Race Construction in 1955

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The construction of race in this 1955 Ebony article, highlighted by N.D.B. Connolly, worked much as it has at any other point in human history: point to a group of people you dislike and assign them an identity that justifies inhumane treatment by those in power.

OVERNIGHT, the Platts—free, “white” Americans—became Negroes. Whites all their lives, the Platt family crossed the racial borderline after Willis V. McCall, feared Florida sheriff and sometimes “anthropologist,” found the broad noses and brown skins of some of the Platt children offensive to his sense of whiteness.


Accompanied by two armed deputies and a photographer, Sheriff McCall descended on the Platt household in the dark of the night. The frightened, hysterical youngsters were lined up Gestapo-fashion and photographed. […] And after a squint-eyed examination, the bespectacled sheriff point to Laura Belle, 13, and allowed: “I don’t like the shape of that one’s nose.” […]

Willis McCall is a notorious figure in Florida history, a union-busting white supremacist and pro-segregationist who served seven consecutive terms as Lake County sheriff. In that time he managed to garner numerous civil rights investigations from the federal government, was an integral part of the horrifying story of the Groveland Four, and in 1972 was charged (though later acquitted by an all-white jury) with killing a mentally-ill black prisoner. An Orlando Sentinel staff writer, reporting on the 2007 removal of McCall’s name from a Lake County road, described the sheriff as a “bully lawman whose notorious tenure was marked by charges of racial intolerance, brutality and murder.

Yet for 28 years he held a type of unaccountable authority that allowed him to conduct an “anthropological investigation” of the Platt family, which quickly lead to a threat-induced exile from the state.  What happened to that family is one, comparatively small, historical episode of power constructing race to justify racism, but it also serves as a quintessential example of “[w]hat the power names you has consequences–regardless of whether you are that thing or not.”


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