On this day in history, (February 13, 1905), Teddy Roosevelt delivered his “Lincoln Dinner” speech
Roosevelt referred to white people as the “forward race” and he felt that it was their responsibility to train the “backward race” to fit within American culture and gain prosperity. He listed various issues, but Roosevelt was particularly concerned with morality, crime, and drug abuse. He said:
Laziness and shiftlessness, these, and, above all, vice and criminality of every kind, are evils more potent for harm to the black race than all acts of oppression of white men put together.
Roosevelt’s condescension for other races wasn’t limited to black people. He was a firm believer in eugenics, which was a form of propaganda that was posed as “scientific proof” of the superiority of the white race. Eugenics was quite popular in the early 20th century. Hence, many Americans believed that drugs needed to be outlawed to protect “inferior” races from themselves.
Teddy Roosevelt signed the first federal anti-drug law, the Opium Exclusion Act of 1909. The law didn’t explicitly target Chinese immigrants, but the intent was implicit. Numerous newspapers proclaimed that Chinese men were using opium to lure white women into sexual slavery. It was a contrived moral panic that was manufactured by the media, but there was some truth to higher addiction rates among Chinese immigrants. However, practically no Americans newspapers were critical of the American families that made fortunes selling opium in China. That includes Warren Delano Jr., the grandfather of Franklin R. Roosevelt.
With that said, let’s continue reviewing Teddy Roosevelt’s speech from this day in history. You have to put a speech within the context of the time period. Even though Roosevelt expressed some clearly racist viewpoints, in fairness, the overall tone of Roosevelt’s speech was quite progressive for this time period. Albeit, it was a very low benchmark. For example, Roosevelt noted in his speech:
I am glad to say that during the last three months the (reports)…show a smaller number of lynchings than for any other three months during the last twenty years.
What will historians have to say about our current era? The punishments are less severe, and the political rhetoric has changed. However, the discriminatory nature of drug laws hasn’t improved much over the course of 100 years. In fact, there is now a higher percentage of black men in prison in America than there were in South Africa during Apartheid. A disproportionate percentage of blacks and Latinos are serving prison sentences for crimes even though all races use/sell drugs at relatively equal rates.
Teddy Roosevelt Openly Asserted that minorities needed to be protected from themselves. On the other hand, no current politician can make such claims, but that doesn’t mean that a sizeable group of voters wouldn’t like to see a resurgence of Jim Crow. After all, everyone knows that white people won’t be targeted with the “stop and frisk” programs that Donald Trump supports. Furthermore, it would be Chicago’s black and Latino neighborhoods that would be converted into official police states if Trump made good on his threat of “bringing in the Feds.” Yes, that’s the same condescending racial tone that was more openly asserted over 100 years ago.
How do you think historians will describe our current era?