There is widespread belief that racism and racist ideas as we know them today have been a feature of mankind since the fall of Adam. Many uncritically assume that if anything has significantly changed over the last several centuries, it has been from originally bad to increasingly good. But this is far from the truth. Accurate history reveals, rather, that racist ideas—as we know them in America—have largely been developed as justifications for pre-existing racial exploitation. The Atlantic slave trade was well under way before there even was such a thing as the “Black Race” or the “White Race,” both previously being a host of various nationalities, ethnicities, religions, cultures, languages, and phenotypical features. In fact, before the appearance of the most powerful justifications for exploitation, those of African descent had already become the only people group subject to lifelong servitude, viz., property; they and their children.
On approximately August 20, 1619, when Dutch traders sold the first group of captured Africans in Jamestown, VA they became one among many races/ethnicities of people working under the institution of indentured servitude, including English, Irish, Slavic, and other European indentured servants. It was unclear whether life-long servitude was even allowable under English law and was certainly inconsistent with the most current theological reasoning from the Scripture (see, e.g., William Perkins’ Ordering of a Family). Indentured servants had been, and continued to be for decades, the majority residents in Virgina. Most of these laborers were either servants by choice or by debt, contracted servitude having been a practical way for the poor to get a first start in the world and/or a start in The New World.
But as it became increasingly clear that Africans were not only capable farmers, but also in abundant supply with the trade itself quite profitable, efforts were made to separate this group of people from those of European descent. By offering protections to indentured servants from “Christian” nations and removing protections for those from “pagan” nations, leaders were able to quell organized rebellions by peeling the European poor away from those with whom they’d formerly worked side by side. A class to be exploited, stolen from Africa, separated from family, religion, and hallowed soil, the “Negro” became the perfectly powerless subject of Colonial exploitation. At first this was justified by the distinction between “Christian” and “pagan”; later it would be by phenotype, “proving” them uniquely suitable for heat and toil; then it would become the supposed stupidity, lack of culture, and need of white fathers; then the so-called Curse of Ham, the example of the Patriarchs, and the writings of the Apostle Paul; then the development of the pseudoscientific field of racial biology, including categorization according to assumed historic development through climate, separate creation, or evolution.
What follows, while lengthy for a blog post, is a crash course in this historical development.
1619 – First African indentured servants are purchased in Virginia
About the latter end of August, a Dutch man of Warr of the burden of a 160 tunes arrived at Point-Comfort, the Comandors name Capt Jope, his Pilott for the West Indies one Mr Marmaduke an Englishman. … He brought not any thing but 20. and odd Negroes, w[hich] the Governo[r] and Cape Merchant bought for victuall[s]. (“’20. and odd Negroes’; an excerpt from a letter from John Rolfe to Sir Edwin Sandys [1619/1620]”)
1640 – The Trial of John Punch; “General Court Responds to Runaway Servants and Slaves”
Twenty-one years after the arrival of the first African servants on Virginian soil, three indentured servants—one Scotsman, one Dutchman, and one African—attempted to escape their servitude, but were apprehended and brought to trial. This trial represents the first documented case wherein a clear legal distinction was made between servants of European (Christian) descent and servants of African descent. Victor and James Gregory receive whipping and an additional four years of service added to their term; John Punch, the African, receives whipping and servitude “for the time of his natural life.” Not only was a distinction made between the punishment of Punch and his fellows, but Punch became the first recorded chattel slave on American soil.
As is well-known, the Irish were considered by the English to be dogs, among the lowest of humanity, and were already often indentured by Englishmen in Europe. Many Irish servants were shipped to the Colonies to supply needed labor; others came by their own decision but were required to work a term of years before becoming colonial freedmen. In this act, as with the Punch case, a legal distinction is again enshrined among Colonial servants, granting those of “Christian” origin—even the Irish—special immunities and protections limiting their term of indenture to no more than six years and included all “of what Christian nation soever” in its legal protection.
