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The roots of racism in the U.S.

February 23, 2007 | Page 10

IN THIS excerpt from his book Black Liberation and Socialism, AHMED SHAWKI explains how racial oppression emerged as a consequence of the economic system of capitalism.

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Direct slavery is as much the pivot upon which our present-day industrialism turns as are machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry. It is slavery which has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies which have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry. Consequently, prior to the slave trade, the colonies sent very few products to the Old World, and did not noticeably change the face of the world. Slavery is therefore an economic category of paramount importance. Without slavery, North America, the most progressive nation, would be transformed into a patriarchal country. Only wipe North America off the map and you will get anarchy, the complete decay of trade and modern civilization. But to do away with slavery would be to wipe America off the map. Being an economic category, slavery has existed in all nations since the beginning of the world. All that modern nations have achieved is to disguise slavery at home and import it openly into the New World. --Karl Marx

THE LABOR of Blacks, forced to come to the New World as slaves, was essential to the economic development not only of the new colonies, whether in the Caribbean, Latin America or North America, but also the major powers of the "Old World."

What else to read

Ahmed Shawki's Black Liberation and Socialism, published by Haymarket Books, is a sharp and insightful introduction to the history of racism in the U.S. that is packed with lessons for today's struggles

Caribbean historian Eric Williams' books on racism and slavery are classics. Look for Capitalism and Slavery and From Columbus to Castro: The History of the Caribbean 1492–1967.

Another essential book on slavery in the Americas is The Making of New World Slavery, by Robin Blackburn. For a book coauthored by Barbara Fields that follows the rise of slavery in the "New World," through to its overthrow in the middle of the 19th century, see Free at Last: A documentary History of Slavery, Freedom and the Civil War.


But slavery did not come innocent of ideological trappings. A historically distinct ideology designed to justify and maintain the oppression of the slaves developed with the rise of the Atlantic slave trade.

Racism and racial oppression have been features of everyday life for Blacks in the United States for more than 350 years. But the persistence of racism is not inevitable, and racism, certainly in its modern form, has not always existed.

Far from being the unavoidable result of interaction between different peoples, racism and racial oppression emerged in Europe's transition from feudalism to capitalism. Ancient and feudal societies before capitalism were able to do without this form of oppression.

Specifically, racism emerged in Western Europe and the New World as a consequence of the slave trade, as the ideological justification for slavery. Prejudice against strangers (xenophobia) and distinctions between "barbarian" and "civilized" existed, but did not take the form of modern racism. So, for example, as one history of Native Americans puts it,

North American Indians whom European settlers first encountered had a conception of "outsider," i.e., non-members of the band, tribe, or nation. But the fact that it carried no racial connotation is shown not only by the practice of adoption of Indian captives of other nations into the tribe to replace lost loved ones, but also of the adoption of captured white Europeans as full-fledged members of the tribe.

"Thousands of Europeans are Indians," complained Hector de Crévecoeur in his 1782 Letters from an American Farmer, but "we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become Europeans!"

As historian Frank Snowden has argued:

Color prejudice has been a major issue in the modern world...Notable, therefore, is the fact that the ancient world did not make color the focus of irrational sentiments or the basis for uncritical evaluation.

The ancients did accept the institution of slavery as a fact of life; they made ethnocentric judgments of other societies; they had narcissistic canons of physical beauty; the Egyptians distinguished between themselves, "the people," and outsiders; and the Greeks called foreign cultures barbarian. Yet nothing comparable to the virulent color prejudice of modern times existed in the ancient world.

This is the view of most scholars who have examined the evidence and have come to conclusions such as these: the ancients did not fall into the error of biological racism; black skin color was not a sign of inferiority; Greeks and Romans did not establish color as an obstacle to integration in society; and ancient society was one that "for all its faults and failures never made color the basis for judging a man."

The slave system that developed in the New World was different in fundamental respects. Chief among these was the fact that it was "racially" based--Africans were the slaves--even if the reasons for the enslavement of Blacks were economic and not racial.

The initial attempts to meet the enormous--and ever-increasing--demand for labor in the New World included attempts to enslave Native peoples and whites. When these attempts failed, Africans became the chief source of labor.

"It has been said of the Spanish conquistadors," writes Eric Williams, one of the pioneering historians of New World slavery in From Columbus to Castro: The History of the Caribbean, "that first they fell on their knees, and then they fell on the aborigines." So after claiming their colonies for God and the King, the Spaniards set about pressing into service the local indigenous population to pump out the colonies' wealth for the benefit of the Spanish crown.

The Indians were assigned in lots of fifty, a hundred, or more, by written deed or patent, to individual Spaniards to work on their farms and ranches or in the placer mines for gold dust. Sometimes, they were given to officials or to parish priests in lieu of part of their annual salary. The effect was simply to parcel out the natives among the settlers to do with as they pleased.

