Slavery and the origins of racism | by Lance Selfa

by Nov 1, 2011All Articles

IT IS commonly assumed that racism is as old as human society itself. As long as human beings have been around, the argument goes, they have always hated or feared people of a different nation or skin color. In other words, racism is just part of human nature.
Representative John L. Dawson, a member of Congress after the Civil War, insisted that racial prejudice was “implanted by Providence for wise purposes.” Senator James Doolittle of Wisconsin, a contemporary of Dawson’s, claimed that an “instinct of our nature” impelled us to sort people into racial categories and to recognize the natural supremacy of whites when compared to people with darker skins.1 More than a century later, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray produced The Bell Curve, an 800-page statistics-laden tome that purported to prove innate racial differences in intelligence. Today’s racists might don the mantel of science to justify their prejudices, but they are no less crude or mistaken then their 19th century forebears.
If racism is part of human nature, then socialists have a real challenge on their hands. If racism is hard-wired into human biology, then we should despair of workers ever overcoming the divisions between them to fight for a socialist society free of racial inequality. Fortunately, racism isn’t part of human nature. The best evidence for this assertion is the fact that racism has not always existed.
Racism is a particular form of oppression. It stems from discrimination against a group of people based on the idea that some inherited characteristic, such as skin color, makes them inferior to their oppressors. Yet the concepts of “race” and “racism” are modern inventions. They arose and became part of the dominant ideology of society in the context of the African slave trade at the dawn of capitalism in the 1500s and 1600s.
Although it is a commonplace for academics and opponents of socialism to claim that Karl Marx ignored racism, Marx in fact described the processes that created modern racism. His explanation of the rise of capitalism placed the African slave trade, the European extermination of indigenous people in the Americas, and colonialism at its heart. In Capital, Marx writes:
The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement, and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of the continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of black skins are all things that characterize the dawn of the era of capitalist production.2
Marx connected his explanation of the role of the slave trade in the rise of capitalism to the social relations that produced racism against Africans. In Wage Labor and Capital, written twelve years before the American Civil War, he explains:
What is a Negro slave? A man of the black race. The one explanation is as good as the other.
A Negro is a Negro. He only becomes a slave in certain relations. A cotton spinning jenny is a machine for spinning cotton. It only becomes capital in certain relations. Torn away from these conditions, it is as little capital as gold by itself is money, or as sugar is the price of sugar.3
In this passage, Marx shows no prejudice to Blacks (“a man of the black race,” “a Negro is a Negro”), but he mocks society’s equation of “Black” and “slave” (“one explanation is as good as another”). He shows how the economic and social relations of emerging capitalism thrust Blacks into slavery (“he only becomes a slave in certain relations”), which produce the dominant ideology that equates being African with being a slave.
These fragments of Marx’s writing give us a good start in understanding the Marxist explanation of the origins of racism. As the Trinidadian historian of slavery Eric Williams put it: “Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.”4 And, one should add, the consequence of modern slavery at the dawn of capitalism. While slavery existed as an economic system for thousands of years before the conquest of America, racism as we understand it today did not exist.
From time immemorial?