1661 – “English running away with negroes”
This act of the Virginia Assembly, responding to the problem of “runaways,” is particularly interesting because, first, the legislature seemed intent on keeping distinction between English and “Negro” servants, and second, it appears from the Act that many African servants were already being held as permanent slaves:
BEE itt enacted That in case any English servant shall run away in company with any negroes who are incapable of makeing satisfaction by addition of time, Bee itt enacted that the English so running away in company with them shall serve for the time of the said negroes absence as they are to do for their owne by a former act.
1662 – “Against ffornication” and Partus sequitur ventrem
Following Elizabeth Keys’ successful suit for freedom in 1656, several laws were passed in Virginia (and elsewhere) to close this supposed loophole. Elizabeth was fathered by the white master of her mother. Her father had included in his will that Elizabeth should be freed upon his death. Further, Elizabeth was a baptized Christian. But, being under new “ownership” (a sickening word in this context) upon her father’s death, her new master refused to free her. After winning her suit for freedom, on grounds of having a free father and being a Christian, white masters everywhere feared loss of “property” and the “mulatto” question had to be answered. The act “Against ffornication” imposed penalties for such “mixed” intercourse, but in the end, while white masters were fined for such deeds, they were nevertheless generally protected; e.g., if the master refused to pay the fine, the servant would be whipped instead.
But the most important law passed in response to Keys’ freedom was the Assembly’s introduction of Partus sequitur ventrem, literally, “that which is brought forth follows the womb”; that is, if the mother was a slave, so is the child. This was contrary to English Common Law and ultimately allowed African slaves to be bread like cattle, increasing the wealth of fornicating slave masters. The law reads,
Whereas some doubts have arisen whether children got by any Englishman upon a Negro woman should be slave or free, be it therefore enacted and declared by this present Grand Assembly, that all children born in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother….
The question of whether converts to Christianity could be freed from their bonds had been disputed since the first arrival of African servants. As a result, many (most?) masters were reticent to evangelize their slaves. Likewise, “Christian” or “from a Christian nation” had been a perfectly workable point of demarcation between English, Irish, Slavic, German, French, Italians, etc., and the newly imported, ethnically disparate, group of people stolen from the African continent. But as those of African descent themselves became Christians, the social distinction made between (roughly) Europeans and Africans required further clarification; that is, the continuation of the social control system required for maintenance and increase of slave labor necessitated new categories to distinguish those who would receive legal protections—even freedom—and those who would not.
The 1667 Act, passed by the Virginia General Assembly, reads as follows:
WHEREAS some doubts have risen whether children that are slaves by birth, and by the charity and piety of their owners made pertakers of the blessed sacrament of baptisme, should be vertue of their baptisme be made ffree; It is enacted and declared by this grand assembly, and the authority thereof, that the conferring of baptisme doth not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or ffreedome; that diverse masters, ffreed from this doubt, may more carefully endeavor the propagation of christianity by permitting children, though slaves, or those of greater growth if capable to be admitted to that sacrament.
Had English Common Law, or even 16th century Protestant theology, actually been applied, requiring eventual manumission for baptized servants, the social and legal distinction between “Christian” and African used to justify oppression of the latter, would have been completely demolished and replaced with a distinction between “Christian” and slave, with both categories occupied by peoples of all colors. Having now removed the “specter” of freedom for Christian slaves, the Colony would now be forced to draw new lines of demarcation—lines already intended by the previous “Christian” vs. African paradigm—in order to justify its exploitative practices of one people group and elevation of another. The elevated, previously just called “Christians,” would be consolidated into a privileged “race” called “white.”
1670 – “What tyme Indians serve”
It was an open question prior to 1670 whether Native Americans (including from Mexico and beyond) could be owned as chattel slaves or only employed for a term as indentured servants. This act gives the answer and further narrows subjects of slavery.
WHEREAS some dispute have arisen whither Indians taken in warr by any other nation, and by that nation that taketh them sold to the English, are servants for life or terme of yeares, It is resolved and enacted that all servants not being Christians imported into this colony by shipping shalbe slaves for their lives; but what shall come by land shall serve, if boyes or girls, untill thirty yeares of age, if men or women twelve years and no longer.
