The origin of race and slavery in North America is often viewed chronologically. Historians are divided on their stance as to whether or not racism may be considered as the root cause of slavery. While some agree on this, others argue that slavery in fact had nothing to do with the origins of racism and that in retrospect, slavery when legalized actually facilitated racism. However, the question is not one of precedence because essentially the social differences including rituals, religion, and language along with inequalities of power between the Europeans and Africans together gave way to racism and slavery.
Hence it would be wrong to divide North America in the seventeenth century into the two binaries of race and slavery and consider these realms as mutually exclusive. It was not just racism that made Africans slaves or slavery that made Europeans racist. Rather, the interaction of differences in race and power structure created a realm where each overlaps and influences one other. The two arguments presented by scholars are true yet they are contradictory if viewed from the perspective of causality.
This suggests that for both the standpoints to hold true, the occurrence of racism and slavery had to be during the same period in history, not preceding one another. Thus, this paper explores the idea that slavery and racism cannot be seen in a relationship of causality. Instead, slavery and racism are iterative terms, i. e. they are the products of a large number of small unconscious acts and interactive social engagements.
As Canessa asserts that “each iteration reinforces or undermines a particular identity, but any single act is unlikely to have a major effect”, it suggests that neither racism or slavery preceded each other, but rather they developed and influenced each other as a result of the interactions between Europeans and Africans. The concept of iteration can be understood by exploring the two different positions that various scholars hold. The first stance that racism preceded slavery, demands an explanation of the word ‘race’ itself.
The definition of race includes the biological description of one’s phenotype and their genetic set up. This description often leads to the physiognomic differences which generalize the behavior and social standing of people. Gleaning from this idea of race, it is not a surprise to find that the English described Negros as ‘savages’ and ‘barbaric’ using their ethnocentric lens of what it meant to be ‘civilized’. They used the criteria of color, religion, rituals and economic and social status to demarcate the racial identities as superior or inferior.
Carl N. Delger questions the view of scholars who believe that racism was a result of legalized slavery by asserting that even if one believes that “slavery evolved as a legal status, it reflected and included as a part of its essence, the same (racial) discrimination which white men had practiced against the Negro all along and before any statutes decreed it. ” Carl Delger’s argument explicitly states that the racist attitude of Whites was the root cause for the origination of slavery.
He says that “long before slavery or black labor became an important part of the southern economy, a special and inferior status had been worked out for the Negroes who came to the English colonies. Unquestionably it was a demand for labor which dragged the Negro to American shores, but the status which he acquired here cannot be explained by reference to that economic motive. ” He claims that although slavery was legalized half a century after the and terms like ‘slave’ were not used to define Negros, their treatment wasn’t any better.
Many scholars like Carl N. Degler argue that the Whites were inherently racist and practiced racism on everyone who belonged to a different race. This trait is evident because before the Whites had black slaves, they practiced slavery on Indigenous Indians and on white indentured labor that included Irish, Polish, Jews, and Germans. Thus, “an inferior and onerous service was established for the Indian makes it plausible to suppose that a similar status would be reserved for the equally different and pagan Negro. ” I agree with his assumption because it suggests that racism was not something that was new to English when they brought the Negros.
However, once the Whites enslaved the Africans, they grew less severe towards the white servants. The evidence for his argument comes from a variety of sources. Degler provides the example where the differences in status between an English servant and Negro were reflected not only at a public level but in the private lives of Negros as well. Degler asserts that not only the company (some European trading company) distrusted the Negros but some whites even held on to Negros as slaves for life as early 1630s and their slavery was inheritable.
Thus, Carl Degler argues that all the statutes that were enforced after 1660s, were nothing but a result of the racist ideologies that forced the English to make such brutal and discriminatory laws. Moreover, historians like Winthrop D. Jordan assert that the heathenism of Negros was an important component which invited a racially discriminatory reaction from the English. He asserts that besides the physiological differences like color of the skin, factors like cultural practices and religious beliefs constituted the notions of racism.
He explains that the English believed that, “to be Christian was to be civilized rather than barbarous, English rather than African, white rather than black…By this time, “Christianity had somehow become intimately and explicitly linked with “complexion”. However, heathenism alone could not have been the sole cause for enslavement, because it was easily terminated as soon as the Negro was converted into a Christian. Hence, Winthrop asserts that it was, “virtually every quality in the Negro (that) invited pejorative feelings.
Along with heathenism, the language, gestures and eating habits of Negros were strikingly different from the English, and contributed towards the notion of ‘savages’ and ‘barbaric’. However, there is opposition to the correlation between the racial discrimination and slavery. Carl Delger and Winthrop are in complete contrast with the ideologies that Kathleen Brown, Edmund Morgan and Oscar and Mary F. Handlin believe in. Although the latter do not deny that racism was a part of American society in the 17th century, they attribute different reasons for its presence.
Instead of attributing the ‘inherent racism’ as the cause of slavery, they believe that the motivation for economic prosperity led Whites to become racist, stringent and discriminatory towards the enslaved Africans. Although the former group of scholars asserts that, “the development of a form of slavery, which left a caste in its wake, cannot be attributed to pressure from increasing numbers of blacks, or even from an insistent demand for cheap labor”, the latter group justifies the very statement as truth.