The classical empires of Greece and Rome were based on slave labor. But ancient slavery was not viewed in racial terms. Slaves were most often captives in wars or conquered peoples. If we understand white people as originating in what is today Europe, then most slaves in ancient Greece and Rome were white. Roman law made slaves the property of their owners, while maintaining a “formal lack of interest in the slave’s ethnic or racial provenance.” Over the years, slave manumission produced a mixed population of slave and free in Roman-ruled areas in which all came to be seen as “Romans.”5 The Greeks drew a sharper line between Greeks and “barbarians,” those subject to slavery. Again, this was not viewed in racial or ethnic terms, as the socialist historian of the Haitian Revolution, C.L.R. James, explained:
[H]istorically it is pretty well proved now that the ancient Greeks and Romans knew nothing about race. They had another standard—civilized and barbarian—and you could have white skin and be a barbarian and you could be black and civilized.6
More importantly, encounters in the ancient world between the Mediterranean world and black Africans did not produce an upsurge of racism against Africans. In Before Color Prejudice, Howard University classics professor Frank Snowden documented innumerable accounts of interaction between the Greco-Roman and Egyptian civilizations and the Kush, Nubian, and Ethiopian kingdoms of Africa. He found substantial evidence of integration of black Africans in the occupational hierarchies of the ancient Mediterranean empires and Black-white intermarriage. Black and mixed race gods appeared in Mediterranean art, and at least one Roman emperor, Septimius Severus, was an African. Snowden concluded:
There is little doubt that many blacks were physically assimilated into the predominantly white population of the Mediterranean world, in which there were no institutional barriers or social pressures against black-white unions. In antiquity, then, black-white sexual relations were never the cause of great emotional crisesÖ.The ancient pattern, similar in some respects to the Mahgrebian and the Latin American attitude toward racial mixture, probably contributed to the absence of a pronounced color prejudice in antiquity.7
Between the 10th and 16th centuries, the chief source of slaves in Western Europe was Eastern Europe. In fact, the word “slave” comes from the word “Slav,” the people of Eastern Europe. In the Middle Ages, most people sold into slavery in Europe came from Eastern Europe, the Slavic countries. In Eastern Europe, Russia stood out as the major area where slaveholders and slaves were of the same ethnicity. Of course, by modern-day racial descriptions the Slavs and Russian slaves were white.8
This outline doesn’t mean to suggest a “pre-capitalist” Golden Age of racial tolerance, least of all in the slave societies of antiquity. Empires viewed themselves as centers of the universe and looked on foreigners as inferiors. Ancient Greece and Rome fought wars of conquest against peoples they presumed to be less advanced. Religious scholars interpreted the Hebrew Bible’s “curse of Ham” from the story of Noah to condemn Africans to slavery. Cultural and religious associations of the color white with light and angels and the color black with darkness and evil persisted. But none of these cultural or ideological factors explain the rise of New World slavery or the “modern” notions of racism that developed from it.
The African slave trade
The slave trade lasted for a little more than 400 years, from the midñ1400s when the Portuguese made their first voyages down the African coast, to the abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1888. Slave traders took as many as 12 million Africans by force to work on the plantations in South America, the Caribbean, and North America. About 13 percent of slaves (1.5 million) died during the Middle Passage—the trip by boat from Africa to the New World. The African slave trade—involving African slave merchants, European slavers, and New World planters in the traffic in human cargo—represented the greatest forced population transfer ever.9
The charge that Africans “sold their own people” into slavery has become a standard canard against “politically correct” history that condemns the European role in the African slave trade.10 The first encounters of the Spanish, Portuguese, and later the English with African kingdoms revolved around trade in goods. Only after the Europeans established New World plantations requiring huge labor gangs did the slave trade begin. African kings and chiefs did indeed sell into slavery captives in wars or members of other communities. Sometimes they concluded alliances with Europeans to support them in wars, with captives from their enemies being handed over to the Europeans as booty. The demands of the plantation economies pushed “demand” for slaves. Supply did not create its own demand. In any event, it remains unseemly to attempt to absolve the European slavers by reference to their African partners in crime. As historian Basil Davidson rightly argues about African chiefs’ complicity in the slave trade: “In this they were no less ëmoral’ than the Europeans who had instigated the trade and bought the captives.”11
Onboard, Africans were restricted in their movements so that they wouldn’t combine to mutiny on the ship. In many slave ships, slaves were chained down, stacked like firewood with less than a foot between them, as this account describes:
The space was so low and they sat between each other’s legs, and stowed so close together, that there was no possibility of lying down, or at all changing their position, by night or by day. As they belonged to, and were shipped on account of different individuals, they were all branded like sheep, with their owners’ marks of different forms.12
On the plantations, slaves were subjected to a regimen of 18-hour workdays. All members of slave families were set to work. Since the New World tobacco and sugar plantations operated nearly like factories, men, women and children were assigned tasks from the fields to the processing mills.
Slaves were denied any rights. Throughout the colonies in the Caribbean to North America, laws were passed establishing a variety of common practices: Slaves were forbidden to carry weapons, they could marry only with the owner’s permission, and their families could be broken up. They were forbidden to own property. Masters allowed slaves to cultivate vegetables and chickens so the master wouldn’t have to attend to their food needs. But they were forbidden even to sell for profit the products of their own gardens. Some colonies encouraged religious instruction among slaves, but all of them made clear that a slave’s conversion to Christianity didn’t change their status as slaves. Other colonies discouraged religious instruction, especially when it became clear to the planters that church meetings were one of the chief ways that slaves planned conspiracies and revolts. It goes without saying that slaves had no political or civil rights, with no right to an education, no right to serve on juries, no right to vote, or to run for public office.