So, what are the conditions that must be met, according to this law, to qualify for lifelong servitude—to be chattel, human property? “[A]ll servants not being Christians imported into this colony by shipping”; that is, Africans alone, excluding some rare exceptions.
1676/7 – Bacon’s Rebellion
In many ways, Bacon’s Rebellion was a watershed moment in Colonial Virginia—maybe for Colonial America in general. In brief, Nathaniel Bacon, a newcomer to Virginia and member of the governor’s council, organized a rebellion against Sir William Berkeley and all in leadership who opposed his plans to appropriate Native American territory by force. Bacon died before the end of this civil war, and his army, gathered from the poor and disenfranchised of Virginia, ultimately surrendered to Berkeley’s forces, even before the arrival of English troops from the homeland. While there is much to learn from these events, the most important for our purposes are the nature of the army of rebels Bacon united and the complex relationship created between Virginia’s House of Burgesses and the local Native Americans.
As to the first, Bacon was able to appeal to all disenfranchised residents, including indentured servants and slaves. Europeans—whether Irish, English, Dutch, Scottish, or otherwise—united arm in arm with African slaves and servants and turned against the governor, the Assembly, the wealthy, and the propertied in Virginia. This rebellion, though for truly awful purposes, gave the poor and enslaved opportunity to upset the social order and opportunity for freedom from their physical and metaphorical bonds. Historians are increasingly united in the conclusion that the following laws and Slave Codes in Virginia were in direct response to the existential reality that poor and indentured European “Christians” (i.e., whites) and imported African slaves and servants were, when united, a real threat to the minority of wealthy and landed leaders of the colony.
The solution to this threat to the imposed social order and economic system was to enfranchise European “Christians” and definitively marginalize Africans, who were increasingly in abundant supply, were completely estranged to European life and customs, did not even share a common language with each other, and were already “seasoned” by the debasement and abuses of the Atlantic slave trade. If the Burgesses and governors could offer what W.E.B Du Bois called a “psychological wage” to even the most misused whites, they could preclude further united efforts against their power, without even having to offer poor whites true relief from their economic subservience.
Following Bacon’s Rebellion, the General Assembly began to pass firm laws prohibiting “Negroes” and those deemed members of the slave class from any violence toward “Christians,” that is, English, Irish, Dutch, Scottish, Slavic, etc. These laws went in one direction—no black violence against whites. We read the following in the 1680 act:
And it is further enacted by the authority aforesaid that if any negroe or other slave shall presume to lift up his hand in opposition against any christian, shall for every such offence, upon due proofe made thereof by the oath of the party before a magistrate, have and receive thirty lashes on his bare back well laid on.
Fourteen years following Bacon’s Rebellion, we see the first documented use in the English language of “white” as an appellation for a people group, rather than just a physical description of some humans; “white men” and “white women” are explicitly set in contrast to “negroes, mulattos, and Indians,” the category noted above. Those immigrants formerly abstracted from disparate nationhood and called “Christians,” or those “from a Christian nation,” including English, Irish, Scottish, German, French, Slavic, etc., are by 1691 a class simply called “white.”
And for prevention of that abominable mixture and spurious issue which hereafter may encrease in this dominion, as well by negroes, mulattoes, and Indians intermarrying with English, or other white women, as by their unlawfull accompanying with one another, Be it enacted by the authoritie aforesaid, and it is hereby enacted, that for the time to come, whatsoever English or other white man or woman being free shall intermarry with a negroe, mulatto, or Indian man or woman bond or free shall within three months after such marriage be banished and removed from this dominion forever, and that the justices of each respective countie within this dominion make it their perticular care, that this act be put in effectuall execution.
This next act, commonly called the “Slave Act of 1705,” is considered to be the legislative culmination of the events and decisions following Bacon’s Rebellion, the remedy against all like organized rebellions, and also a final detailed clarification and adjudication of the often contradictory, and certainly piecemeal, slave legislation that had gone before.