The reason for the increased discrimination and control comes from the fact that unlike before, the Europeans grew more than ever ambitious with Africa as a trading partner which would be used to amass great wealth. Kathleen Brown, who argues that slavery preceded racism, asserts that there is a fundamental problem in viewing the idea of ‘race’ in the context of just appearances. She asserts that often historians perceive “race as a biological fact rather than as an ongoing historical and cultural construction …
When legal, literary, and mercantile discourses of race are examined along with actual practices of coerced labor, the relationship between slavery and racism becomes much more complicated, defying our efforts to designate one as a cause of the other. ” Brown attaches the concept of historical construction to define race in order to undo the myth of causality which states that racism preceded slavery. Her stance is agreeable because even if one considers Whites to be innately racist, one cannot deny that there could be more motivation and incentives, apart from racism, to practice slavery.
Moreover, a racial identity, according to Kathleen Brown and Winthrop Jordon, is created from factors like socio-economic structures and not just phenotype. Thus racism was not the root cause of slavery. Hence the racial discrimination of the Negros and their consequential enslavement was merely a ‘means’ to achieve the ‘end’ of White objectives of economic growth was possible by enlisting more productive labor. This assumption can be verified because slavery in America did not begin until the end of seventeenth century when in fact, the Africans were brought as early as 1619.
Edmund Morgan explains that the reason behind this delay in enslaving Africans, was the “high mortality among immigrants to Virginia” This made the white indentured slaves more advantageous as compared to black slave labor because they were less expensive with low mortality rate. According to Oscar and Mary F. Handlin, the black slaves were in fact undesired by the colonists. The costs of hiring Black slaves were higher because they were unskilled and ran the risks of mortality, escape and rebellion.
This ideology clearly reflects that the motive of the colonist was only to maximize their profits and grow more as a powerful entity by effectively controlling the colonized. Hence, they were able to maximize productivity successfully by keeping whites as servants. The need for black slaves grew much later and racism was born out of legalizing slavery. The racist and discriminatory mentality that developed is evident in the laws that the English established after 1660s.
These laws were the methods and ways to control the blacks and subjugate them to a lower social status. The 1668 statute was an important event in the creation of a distinctive legal meaning for Negro in America. This law took away the freedom of every ‘black’ slave by subjecting them to life-long slave tenure. Kathleen Brown explains that this law was especially discriminatory for women because all black women were asked to pay the taxes, irrespective of their status as free or enslaved. The consequence of the law created social power structures and racial identities.
The free African men found it more desirable to marry white women in order to escape tax liability of their wives and daughters, and in turn, gain a status quo equal to whites. As a result a new racial demarcation was established. In contrast to English women, African women were presumed capable of and naturally suited to strenuous field work. This not only lowered the status of Negros, but also set an exclusive definition of what it meant to be white, reflective of their power and status.
Racialization is evidenced in many other laws that were established in the 1660s stipulating a similar idea. The statute of 1662, made a bold attempt to naturalize the condition of slavery by making it heritable and embedding in it a concept of race . This law made the paternity of a child born from enslaved women to be irrelevant, in turn leaving the enslaved women as a “productive and reproductive property” of their masters. This also ensured the availability of slaves, as the enslaved women could only give birth to slaves.
Along with this, many laws subjected the slaves to lifetime bondage by utilizing religion. One could view this law as a representation of the innately racist idea that Negros were heathen and needed Christianity to become civilized. However this law can also be perceived as an opportunity through which the Whites used the concept of ‘religion’ to control and produce more slave population. The law passed in 1667, legalized the meaning of Christianity and stated that baptism cannot be used as a way to free oneself from slavery.
The Christian commission declared that, “the conferring of baptisme doth not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or freedom. ” This law demarcated Christians from non-Christians and distinguished ‘slaves’ from ‘servants’. Kathleen Brown holds the colonist responsible to create a division of race by incorporating slavery. She asserts that, “they created a legal discourse of slavery rooted in sexual, social, and economic lives of African laborers and effectively naturalized the condition of slavery by connecting it to a concept of race. The arguments by Kathleen Brown, Edmund Morgan and Oscar and Mary F. Handlin state that the colonists established the concept of race by legalizing slavery. Although neither side presents a view that is wrong, they are only partially correct. The problem is in the assumption that the authors make in forming these arguments. Their arguments are reflective of a desire to ‘fit’ the history of North America into a system of causality where either racism preceded slavery or vice versa.
In history, one cannot deny the occurrence of events but their interpretations, meanings and the inferences drawn from them can differ drastically. Likewise, although no scholar denies that racism and slavery existed in the 17th century America, nonetheless, the debate revolves around the issue of precedence of the two. In reality, the history of North America is a complex structure which cannot be divided into these two binaries but rather should be seen as the point of intersection the two realms of racism and the laws that the Whites enforced are superimposed on each other.
The diagram below is a graphical attempt to illustrate the idea better. It is almost impossible to define one as a cause of another and the thus the only way to understand the complex social and economic structure of North America is to interpret it as an era where the simultaneity of racial ideology and slavery induced through decree existed. Thus, white supremacy was not simply a summary of color prejudices; it was also a set of political programs, differing according to the social position of their proponents.
While on one hand, the established statute manipulated power structures to establish racial identities, on the other hand Barbara Fields asserts that “race became the ideological medium through which people posed and apprehended basic questions of power and dominance, sovereignty and citizenship, justice and right. ”. The two components of racism and economic prosperity interacted in a way where they meshed together to give rise to slavery. Hence, there is no way to validate the precedence of one over the other when in fact they developed simultaneously and had a continuous influence on each other together.
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