The roots of racism

October 21, 2010

In the first article in a series on "Socialism and Black Liberation," Lance Selfa explains the origins of slavery at the dawn of capitalism and the ideology of white supremacy.

IT'S ONE of the oldest truisms around. Racism, it's said, is as old as human society itself. As long as human beings have been around, the argument goes, they have always hated or feared people of a different nation or skin color. In other words, racism is just part of human nature.

If racism is part of human nature, then socialists have a real challenge on their hands. If racism is hard-wired into human biology, then we should despair of workers ever overcoming the divisions between them to fight for a socialist society free of racial inequality.

Fortunately, racism isn't part of human nature. The best evidence for this assertion is the fact that racism has not always existed.

Racism is a particular form of oppression. It stems from discrimination against a group of people based on the idea that some inherited characteristic, such as skin color, makes them inferior to their oppressors. Yet the concepts of "race" and "racism" are modern inventions. They arose and became part of the dominant ideology of society in the context of the African slave trade at the dawn of capitalism in the 1500s and 1600s.

An ad for a slave auction in 1840
An ad for a slave auction in 1840

Although it is a commonplace for academics and opponents of socialism to claim that Karl Marx ignored racism, Marx in fact described the processes that created modern racism. His explanation of the rise of capitalism placed the African slave trade, the European extermination of indigenous people in the Americas and colonialism at its heart. In Capital, Marx writes:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of the 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 that characterize the dawn of the era of capitalist production.

Marx connected his explanation of the role of the slave trade in the rise of capitalism to the social relations that produced racism against Africans. In Wage Labor and Capital, written 12 years before the American Civil War, he explains:

What is a Negro slave? A man of the black race. The one explanation is as good as the other.

A Negro is a Negro. He only becomes a slave in certain relations. A cotton spinning jenny is a machine for spinning cotton. It only becomes capital in certain relations. Torn away from these conditions, it is as little capital as gold by itself is money, or as sugar is the price of sugar.

In this passage, Marx shows no prejudice to Blacks ("a man of the black race," "a Negro is a Negro"), but he mocks society's equation of "Black" and "slave" ("one explanation is as good as another"). He shows how the economic and social relations of emerging capitalism thrust Blacks into slavery ("he only becomes a slave in certain relations"), which produce the dominant ideology that equates being African with being a slave.

These fragments of Marx's writing give us a good start in understanding the Marxist explanation of the origins of racism. As the Trinidadian historian of slavery Eric Williams put it: "Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery." And, one should add, the consequence of modern slavery at the dawn of capitalism. While slavery existed as an economic system for thousands of years before the conquest of America, racism as we understand it today did not exist.

From time immemorial?

The classical empires of Greece and Rome were based on slave labor. But ancient slavery was not viewed in racial terms. Slaves were most often captives in wars or conquered peoples. If we understand white people as originating in what is today Europe, then most slaves in ancient Greece and Rome were white. Roman law made slaves the property of their owners, while maintaining a "formal lack of interest in the slave's ethnic or racial provenance," wrote Robin Blackburn in The Making of New World Slavery.

Over the years, slave manumission produced a mixed population of slave and free in Roman-ruled areas, in which all came to be seen as "Romans." The Greeks drew a sharper line between Greeks and "barbarians," those subject to slavery. Again, this was not viewed in racial or ethnic terms, as the socialist historian of the Haitian Revolution, C.L.R. James, explained:

[H]istorically, it is pretty well proved now that the ancient Greeks and Romans knew nothing about race. They had another standard--civilized and barbarian--and you could have white skin and be a barbarian, and you could be black and civilized.

More importantly, encounters in the ancient world between the Mediterranean world and Black Africans did not produce an upsurge of racism against Africans. In Before Color Prejudice, Howard University classics professor Frank Snowden documented innumerable accounts of interaction between the Greco-Roman and Egyptian civilizations and the Kush, Nubian, and Ethiopian kingdoms of Africa. He found substantial evidence of integration of Black Africans in the occupational hierarchies of the ancient Mediterranean empires and Black-white intermarriage. Black and mixed race gods appeared in Mediterranean art, and at least one Roman emperor, Septimius Severus, was an African.

Between the 10th and 16th centuries, the chief source of slaves in Western Europe was Eastern Europe. In fact, the word "slave" comes from the word "Slav," the people of Eastern Europe.

This outline doesn't mean to suggest a "pre-capitalist" Golden Age of racial tolerance, least of all in the slave societies of antiquity. Empires viewed themselves as centers of the universe and looked on foreigners as inferiors. Ancient Greece and Rome fought wars of conquest against peoples they presumed to be less advanced. Religious scholars interpreted the Hebrew Bible's "curse of Ham" from the story of Noah to condemn Africans to slavery. Cultural and religious associations of the color white with light and angels and the color black with darkness and evil persisted.