The planters instituted barbaric regimes of repression to prevent any slave revolts. Slave catchers using tracker dogs would hunt down any slaves who tried to escape the plantation. The penalties for any form of slave resistance were extreme and deadly. One description of the penalties slaves faced in Barbados reports that rebellious slaves would be punished by “nailing them down on the ground with crooked sticks on every Limb, and then applying the Fire by degrees from Feet and Hands, burning them gradually up to the Head, whereby their pains are extravagant.” Barbados planters could claim a reimbursement from the government of 25 pounds per slave executed.13
The African slave trade helped to shape a wide variety of societies from modern Argentina to Canada. These differed in their use of slaves, the harshness of the regime imposed on slaves, and the degree of mixing of the races that custom and law permitted. But none of these became as virulently racist—insisting on racial separation and a strict color bar—as the English North American colonies that became the United States.14
Unfree labor in the North American colonies
Notwithstanding the horrible conditions African slaves endured, it is important to underscore that when European powers began carving up the New World between them, African slaves were not part of their calculations. When we think of slavery today, we think of it primarily from the point of view of its relationship to racism. But planters in the 17th and 18th centuries looked at it primarily as a means to produce profits for them. Slavery was a method of organizing labor to produce sugar, tobacco, and cotton. It was not, first and foremost, a system for producing white supremacy. How did slavery in the U.S. (and the rest of the New World) become the breeding ground for racism?
For much of the first century of colonization in what became the United States, the majority of slaves and other “unfree laborers” were white. The term “unfree” draws the distinction between slavery and servitude and “free wage labor” that is the norm in capitalism. One of the historic gains of capitalism for workers is that workers are “free” to sell their ability to labor to whatever employer will give them the best deal. Of course, this kind of freedom is limited at best. Unless they are independently wealthy, workers aren’t free to decide not to work. They’re free to work or starve. Once they do work, they can quit one employer and go to work for another. But the hallmark of systems like slavery and indentured servitude was that slaves or servants were “bound over” to a particular employer for a period of time or for life in the case of slaves. The decision to work for another master wasn’t the slave’s or the servant’s. It was the master’s, who could sell slaves for money or other commodities like livestock, lumber, or machinery.
The North American colonies started predominantly as private business enterprises in the early 1600s. Unlike the Spanish, whose conquests of Mexico and Peru in the 1500s produced fabulous gold and silver riches for Spain, settlers in places like the colonies that became Maryland, Rhode Island, and Virginia made money through agriculture. In addition to sheer survival, the settlers’ chief aim was to obtain a labor force that could produce the large amounts of indigo, tobacco, sugar, and other crops that would be sold back to England. From 1607, when Jamestown was founded in Virginia to about 1685, the primary source of agricultural labor in English North America came from white indentured servants.
The colonists first attempted to press the indigenous population into labor. But the Indians refused to be become servants to the English. Indians resisted being forced to work, and they escaped into the surrounding area, which, after all, they knew far better than the English. One after another, the English colonies turned to a policy of driving out the Indians. They then turned to white servants. Indentured servants were predominantly young white men—usually English or Irish—who were required to work for a planter master for some fixed term of four to seven years. They received room and board on the plantation but no pay. And they could not quit and work for another planter. They had to serve their term, after which they might be able to acquire some land and to start a farm for themselves. They became servants in several ways. Some were prisoners, convicted of petty crimes in Britain, or convicted of being troublemakers in Britain’s first colony, Ireland. Many were kidnapped off the streets of Liverpool or Manchester and put on ships to the New World. Some voluntarily became servants, hoping to start farms after they fulfilled their obligations to their masters.15
For most of the 1600s, the planters tried to get by with a predominantly white, but multiracial workforce. But as the 17th century wore on, colonial leaders became increasingly frustrated with white servant labor. For one thing, they faced the problem of constantly having to recruit labor as servants’ terms expired. Second, after servants finished their contracts and decided to set up their farms, they could become competitors to their former masters. And finally, the planters didn’t like the servants’ “insolence.” The midñ1600s were a time of revolution in England, when ideas of individual freedom were challenging the old hierarchies based on royalty. The colonial planters tended to be royalists, but their servants tended to assert their “rights as Englishmen” to better food, clothing, and time off. Most laborers in the colonies supported the servants. As the century progressed, the costs of servant labor increased. Planters started to petition the colonial boards and assemblies to allow the large-scale importation of African slaves.
