Unpacking America’s Racial History: A Chronological Look at Racism in America [Lesson 2.1]

Overview of the key events and developments in the history of racism in the United States.

1600s-1700s: The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Origins of Racism

The origins of racism in the United States can be traced back to the transatlantic slave trade, which began in the 1600s. African people were kidnapped from their homes and communities and forced to work as slaves on plantations in the United States. This system of slavery was justified by the false narrative that that white people were superior to Black people and that Black people were not fully human.

1800s: Slavery and the Civil War

Slavery became increasingly contentious in the United States in the early 1800s, leading to the Civil War in 1861. The war was fought primarily over the issue of slavery and ended with the defeat of the Confederacy and the abolition of slavery in 1865.

Late 1800s: Reconstruction and the Rise of Jim Crow Laws

After the Civil War, the United States went through a period of Reconstruction, during which efforts were made to ensure civil rights for newly freed slaves. However, these efforts were met with resistance, and by the late 1800s, the Jim Crow system of laws were established. These laws enforced racial segregation and discrimination against Black people in public spaces, education, housing, and employment.

1900s: The Civil Rights Movement

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s was a pivotal moment in the fight against racism in the United States. Led by figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., the movement used nonviolent tactics such as sit-ins, marches, and boycotts to protest segregation and discrimination. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were significant legislative achievements of this movement.

Late 1900s-Present: Contemporary Racism

Despite the progress made during the Civil Rights Movement, racism persisted. Black people continue to face discrimination in areas such as housing, education, and employment, and incidents of police brutality against Black people have led to protests and calls for systemic change.

2000s: The Era of Mass Incarceration

In the early 2000s, the United States entered an era of mass incarceration, with a disproportionate number of Black people being incarcerated. This system of mass incarceration was fueled by policies such as the War on Drugs, which targeted communities of color and led to harsh sentencing laws.

2010s-Present: The Continued Fight Against Racism

In recent years, there have been numerous incidents of racial violence and discrimination in the United States, including the murder of George Floyd in 2020. These events have sparked protests and calls for change, leading to increased awareness of the ongoing problem of racism in American society.


The fight against racism in the United States is an ongoing struggle that has spanned centuries. While progress has been made over time, racism continues to be a pervasive issue that affects the lives in many ways.

A Broader Perspective: Racism Globally

1492-1637: America: Christopher Columbus lands in the Americas, marking the beginning of European colonization and the displacement and mistreatment of Native American populations. The establishment of the racist narrative that Christopher Columbus “discovered” America. English settlers establish the Jamestown colony in Virginia, which leads to the dispossession of Powhatan land and the displacement of Native American tribes. The Pequot War begins in Connecticut, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of Native Americans and the enslavement of many survivors.

1770-1838: Australia: Captain James Cook lands in what is now Australia, claiming the land for Britain and beginning the process of European colonization. The First Fleet of British ships arrives in Sydney Cove and establishes the colony of New South Wales, leading to the dispossession of Aboriginal land and the displacement of Aboriginal communities. The Myall Creek massacre takes place in New South Wales, where a group of white settlers kill at least 28 Aboriginal men, women, and children.

1884-1885: Berlin Conference: European powers meet to divide up Africa, leading to the colonization of the continent and the exploitation of its resources.

1904-1907: Herero and Nama Genocide: German colonizers in Namibia systematically murder tens of thousands of Herero and Nama people.

1910-1920s: Chinese Exclusion Act: The United States passes a series of laws restricting immigration from China, reflecting anti-Chinese sentiment and racism.

1933-1945: Holocaust: Nazi Germany systematically murders six million Jews, as well as millions of others including Roma, homosexuals, and disabled people.

1948: Apartheid: The National Party in South Africa begins implementing a system of racial segregation and discrimination, known as apartheid.

1975-1999: Indonesian Occupation of East Timor: Indonesian forces occupy East Timor, leading to the deaths of over 100,000 Timorese people.

1994: Rwandan Genocide: In just 100 days, an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus are murdered by Hutu extremists in Rwanda.

2017-2018: Rohingya Crisis: The Rohingya, a Muslim minority group in Myanmar, face persecution and violence by the government and Buddhist nationalists, leading to a mass exodus to neighboring Bangladesh.

2021: Canada: The remains of 215 Indigenous children were discovered in unmarked graves at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada sparking renewed calls for justice, healing, and reconciliation.