But none of these cultural or ideological factors explain the rise of New World slavery or the "modern" notions of racism that developed from it.

The African slave trade

The slave trade lasted for a little more than 400 years, from the mid-1400s, when the Portuguese made their first voyages down the African coast, to the abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1888.

Slave traders took as many as 12 million Africans by force to work on the plantations in South America, the Caribbean and North America. About 13 percent of slaves (1.5 million) died during the Middle Passage--the trip by boat from Africa to the New World. The African slave trade--involving African slave merchants, European slavers and New World planters in the traffic in human cargo--represented the greatest forced population transfer ever.

The charge that Africans "sold their own people" into slavery has become a standard canard against "politically correct" history that condemns the European role in the African slave trade. The first encounters of the Spanish and Portuguese, and later the English, with African kingdoms revolved around trade in goods. Only after the Europeans established New World plantations requiring huge labor gangs did the slave trade begin.

African kings and chiefs did indeed sell into slavery captives in wars or members of other communities. Sometimes, they concluded alliances with Europeans to support them in wars, with captives from their enemies being handed over to the Europeans as booty. The demands of the plantation economies pushed "demand" for slaves. Supply did not create its own demand.

In any event, it remains unseemly to attempt to absolve the European slavers by reference to their African partners in crime. As historian Basil Davidson rightly argues about African chiefs' complicity in the slave trade: "In this, they were no less 'moral' than the Europeans who had instigated the trade and bought the captives."

Onboard, Africans were restricted in their movements so that they wouldn't combine to mutiny on the ship. In many slave ships, slaves were chained down, stacked like firewood with less than a foot between them. On the plantations, slaves were subjected to a regimen of 18-hour workdays. All members of slave families were set to work. Since the New World tobacco and sugar plantations operated nearly like factories, men, women and children were assigned tasks, from the fields to the processing mills.

Slaves were denied any rights. Throughout the colonies in the Caribbean to North America, laws were passed establishing a variety of common practices: Slaves were forbidden to carry weapons, they could marry only with the owner's permission, and their families could be broken up. They were forbidden to own property. Masters allowed slaves to cultivate vegetables and chickens, so the master wouldn't have to attend to their food needs. But they were forbidden even to sell for profit the products of their own gardens.

Some colonies encouraged religious instruction among slaves, but all of them made clear that a slave's conversion to Christianity didn't change their status as slaves. Other colonies discouraged religious instruction, especially when it became clear to the planters that church meetings were one of the chief ways that slaves planned conspiracies and revolts. It goes without saying that slaves had no political or civil rights, with no right to an education, to serve on juries, to vote or to run for public office.

The planters instituted barbaric regimes of repression to prevent any slave revolts. Slave catchers using tracker dogs would hunt down any slaves who tried to escape the plantation. The penalties for any form of slave resistance were extreme and deadly. One description of the penalties slaves faced in Barbados reports that rebellious slaves would be punished by "nailing them down on the ground with crooked sticks on every Limb, and then applying the Fire by degrees from Feet and Hands, burning them gradually up to the Head, whereby their pains are extravagant." Barbados planters could claim a reimbursement from the government of 25 pounds per slave executed.

The African slave trade helped to shape a wide variety of societies from modern Argentina to Canada. These differed in their use of slaves, the harshness of the regime imposed on slaves, and the degree of mixing of the races that custom and law permitted. But none of these became as virulently racist--insisting on racial separation and a strict color bar--as the English North American colonies that became the United States.

Unfree labor in the North American colonies

Notwithstanding the horrible conditions that African slaves endured, it is important to underscore that when European powers began carving up the New World between them, African slaves were not part of their calculations.

When we think of slavery today, we think of it primarily from the point of view of its relationship to racism. But planters in the 17th and 18th centuries looked at it primarily as a means to produce profits. Slavery was a method of organizing labor to produce sugar, tobacco and cotton. It was not, first and foremost, a system for producing white supremacy. How did slavery in the U.S. (and the rest of the New World) become the breeding ground for racism?

For much of the first century of colonization in what became the United States, the majority of slaves and other "unfree laborers" were white. The term "unfree" draws the distinction between slavery and servitude and "free wage labor" that is the norm in capitalism. One of the historic gains of capitalism for workers is that workers are "free" to sell their ability to labor to whatever employer will give them the best deal. Of course, this kind of freedom is limited at best. Unless they are independently wealthy, workers aren't free to decide not to work. They're free to work or starve. Once they do work, they can quit one employer and go to work for another.