Black slaves worked on plantations in small numbers throughout the 1600s. But until the end of the 1600s, it cost planters more to buy slaves than to buy white servants. Blacks lived in the colonies in a variety of statuses—some were free, some were slaves, some were servants. The law in Virginia didn’t establish the condition of lifetime, perpetual slavery or even recognize African servants as a group different from white servants until 1661. Blacks could serve on juries, own property, and exercise other rights. Northampton County, Virginia, recognized interracial marriages and, in one case, assigned a free Black couple to act as foster parents for an abandoned white child. There were even a few examples of Black freemen who owned white servants. Free Blacks in North Carolina had voting rights.16 In the 1600s, the Chesapeake society of eastern Virginia had a multiracial character:
There is persuasive evidence dating from the 1620s through the 1680s that there were those of European descent in the Chesapeake who were prepared to identify and cooperate with people of African descent. These affinities were forged in the world of plantation work. On many plantations Europeans and West Africans labored side by side in the tobacco fields, performing exactly the same types and amounts of work; they lived and ate together in shared housing; they socialized together; and sometimes they slept together.17
A white servants’ ditty of the time said, “We and the Negroes both alike did fare/Of work and food we had equal share.”
The planters’ economic calculations played a part in the colonies’ decision to move towards full-scale slave labor. By the end of the 17th century, the price of white indentured servants outstripped the price of African slaves. A planter could buy an African slave for life for the same price that he could purchase a white servant for ten years. As Eric Williams explained:
Here, then, is the origin of Negro slavery. The reason was economic, not racial; it had to do not with the color of the laborer, but the cheapness of the labor.Ö[The planter] would have gone to the moon, if necessary, for labor. Africa was nearer than the moon, nearer too than the more populous countries of India and China. But their turn would soon come.18
Planters’ fear of a multiracial uprising also pushed them towards racial slavery. Because a rigid racial division of labor didn’t exist in the 17th century colonies, many conspiracies involving Black slaves, servants, and white indentured servants were hatched and foiled. We know about them today because of court proceedings that punished the runaways after their capture. As historians T.H. Breen and Stephen Innes point out, “These casesÖreveal only extreme actions, desperate attempts to escape, but for every group of runaways who came before the courts there were doubtless many more poor whites and blacks who cooperated in smaller, less daring ways on the plantation.”19
The largest of these conspiracies developed into Bacon’s Rebellion, an uprising that threw terror into the hearts of the Virginia Tidewater planters in 1676. Several hundred farmers, servants, and slaves initiated a protest to press the colonial government to seize Indian land for distribution. The conflict spilled over into demands for tax relief and resentment of the Jamestown establishment. Planter Nathaniel Bacon helped organize an army of whites and Blacks that sacked Jamestown and forced the governor to flee. The rebel army held out for eight months before the Crown managed to defeat and disarm it.20
Bacon’s Rebellion was a turning point. After it ended, the Tidewater planters moved in two directions: first, they offered concessions to the white freemen, lifting taxes and extending to them the vote; and second, they moved to full-scale racial slavery. Fifteen years earlier, the Burgesses had recognized the condition of slavery for life and placed Africans in a different category as white servants. But the law had practical effect. “Until slavery became systematic, there was no need for a systematic slave code. And slavery could not become systematic so long as an African slave for life cost twice as much as an English servant for a five-year term,” wrote historian Barbara Jeanne Fields.21 Both of those circumstances changed in the immediate aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion. In the entire 17th century, the planters imported about 20,000 African slaves. The majority of them were brought to North American colonies in the 24 years after Bacon’s Rebellion.
