The topic of racism in today’s highly charged political climate is a contentious one, and many people are uncomfortable talking about it. But whether one is a “liberal,” a “conservative,” or even somewhere in between, the reality is that race is center and core to the long American experiment.
This article compares how racism changed on scope and focus in modern times compared to how it was in ancient times. Europeans introduce was became known as “chattel” slavery, one that was solely based on skin color.
Historians agree that American culture was founded on the idea of “white supremacy.” This does not mean that one cannot take the position today that racism and race relations have been diminished so, as to believe that it plays little role in our society today. If that position is taken, however, the role of “white supremacy” as a foundational core must still be respected.
Your task for this week’s assignment is to read the article below and answer the following questions. Please respond intelligently and with enough elaboration to show that you understand the content.
1. What are the three main differences between ancient slavery and modern slavery?
Explain in your own words.
2. What role did the plantation economy play in in the transition from ancient slavery to modern chattel slavery?
3. How did the Dutch, English, and French perceive Africans as culturally different, and what role did this play in justifying the institution of chattel slavery?
4. The author writes that “yet, by the 1830s, this sort of cultural blending was ignored as political leaders joined with the white majority to limit benefits and opportunities to white Americans.”
What assertion is being made by the author here? What evidence does he give in support?
5. The author writes near the end of the article, “Racism in American culture and history ranks among the most difficult (not to mention controversial) topics of discussion. The situation has worsened in recent years primarily due to mistaken perceptions that too much emphasis is placed on white racism that, in turn, has contributed to a rise in practices characterized as “reverse discrimination.” One way to approach the topic of racism, and a particular emphasis on white racism, would be to remind students that throughout American history, the preponderance of political and economic power has always been in the hands of the white majority. As a result, the racial attitudes and ideas of white Americans are of greater consequence than those of other Americans.”
In your opinion, what is he trying to say?
Now juxtapose the above into how YOU think race and racism should be understood during your life today.
Racism and Slavery
Racism certainly represents an important component of the development of American culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and scholars have debated the relationship between racism and slavery for decades. The purpose of this essay is to discuss slavery as an ancient institution and highlight the contrast between ancient and modern slavery. Instructors will readily discern that the racial ideas and attitudes expressed by early modern Europeans, who ventured forth on voyages of exploration and discovery, paved the way for the enslavement of Africans. This essay ties together a variety of themes and topics raised throughout The American Experiment.
Slavery has frequently been described as a peculiar institution when in actuality, the suggestion that individuals should be paid for work done represents a truly novel innovation. Slavery as an institution has existed for most of human history and represents a fundamental aspect of human cultures on a global scale whether addressing the ancient cultures of the Near East, India, or China; the classical civilizations in Greece and Rome; or the Islamic world, as well as Mesoamerica and Africa. Slavery also developed in Europe during the Medieval and Renaissance periods. Before it was introduced to the developing plantation economies of the Americas established by the English, Portuguese, and Spanish, slavery already had a long history.
An examination of ancient variations of slavery, however, provides a sharp contrast with the chattel slavery that developed in the Americas after 1600. One primary distinction is that slavery as it had existed throughout most of human history was not based on racial distinctions. Ancient cultures did not discriminate because of skin color nor was racial mixing stigmatized. Another difference was that slavery in ancient times was not necessarily a permanent condition. In classical Greece and Rome, it was not uncommon for a person to sell himself into slavery as a means of paying outstanding debts. A contractual arrangement would be made establishing a term of years that individual would remain a slave; when that term ended, he was, once again, a free man. Nor was ancient slavery an inherited status. A third difference was that slaves in ancient times did not necessarily hold the lowest station in society. Positions that today command high salaries such as medical doctors were classified as slave labor in classical antiquity, and many scholars, poets, and teachers were categorized in the same manner. There are numerous examples found throughout the history of ancient slavery and slavery as it existed throughout the Islamic world where some of the most talented and powerful individuals were legally classified as slaves.
The development that marked the transition of slavery from what it was in ancient times to modern chattel slavery was the emergence of an intense, profit-making plantation economy that developed after the European colonization of the Americas began. After 1600, slaves had legal protections as older variations of slavery gave way to chattel slavery; the new slave was defined as property and, therefore, the status of slave would be inherited and passed down from generation to generation. The high demand for labor in the mines of Central and South America, the sugar plantations in Brazil, Cuba, and the Bahamas, and, later, the tobacco plantations in England’s Chesapeake colonies are responsible for bringing about these changes as well as a dramatic increase in the African slave trade. The heightened demand for slaves facilitated the growth of the transatlantic slave trade and the brutalizing experience known to history as the “middle passage.” Europeans increasingly turned to Africa as the primary source of slave labor. During the early developmental stages of the emerging plantation economy, the nature of slavery was redefined along racial lines. Once Europeans (particularly northern Europeans such as the Dutch, English, and French, as opposed to Europeans who lived in the Mediterranean region such as the Portuguese, Spanish, and Italians) and Africans came in contact, several factors made an impression on the Europeans. First, they noted that the Africans were not Christian. Second, from their point of view, African culture was primitive—although Africans maintained a highly sophisticated agrarian economy. Third, and most significantly, the Europeans took note of the Africans skin color—they were black.