But the hallmark of systems like slavery and indentured servitude was that slaves or servants were "bound over" to a particular employer for a period of time, or for life in the case of slaves. The decision to work for another master wasn't the slave's or the servant's. It was the master's, who could sell slaves for money or other commodities like livestock, lumber or machinery.

The North American colonies started predominantly as private business enterprises in the early 1600s. Unlike the Spanish, whose conquests of Mexico and Peru in the 1500s produced fabulous gold and silver riches for Spain, settlers in places like the colonies that became Maryland, Rhode Island, and Virginia made money through agriculture. In addition to sheer survival, 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.

The colonists first attempted to press the indigenous population into labor. But the Indians refused to be become servants to the English. Indians resisted being forced to work, and they escaped into the surrounding area, which, after all, they knew far better than the English. One after another, the English colonies turned to a policy of driving out the Indians.

The colonists then turned to white servants. Indentured servants were predominantly young white men--usually English or Irish--who were required to work for a planter master for some fixed term of four to seven years. The servants received room and board on the plantation but no pay. And they could not quit and work for another planter. They had to serve their term, after which they might be able to acquire some land and to start a farm for themselves.

They became servants in several ways. Some were prisoners, convicted of petty crimes in Britain, or convicted of being troublemakers in Britain's first colony, Ireland. Many were kidnapped off the streets of Liverpool or Manchester, and put on ships to the New World. Some voluntarily became servants, hoping to start farms after they fulfilled their obligations to their masters.

For most of the 1600s, the planters tried to get by with a predominantly white, but multiracial workforce. But as the 17th century wore on, colonial leaders became increasingly frustrated with white servant labor. For one thing, they faced the problem of constantly having to recruit labor as servants' terms expired. Second, after servants finished their contracts and decided to set up their farms, they could become competitors to their former masters.

And finally, the planters didn't like the servants' "insolence." The mid-1600s were a time of revolution in England, when ideas of individual freedom were challenging the old hierarchies based on royalty. The colonial planters tended to be royalists, but their servants tended to assert their "rights as Englishmen" to better food, clothing and time off. Most laborers in the colonies supported the servants. As the century progressed, the costs of servant labor increased. Planters started to petition the colonial boards and assemblies to allow the large-scale importation of African slaves.

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. Blacks lived in the colonies in a variety of statuses--some were free, some were slaves, some were servants. The law in Virginia didn't establish the condition of lifetime, perpetual slavery or even recognize African servants as a group different from white servants until 1661. Blacks could serve on juries, own property and exercise other rights. Northampton County, Virginia, recognized interracial marriages and, in one case, assigned a free Black couple to act as foster parents for an abandoned white child. There were even a few examples of Black freemen who owned white servants. Free Blacks in North Carolina had voting rights. In the 1600s, the Chesapeake society of eastern Virginia had a multiracial character, according to historian Betty Wood:

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.

The planters' economic calculations played a part in the colonies' decision to move toward full-scale slave labor. By the end of the 17th century, the price of white indentured servants outstripped the price of African slaves. A planter could buy an African slave for life for the same price that he could purchase a white servant for 10 years. As Eric Williams explained:

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. [The planter] 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 would soon come.

Planters' fear of a multiracial uprising also pushed them towards racial slavery. Because a rigid racial division of labor didn't exist in the 17th century colonies, many conspiracies involving Black slaves and white indentured servants were hatched and foiled. We know about them today because of court proceedings that punished the runaways after their capture. As historians T.H. Breen and Stephen Innes point out, "These cases reveal only extreme actions, desperate attempts to escape, but for every group of runaways who came before the courts, there were doubtless many more poor whites and blacks who cooperated in smaller, less daring ways on the plantation."

The largest of these conspiracies developed into Bacon's Rebellion, an uprising that threw terror into the hearts of the Virginia Tidewater planters in 1676. Several hundred farmers, servants and slaves initiated a protest to press the colonial government to seize Indian land for distribution. The conflict spilled over into demands for tax relief and resentment of the Jamestown establishment. Planter Nathaniel Bacon helped organize an army of whites and Blacks that sacked Jamestown and forced the governor to flee. The rebel army held out for eight months before the Crown managed to defeat and disarm it.

Bacon's Rebellion was a turning point. After it ended, the Tidewater planters moved in two directions: first, they offered concessions to the white freemen, lifting taxes and extending to them the vote; and second, they moved to full-scale racial slavery.