In 1664, the Maryland legislature passed a law determining who would be considered slaves on the basis of the condition of their father—whether their father was slave or free. It soon became clear, however, that establishing paternity was difficult, but that establishing who was a person’s mother was definite. So the planters changed the law to establish slave status on the basis of the mother’s condition. Now white slaveholders who fathered children by slave women would be guaranteed their offspring as slaves. And the law included penalties for “free” women who slept with slaves. But what’s most interesting about this law is that it doesn’t really speak in racial terms. It attempts to preserve the property rights of slaveholders and establish barriers between slave and free which were to become hardened into racial divisions over the next few years.
Taking the Maryland law as an example, Fields made this important point:
Historians can actually observe colonial Americans in the act of preparing the ground for race without foreknowledge of what would later arise on the foundation they were laying.Ö [T]he purpose of the experiment is clear: to prevent the erosion of slaveowners’ property rights that would result if the offspring of free white women impregnated by slave men were entitled to freedom. The language of the preamble to the law makes clear that the point was not yet race.Ö
Race does not explain the law. Rather, the law shows society in the act of inventing race.22
After establishing that African slaves would cultivate major cash crops of the North American colonies, the planters then moved to establish the institutions and ideas that would uphold white supremacy. Most unfree labor became Black labor. Laws and ideas intended to underscore the subhuman status of Black people—in a word, the ideology of racism and white supremacy—emerged full-blown over the next generation.
“All men are created equal”
Within a few decades, the ideology of white supremacy was fully developed. Some of the greatest minds of the day—such as Scottish philosopher David Hume and Thomas Jefferson, the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence‹wrote treatises alleging Black inferiority. The ideology of white supremacy based on the natural inferiority of Blacks, even allegations that Blacks were subhuman, strengthened throughout the 18th century. This was the way that the leading intellectual figures of the time reconciled the ideals of the 1776 American Revolution with slavery. The American Revolution of 1776 and later the French Revolution of 1789 popularized the ideas of liberty and the rights of all human beings. The Declaration of Independence asserts that “all menèare created equal” and possess certain “unalienable rights”—rights that can’t be taken away‹of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
As the first major bourgeois revolution, the American Revolution sought to establish the rights of the new capitalist class against the old feudal monarchy. It started with the resentment of the American merchant class that wanted to break free from British restrictions on its trading partners. But its challenge to British tyranny also gave expression to a whole range of ideas that expanded the concept of “liberty” from being just about trade to include ideas of human rights, democracy, and civil liberties. It legitimized an assault on slavery as an offense to liberty, so that some of the leading American revolutionaries, such as Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin, endorsed abolition. Slaves and free Blacks also pointed to the ideals of the revolution to call for getting rid of slavery.
But because the revolution aimed to establish the rule of capital in America, and because a lot of capitalists and planters made a lot of money from slavery, the revolution compromised with slavery. The Declaration initially contained a condemnation of King George for allowing the slave trade, but Jefferson dropped it following protests from representatives from Georgia and the Carolinas. How could the founding fathers of the U.S.—most of whom owned slaves themselves—reconcile the ideals of liberty for which they were fighting with the existence of a system that represented the exact negation of liberty?