Section I again exempts “Christians” and those “of Christian parentage” from slavery, i.e., from life-long servitude:
Be it enacted, by the governor, council, and burgesses, of this present general assembly, and it is hereby enacted, by the authority of the same,That all servants brought into this country without indenture, if the said servants be christians, and of christian parentage, and above nineteen years of age, ’till they shall become twenty-four years of age, and no longer.
We also have a reiteration of earlier doctrines limiting slavery to non-“Christian” imports from non-“Christian” nations—or, as we have already demonstrated, non-whites—regardless of future conversion to Christianity. It is important to note that this section also outlawed life-long servitude for “Indians,” as had the acts of 1662 and 1670. But it is nevertheless clear throughout the Codes that Native Americans were not thereby granted the same protections as “white” “Christians.” Native Americans, let no doubt arise, were and have been treated horribly throughout the history of this nation; but we need also recognize that chattel, life-long, slavery was by 1705 the province of “negroes,” “mulattos,” and their children alone.
And also be in enacted, by the authority aforesaid, and it is hereby enacted, That all servants imported and brought into this country, by sea or land, who were not christians in their native country, (except Turks and Moors in amity with her majesty, and others that can make due proof of their being free in England, or any other christian country, before they were shipped, in order to transportation hither) shall be accounted and be slaves, and such be here bought and sold notwithstanding a conversion to christianity afterward.
In Section VII, we also see specific protections given to “white” indentured servants, separating by carrot those who were previously willing to join in rebellion with “negroes, mulattos, and Indians”:
[N]neither shall, at any time, whip a christian white servant naked, without an order from a justice of the peace: And if any, notwithstanding this act, shall presume to whip a christian white servant naked, without such order, the person so offending, shall forfeit and pay for the same, forty shillings sterling to the party injured.
Section XI is particularly important and revealing. First, the whole section is premised on an endeavor to “care” for white people, distinguishing them thereby from “negroes, mulattos, and Indians,” perfectly consistent with what historians have demonstrated was necessary to maintain the Colonial social control order, separating whites from blacks, winning the former’s allegiance. Second, we see that the power to enslave was only to be in one direction; whites alone had such power over blacks. And last, we see that “who” could enslave “who” was now to be adjudicated by “complexion”!
This truly was a remarkable milestone in the creation of the “white race” and the calcification of the “color-line” as it has existed in our nation ever since. We read,
And for a further christian care and usage of all christian servants, Be it also enacted, by the authority aforesaid, and it is hereby enacted, That no negros, mulattos, or Indians, although christian, or Jews, Moors, Mahometans, or other infidels, shall, at any time, purchase any christian servant, nor any other, except of their own complexion, or such as are declared slaves by this act: And if any negro, mulatto, or Indian, Jew, Moor, Mahometan, or other infidel, or such as are declared slaves by this act, shall, notwithstanding, purchase any christian white servant, the said servant shall, ipso facto, become free and acquit from any service then due, and shall be so held, deemed, and taken….
Finally, in Section XV we see the Colony’s effort to assure these created people groups would remain separate, with a permanent white protected class that, while misused, would continue to be enfranchised, at least as compared to “negroes, mulattos, and Indians.” Please note in the following (and the above) how “Christian” and “white” were by this point nearly synonymous, used interchangeably.
And for a further prevention of that abominable mixture and spurious issue, which hereafter may increase in this her majesty’s colony and dominion, as well by English, and other white men and women intermarrying with negroes or mulattos, as by their unlawful coition with them, Be it enacted, by the authority aforesaid, and it is hereby enacted, That whatsoever English, or other white man or woman, being free, shall intermarry with a negro or mulatto man or woman, bond or free, shall, by judgment of the county court, be committed to prison, and there remain, during the space of six months, without bail or mainprize; and shall forfeit and pay ten pounds current money of Virginia, to the use of the parish, as aforesaid.
