The roots of racist ideas

March 23, 2012

From its first issues in 1977, Socialist Worker featured a regular column on "The History and Politics of Black America." In 1984, the column became a multi-part series on African American history, which we are republishing. The first installment, written by Kathy Stewart, looks at the source of racist ideology and why it continues to have a hold.

"I BELIEVE in slavery." This is not a quote from an 18th century plantation owner. It is a statement made in 1984, by a right-wing minister who was all too willing to offer his other fully racist opinions. Unfortunately, he is not alone in his attitude toward Black Americans.

Although slavery was abolished in the 1860s, its legacy of racism persists today.

The first cargo of 20 slaves arrived in Virginia in 1616. Increasingly, slavery became vital to the economy of the Southern colonies. Huge plantations and fortunes were built from the blood and sweat of the slaves. There were also smaller farms that depended on slave labor for their very existence.

Slavery was a brutal and dehumanizing institution. It was also a very profitable institution for the slave owners. Plantation owners went to great lengths to protect their profits.

Because of the potential for unrest and revolt among their human property, owners kept slaves as uneducated as possible. Slaves were not allowed to learn how to read and write. Harsh punishments were meted out to anyone caught trying to escape bondage.

The History of Black America

Plantation owners also went to great lengths to justify the institution of slavery. Essays were written citing religious, historical, scientific and sociological arguments to demonstrate that slavery was good for both Blacks and whites.

Much was written of the troubles a slaveowner endured because of his slaves. Slaves were depicted as being lazy, stupid, dishonest and unable to take care of themselves. Thus, an owner could consider himself a good Christian humanitarian while reaping the profits of slave labor.

The ideology developed to justify the ownership of human beings became an integral part of social relations. Even the few "free" Blacks were treated as sub-human by most whites. In the Southern U.S., where the largely agricultural economy was based on slave labor, the existence of a free Black was especially threatening.

When slavery was finally abolished, racist ideas persisted. It was still important to consider Blacks as inferior so they would remain a source of cheap, easily manipulated labor. Groups such as the Ku Klux Klan terrorized Blacks in an effort to keep them from even trying to improve their conditions.

Today, racist ideas are still important to the "owners"--not the owners of slaves, but the owners of factories, stores and other profit-making facilities. Racism translates into profits for the owners, because as long as Blacks are considered inferior, they receive lower pay and are subjected to inferior working conditions.

This is demonstrated in the conditions of the Black working class today. The rates of unemployment, poverty and infant mortality are all higher for Blacks than for whites.

Racism also serves another very important purpose for the owners--the ruling class. Racism divides Black and white workers.

White workers can blame Blacks for a whole range of problems. Blaming one particular group of people, such as Blacks, women and so on, for the problems presented by this system takes the focus off the real source of oppression--the people who control the wealth of this country. They recognize that they could not maintain their wealth and power in the face of a unified working class revolt.

We, as socialists, also recognize this, and must struggle against racism as a crucial part of the struggle for human liberation.

First published in the December 1984 issue of Socialist Worker.

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