The ideology of white supremacy fit the bill. We know today that “all men” didn’t include women, Indians, or most Blacks. But to rule Black slaves out of the blessings of liberty, the leading head-fixers of the time argued that Blacks weren’t really “men,” they were a lower order of being. Jefferson’s Notes from Virginia, meant to be a scientific catalog of the flora and fauna of Virginia, uses arguments that anticipate the “scientific racism” of the 1800s and 1900s. With few exceptions, no major institution—such as the universities, the churches, or the newspapers of the time—raised criticisms of white supremacy or of slavery. In fact, they helped pioneer religious and academic justifications for slavery and Black inferiority. As C.L.R. James put it, “[T]he conception of dividing people by race begins with the slave trade. This thing was so shocking, so opposed to all the conceptions of society which religion and philosophers hadÖthat the only justification by which humanity could face it was to divide people into races and decide that the Africans were an inferior race.”23
White supremacy wasn’t only used to justify slavery. It was also used to keep in line the two-thirds of Southern whites who weren’t slaveholders. Unlike the French colony of St. Domingue or the British colony of Barbados, where Blacks vastly outnumbered whites, Blacks represented a minority in the slave South. A tiny minority of slave-holding whites, who controlled the governments and economies of the Deep South states, ruled over a population that was roughly two-thirds white farmers and workers and one-third Black slaves. The slaveholders’ ideology of racism and white supremacy helped to divide the working population, tying poor whites to the slaveholders. Slavery afforded poor white farmers what Fields called a “social space” whereby they preserved an illusory “independence” based on debt and subsistence farming while the rich planters continued to dominate Southern politics and society. “A caste system as well as a form of labor,” historian James M. McPherson wrote, “slavery elevated all whites to the ruling caste and thereby reduced the potential for class conflict.”24
The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass understood this dynamic:
The hostility between the whites and blacks of the South is easily explained. It has its root and sap in the relation of slavery, and was incited on both sides by the poor whites and the blacks by putting enmity between them. They divided both to conquer each.Ö[Slaveholders denounced emancipation as] tending to put the white working man on an equality with Blacks, and by this means, they succeed in drawing off the minds of the poor whites from the real fact, that by the rich slave-master, they are already regarded as but a single remove from equality with the slave.25
Slavery and capitalism
Slavery in the colonies helped produce a boom in the 18th century economy that provided the launching pad for the industrial revolution in Europe. From the start, colonial slavery and capitalism were linked. While it is not correct to say that slavery created capitalism, it is correct to say that slavery provided one of the chief sources for the initial accumulations of wealth that helped to propel capitalism forward in Europe and North America.
Throughout the 1700s, what was called the “triangular trade” developed between the colonies, European mother countries (in this case England), and the West African coast. Ships carrying slave-produced sugar, indigo, tobacco, or rice departed the colonies to England, where they were exchanged for manufactured goods. Ships carrying manufactured goods, fabrics, guns, and other finished products traveled from England to Africa where their cargoes were traded for slaves. Then the ships carrying slaves sailed to the colonies, where they were sold for a cargo of colonial produce to be taken back to England—and to start the circuit all over again. By 1750, hardly any trading town in the colonies or in England stood outside the triangular trade. The profits that were squeezed out of the triangular trade formed that capital that led to the boom that made Britain the first major capitalist power.
The triangular trade stimulated the development of whole new industries in England—rum distillation, sugar refining, cotton manufacturing, and metallurgy (for producing guns and shackles). The profits from these industries, as well as from slave trading itself, helped underwrite some of the biggest names in British capitalism. Two slave traders, David and Alexander Barclay, used their profits to establish Barclay’s Bank. Lloyds of London started as a coffee import house dependent on the slave trade. It later became one of the biggest insurance conglomerates in the world. The well-known sugar-refining corporation Tate & Lyle, made its first profits from slavery. Profits from the slave trade also helped finance James Watts’ invention of the steam engine.26
The clearest example of the connection between plantation slavery and the rise of industrial capitalism was the connection between the cotton South, Britain and, to a lesser extent, the Northern industrial states. Here we can see the direct link between slavery in the U.S. and the development of the most advanced capitalist production methods in the world. Cotton textiles accounted for 75 percent of British industrial employment in 1840, and, at its height, three-fourths of that cotton came from the slave plantations of the Deep South. And Northern ships and ports transported the cotton.
To meet the boom in the 1840s and 1850s, the planters became even more vicious. On the one hand, they tried to expand slavery into the West and Central America. The fight over the extension of slavery into the territories eventually precipitated the Civil War in 1861. On the other hand, they drove slaves harder—selling more cotton to buy more slaves just to keep up. On the eve of the Civil War, the South was petitioning to lift the ban on the importation of slaves that had existed officially since 1808.
Marx clearly understood the connection between plantation slavery in the cotton South and the development of capitalism in England. He wrote in Capital:
While the cotton industry introduced child-slavery into England, in the United States it gave the impulse for the transformation of the more or less patriarchal slavery into a system of commercial exploitation. In fact, the veiled slavery of the wage-laborers in Europe needed the unqualified slavery of the New World as its pedestal.ÖCapital comes dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt.27
Racism after slavery
The close connection between slavery and capitalism, and thus, between racism and capitalism, gives the lie to those who insist that slavery would have just died out. In fact, the South was more dependent on slavery right before the Civil War than it was 50 or 100 years earlier. Slavery lasted as long as it did because it was profitable. And it was profitable to the richest and most “well-bred” people in the world.
