5 Everyday Things (That Have Secret Racist Origin Stories)
You might wanna sit down for this one: The Western world can be a little bit racist sometimes. Of course, these days it's all couched in dog whistles and stupid hand gestures, but it used to be less ... subtle. From the games we played to the songs we sang to the founding of entire states, it seems like Get Out was less horror/thriller and more "level-headed documentary." While a lot of the old racist elements have thankfully faded away, you can still see them if you know how ...
The SATs Were Designed To Keep Out Jews
Old-timey WASPs of the East Coast had themselves a problem: Jewish students were getting good enough grades to get into their prestigious Ivy League schools. By the 1920s, about a quarter of Harvard's incoming freshmen were Jewish. What was a racist to do? If they enacted limits, they admitted that the students they kept out deserved to be there. Outright banning them wouldn't be fashionable for another few decades, either.
Enter Carl Brigham. Turning to racist science (which is like real science, except it's not science), Carl set out to create a college entrance exam using IQ tests which favored Anglo students. In fact, he developed the entire SAT around them. As a Columbia Dean once celebrated, "We have honestly attempted to eliminate the lowest grade of applicant, and it turns out that a good many of the low grade men are New York City Jews." What a coincidence!
The traditional student body could now go back to the things they liked best -- polo, touching each other's butts with plungers, and writing Hitler's music -- unmolested by the thought of a kid down the hall wearing a yarmulke. But the celebration was short-lived, because it didn't take long for Jewish students to figure out how to crack the test. Stanley Kaplan helped Jewish kids from New York do precisely that, and then built an empire on it. Brigham's whole design backfired, as many Jews and other nonwhite kids officially passed the test, more or less guaranteeing themselves admission. Brigham later recanted his views on inherent intelligence, and like a Pinocchio made out of hate instead of wood, he became a real scientist. It's taken us decades to begin discarding standardized tests altogether, but Kaplan has to make its money somehow.
Marijuana Is Super Racist
No, there's no such thing as a racist plant. The problem is the word "marijuana" itself. Although "marijuana" is one of the Spanish words for the plant, Spanish-speaking countries also use the term more commonly used in Britain and Canada, "cannabis." It worked just fine in the United States for a while, too. Then, in the early 20th century, anti-drug crusaders started looking for a new way to brand the drug, because America could not withstand a cookie shortage during the Great War.
This was also the time of the Mexican Revolution and its accompanying refugee crisis. Americans, uh ... do not have a great track record of keeping their cool when a bunch of new people show up. Through the magic of synergy, racists and party-haters both discovered that the foreign-sounding term "marijuana" was the perfect new word to strike fear into the hearts of the American public -- both of immigrants and of the drug itself. Henry Anslinger, the first head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, led the charge to make cannabis "marijuana" again, with statements like:
"There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others."
He pushed Congress to make possession of marijuana a federal crime, which they did in 1937. That law was but the victory lap for Anslinger's rebranding campaign -- by that point, most states had already made marijuana illegal, and many used drug enforcement as a pretense for deporting Mexican immigrants, because like Hollywood, the United States is always recycling old material and hoping the audience doesn't notice.
When the Nixon administration needed a pretense to start cracking down on the antiwar and civil rights movements, John Erlichman realized, "we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war, or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana, and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities."
Thus, the War on Drugs was born. Erlichman readily admitted that they knew full well they were weaving lies, but on the bright side, "we could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news." At least Kellyanne Conway can claim alternative facts as an American tradition.
Chinese Checkers Is Not From China
You didn't think the game actually came from China, did you?
The great-granddaddy of Chinese Checkers is a British game from the 1800s called Hoppity, which an American tweaked in the 1880s to form Halma, named after the Greek word for "jump."
In Germany, the original four-sided Halma was so popular that they needed a six-pointed board to make sure nobody went into Halma withdrawal, and so the game company Ravensburg introduced Stern (Star) Halma in 1892.
You might recognize that game as Chinese checkers, though perhaps you noticed that it's not Chinese checkers. The name change didn't happen until an American toy company charged with bringing the game to the States retitled it "to reflect the growing worldwide interest in the Far East" during the 1920s. It wasn't important whether or not the thing really came from the Far East -- simply slap some dragons and a Chinese restaurant font on there, and you're good to go.
Later boards were, in fact, worse:
So very much worse:
Eventually, Milton Bradley managed to file the American patent on Chinese Checkers, and toned the racism waaay down ... though, y'know, not completely. It's still called "Chinese Checkers."
We Owe The Existence Of Oregon To Racism
When you think of Oregon, you probably think of Portlandia, lumbersexuals, and/or artisanal coffee. In other words, quirky white people stuff. There is a very good reason for that.
The white people who followed that famous trail came largely from states bordering the Confederacy, and left in protest of slavery ... because they felt it was unfair competition. They weren't just unconcerned with the plight of slaves; they hated slaves so much that they refused to be anywhere near them. As a result, they dusted off their covered wagons and traveled to Oregon, intending it to be a white utopia. It turns out your favorite childhood computer game was secretly a horror story, starring you as the villain.
Once the settlers got, uh, settled, they quickly set about banning black people from living, working, voting, or owning property in Oregon.
"We were building a new state on virgin ground; its people believed it should encourage only the best elements to come to us, and discourage others," one member of the constitutional convention reasoned, apparently forgetting all about the numerous Native American tribes already living in the Pacific Northwest. Which is weird, considering a major reason the law was passed was out of fear that black newcomers would band together with Native Americans and wipe the white population out. And that would be rude. They stole that land fair and square.
Even though it was basically illegal, people of color still found their way into the state one way or another. (Not that many, mind you. In the 1850s, the black population of Oregon only increased by 75 people, compared to 4,000 in California. That's, like, one very large family. One very brave, very large family.) Any person of color living in the state had to pay an annual poll tax, which they could also settle through the cherished American tradition of forced labor, because racists still love money more than they love being racist. It wasn't a great bargain. In 1893, one of the only Chinatowns in the state was burned to the ground by the local white citizens, and by the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan controlled the state government. Local leaders posed with them for snapshots, like they were opening an ice cream shop instead of lynching people.
To this day, Portland is the whitest big city in America, and white supremacists have proposed an Aryan homeland in the Pacific Northwest. Maybe someday that grim fact will overshadow Fred Armisen's goofy faces. Maybe someday ...
Most Forms Of Entertainment
White Americans thought minstrel shows were the shit from about 1840 until well into the 1930s. As late as World War II, Bugs Bunny was trying to sell people war bonds in blackface.
The Jazz Singer was both the first feature-length talkie and a crazy-racist relic starring a Jewish man who performs in blackface. Keep in mind, this movie was a major technological achievement in film history. It would be like if Avatar had used a significant percent of its CG budget to give all the Na'vi slanty eyes.
It may not be surprising that some aspects of country music have racist origins, but would you suspect the humble banjo? It was originally an African instrument, and one of the few cultural artifacts to survive the middle passage. Minstrel shows eventually adopted the banjo as their staple accompaniment -- because they couldn't let anyone have anything -- and its traditional players discarded the instrument in embarrassment.
There's pretty much no form of entertainment that minstrel shows didn't put their gross, sticky fingers in. They took the words of Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth and twisted them into the stump speech -- an act in which a blackfaced dude recited parodies of those inspiring speeches. This was one of the first times entertainers stood up to make speeches filled with jokes, and it would become one of the primary influences for stand-up comedy. That's right: Comedy is racist.
Now we are all sons of bitches.
3C Robles-Jackson is a writer living in Detroit. You can read his weird story about urban decay here. He tweets here.
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