1723 – “An Act directing the trial of Slaves, committing capital crimes; and for the more effectual punishing conspiracies and insurrections of them; and for the better government of Negros, Mulattos, and Indians, bond or free”
Last, in 1723, the Virginia Colony limited voting to whites alone—yes, including Irish and Italian in the enfranchised voting class (contrary to what I too often hear). In section XXIII of the Act named above, we read:
And be it further enacted, by the authority aforesaid, and it is hereby enacted and declared, That no free negro, mullatto, or indian whatsoever, shall hereafter have any vote at the election of burgesses, or any other election whatsoever.
1758 – Scientific Racism and “Racial Biology”
Carolus Linnaeus, a pioneer of the pseudo-science of “racial biology,” published the first edition of his Systema Naturae in 1758. Linnaeus posited four “races” of humanity: Americanus, Europeanus, Asiaticus, and Africanus, adding also Monstrosus (a fictional race) in a later addition. His “human taxonomy” seems to have been largely based on general observation and categorization of phenotypes. It should be noted that, while obviously based on unacceptable stereotypes, Linnaeus did not provide much evidence that his taxonomy included any clear hierarchy of superiority. But this hierarchy would soon be added, particularly through the work of Comte de Buffon (1707 – 1788) and Johann Friederich Blumenbach (1752 – 1840). The latter published his On the Natural Variety of Mankind in 1775, a work that set the stage for ever more attempts to prove the superiority of the white man and the inferiority of the black.
Through the study of human cadavers, Blumenbach asserted in 1779 that there were five races, but in his case, we have the Caucasian race, the Mongolian race, the Malayan race, the Ethiopian race, and the American race. In addition, for Buffon and Blumenbach, each “race” also had a corresponding “Biblical” history supposedly verifying the “natural” history. Blumenbach concluded that the “original” race, the race of Adam and Eve, was Caucasian (i.e., the “white” race) and all others were presumed to be historical degenerations from this God created archetype. He wrote, “I have allotted the first place to the Caucasian for the reasons stated … which make me esteem it the primeval one.”
These scientists’ conclusions became ever more elevating of the “white race” and condemning of the “black race” as time went on. Benjamin Rush (1745 – 1813) would write of the skin disease “negroidism” and Christof Meiners (1747 – 1810) of the “beautiful white race” and the “ugly black race.” But the greatest bifurcations, consistent with the history we have outlined thus far, would come from American authors, presumably intent on justifying the exploitation of the “black race” by the supposed biologically superior “white race.” In fact, Quaker turned Episcopalian Samuel Morton (1791 – 1851) would claim definitively that “Caucasians” had the largest brains while “Negros” (Ethiopian/Black) had the smallest, evidently demonstrating the superiority of the former and inferiority of the latter. (And beware, this junk science has reared its ugly head again in our own day.)
1781 – Notes on the State of Virginia
In keeping with the “racial biology” of the 18th century, we read also the following considerations on the “black race” in Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia:
Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one [black] could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous. …[N]ever yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never see even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture.
To our reproach it must be said, that though for a century and a half we have had under our eyes the races of black and of red men, they have never yet been viewed by us as subjects of natural history. I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind. It is not against experience to suppose, that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications.
Just as with the construction of the class “Christian,” and later the class “white,” so these biological notions of white superiority did not just exist in academic labs, but were believed and taught by the very founders of our nation and the framers of our social and political institutions. This is evident the very first laws passed by the then newly formed United States government.
Toward the end of the 18th century, Northern colonies began to wind down the practice of slavery, even outlawing it. But, as is well known, Virginia would still remain quite important, especially in the formation of the new National government following the American Revolution. Not only was Virginia the residence of many founders, fathers, and presidents of the United States—including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, etc.—but its General Assembly, House of Burgesses, and gubernatorial office were considered the first functioning system of self-government in North America and the newly formed Federal government was in many ways fashioned on this model.
