On May 30, 1975, Toni Morrison spoke at Portland State University, as part of a conference on Black Studies. Her address was titled “A Humanist View.”
After presenting the audience with a litany of racist remarks from major historical figures in the US past, remarks against African Americans, Asians, Mexicans, and Native Americans, she analyzes their role and purpose:
Racism was never, ever the issue. Profit and money always was.
And all of those quotations––from William Byrd to Benjamin Franklin to Andrew Jackson to the New York Tribune––the threat was always jobs, land, or money. And when you really want to take away, to oppress, and to prevent, you have to have a reason for despising your victim.
Where racism exists as an idea it was always a confidence game that sucked all the strength of the victim. It really is the red flag that the toreador dances before the head of a bull. It’s purpose is only to distract, to keep the bull’s mind away from his power and his energy, to keep his mind focused on anything but his own business. It’s hoped for consequence was to define black people as reactions to white presence.
Nobody really thought that black people were inferior, not Benjamin Franklin not Mr. Byrd and not Theodore Roosevelt. They only hoped that they would behave that way. They only hoped that black people would hear “coon” songs, disparaging things, and would weep or kill or resign––or become one! They never thought black people were lazy––ever––not only because they did all the work. But they certainly hoped that they would never try to fulfill their ambitions.
And they never, ever thought we were inhuman. You don’t give your children over to the care of people who you believe to be inhuman, for your children are all the immortality you can expect. Your children are the reason you work, or plot or steal, and racists were never afraid of sexual power or switch blades. They were only and simply and now interested in the acquisition of wealth and the status quo of the poor.
Everybody knows that if the price is high enough the racist will give you whatever you want. It’s important, therefore, to know who the real enemy is and to know the function, the very serious function of racism which is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work.
It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, so you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.