Victorian racial attitudes prevailed in White America until the 1920s and remained dominant well into Modern America when World War II transformed American racial attitudes.
The following excerpt comes from Stanley Coben’s book Rebellion Against Victorianism: The Impetus for Cultural Change in 1920s America:
“Victorianism in the United States was basically the culture of an ethnic and religious group: a confederation of Protestants of British-American descent. Gregory H. Singleton has shown mostly clearly how the consociation which united various Protestant denominations that had British origins helped perpetuate Anglo-American social and political dominance in the United States and maintained the prominence of that group’s cultural values. The high degree of eventual assimilation of Victorian values by nineteenth-century immigrant groups from virtually every part of Europe, and by middle class African-Americans, assisted the conscious effort by Anglo-American Protestants to retain cultural and economic dominance.
The largely British-American Victorians received a rich heritage of ethnic and religious bigotry from their forebears. The early colonists considered blacks barely human. According to most evidence, in the mid-nineteenth century this attitude remained a common one, and perhaps regard for blacks as people had deteriorated even further. Although nineteenth-century English and American Victorians granted the possibility of progress to inferior races, most Victorians set limits on that possibility for those of African descent; and soon late nineteenth and early twentieth-century science produced both evidence and theories verifying that the majority of Victorians was correct. The Victorians established the late nineteenth century color bar which separated them from blacks, Asians, and American Indians and embedded this concept and the social structures it supported deeply into Victorian culture …
During the forty-year period after completing his formal education, especially from 1881 to 1895, Roosevelt wrote a prodigious amount of scholarly literature. Racial themes dominated this work, particularly Roosevelt’s four volume historical epic The Winning of the West. White supremacy, in the form of Nordicism, Anglo-Saxonism, Aryanism, and Teutonism, was his preponderant explanation for the winning of the West by white Americans …
By the early twentieth century, fashions in the expression of racial ideas had shifted, and Roosevelt exchanged the then somewhat discarded the somewhat discredited terms he had used before, such as “Anglo-Saxon,” for frequent references to “the English-speaking race.” As Dyer observed, however, Roosevelt’s “celebration of the heritage, exploits, and destiny of the ‘English-speaking race’ continued unabated through his life and scarcely differed from his earlier lauding of Anglo-Saxons and Teutons.” Roosevelt had nothing but praise for Madison Grant’s classic lament in 1916 for the noble Teuton, The Passing of the Great Race.
As president of the United States (1901-1909), Roosevelt continued to seek advice from the chief advocates of Victorian racial concepts among American social and biological scientists. The scholars with whom President Roosevelt corresponded most frequently were sociologist Edward A. Ross of the University of Wisconsin, paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn, director of the Museum of Natural History in New York City, and biologist Charles Benedict Davenport of Harvard.”
The shift can be seen in the reception of Madison Grant’s books The Passing of the Great Race (1916) and The Conquest of a Continent (1933). The world changed in the 1920s. The American intelligentsia had become antiracist. It wasn’t until the late 1930s and early 1940s though that the antiracist consensus in the new social science filtered down to the media and public opinion shifted.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term “racism” first appeared in English in the United States in 1936 in a fascist pamphlet by Lawrence Dennis called The Coming American Fascism: The Crisis of Capitalism. The first use of “racist” as an adjective was in 1938 which was also the year the American Anthropological Association passed its first resolution that condemned “racism.”
This is how racial attitudes changed from Victorian to Modern: in the social sciences (1920s), in the media (late 1930s/early 1940s) and finally in the public (1940s and 1950s).
In 1939, a Roper poll found that 7 out of 10 Americans believed that blacks were less intelligent than Whites. More than 8 out of 10 Americans believed that blacks should be prevented by law or social pressure from living in White neighborhoods. At that time, the Jim Crow South and much of the West practiced segregation while restrictive covenants and sundown towns were commonplace in the Midwest.
In 1942, 42 percent of Whites believed that blacks were as intelligent as Whites, 30 percent believed blacks and Whites should attend integrated schools, 51 percent believed that blacks and Whites should be segregated in public transportation, and 62 percent were bothered by the thought of having black neighbors.
In 1946, a poll found that 53 percent of Whites believed that blacks were as intelligent as Whites – this was first time in American history that a majority of White Americans professed to believe in racial equality.
By 1952, 78 percent of Whites believed that blacks were as intelligent as Whites, 49 percent believed blacks and Whites should attend integrated schools, 60 percent believed that blacks and Whites should not be segregated in public transportation, and 52 percent of Whites were not bothered by the thought of having black neighbors.