But even more importantly, there is no doubt that ideas of “whiteness” and “blackness,” with their attendant statuses, privileges, or lack thereof, were built into the U.S. legal code from its very inception.
As the 1787 Constitution had not clarified the meaning of “Naturalized Citizen,” the very first act of the very first U.S. Congress was to offer such clarification—a Congress that included many of those who had signed the Declaration of Independence. We read,
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, That any Alien being a free white person, who shall have resided within the limits and under the jurisdiction of the United States for the term of two years, may be admitted to become a citizen thereof …. And the children of such person so naturalized, dwelling within the United States, being under the age of twenty one years at the time of such naturalization, shall also be considered as citizens of the United States. (March 26, 1790)
For all intents and purposes, the United States of America was a nation for white people—a people literally constructed by legal fiat over the preceding hundred years, a people created from disparate tribes, nations, and tongues, for the very sake of supremacy. By 1790, we could reasonably consider this walk through the history and formation of the “white” and “black” “races” complete, if not for one more major component: the Church.
1830’s – The Curse of Ham
We know that, for example, Cotton Mather (1163 – 1728), George Whitefield (1714 – 1770), Robert Dabney (1820 – 1898), James Thornwell (1812 – 1862), and other notable churchmen advocated slavery, arguing that the African was fit by God to work the soil, that God had providentially determined their lot, and that slavery was ultimately for the African’s own good and consistent with the Bible. In fact, the whole history we have covered was forged in the Church and “justified” from the Bible just as much as it was from politics and economics. But for our purposes, the Curse of Ham “exegesis,” more so than any other so-called “Biblical” support for slavery, carved up the “races” in a way perfectly confirming the legal and historical demarcations that had developed since 1619.
Though first alluded to in reference to blacks by George Best in 1578, the Curse of Ham justification reached its heyday in 1830’s America. The fiction is based on the Biblical narrative found in Genesis 9:18-29:
When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said, “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.” He also said, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem; and let Canaan be his servant. May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem, and let Canaan be his servant.”
In order to justify white superiority and the subjugation of African peoples, it was argued that Shem is the father of the Jewish race, Japheth the father of the white race, and Canaan by Ham the black race. As such, the black race was to be forever the servant of the white race. Though Robert Boyle had already destroyed this argument in his 1664 (Experiments and Considerations Touching Colours), the argument was again popularized for the sake of American race-based chattel slavery, particularly among Southern intellectuals. Benjamin M. Palmer (1818 – 1902), a Presbyterian minister and Southern religious leader, tirelessly pressed this argument throughout the States, arguing that Southern planters should see themselves as Noah-like figures, sowing and reaping from the earth as had Noah, with Ham’s descendants laboring beneath them as Noah had prescribed thousands of years ago.
Not only was the constructed “white race” a legally protected class, granted rights and privileges of superiority over all others, and a now a biological class, but it was also deemed to accord with God’s revealed will; it had been the ordained pattern for humanity from the time of the Great Flood, to their own day, and would be on into perpetuity.
The Legacy of Racist Ideas
Throughout these centuries, insidious racial stereotypes were developed, serving as justifications for the “peculiar institution” of race-based chattel slavery, including common tropes like the hyper-sexualized black male with a penchant for pure white women, seductive black women preying on white men, child-like “negro” mental capacities causing both intellectual dullness and erratic fits of rage, and inborn laziness due to centuries in the jungle. “Negros” were dangerous sub-humans in need of legal and social controls. The later Jim Crow laws were justified by the same means. “It is just that kind of control which is extended in every northern State over its convicts, its lunatics, its minors, its apprentices. It is but a form of civil government for those who by their nature are not fit to govern themselves” (Jefferson Davis).
