American Slavery and Racism

The story of slavery and racism in America is a complicated one. Most people assume that a pre-existing racism supported the institution of slavery, but more than likely it was the other way around. As Eugene Genovese said: “Race relations did not determine the pattern of slavery in the New World; the patterns of slavery… determined race relations.”

Have you ever heard of Anthony Johnson? He was the first true slave owner in colonial America. Prior to 1655, all “slaves” in colonial America were actually indentured servants. Following the Jubilee Laws of the Old Testament, ((Leviticus 25:10. Involuntary slavery is biblically allowed (but not mandated) only in cases of slaves taken in war or slaves of restitution.)) slavery for life was illegal. Even those who were sold into slavery became indentured servants with fixed terms of service as soon as they set foot on colonial soil. Anthony Johnson was just such an indentured servant. He worked off his term of service, and eventually owned a tobacco farm of his own. In 1655, he became the first owner of the first permanent black slave in colonial America. And, by the way, Anthony Johnson was a black man.

So racism was not really the major driving factor of slavery in America. There is a reason I titled this article “American Slavery and Racism,” rather than the other way around.

Like so many things, permanent black slavery began because it was profitable. But it couldn’t have continued without justification. Enter colonialism. Colonialism assumed the African peoples needed to be subjugated and controlled, even for their own good. Drawing from polygenic models of human origin, colonial imperialists posited that the “savage” races were inferior in moral and cultural development. They needed to be “civilized.” The value of the colonial model, even in spite of its many errors and abuses, is that the peoples were considered capable of improvement, worthy of development. Savages were considered potential equals, in other words. ((This doesn’t excuse the ethnocentrism of Western imperialists or the methods they used to violently subjugate their colonies.))

Darwinism changed all of that. If “savages” were less evolved, then they were biologically fated to inferiority. No amount of civilization could fix them. Racial differences were not a matter of culture, they were a fixed matter of biology.

After slavery was firmly grounded in America along racial lines, it actually produced very many of the racial distinctions it claimed to be justified by. Think about it. For one, it relegated an entire race and their progeny to a particular class: the slave class. If you saw a black person in America after about 1700, he was almost certainly a slave. As a slave, he was likely poor, uneducated, and dependent on others for his daily bread. Being dependent on others meant that slaves didn’t have to make decisions for themselves: financial, moral, or otherwise. This state often looks very similar to just plain irresponsibility.

After many generations in this condition, black people in America began to fit very snugly into a stereotype that was actually more incidental than biological, but the average American would not have been able to make that distinction. All black people seemed to be about the same: poor, uneducated, and irresponsible. The assumption became that “blackness” made them that way. That was and is simply not true. But it certainly looked like that.

After generations under the yoke of permanent slavery, black slaves were suddenly emancipated. Most of them had little education, little to no money, no opportunities, and a huge mountain of prejudice to overcome. It is no surprise that newly emancipated slaves quickly became disillusioned with the so-called freedom they had been granted. It is also no surprise that newly defeated Southerners quickly became bitter about the newly emancipated slaves.

When former black slaves, even given what were supposedly “egalitarian” conditions, couldn’t succeed to the same extent as their white counterparts, it was assumed this was because they actually were genetically inferior. Stephen Jay Gould comments on this unintended upshot of egalitarianism:

The initial nineteenth–century meaning [of “Social Darwinism”] referred to a specific theory of class stratification with industrial societies, and particularly to the idea that there was a permanently poor underclass consisting of genetically inferior people who had precipitated down into their inevitable fate. The theory arose from a paradox of egalitarianism: as long as people remain on top of the social heap by accident of a noble name or parental wealth, and as long as members of despised castes cannot rise no matter what their talents, social stratification will not reflect intellectual merit, and brilliance will be distributed across all classes; but when true equality of opportunity is attained smart people rise and the lower classes become rigid, retaining only the intellectually incompetent.

So racial slavery can help explain why many black people had trouble succeeding for years, and even generations, after emancipation. It also explains why a racial prejudice developed among white people toward black people. What it does not explain is why that prejudice, and the apparent racial disparity of success, continues to be a factor a hundred and fifty or so years after emancipation.

Why is it that contemporary American black people are, like their enslaved ancestors, more likely than their white counterparts to be poor, uneducated, and irresponsible? ((I know there will be people who immediately recoil from such a statement. But it is unfortunately a statistical fact. Rejecting it for its political incorrectness doesn’t make it any less true.)) That is another story—a story of the shift from one kind of slavery to another. A story of a negligible biological difference becoming a huge cultural divide. The story of racism as a self-fulfilling prophecy. More on that next time.