The Birth of Slavery
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarnation in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander (New York/London: The New Press, 2010) pages 22–26.
Back there, before Jim Crow, before the invention of the Negro or the white man or the words and concepts to describe them, the Colonial population consisted largely of a great mass of white and black bondsmen, who occupied roughly the same economic category and were treated with equal contempt by the lords of the plantations and legislatures. Curiously unconcerned about their color, these people worked together and relaxed together.1
—Lerone Benette Jr.
The concept of race is a relatively recent development. Only in the past few centuries, owing largely to European imperialism, have the world’s people been classified along racial lines.2 Here, in America, the idea of race emerged as a means of reconciling chattel slavery—as well as the extermination of American Indians—with the ideals of freedom preached by whites in the new colonies.
In the early colonial period, when settlements remained relatively small, indentured servitude was the dominant means of securing cheap labor. Under this system, whites and blacks struggled to survive against a common enemy, what historian Lerone Bennett Jr. describes as “the big planter apparatus and a social system that legalized terror against black and white bondsmen.”3 Initially, blacks brought to this country were not all enslaved; many were treated as indentured servants. As plantation farming expanded, particularly tobacco and cotton farming, demand increased greatly for both labor and land.
The demand for land was met by invading and conquering larger and larger swaths of territory. American Indians became a growing impediment to white European “progress,” and during this period, the images of American Indians promoted in books, newspapers, and magazines became increasingly negative. As sociologists Keith Kilty and Eric Swank have observed, eliminating “savages” is less of a moral problem than eliminating human beings, and therefore American Indians came to be understood as a lesser race—uncivilized savages—thus providing a justification for the extermination of the native peoples.4
The growing demand for labor
on plantations was met through slavery.
American Indians were considered unsuitable as slaves, largely because
native tribes were clearly in a position to fight back. The fear of raids by Indian tribes led plantation
owners to grasp for an alternative source of free labor. European immigrants were also deemed poor
candidates for slavery, not because of their race, but rather because there
were in short supply and enslavement would, quite naturally, interfere with
voluntary immigration to the new colonies.
Nathaniel Bacon was a white property owner in Jamestown, Virginia, who managed to unite slaves, indentured servants, and poor whites in a revolutionary effort to overthrow the planter elite. Although slaves clearly occupied the lowest position in the social hierarchy and suffered the most under the plantation system the condition of indentured whites was barely better, and the majority of free whites lived in extreme poverty. As explained by historian Edmund Morgan, in colonies like Virginia, the planter elite, with huge land grants, occupied a vastly superior position to workers of all colors.5 Southern colonies did not hesitate to invent ways to extend the terms of servitude, and the planter class accumulated uncultivated lands to restrict the options of free workers. The simmering resentment against the planter class created conditions that were ripe for revolt.
Varying accounts of Bacon’s
rebellion abound, but the basic facts are these: Bacon developed plans in 1675 to seize Native
American lands in order to acquire more property for himself and others and
nullify the threat of Indian raids. When
the planter elite in
In an effort to protect their
superior status and economic position, the planters shifted their strategy for
maintaining dominance. They abandoned
their heavy reliance on indentured servants in favor of the importation of more
black slaves. Instead of importing English
speaking slaves from the West Indies, who were more likely to be familiar with European
language and culture, many more slaves were shipped directly from
Fearful that such measures might not be sufficient to protect their interest, the planter class took an additional precautionary step, a step that would later come to be known as a “racial bribe.” Deliberately and strategically, the planter class extended special privileges to poor whites in an effort to drive a wedge between them and black slaves. White servants were allowed to police slaves through slave patrols and militias, and barriers were created so that free labor would not be placed in competition with slave labor. These measures effectively eliminated the risk of future alliances between black slaves and poor whites. Poor whites suddenly had a direct, personal stake in the existence of a race-based system of slavery. Their own plight had not improved by much, but at least they were not slaves. Once the planter elite split the labor force, poor whites responded to the logic of their situation and sought ways to expand their racially privileged position.6
By the mid-1770s, the system
of bond labor had been thoroughly transformed into a racial caste system
predicated on slavery. The degraded
status of Africans was justified on the ground that Negroes, like the Indians,
were an uncivilized lesser race, perhaps even more lacking in intelligence and
laudable human qualities that the red-skinned Indians natives. The notion of white supremacy rationalized
the enslavement of Africans, even as whites endeavored to form a new nation
based on the ideals of equality, liberty, and justice for all. Before democracy, chattel slavery in
It may be impossible to overstate the significance of race in defining the basic structure of American society. The structure and content of the original Constitution was based largely on the effort to preserve a racial caste system—slavery—while at the same time affording political and economic rights to whites, especially propertied whites. The southern slaveholding colonies would agree to form a union only on the condition that the federal government would not be able to interfere with the right to own slaves. Northern white elites were sympathetic to the demand for their “property rights” to be respected, as they, too, wanted the Constitution to protect their property interest. As James Madison put it, the nation ought to be constituted “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.”7 Consequently, the Constitution was designed so the federal government would be weak, not only in its relationship to private property, but also in relationship to the rights of states, to conduct their own affairs. The language of the Constitution itself was deliberately colorblind (the words Slave or Negro were never used), but the document was built upon a compromise regarding the prevailing racial caste system. Federalism—the division of power between the states and the federal government—was the device employed to protect the institution of slavery and the political power of slaveholding states. Even the method for determining proportional representation in Congress and identifying the winner of a presidential election (the Electoral College) were specifically developed with the interest of slaveholders in mind. Under the terms of our country’s founding document, slaves were defined as three fifths of a man, not a real whole human being. Upon this racist fiction rests the entire structure of American democracy.
1. Lerone Bennett Jr., The Shaping of Black
2. For and excellent analysis of the development of race as
a social construct in the
3. Bennett, Shaping of Black
4. Keith Kilty and Eric Swank, “Institutional Racism and Media Representations: Depictions of Violent Criminals and Welfare Recipients,” Sociological Imagination 34, no. 2–3 (1997),: 106.
6. Ibid., see also Leslie Carr, Color-Blind Racism (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1997), 14–16.
7. Gerald Fresia, Toward an American Revolution: Exposing the Constitution and Other Illusions (Boston: South End Press, 1998), 55.