At this juncture in global history, those who would be ranked among the fairest skinned peoples in the world came in direct contact with those who had the darkest skin. [Note: From this point forward, this essay will address the English perspective since it is the most relevant in connection with the origins of racism in American culture and its connection to the institution of slavery]. At this time, terms that were already present in the English language—black and white—were now applied to two different human groups to distinguish one from the other; complicating matters still further, these two terms were among the most emotionally loaded words in the English language. Consider for a moment pre-sixteenth-century meanings of the word “black”: Deeply stained with dirt; soiled, dirty, foul; having dark or deadly purposes, malignant; pertaining to or involving death, deadly, baneful, disastrous, sinister; iniquitous, atrocious, horrible, wicked; indicating disgrace, censure, liability to punishment. Conversely, pre–sixteenth-century connotations for the word “white” included such notions as innocence, purity, and virtue. In other words, “blackness” was the direct opposite of “whiteness”; now these two terms were extended to human groups, and the emotional baggage associated with the words was likewise extended.
As the first English colonies in North America were established, plantations in the Chesapeake preferred indentured servants rather than African slaves. This preference had more to do with economics than with cultural or racial views. A planter would only have to “pay” for an indentured servant at the end of the term of service; considering the harsh experience indentured servants faced—especially in the early colonial period—most of them died before their contract expired. The purchase of slave labor required the investment of capital up front; then, if the slave died or ran away, that initial expenditure would be lost along with the property. As long as the English crown was willing and able to maintain a steady flow of indentured servants into the colonies, American planters shied away from slave labor. For example, the first Africans to arrive in Jamestown in 1619 were parceled out to local planters as indentured servants, not as slaves. This situation persisted for decades. Some African indentured servants eventually secured their freedom and a parcel of land and made the transition from servant to planter quite successfully. Anthony Johnson, who most likely arrived in 1621 and was known only as “Antonio, a Negro,” stands as the best-known example of this process. Yet, even though Africans who arrived during the early period of colonial history were accorded the status of servant rather than slave, local statutes clearly relegated them to second-class status. This development obviously stemmed from the prevailing racial attitudes and ideas that “blacks” were biologically and culturally inferior to “whites” and thus should be viewed as legally and politically different. These very attitudes provided the fertile ground that would allow American slavery to grow as the supply of indentured servants steadily declined toward the middle of the seventeenth century.
By the early eighteenth century, slave labor was the preferred system among southern planters and was also a prevalent feature among northern farms and ports. As the American Revolution came and went, divergent trends began to reshape the economies of North and South and, consequently, the former sponsored gradual emancipation laws while southern reliance on slave labor increased. Northern support for emancipation, however, did not negate the racist views and attitudes white Americans held toward African Americans. Northern opposition to slavery should in no way be taken as tacit support for the extension of social and political equality between the two races. In the decades following the American Revolution, as more Americans pondered who should and should not be considered an American, the United States began to define itself as a “white man’s country”—a notion that completely belied its multicultural and multiethnic origins. Individuals who insist that the United States is a nation of exclusively English (i.e., Anglo-Saxon) origin can only make a justifiable case if they limit their view to legal and political traditions. Virtually every other aspect of American culture—from clothing, diet, art, and architecture to music—is derived from a wide variety of cultures ranging from Native American to African to Hispanic as well as different European cultural traditions.
Yet, by the 1830s, this sort of cultural blending was ignored as political leaders joined with the white majority to limit benefits and opportunities to white Americans. Evidence for this case lies in the limitations imposed on American women as well as the disparate treatment of African Americans, both slave and free. The U.S. Supreme Court officially sanctioned such distinctions in 1857 with the Dred Scot decision. In that case, the Court asserted that the framers of the Constitution had not included blacks—neither slaves nor free blacks—as part of the sovereign “people of the United States.” Consequently, the Court noted that blacks could “claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States.” Native Americans faced similar attitudes that were expressed in the logic behind the Indian Removal Act that cleared the land for the expansion of the southern plantation economy. This process extends to later periods of American history as well, as made evident by the relegation of Hispanics and Asian immigrants to second-class status in the far west after 1850 through English-only statutes. The trend continued well into the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries through the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the rationale behind the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War. The history of cross-cultural contact as the United States extended its territorial boundaries further west also led to the extension of the notion that the United States was a “white man’s country”; the situation slowly began to change as a result of various civil rights movements that developed in the post-World War II generation.
Racism in American culture and history ranks among the most difficult (not to mention controversial) topics of discussion. The situation has worsened in recent years primarily due to mistaken perceptions that too much emphasis is placed on white racism that, in turn, has contributed to a rise in practices characterized as “reverse discrimination.” One way to approach the topic of racism, and a particular emphasis on white racism, would be to remind students that throughout American history, the preponderance of political and economic power has always been in the hands of the white majority. As a result, the racial attitudes and ideas of white Americans are of greater consequence than those of other Americans. In other words, emphasis on white racism in an American history survey course should not be viewed as asserting that racism is exclusively white. Another problem stems from limited presentations that leave the perception that the racial divide is limited to white versus black. This perception can be countered by reminding students that racial attitudes and ideas shared by white Americans were extended whenever white Americans came in contact with different cultures collectively regarded as nonwhite.
This process can be illustrated by looking at a map of the United States and demonstrating that in the eastern United States, the racial divide was black and white; as the boundaries extended further west of the Mississippi into the Great Plains, it became Native American versus white (i.e., red versus white); in the southwest and far west, as Hispanics were incorporated into the American nation, the divide became brown versus white; and with increased interaction with Asian immigrants it became yellow versus white. Additionally, the rise of nativism in the latter half of the nineteenth century can illustrate how the complexities inherent within this topic transcend race. These difficulties, however, should not be used as an excuse to ignore the topic of racism in American culture; it is far too important to warrant such treatment.
The topic of slavery cannot be properly understood without studying the role racism played in the enslavement of Africans. By acknowledging that racism predates the emergence of chattel slavery necessitated by the emergent plantation economy, students can better understand how and why racism persisted for so long after the end of slavery and why racism is still such a divisive issue in contemporary American culture and politics.