Slave production was inefficient from the point of view of industrial capitalism. The comparison between the industrial North and the Confederacy illustrates this. As capitalism developed it had less need to use slave labor. In Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, for instance, representatives of some the biggest industrial capitalists called for an end to the slave trade and even abolition. This wasn’t because industrial capitalists opposed slavery on principle, but because they didn’t like the degree to which planters won government policies favorable to them. In 1807 and 1833, the British Parliament passed laws outlawing slavery.28
In the United States, the Civil War abolished slavery and struck a great blow to racism. But racism itself wasn’t abolished. On the contrary, just as racism was created to justify colonial slavery, racism as an ideology was refashioned. It now no longer justified the enslavement of Blacks, but it justified second-class status for Blacks as wage laborers and sharecroppers.
Racist ideology was also refashioned to justify imperialist conquest at the turn of the last century. As a handful of competing world powers vied to carve up the globe into colonial preserves for cheap raw materials and labor, racism served as a convenient justification. The vast majority of the world’s people were now portrayed as inferior races, incapable of determining their own future. Slavery disappeared, but racism remained as a means to justify the enslavement of millions of people by the U.S., various European powers, and later Japan.
Racism also remained one of the main ways that the ruling class used to keep Blacks and white workers divided. Karl Marx remarked on a similar division between English and Irish workers in Britain, comparing it to the division between Blacks and poor whites in the U.S.:
Every industrial and commercial center in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he feels himself a member of the ruling nation and so turns himself into a tool of the aristocrats and capitalists of his country against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude toward him is much the same as that of the “poor whites” to the “niggers” in the former slave states of the U.S.A.
This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organization.29
In his famous passage on the antagonism between English and Irish workers in Britain in the end of the 19th century, Marx outlined the main sources of racism under modem capitalism. By its nature, capitalism fosters competition between workers. Bosses take advantage of this in two ways: first, to deliberately stoke divisions between workers; second, to appeal to racist ideology.
Capitalism forces workers to compete for jobs, for affordable housing, for admittance to schools, for credit, etc. When capitalism restructures, it replaces workers with machines and higher-paid workers with lower-paid workers. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, U.S. bosses used the surplus of cheap labor immigration provided to substitute unskilled workers for skilled (generally white, native workers), “triggering a nativist reaction among craft workers.”30 Today, restructuring in U.S. industry makes many U.S. workers open to nationalist appeals to “protect their jobs” against low-wage competition from Mexico.
Bosses seek to leverage this competition to their advantage. “Keep a variety of laborers, that is different nationalities, and thus prevent any concerted action in case of strikes, for there are few, if any, cases of Laps, Chinese, and Portuguese entering into a strike as a unit,” advised Hawaiian plantation managers in the early 1900s.31 Here was a fairly stark example of the bosses’ conscious use of racism to divide the workforce. Today, bosses continue to do the same, as when they hire nonwhite strikebreakers against a strike of predominantly white workers. And politicians never stand above playing “the race card” if it suits them.
Racism serves the bosses’ interests and bosses foster racism consciously, but these points do not explain why workers can accept racist explanations for their conditions. The competition between workers that is an inherent feature of capitalism can be played out as competition (or perceived competition) between workers of different racial groups. Because it seems to correspond with some aspect of reality, racism thus can become part of white workers’ “common sense.” This last point is important because it explains the persistence of racist ideas.
Because racism is woven right into the fabric of capitalism, new forms of racism arose with changes in capitalism. As the U.S. economy expanded and underpinned U.S. imperial expansion, imperialist racism—which asserted that the U.S. had a right to dominate other peoples, such as Mexicans and Filipinos—developed. As the U.S. economy grew and sucked in millions of immigrant laborers, anti-immigrant racism developed. But these are both different forms of the same ideology—of white supremacy and division of the world into “superior” and “inferior” races—that had their origins in slavery.
What does this discussion mean for us today? First, racism is not part of some unchanging human nature. It was literally invented. And so it can be torn down. Second, despite the overwhelming ideological hold of white supremacy, people always resisted it—from the slaves themselves to white anti-racists.