Fifteen years earlier, the Burgesses had recognized the condition of slavery for life and placed Africans in a different category as white servants. But the law had little practical effect. "Until slavery became systematic, there was no need for a systematic slave code. And slavery could not become systematic so long as an African slave for life cost twice as much as an English servant for a five-year term," wrote historian Barbara Jeanne Fields.

Both of those circumstances changed in the immediate aftermath of Bacon's Rebellion. In the entire 17th century, the planters imported about 20,000 African slaves. The majority of them were brought to North American colonies in the 24 years after Bacon's Rebellion.

In 1664, the Maryland legislature passed a law determining who would be considered slaves on the basis of the condition of their father--whether their father was slave or free. It soon became clear, however, that establishing paternity was difficult, but that establishing who was a person's mother was definite. So the planters changed the law to establish slave status on the basis of the mother's condition.

Now white slaveholders who fathered children by slave women would be guaranteed their offspring as slaves. And the law included penalties for "free" women who slept with slaves. But what's most interesting about this law is that it doesn't really speak in racial terms. It attempts to preserve the property rights of slaveholders and establish barriers between slave and free which were to become hardened into racial divisions over the next few years.

Taking the Maryland law as an example, Fields made this important point:

Historians can actually observe colonial Americans in the act of preparing the ground for race without foreknowledge of what would later arise on the foundation they were laying. [T]he purpose of the experiment is clear: to prevent the erosion of slaveowners' property rights that would result if the offspring of free white women impregnated by slave men were entitled to freedom. The language of the preamble to the law makes clear that the point was not yet race.

Race does not explain the law. Rather, the law shows society in the act of inventing race.

After establishing that African slaves would cultivate major cash crops of the North American colonies, the planters then moved to establish the institutions and ideas that would uphold white supremacy. Most unfree labor became Black labor. Laws and ideas intended to underscore the subhuman status of Black people--in a word, the ideology of racism and white supremacy--emerged full-blown over the next generation.

"All men are created equal"

Within a few decades, the ideology of white supremacy was fully developed. Some of the greatest minds of the day--such as Scottish philosopher David Hume and Thomas Jefferson, the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence--wrote treatises alleging Black inferiority.

The ideology of white supremacy based on the natural inferiority of Blacks, even allegations that Blacks were subhuman, strengthened throughout the 18th century. This was the way that the leading intellectual figures of the time reconciled the ideals of the 1776 American Revolution with slavery. The American Revolution of 1776 and later the French Revolution of 1789 popularized the ideas of liberty and the rights of all human beings. The Declaration of Independence asserts that "all men are created equal" and possess certain "unalienable rights"--rights that can't be taken away--of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

As the first major bourgeois revolution, the American Revolution sought to establish the rights of the new capitalist class against the old feudal monarchy. It started with the resentment of the American merchant class that wanted to break free from British restrictions on its trade.

But its challenge to British tyranny also gave expression to a whole range of ideas that expanded the concept of "liberty" from being just about trade to include ideas of human rights, democracy, and civil liberties. It legitimized an assault on slavery as an offense to liberty. Some of the leading American revolutionaries, such as Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin, endorsed abolition. Slaves and free Blacks also pointed to the ideals of the revolution to call for abolishing slavery.

But because the revolution aimed to establish the rule of capital in America, and because a lot of capitalists and planters made a lot of money from slavery, the revolution compromised with slavery. The Declaration initially contained a condemnation of King George for allowing the slave trade, but Jefferson dropped it following protests from representatives from Georgia and the Carolinas.

How could the founding fathers of the U.S.--most of whom owned slaves themselves--reconcile the ideals of liberty for which they were fighting with the existence of a system that represented the exact negation of liberty?

The ideology of white supremacy fit the bill. We know today that "all men" didn't include women, Indians or most whites. But to rule Black slaves out of the blessings of liberty, the leading head-fixers of the time argued that Blacks weren't really "men," they were a lower order of being. Jefferson's Notes from Virginia, meant to be a scientific catalogue of the flora and fauna of Virginia, uses arguments that anticipate the "scientific racism" of the 1800s and 1900s.

With few exceptions, no major institution--such as the universities, the churches or the newspapers of the time--raised criticisms of white supremacy or of slavery. In fact, they helped pioneer religious and academic justifications for slavery and Black inferiority. As C.L.R. James put it, "[T]he conception of dividing people by race begins with the slave trade. This thing was so shocking, so opposed to all the conceptions of society which religion and philosophers had, that the only justification by which humanity could face it was to divide people into races and decide that the Africans were an inferior race."

