From racial division to class unity

The stages of development of the ideology of race in the United States

Colonial roots

Historians have shown that race hatred had to be created. It was anything but natural - instead, it had to be nurtured every step of the way. Popular images and religious texts often associated black with evil, as they did purity and goodness with the color white. Europeans certainly found African peoples, with their different facial structures and skin pigmentation, strange; Africans found Europeans just as odd. But this perception of difference did not automatically and immediately translate into the attitudes and behavior that came later. Even those who assisted in the horrors of the Middle Passage had little conception of their victims as inferior because of their color - their human cargo was inferior because of their status as slaves or as potential slaves. One captain wrote, in 1694, that he "could not imagine why they should be despise'd for their color, being what they cannot help, and the effect of the climate it has pleas'd God to appoint them. I can't think there is any instrinsick value in one color more than another, nor that white is better than black."

In the American colonies, black slaves and white indentured servants originally worked side-by-side. That a slave was a slave for life while a servant was only forced to do the master's work for a limited number of years (if he or she survived) didn't alter the shared experience of their immediate conditions: the brutal work, the beatings, the hardships, the separation from family gave both groups of laborers much in common. Kenneth Stampp, in his excellent book, The Peculiar Institution, wrote that African Americans and whites in servitude "seemed remarkably unconcerned about their visible physical differences." They worked together, got drunk together, made love, ran away together, and -stirring the property owner's greatest fear - rebelled together. A "band of 80 African Americans and 20 English servants" were one of the last groups of rebels to surrender in Bacon's Rebellion of 1676.

Workers making common cause against their masters was one of the greatest fears of the colonial ruling class. And indeed, for many, the struggle against tyranny was as much against the local rulers as against the far-off British king. Howard Zinn points out in his book The People's History of the United States, that between the time of Bacon's Rebellion and 1760, there were 18 uprisings directed toward ousting colonial governments, six African American rebellions and 40 riots of various other origins. Landless whites, Indians and runaway and rebellious slaves didn't always act together. But taken together, they presented a continual threat to the fragile colonial political order.

The colonial ruling class needed a method of controlling the workers. They created the means for that control by granting whites certain privileges. From the late 1600s onward, the colonial rulers "proclaimed that all white men were superior to black, went on to offer their social (but white) inferiors a number of benefits previously denied them" in order to buy their loyalty. For example, Virginia passed a law in 1705 that required masters to live up to their contracts and provide their servants with grain, cash and land. In this way it was hoped that the new farmer would, Zinn writes, "see his big neighbor not as an extortionist but as a powerful protector of their common interests." Legislation of benefit to what was termed the middling classes - artisans, small planters and farmers - sought to bolster that support.

After the War of Independence, laws were passed which protected white artisans and skilled workers from competition from African Americans (whether the African Americans were enslaved or free). Fearful that the forces set in motion by the Revolution would go further and upset the entire political and social order, the colonial ruling class moved quickly to stem the tide of discontent in all its forms. It established the new government on the basis of limited popular representation and the rights of property over the "Rights of Man." Part of the strategy was to appeal to those who had a stake in the system - which was a considerable part of the population. Almost one third of the colonists owned property of some form, Zinn points out, which constituted "a larger base of support for government than anywhere in the world at the end of the eighteenth century."

At the same time that such privileges were extended to many whites, slavery and its condition became more strictly defined. Beginning in the late 1700s, all the colonies passed strict slave codes which more clearly established the legal rights of slaveowners, extended much greater control over the movement, activities and labor of slaves through the sanction of "plantation justice" and created different punishment for African Americans and whites guilty of the same crimes. Laws against intermarriage and even socializing between African American and white were also passed. These guaranteed that the differential positions would be solidified by putting ever more separation and distance between the two groups.

The preservation of slavery was an undeniable and integral part of the control of white labor. The ideology of race sought to confirm the superiority of whites and especially encourage poor whites to ally themselves with their employers or with the slaveholders rather than the enslaved workers. No matter how degraded and debilitated white workers' own conditions, minuscule legal and social advantages kept white workers loyal even against their own interests. The constant disruption caused by the struggle for a livelihood fed the white supremacy, leaving them open to the most naked manipulation of the ruling class. Frederick Douglass captured this when he wrote:

"The difference between the white slave and the black slave was this: The latter belonged to one slaveholder, while the former belonged to the slaveholders collectively. Both were plundered and by the same plunderers. The slave was robbed by his master of all earnings, above what was required for his bare physical necessities, and the white laboring man was robbed by the slave system of the just results of his labor, because he was flung into competition with a class of laborers who worked without wages. The slaveholders blinded them to this competition by keeping alive their prejudices against the slaves as men - not against them as slaves."

The assertion of the superiority of the white "race" and the defense of slavery drew Southern interests directly and irretrievably into a rejection of the political philosophy of the Revolution. Southern writers scoffed at the notion of the Rights of Man. "Man has not inalienable rights, not even those of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Man is born to subjection," wrote William Harper, a leading Southern philosopher of the day. (Harper was a colleague and ally of Josiah Nott, a leading American School anthropologist.) "The proclivity of natural man is to domineer or to be subservient [and if] there are sordid, servile and laborious offices to be performed is it not better that there should be sordid, servile, laborious beings to perform them?" In order to enforce such views, the South had turned into a virtual armed camp by the eve of the Civil War. Slave patrols meted out "justice" to African American and white alike, legislation placed severe restrictions on freedom of the press, discussion and speech in almost every Southern state. Thus, the Southern ruling class readied itself for the "irrepressible conflict."


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Last updated August 27, 2007