In 1829, David Walker wrote of the justifications for slavery he heard in his own day:
We would be injurious to society and ourselves, if tyrants should loose their unjust hold on us!!! That if we were free we would not work, but would live on plunder or theft!!!! that we are the meanest and laziest set of beings in the world!!!!! That they are obliged to keep us in bondage to do us good!!!!!!–That we are satisfied to rest in slavery to them and their children!!!!!! … That if we were set free in America, we would involve the country in a civil war, which assertion is altogether at variance with our feeling or design…. (Walker’s Appeal, p. 74)
Likewise, Frederick Douglass, following the emancipation of slaves sought by David Walker, noted the continuation of these stereotypes and even their spread throughout the nation:
It is said that physically, morally, socially and religiously he is in a condition vastly more deplorable than was his condition as a slave; that he has not proved himself so good a master to himself as his old master was to him; that he is gradually, but surely, sinking below the point of industry, good manners and civilization to which he attained in a state of slavery; that his industry is fitful; that his economy is wasteful; that his honesty is deceitful; that his morals are impure; that his domestic life is beastly; that his religion is fetichism, and his worship is simply emotional; and that, in a word, he is falling into a state of barbarism.
Such is the distressing description of the emancipated Negro as drawn by his enemies and as it is found reported in the journals of the South. Unhappily, however, it is a description not confined to the South. It has gone forth to the North. It has crossed the ocean; I met with it in Europe. (Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, p. 715)
And in 1862, Douglass expressly identified this as a justificatory method of marginalization for the sake of exploitation, pointing his listeners to a then recent example:
When the United States coveted a part of Mexico, and sought to wrest from that sister Republic her coveted domain, some of you remember how our press teemed from day to day with charges of Mexican inferiority—How they were assailed as a worn-out race; how they were denounced as a weak, worthless, indolent, and turbulent nation, given up to the sway of animal passions, totally incapable of self-government, and how excellent a thing we were told it would be for civilization if the strong beneficent arms of the Anglo-Saxon could be extended over them; and how, with our usual blending of piety with plunder, we justified our avarice by appeals to the hand-writing of Divine Providence. All this, I say, you remember, for the facts are but little more than a dozen years old. (Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, p. 482)
This has always been the American method of exploitation; for, in Douglass’ words, “the alleged inferiority of the oppressed is … the plea of tyrants” (p. 482); that is, it is their justification.
Beginning in the 1870’s, the vast system of Jim Crow laws were implemented in the Southern states to guarantee the perpetuation of this created distinction and hierarchy. To be sure, the South was in a rage following the defeat of the Civil War; their hatred of the “Negro race” was possibly at an all-time high. And to make sure that the “Negro race” would continue to be separated from the enfranchised “White race” for perpetuity, many states even implemented so called “One Drop” rules, ensuring that any man or woman with even one drop of African blood would remain under subjugated status in the South. It is in this period that we also see the birth of the Ku Klux Klan and a tremendous general increase in violence and murder of Black Americans.
At the National level, the Supreme Court of the U.S. also upheld this system of segregation in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896, and the North maintained in its own way de facto systems of discrimination and segregation, along the very same color line being legally implemented in the South.
Through practices such as racial steering as well as violence, Northern whites during this period birthed the black urban ghetto, a quintessential urban feature of contemporary American society, as the solution to the rise in the urban black population. Racial violence increased in urban areas as whites fought to protect their jobs and neighborhoods. Between 1917 and 1921, one black home in Chicago was bombed, on average, every twenty days. African Americans, often used as strikebreakers by northern industrialists, were viewed with contempt not only for their color, but also the economic threat they represented. Urban riots—at the time, whites attacking blacks—became a northern problem.” (Smith and Emerson, Divided by Faith, p. 42)
When we come finally to the Civil Rights period of American history, W.E.B Du Bois’ claim that “[t]he problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line,” would prove him not only an accurate exegete of his own time, but an accurate prognosticator of what was to come. After 350 years of forced servitude, legal and de facto subjugation, segregation, and discrimination, all justified by the African American’s ancestry, black skin and “wooly” hair, and buttressed by junk science and specious “Biblical” exegesis, a hardened racial solidarity had become an unquestionable social reality in the United States. The “African race” began as a people forcibly removed from their native lands, cut off from their religions, torn from their families and allowed no enduring family ties in the New World; and this was only if they happened to live through the Atlantic crossing or did not commit suicide to escape the coming dehumanization. They were rejected by established churches—even beaten and murdered—largely under the hypocritical auspices of Christian verity. These men and women, originally of differing nations, ethnicities, tribes, and languages, were now socially united and legally delineated by the color of their skin and the color of their mother’s skin. By the time of the peaceful protests led in part by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it was clear to both blacks and whites that dark skin had become a social shibboleth of a permanent underclass.
