so as to contribute to the general economy.  This approach, promoted by Booker T. Washington as well, was “safer.”

But it’s always “safer” for the powerful to delay full justice when they benefit from the status quo. We must go beyond pointing out the evil of 10 presidents who personally enslaved others.  We must see the truth of Martin Luther King Jr.’s observation that the greatest roadblock to racial justice may be the white moderate. It is why, at times, we must be strident.

  • Lesson #146: Sometimes being strident, or uncivil or offensive may be an appropriate reaction to our racist history.

  • Lesson #147: It’s so easy to find enemies in anti-racism work.

  • Lesson #148: Those who benefit from racial privilege too often “make it about us” by seeking absolution through confession.

  • Lesson #149: Like many progressives today, William Howard Taft probably inaccurately believed he did not have “the slightest race prejudice or feeling.”

  • Lesson #150: During his time administering the Philippines, Taft allowed for the brutal U. S. military repression of Filipinos seeking independence.

  • Lesson #151: Taft bowed to white pressure and enforced racist federal hiring practices.

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