The results were devastating, as Eric Williams describes:

The results are to be seen in the best estimates that have been prepared of the trend of population in Hispaniola. These place the population in 1492 at between 200,000 and 300,000. By 1508, the number was reduced to 60,000; in 1510, it was 46,000; in 1512, 20,000; in 1514, 14,000.

In 1548, Oviedo doubted whether five hundred Indians of pure stock remained. In 1570, only two villages survived of those about whom Columbus had assured his Sovereigns, less than 80 years before, that "there is no better nor gentler people in the world.

African slave labor proved more plentiful and cheaper than either Native Americans or white indentured servants and eventually slavery was confined exclusively to Blacks. According to Williams,

Here, then, is the origin of Negro slavery. The reason was economic, not racial; it had to do not with the color of the laborer, but the cheapness of the labor. As compared with Indian and white labor, Negro slavery was eminently superior...

The features of the man, his hair, color and dentifrice, his "subhuman" characteristics so widely pleaded, were only the later rationalizations to justify a simple economic fact: that the colonies needed labor and resorted to Negro labor because it was cheapest and best.

This was not a theory, it was a practical conclusion deduced from the personal experience of the planter. He would have gone to the moon, if necessary, for labor. Africa was nearer than the moon, nearer too than the more populous countries of India and China. But their turn was to come.

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THE NORTH American colonies started predominantly as private business enterprises in the early 1600s.

Unlike the Spanish, whose colonies served to export precious metals back to the colonial center, settlers in the colonies that became Maryland, Rhode Island and Virginia were planters. The settlers' chief aim was to obtain a labor force that could produce the large amounts of indigo, tobacco, sugar and other crops that would be sold back to England.

From 1607, when Jamestown was founded in Virginia, to about 1685, the primary source of agricultural labor in English North America came from white indentured servants, after the settlers failed to build a sustained workforce from the indigenous population.

After their terms expired, many white indentured servants sought to acquire land for themselves. Black slaves worked on plantations in small numbers throughout the 1600s. But until the end of the 1600s, it cost planters more to buy slaves than to buy white servants.

Some Blacks who lived in the colonies were free, some were slaves, and some were servants. Free Blacks in Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Vermont had voting rights. In the 1600s, the Chesapeake society of eastern Virginia had a multiracial character, as historian Betty Wood pointed out:

There is persuasive evidence dating from the 1620s through the 1680s that there were those of European descent in the Chesapeake who were prepared to identify and cooperate with people of African descent. These affinities were forged in the world of plantation work. On many plantations, Europeans and West Africans labored side by side in the tobacco fields, performing exactly the same types and amounts of work; they lived and ate together in shared housing; they socialized together; and sometimes they slept together.

For most of the 1600s, the planters depended mainly on a predominantly white workforce of English, Scottish, and Irish servants. But planters found the white workforce was becoming increasingly restive and expensive. As the 1600s was a time of revolutionary upheaval in England, many of the servants began demanding their rights. And those who finished their terms often became direct competitors to the planters in agriculture.

With costs of servants increasing, planters asked colonial administrations to begin widespread importation of African slaves. By the end of the 17th century, a planter could buy an African slave for life for the same price as a white servant with a 10-year contract.

This decision to turn to a racially specified labor force had enormous human consequences. Between 1640 and 1800, more than 4 million West Africans were forcibly transferred to the New World. Perhaps 10 to 15 million Black slaves made it to the Americas by the 1800s, an estimated one-third of the total captured in Africa.

The conditions of transport in the Middle Passage (the journey made by slave ships from Africa across the Atlantic) were horrendous, with human beings stacked and chained like firewood, and disease and suffocation killing hundreds of thousands.

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MANY, IF not most, historians place race rather than the demand for labor as the central driving force for slavery. The crudest version of this argument says that slavery developed because of European racism. The more sophisticated version is almost identical, except that it acknowledges the need for labor and concludes that slavery was settled upon as a solution, and in particular, the enslavement of Africans, because of the depths of racism.

But these arguments invert the process. As historian Barbara Fields has argued:

Probably a majority of American historians think of slavery in the United States as primarily a system of race relations--as though the chief business of slavery were the production of white supremacy rather than the production of cotton, sugar, rice and tobacco.

One historian has gone so far as to call slavery "the ultimate segregator." He does not ask why Europeans seeking the "ultimate" method of segregating Africans would go to the trouble and expense of transporting them across the ocean for that purpose, when they could have achieved the same end so much more simply by leaving the Africans in Africa.

No one dreams of analyzing the struggle of the English against the Irish as a problem in race relations, even though the rationale that the English developed for suppressing the 'barbarous Irish' later served nearly word for word as a rationale for suppressing Africans and indigenous American Indians.

The dominant historical view of slavery places ideas--in particular, racial ideas--as the motor force of history.

This view of history thoroughly underestimates the material connection between capitalism and the development of racism. Colonial slavery, however, was intimately tied to capitalist development, and was not a remnant of an older mode of production. As Karl Marx put it in Capital:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of black skins, are all things which characterize the dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation.

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