The office of color in the color line is a very plain and subordinate one. It simply advertises the objects of oppression, insult, and persecution. It is not the maddening liquor, but the black letters on the sign telling the world where it may be had. It is not the hated Quaker, but the broad brim and the plain coat. It is not the hateful Cain, but the mark by which he is known. The color is innocent enough, but things with which it is coupled make it hated. (Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, p. 654)
What Does 1619 Have To Do With 2019?
And let us not fool ourselves, many of these very same manufactured and encultured perceptions live on to this very day. The ease by which politicians and pastors were able to retell the Civil Rights movement as mayhem, violence, and the breakdown of social order should cause no wonder. It is no wonder that millions of Americans embraced the “Law and Order” movement, the “War on Drugs,” and continued church and neighborhood segregation, and still do today. And it should still be of no wonder that the vast inequities and disparities in this society—along the very same color line created for exploitation—are continually explained away by Americans and evangelicals as the fault of so-called morally degraded, hyper-sexualized, lazy welfare queens and criminals; that is, the black community itself is to blame. Racist ideas continue to justify unjust circumstances.
Following the Civil War, the abandonment of Reconstruction, and 100 years of both legal and de facto nationwide Jim Crow, it is no wonder that in the 21st century the average “white” child is born into a family with ten to twenty times the wealth of his “black” peer (HERE and HERE and HERE), is twice as likely to live through infancy (HERE), 2.5 times as likely to live in a two-parent household (HERE) (though will likely spend less time with his father than his black peer [HERE]), is much more likely to go to a well-funded, academically superior school (HERE and HERE), is more likely to be put into advanced coursework as opposed to remedial or special needs coursework, regardless of ability (HERE); the white child is likely to live in de facto segregated neighborhoods, attend de facto segregated schools, and worship in de facto segregated churches (HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE), is much more likely to make it to college without being incarcerated, even if he commits the same or similar crimes as his black peer (HERE, HERE, and HERE), is more likely to graduate from college (HERE), is much less likely to be shot and killed by a police officer (HERE), is more likely to secure a job, even with precisely the same resume (HERE and HERE), is likely to be paid more for the same work (HERE), is likely to accumulate 3 times the net worth of his black peer (HERE and HERE), is likely to have significantly more wealth mobility, while his black peer is more likely to spend what he has to care for his aging parents (HERE and HERE), is much more likely to own a home (HERE), will likely have greater access to healthcare, and the care his black peer does receive is likely to be lower quality (HERE), and in the end, the white child is even likely to outlive his black peer (HERE).
And all of this devastating disparity straddles a color-line unknown to the world prior to Prince Henry’s African exploits, Gomes Eanes de Zurara’s fabricated justifications posing as legitimate “chronicles,” and the American Colonies’ vast industrialization of human labor. This is what 1619 has to do with 2019. The Atlantic Slave Trade, with its untold billions in profits, both for traders and 19th century America’s largest single export—cotton, took hold on American soil in the very colony from which the United States modeled its republic and farmed its Fathers and presidents.
It is often said that slavery is America’s original sin; but, in a way, this misses the point. Had life-long slavery sprouted from American soil as the lot of peoples from all nations and tongues, we would not likely be discussing “White Supremacy” in 2019. The creation of “Whiteness” and “Blackness” itself, with their attendant racist ideas, stereotypes, and natal hierarchy, is America’s true original sin. Slavery ended, after all, as did legal Jim Crow, yet here were are.