It seems incomprehensible that anyone would consider themselves superior to another person based on something over which they or others have no control, such as being tall or having curly hair or being born into a rich family or a poor one. Therefore, my initial response to reading Forrest G. Wood’s 1968 book Black Scare was perplexity. The historical attitude that white people were better than Black people was not surprising. What was surprising was the fact that people used the notions of “natural instinct” or a “God-implanted” instinct to justify their prejudice against Black people (Wood 2). However, it should not have been surprising; these justifications still permeate the arguments that current-day white supremacists and racists make in their arguments against non-white people.
Additionally, the pseudoscientific nature of the so-called “scientific” arguments which white supremacists and racists used to justify their arguments were honestly laughable and ridiculous. These rationales, such as those advanced by Louis Agassiz, seemed to characterize 19th-century America in contrast to the majority sensibilities in Europe. The idea of “scientifically” justifying and explaining the enslavement of Africans and African-Americans is offensive and unfathomable on one hand. On the other hand, one wonders at the level of insecurity in such a large group of people that they feel the need to (1) assert their superiority through spurious and pseudoscientific rationales and (2) use any number of social structures, namely government and religion, to validate their beliefs and actions. White supremacists and racists, and even people who did not necessarily believe in slavery (like Agassiz), seemed willing to use any argument to promote their point of view. It should be noted that this point of view is very clear; it is not enough to say that they thought white people were superior to all other races.
They also believed that other races, particularly Black people, were inferior and to an extreme degree, with some individuals calling them “degenerate gorillas” and “a bunch of wild men” (Wood 80). It would be easy to put these labels down as simple misunderstanding of science, but given that scientists in Europe clearly came to different conclusions – i.e., their minimization of the importance of differences in physical features and their emphasis on how cultural traits could not be attributed satisfactorily to physical attributes (Wood). It seems that the white supremacists in America were selective about the scientific evidence they considered or believed, very conveniently omitting those facts and findings which refuted or denied their point of view.
It was remarkable to read that certain notions of equality emerged as quickly as they did. Emancipation meant a man could not be a slave; impartial suffrage defined the Black man’s political rights. These things could be rationalized, even by the racists. However, social equality seemed slow to be accepted, with arguments against what amounts to forced socializing with the Freedmen becoming heated and considered beyond the scope of legislation (Wood).
Given how entrenched racism and white supremacy appeared to be in 19th-century America, particularly in the South but other parts of the country as well, it was surprising to learn that the prevailing discussion of the ‘race issue’ began to decline soon after the Civil War in 1867 (Wood). However, as recent social movements like BlackLivesMatter and the seeming resurgence of mainstream white supremacy, with President Trump even implicitly accepting the endorsement of a known white supremacist group, Wood’s book still seems very relevant and useful for current discussions, given the racists’ rationales remain somewhat unchanged.