Friday, April 3, 2009

How Racism was Created in America*

The following is something I recently learned in my US History class (that's right - all new) and I found it worth sharing. At first I posted this as a pretext to upcoming posts on racism in the Church, but after spending all day on such posts I found myself exhausted and decidedly unfulfilled. There's no point to it.

But this - how racism was created in America - this is interesting.

I had no idea slavery had zero to do with skin color in the beginning. No idea. In fact, it seems slavery in America created racism.

Servants and slaves alike haven't always been black. In fact, the word "slave" is derived from "Slavic." Wikipedia states, "So many Slavs were enslaved for so many centuries that the very name 'slave' derived from their name, not only in English, but in other European languages and in Arabic." To avoid confusion and perhaps to state the obvious, Slavs are not black.

It is also important to note that with Europeans, the terms "white" and "black" didn't exist. "White" people were generally referred to as "Englishmen" or "Christian" and blacks simply as "Negroes."

From the beginning the folks in Jamestown, Virginia used white indentured servants from England. Not slaves - servants. Though twenty Africans came in 1619 to serve as slaves, they were cost prohibitive and as King James needed land for the flourishing wool industry, he kicked many peasants from their homes. With nowhere else to go, these men contracted with landowners in Virginia. The landowners would pay their way to America, and in exchange the men would work as indentured servants for a specific amount of time. These men were generally 18-22 year old males (some females), uneducated and unskilled. You could say they didn't have much of a choice.

Here's the problem: Most who came to work in Virginia died within two years. The high turnover rate really put a dent in things after some time - not to mention the contracts. There was no permanence. These servants, if survived, were free men after 5-7 years. Many question why American Indians weren't "utilized," but the decimation of their population due to warfare and the Spanish and European introduction of smallpox and other diseases rendered that option impractical. There simply weren't enough Native Americans to fill the Europeans needs, and after a while the number European indentured servants coming to the New World also failed to fulfill the need.

So what would the English do? They had tobacco crops and later sugar crops which required much labor. Answer: African slaves.

But why Africans? Here are a few reasons why:

1) Location - the proximity of Africa to both England and the Americas;
2) A pre-existing slavery system in Africa.

African nations were constantly at war with one another. They settled debts by agreeing to become slaves for a pre-determined time. Here's the kicker: Arab slave traders crossed the Sahara, attacked villagers, enslaved them, and took them back to Arabia. The Arab presence near the ports where the English would come and "purchase" slaves did the African people no favors here. Remember: Christians v. Arabs (The Crusades) - which leads us to the main reason:

3) Religion. Christians would not enslave fellow Christians. By now the Pope had declared it immoral to do so - and Africans weren't Christian. And again, the Arab presence didn't help.

Initially the African people worked alongside the white servants, and this is what they were considered: Servants. Many English and African servants slept, worked, ate, even had sex together.

Outnumbered, the plantation owners soon worried about rebellion and enacted a device we know as "Divide and Conquer” – by skin color.

Owners separated their servants thusly for a few reasons: First, it was the only difference between the two. Second, white servants outnumbered the blacks at this time - so if the whites combined together with the owners, they could overwhelm the black servants, thereby decreasing any chance for victorious rebellion.

Between the 1660s and 1680s things really began to change regarding the treatment of the African people. The government permitted owners to beat their slaves, to threaten them with their lives. In the 1640s a law passed stating Africans could be sold as servants (not slaves) for life, taking care of the permanence and cost-effectiveness problem. By the 1660s, it was legal to purchase slaves outright. By 1667, the law declared it irrelevant if the slave/servant had converted to Christianity despite the Pope. A 1669 law absolved any slave owner from a felony should they kill their slave. In 1680 it became illegal for any African, bond or free, to strike a “Christian.”

Skin color becomes associated with slavery.

But the issue of interracial unions and their children still existed. Out of Many states "A 1691 act for 'prevention of that abominable mixture and spurious issue which hereafter may encrease in this domination' established severe penalties for interracial sexual relationships. Such penalties were rarely applied to masters who had sexual relations with their slave women. Because by law the children of slave mothers were born into bondage."