Understanding racism in this way informs the strategy that we use to combat racism. Antiracist education is essential, but it is not enough. Because it treats racism only as a question of “bad ideas” it does not address the underlying material conditions that give rise to the acceptance of racism among large sections of workers.32›Thoroughly undermining the hold of racism on large sections of workers requires three conditions: first, a broader class fightback that unites workers across racial lines; second, attacking the conditions (bad jobs, housing, education, etc.) that give rise to the appeal of racism among large sections of workers; and third, the conscious intervention of antiracists to oppose racism in all its manifestations and to win support for interracial class solidarity.
The hold of racism breaks down when the class struggle against the bosses forces workers to seek solidarity across racial lines. Socialists believe that such class unity is possible because white workers have an objective interest in fighting racism. Theðinfluence of racism on white workers is a question of their consciousness, not a question of some material bribe from the system they receive. Struggle creates conditions by which racism can be challenged and defeated.
Racism and capitalism have been intertwined since the beginning of capitalism. You can’t have capitalism without racism. Therefore, the final triumph over racism will only come when we abolish the source of racism—capitalism—and build a new socialist society.
1 These members of Congress quoted in Forrest G. Wood, Black Scare (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), p. 2.
2 Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1 (New York: Vintage, 1977), p. 915.
3 Karl Marx, Wage Labor and Capital/Value, Price and Profit (New York: International Publishers, 1997), p. 28.
4 Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (New York: Perigee Books, 1980), p. 7.
5 Robin Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery (New York: Verso, 1997), p. 35.
6 C.L.R. James quoted in Pete Alexander, Racism, Resistance and Revolution (London: Bookmarks, 1987), p. 5.
7 Frank Snowden, Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983), p. 97.
8 Blackburn, p. 54.
9 For these estimates, see Blackburn, p. 3 and Basil Davidson, The African Slave Trade (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1980), pp. 95ñ98.
10 See, for example, Dinesh D’Souza’s charges that Stanford’s multicultural curriculum whitewashes the African role in the slave trade in Illiberal Education (New York: Free Press, 1991), pp. 76ñ77.
11 Davidson, p. 285.
12 An account from an Englishman named Walsh in 1829, describing a captured slave ship, in Davidson, p. 13.
13 Blackburn, p. 345.
14 See Gary Nash’s comparison of the different attitudes to racial intermixture in English North America and Spanish South America in Red, White and Black (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1974), pp. 285ñ290.
15 Betty Wood, The Origins of American Slavery (New York: Hill & Wang, 1997), pp. 75ñ77; Nash, pp. 217ñ220.
16 On Black voting rights in North Carolina, see Alexander Keyssar, The Right to Vote (New York: Basic Books, 2000), p. 6.
17 Wood, p. 82.
18 Williams, pp. 19ñ20.
19 T.H. Breen and Stephen Innes, “Mine Owne Ground”: Race & Freedom on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, 1640ñ1676 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 30.
20 Nash, pp. 127ñ134 emphasizes the anti-Indian roots of Bacon’s Rebellion. Howard Zinn discusses its interracial class content in A People’s History of the United States (New York: HarperCollins, 1999), pp. 39ñ42.
21 Barbara Jeanne Fields, “Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America,” New Left Review (JanuaryñFebruary, 1990), p. 104. This is an excellent article and well worth reading.
22 Fields, p. 107.
23 James quoted in Alexander, p. 6.
24 James M. McPherson, The Battle Cry of Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 199.
25 Douglass quoted in Ahmed Shawki, “Black Liberation and Socialism in the United States,” International Socialism Journal, issue 47 (Summer 1990), p. 5.
26 Williams, pp. 98ñ107.
27 Marx, Capital, Vol. I, p. 925.
28 Williams, pp. 154ñ177.
29 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question (New York: International Publishers, 1972), pp. 293ñ294.
30 Steven Steinberg, The Ethnic Myth, 2nd edition. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989), p. 38.
31 Quoted in Ronald Takaki, A Different Mirror (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 1993), p. 252.
32 It should be noted, however, that public opinion surveys over the last 30 years have documented a huge shift in an antiracist direction.
International Socialist Review Issue 26
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