US Politics

‘Mongrel:’ Historically, and from Obama’s Mouth

By Glen Ford

I did not learn of President Obama’s reference to Black people as “mongrels” on ABC’s “The View” until two days after the fact, and could not initially believe it had happened. Surely, such an occurrence should have provoked a scream heard in every corner of Black America. Yet, it did happen, last Thursday [July 29, 2010], and there was no general outcry.

The crime unfolded casually. Asked about his racial background, the president replied, “We,” meaning African Americans, “are sort of a mongrel people.”

Could it be that the first Black President does not know the country over which he presides, its history and peculiar vocabulary? Even as the Tea Party’s white nationalists strive to resurrect a White Man’s Country, this president bandies about a term that not long ago packed as much concentrated bile and murderous intent as any in the English language—a racial epithet with a more powerfully shaped political charge than the ubiquitous “nigger!”

“Mongrelization” was the bane of American Manifest Destiny, an ever-present threat to white notions of “civilization.” The extermination of Native Americans and the fire and whips of daily white terror during slavery and Jim Crow kept “mongrelizing” influences at bay, but protecting the gene pools of “Anglo-Saxons” and other Europeans later allowed into the “white” fold required constant vigilance. In the post-Civil War era, as the muscular settler-state prepared to push its empire beyond ocean barriers, expansionism ran into the brick wall of race purity. The United States could conquer the lands of Hawaii, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Cuba, but how could these territories be absorbed into the national structure without hopelessly tainting “America”—politically, culturally and biologically?

For many southern segregationists, the price of empire was too high. Their racist fulminations on the House and Senate floors are what passed for statesmanship at the turn of the 20th century.

Senator James Vardaman, of Mississippi, was implacable in his resistance to granting self-rule to Filipinos, much less treating them as equal to white Americans. “Preparing the Filipino or any other Mongrel race for the duties of citizenship or self-government can not be done,” he railed.

South Carolina’s Senator John McLaurin could not agree more.
Were the Philippines to be annexed, it would bring a “mongrel and barbarous race” into the body politic of the United States.

Not to be outdone, fellow South Carolinian Senator Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman warned that denizens of Puerto Rico, also recently seized from Spain along with Cuba, be kept at a healthy distance. “It is to the injection into the body politic of the United States of that vitiated blood, that debased and ignorant people, that we object,” said Tillman. But even if kept confined to their islands, these “mongrels” required rule by a firm, white hand, Tillman explained, because “No combination of Spaniards and half-negroes capable of self-government exists on the face of the earth.”

The American Republic feared itself in danger of terminal racial pollution. In 1900, the Overland Monthly, a journal published in San Francisco, wrote, “The Philippines are under the process of absorption. Cuba is occupied, and a proposition to annex the island with all its mongrel population may be made any day.”

America’s new possessions were suddenly viewed as dire threats to the Fatherland. “Let us not take the Philippines in our embrace to keep them simply because we are able to do so,” said Tennessee Senator William Bate. “I fear it would prove a serpent in our bosom. Let us beware of those mongrels of the East, with breath of pestilence and touch of leprosy. Do not let them become a part of us with their idolatry, polygamous creeds, and harem habits.”

Mongrels, everywhere! Hawaii, where Barack Obama would be born three generations later, was annexed in the imperial spasm of the Spanish American war. Southern politicians, who had just celebrated the forced ouster of the last Reconstruction-era Black congressman (Representative George Henry White, North Carolina, 1897-1901), feared these overseas “mongrel” territories would eventually become states and send representatives to Washington. Even former abolitionist lawmaker Edward L. Pierce opposed annexation of Hawaii, saying, “We don’t want those mongrel races for the basis of a state.”

Mississippi’s Senator Vardaman worried that Puerto Rico might one day become a U.S. state. “I really had rather [Puerto Ricans] would not become citizens of the United States,” he said. “I think we have enough of that element in the body politic already to menace the Nation with mongrelization.”

In 1909, Texas Representative James Slayden blamed Puerto Rican bloodlines for the island’s problems. Americans like himself, he said, “are mainly Anglo-Saxon, while [Puerto Ricans] are a composite structure, with liberal contributions to their blood from Europe, Asia, and Africa. They are largely mongrels now.”

In California in the late 19th century, Asians were the great threat to the racial integrity of the nation. State convention delegate John F. Miller ranted that a mixture of a Chinese and a white person “would be a hybrid of the most despicable, a mongrel of the most detestable that has ever afflicted the earth.”

The recently deceased West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd ranted against the dreaded mongrels, too. In 1944 Byrd, then a Klansman, wrote to Mississippi Senator Theodore Bilbo. “I shall never fight in the armed forces with a Negro by my side,” Byrd told the arch-segregationist. “Rather I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds.”

This has been a short glimpse of the history of the “mongrel” term that Obama brought to the morning broadcast couch like some benign little nugget. Of course, even a president has the personal right to call himself any names he pleases. But Obama told the ladies of “The Show” and millions of viewers that “we” African Americans are “a mongrel people”—a label he is not entitled to inflict on 40 million Black folks, many of whom know full well the poisonous historical (and, yes, contemporary) properties inherent in the term. Obama’s talk show behavior is consistent with his politics, which constantly tries to erase the very idea of Black America. (As in his introduction to most Americans, at the August 2004 Democratic National Convention: “There is no Black America‚Ķthere is only the United States of America.”) In ways big and small, Obama reveals that he does not accept or respect African Americans as a distinct people, culture and polity who cannot be reduced to a flotsam and jetsam of various and sundry human parts. Apparently, that’s how he thinks of himself., August 4, 2010