Basically the status of the child hinged on the status of the mother - down to 1/32 black - a drop.**

But there's a problem: there were black men having children with white women. How did the law answer this? By miscegenation laws which made it illegal for a white woman to be with a black man. This is the reason such unions are still frowned upon today. It follows us even three hundred years later.

And by the 1700s, racism is the norm.

*Source: Out of Many: A History of the American People, Vol. 1. 5th ed. Faragher, Buhle, Czitrom, Armitage.

** This is, by the way, also why biracial people like President Barack Obama are considered black.


Shadows said...

Obama's mother is white. Good article.

T.J. Shelby said...

Great post!

Mormon Heretic said...

I watched a documentary one time (sorry I can't remember the name). Anyway, it stated that Indians were originally considered as possible slaves in the early 1600's. However, a Catholic monk (who's name also escapes me) opposed the practice, and suggested they use Africans as slaves instead.

So began the process of importing black slaves. The monk grew to regret his decision. (Sorry, I wish that I had better documentation.)

Lisa said...

MH: No, that's okay. My understanding of the enslavement of indians is still rather small, so I hesitate to go into it

From what I'm told, the Indian people were placed into servitute, but it never reached the point of technical slavery.

That isn't to say they were treated like human beings in the least, but for all intents and purposes they weren't slaves in the same way the African-Americans could be considered slaves.

I wish I could explain it better, but I'm afaid (again) I can't. That's my basic understanding of it.

For a bit of help, here's what my instructor emailed me when I asked for a bit of clarification:

It is a matter of definition and comparison. Slavery, as practiced in Virginia and other English colonies, involved both ownership of people as property and the right to sell that proberty. This is termed
"chattel" slavery. In the Spanish colonies the Indians were forced to
labor but were not considered property and were not bought and sold. In Mexico families were not broken up, children sold away from parents,etc. as in Virginia. the Spanish system was termed "encomienda" and
later it was reformed nto "repartimiento." These are significant differences between the two colonies. In the end both systems were destructive of people and culture.

I don't know if that helps but :)

For the English, Indians just weren't a viable option anyway due in large to the small remaining population following the European introduction of diseases the Indians had no immunity toward.

Grégoire said...

I watched a documentary one time (sorry I can't remember the name). Anyway, it stated that Indians were originally considered as possible slaves in the early 1600's. However, a Catholic monk (who's name also escapes me) opposed the practice, and suggested they use Africans as slaves instead.

Native Americans were used as slaves very briefly at the beginning of North American colonization. The problem with those pesky First Nations peeps was the fact that they'd run away and blend in with whatever nearby tribe was convenient.

Far, far more White people were slaves in North America and Australia than Native Americans or African-Americans ever were. Cromwell authorized the emptying out of slums in Great Britain and sending the inhabitants to colonies, where they'd be enslaved, wholesale. In the Spanish colonies it was common for Jews, Protestants and religious heretics to be used the same way. Nearly all the European slaves were murdered -- often just before the seven-year mark when they were supposed to be paid off and set free -- because the fine for murdering an indentured servant was far less than the wages they'd have built up.

Toward the end of the Euro-slave era, those that weren't murdered tended to escape and blend into the new colony slums with other poor White people.

African slaves were a later development. The perpetual slavery of Africans was actually promoted as a humane alternative, because there was no need to slaughter a guy who the owner would never need to pay off, and who would be more valuable alive than dead (at least until he was too old to work).

Sorry, I wish that I had better documentation.

Brown University published a great series of articles in the 1970s on this. The Nation of Islam's _Secret Relationship between Blacks & Jews_, Jim Goad's _Redneck Manifesto_ and Howard Zinn's _People's History of the USA_ (all controversial but well documented) touches on this also -- at least as it relates to North America. Australian slavery proceeded along the same lines, except for the fact that it wasn't economically feasible to import Africans there.

Slavery never really ended, you know. It's now returned to being class based servitude. Keep punching that time clock... ;)