From racial division to class unity



Slavery and Race in the United States

White supremacy arose in the United Sates within the context of the "science and culture" of race and ethnicity in Europe. But white supremacy in Europe, where nonwhites were not an everyday fact of existence, was necessarily different than white supremacy which rested on the direct exploitation of African slaves. The government of the United States was a settler regime and all that that implies. The ideology of race was directly connected to territorial expansion and the accumulation of wealth.

Cotton production was central to the fledgling nation's economy. In 1793 Eli Whitney's cotton gin removed the last obstacle to large-scale cotton production and a hardier variety of cottonseed made possible the introduction of cotton farming to more areas of the country. Cotton made fortunes in both North and South: in the South, from the production of cotton itself; in the North, from the commercial and trading apparatus that bought, sold and shipped the cotton onto the international market. Additional fortunes were made from the sale of slaves in the South and their importation by Northern interests. Given the powerful force of such huge profits, all considerations of humanity and morality were swept aside.

England created and maintained the colonies to help supply her growing markets - once it became clear that there was not a huge amount of gold in the colonies, the products were primarily agricultural: first tobacco, then cotton. A chronic labor shortage, crude tools and the need to open previously undeveloped land on a vast scale made some kind of forced labor inevitable. In the early years, much colonial labor was done by white indentured servants - men, women, sometimes whole families - who exchanged five to seven years of labor for the passage to the New World and the right to plots of land after the bondage period expired. Great profits were made from indentured servitude: Selling labor contracts, shipping of the cargo of virtually free labor, the product of the labor itself. Black slaves were first introduced into colonial America in the early 1600s as a complement to white indentured servitude. But black chattel slavery soon eclipsed indenture, because slavery generated much higher rates of profit, both from what could be driven out of slave labor and from the international and domestic trade in slaves.

The enslavement, forced labor and brutality toward other human beings, white or black, required justification. In the beginning, the Biblical story of Ham, son of Noah, served as a Christian explanation for the enslavement of Africans. American scientists began tailoring European ideas to the specific needs of the slave economy. The conclusions of the American School, as William Stanton and others have called this group of American scientists working in the thirty or so years leading up to the Civil War, provided a new ideological foundation for slavery.

The American School enlisted many European scientific theories including those of anthropology, archeology and even Egyptology, in their attempts to prove that blacks were inferior to whites. These scientists argued that the study of both contemporary human skulls and those from Ancient Egypt, confirmed that blacks had smaller brains than whites and therefore were less intelligent. (If this were actually true, of course, the world would be ruled by whales and elephants.) Because the skulls from Egypt and the present were roughly the same size, this meant that blacks had always been inferior to whites. Furthermore, the American School argued, blacks had been servants and slaves in Egypt, and this proved that servitude was their natural condition.

The American School drew inspiration from the writings of Count Arthur de Gobineau, a rabid reactionary who opposed the French Revolution and believed that "the brotherhood of man was a vain and empty dream." Gobineau was one of the most prominent European spokespersons for the idea that human beings originated from several different sources, that the different "races" that resulted display fixed characteristics that are defined by heredity, not by environment or culture, and

thus are unchangeable over time. Good government, he argued, is not to be found in the silly notion of "equality and the Rights of Man," but in a recognition of the natural, historical and permanent inferiority of some races and the superiority of whites.

Not surprisingly, some of these American School anthropologists were connected to slaveholding interests, lived and worked in the South, and were published in Southern papers and journals. Wealthy planters eagerly provided patronage to further their work. The connections were not limited to the South, however. The American School was widely read in the North and in Europe, and its theories exercised a substantial influence on the debate on race everywhere it existed.

These ideas also served to justify the conquest and extermination of other peoples as the U.S. rulers expanded their holdings westward across the continent and into the Pacific and Latin America. Entire nations of Native Americans were exterminated, Mexico was robbed of half her territory (from Texas to Oregon), Puerto Rico, the Hawaiian Islands, and the Philippine Islands were annexed. This rampage was proclaimed America's "Manifest Destiny" - a destiny predicated on the belief that "superior" peoples had the right to rule over their "inferiors."

Of course, the application of such ideas was not limited to justifying slavery and conquest. What became known as Social Darwinism (a distortion of the evolutionary theory of natural selection applied to human society) proposed that people were not poor, or conquered, or exploited, or enslaved because of the drive for maximum profit, but because these people were naturally inferior. These ideas also spawned fear and anxiety in every crevice of thought concerning the "bestial colored races," leading to hideous myths about savage and rapacious behavior. Those terrorized by these myths were often the very people who also suffered from another application of the same Social Darwinist concept: that the poor were poor because of "some deficiency in their physical or intellectual capacity." These ideas in turn provided the intellectual foundation to accept the notion of "race management," or the attempt to manipulate human heredity through selective breeding (also known as the now thoroughly discredited eugenics). From the late 1800s to the early part of this century, eugenics and race management influenced thinkers on both the right and the left. We are now all too familiar with the logical outcome of such ideas: the Nazi's final solution - the wiping out of any peoples who were deemed inferior, whether they were Jews, gypsies, or the mentally and physically handicapped - in the name of protecting the purity of the so-called superior race.

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Last updated 4/27/15