White supremacy wasn't only used to justify slavery. It was also used to keep in line the two-thirds of Southern whites who weren't slaveholders. Unlike the French colony of St. Domingue or the British colony of Barbados, where Blacks vastly outnumbered whites, Blacks were a minority in the slave South. A tiny minority of slave-holding whites, who controlled the governments and economies of the Deep South states, ruled over a population that was roughly two-thirds white farmers and workers and one-third Black slaves.

The slaveholders' ideology of racism and white supremacy helped to divide the working population, tying poor whites to the slaveholders. Slavery afforded poor white farmers what Fields called a "social space" whereby they preserved an illusory "independence" based on debt and subsistence farming, while the rich planters continued to dominate Southern politics and society. "A caste system as well as a form of labor," historian James M. McPherson wrote, "slavery elevated all whites to the ruling caste and thereby reduced the potential for class conflict."

The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass understood this dynamic:

The hostility between the whites and blacks of the South is easily explained. It has its root and sap in the relation of slavery, and was incited on both sides by the cunning of the slave masters. Those masters secured their ascendancy over both the poor whites and the Blacks by putting enmity between them. They divided both to conquer each. [Slaveholders denounced emancipation as] tending to put the white working man on an equality with Blacks, and by this means, they succeed in drawing off the minds of the poor whites from the real fact, that by the rich slave-master, they are already regarded as but a single remove from equality with the slave.

Slavery and capitalism

Slavery in the colonies helped produce a boom in the 18th century economy that provided the launching pad for the industrial revolution in Europe. From the start, colonial slavery and capitalism were linked. While it is not correct to say that slavery created capitalism, it is correct to say that slavery provided one of the chief sources for the initial accumulations of wealth that helped to propel capitalism forward in Europe and North America.

The clearest example of the connection between plantation slavery and the rise of industrial capitalism was the connection between the cotton South, Britain and, to a lesser extent, the Northern industrial states. Here, we can see the direct link between slavery in the U.S. and the development of the most advanced capitalist production methods in the world. Cotton textiles accounted for 75 percent of British industrial employment in 1840, and, at its height, three-fourths of that cotton came from the slave plantations of the Deep South. And Northern ships and ports transported the cotton.

To meet the boom in the 1840s and 1850s, the planters became even more vicious. On the one hand, they tried to expand slavery into the West and Central America. The fight over the extension of slavery into the territories eventually precipitated the Civil War in 1861. On the other hand, they drove slaves harder--selling more cotton to buy more slaves just to keep up. On the eve of the Civil War, the South was petitioning to lift the ban on the importation of slaves that had existed officially since 1808.

Karl Marx clearly understood the connection between plantation slavery in the cotton South and the development of capitalism in England. He wrote in Capital:

While the cotton industry introduced child-slavery into England, in the United States, it gave the impulse for the transformation of the more or less patriarchal slavery into a system of commercial exploitation. In fact, the veiled slavery of the wage-laborers in Europe needed the unqualified slavery of the New World as its pedestal. Capital comes dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt.

The close connection between slavery and capitalism, and thus, between racism and capitalism, gives the lie to those who insist that slavery would have just died out. In fact, the South was more dependent on slavery right before the Civil War than it was 50 or 100 years earlier. Slavery lasted as long as it did because it was profitable. And it was profitable to the richest and most "well-bred" people in the world.

The Civil War abolished slavery and struck a great blow against racism. But racism itself wasn't abolished. On the contrary, just as racism was created to justify colonial slavery, racism as an ideology was refashioned. It now no longer justified the enslavement of Blacks, but it justified second-class status for Blacks as wage laborers and sharecroppers.

Racist ideology was also refashioned to justify imperialist conquest at the turn of the last century. As a handful of competing world powers vied to carve up the globe into colonial preserves for cheap raw materials and labor, racism served as a convenient justification. The vast majority of the world's people were now portrayed as inferior races, incapable of determining their own future. Slavery disappeared, but racism remained as a means to justify the domination of millions of people by the U.S., various European powers, and later by Japan.

Because racism is woven right into the fabric of capitalism, new forms of racism arose with changes in capitalism. As the U.S. economy expanded and underpinned U.S. imperial expansion, imperialist racism--which asserted that the U.S. had a right to dominate other peoples, such as Mexicans and Filipinos--developed. As the U.S. economy grew and sucked in millions of immigrant laborers, anti-immigrant racism developed.

But these are both different forms of the same ideology--of white supremacy and division of the world into "superior" and "inferior" races--that had their origins in slavery.

Racism and capitalism have been intertwined since the beginning of capitalism. You can't have capitalism without racism. Therefore, the final triumph over racism will only come when we abolish racism's chief source--capitalism--and build a new socialist society.

Further Reading

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