From racial division to class unity
| Difficult as it now may be to imagine, society was not always divided according to racial categories. Race and racism are special products of the capitalist era. For a long time, humans were bonded by tribal affiliation or religious allegiance. Stabilizing and uniting emerging capitalist Europe demanded a more virulent ideology. The declaration that God Himself had chosen the "white race" to rule the earth in his name provided that ideology. Racism has only one meaning - which is that white people have the right of conquest and exploitation of other lands and other peoples by virtue of color.
As private property developed and spread, "us" and "them" divisions began to appear early on, because they were an efficient way of consolidating conquered territory and enriching one empire at the expense of another. Enslavement and forced labor were integral to the organization of many pre-capitalist empires, both West and East. For most of human history, they were on a continuum with other kinds of labor. In these societies, human beings were sold into slavery for many reasons - as the result of conquest and war, as punishment for crimes, because of poverty.
Before capitalism, "enslavement could be the fate of any person, no matter his or her color." As Milton Meltzer shows in his book, Slavery, throughout history, "whites enslaved whites by the millions." Divisions in society were not related to color. Who ruled society, who was considered a part of society, and who was not part of it had nothing to do with racial designations. Such status was instead defined by wealth or by force.
Race as a concept arose with capitalism and the rise of nations. Nations served to define a national market and to protect and develop that market. And since capitalism is not capitalism unless it can expand, nations also provided a home base from which the rulers of that nation could launch campaigns of territorial aggression and conquest. Using such concepts as "national character," scientists, historians and philosophers sought to identify, describe and ascribe a natural and biological identity and even a biological history to different peoples, in order to separate them. Such classifications of diverse peoples on the basis of their physical characteristics were used to advance the idea that diversity was a result of fundamental, natural differences in which some peoples were "superior" and others "inferior." It was only part of the natural order of things, so the argument went, that one should rule the other. (It is a well established principle in science today that human beings are one species, and that superficial differences of appearance, including skin color, have no implications of the kind that capitalism claims.)
As nations sought to expand their wealth through overseas exploration, conquest, plunder and colonial exploitation, the concept of race and nation became irretrievably fused to the domination, conquest and exploitation of not just "inferior peoples," but "inferior peoples" of color. The spread of the concept of race was inseparably connected to the conquest of the Americas, and the spread of African slavery. The wider the spread of African slavery, the wider the spread of the concept of race.
The sugar and cotton plantations of the Americas required acres of land and thousands of workers. The pursuit of gold - which unlike the pursuit of land, can never be satisfied - drove the colonizers to greater and greater depths of depravity. In the Caribbean and Latin America, entire societies of indigenous peoples were enslaved, worked to death, and the survivors herded into the corrals at night along with "the rest of the animals." Those who resisted were tortured and murdered as examples to others. Untold numbers died from disease. Eventually, as entire cultures were literally erased from the face of the earth, these peoples had to be replaced to meet the massive labor needs of the colonized Americas.
The African slave trade to the Americas originally developed to meet these labor needs. But the trade itself quickly became the source of unheard of profits. Labor costs were sliced to the bone; human beings became a commodity on the world market alongside the sugar and cotton they produced. These profits laid the foundation for the development of the capitalist economic system throughout the world. It is upon the misery and horror of chattel slavery of Africans that the capitalist system flourished and spread.
The slave trade to the Americas was the greatest crime in history. It dwarfs anything done by modern means. Somewhere between 20 and 40 million Africans were sent upon the frightful journey from the coastal holding forts and through the unspeakable horrors of the "Middle Passage" to the plantations. Most likely, at least half died on the trip, or were disabled or permanently maimed from the conditions they experienced, which were brutal, filthy, and punishing to body, mind and spirit. Those who survived were condemned to a life of backbreaking, soul-destroying labor. These slaves had no right to appeal their condition, no sanctioned method of self-protection, and no legal or moral existence in the social system. This above all is what made chattel slavery of Africans transported to America different from the slavery of previous social systems. To eyes blinkered by profit and wealth, these slaves were not human beings, but commodities, nothing more.
The concept of race served to unify nations for exploitation and conquest. "Before 1492, there was no sense or consciousness of being 'European.' People simply were Tuscan, French, and the like," says James Loewen in his book of essays, Lies My Teacher Told Me. "For that matter, there were no 'white' people in Europe before 1492." By the mid 1500s the word race entered the English language. This was just about the time that the profitable undertaking of African slavery and the slave trade to the Americas began in earnest. It was then that "Europeans increasingly saw 'white' as a race and race as an important human characteristic."
©1998 Speakers for a New America Books
Last updated August 27, 2007