Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Why don't we ever talk about the origins of racism?

We speak a great deal about racism and "slavery" in grammar school, but that's just about the end of our society's education on race relations (excepting the elite who attend college, about 1 out of every 300, and even then a smaller number of them attend classes that deal with race relations). Rarely, however, do our discussions include specifics on either treatment (beyond "whips and chains", which of course are the most palpable and least horrific of the treatment of Africans by slavers) or the origins of the racism that allowed whites in America to stomach the inhumanity.

In order to better educate ourselves, we need to go back to the roots (no pun intended) of slave use in the American colonies. Since Jamestown is the first permanent English colony, we'll use that as an example. The Jamestown colonists were beholden to investors; namely, the Virginia Company of London. These investors expected significant returns in a very short period of time (considering that the trip took around 140 days, and they were starving even as the investors demanded a return). Now, the settlers didn't have much time to try to pay their investors as their Fort Burned to the ground and the winter of 1609 killed 154 of the 214 colonists. So, after relying on 'trade' with Native Americans (largely charity on the part of the natives), John Rolfe (who later married Pocahontas) began to plant and farm tobacco. He was hugely successful in this endeavor and obtained capital so early that it's still alive today in many of Virginia's "First Families". Finally, the investors saw not only a return, but opportunity for further investment. 1617 is largely regarded as the year that the colony became profitable, exporting around 50,000 pounds of tobacco to England. Of course, this growth was completely unsustainable; there simply weren't enough colonists. Like any good capitalists (though the term would not be coined until later in 1792 by Arthur Young), the investors took the next logical step and began to exploit everyone they could in the form of slavery.

Of course, when we use the term "slavery" here, we don't mean the same brutal conditions and inhumane treatment as we do when we use the term to refer to African slavery (that we don't have a name for this specific genocide speaks volumes about how society's elites want us to treat it, as if it didn't happen). What we mean is closer to the concept of serfdom, or indentured servitude. I don't mean to write an apology to serfdom or indentured servitude, but the reality of the service is the difference between being worked to death, and being able to own property. Now, even with indentured servants sent over from England the number required to keep increasing crop output was much higher than was realistic. The colonists tried enslaving the local natives, but they took sick very easily and, with their knowledge of the local terrain, they easily escaped at every opportunity. The answer presented itself in 1619; African slaves. In addition to already being exposed to European germs and diseases around 1/3 of all slaves brought across the Atlantic died en route, ensuring that only the heartiest survived (this also had the added 'benefit' of putting the Africans in such a bewildered, shocked and traumatized mindset that they couldn't resist their enslavement and those that could had no where to go in the brutal and foreign conditions of Virginia in the winter).

Let's fast forward 31 years, to 1650; the African slaves and the majority of the indentured servants in 1620 have earned their freedom. This shows, at the very least, that the institutionalized racism of later years was not in effect at the beginning of the colonies, leading to the conclusion that such an institution is not in any way 'natural', but rather entirely manufactured.

It wasn't until Bacon's Rebellion in 1676 that those in power saw the need to seperate white and black servants and slaves. In fact, before Bacon's Rebellion both white and black slaves got along--there was still racism, but the overriding sense of superiority that existed in whites from the 18th century on was nonexistent. The rebellion is often taught today as a product of aggression between the Native Americans and the settlers (which it was) but teachers neglect to mention that, firstly, the settlers on the outskirts of the colony (the ones who interacted with the natives) were the poor; the rich could afford to live closer to the coast, with the poor as a sort of buffer between them and the natives. They also seem to conveniently forget that economic disparity between the classes was also a major factor (perhaps the most significant one) in instigating rebellion. After the rebellion was narrowly put down (they got as far as burning the capital building and the Governor's mansion), the elite new they needed a new way to control the poor, and keep them from banding together again. A comprehensive plan to enact and excite racism was put into place.

Such concerns, however, were mitigated by intervening circumstances. In the years following Bacon's Rebellion, the distinction between indentured servitude and slavery grew into a pronounced difference. Indenture became less attractive as a source of labor because servants now lived long enough to claim land - as the rebellion had demonstrated violently - and improved economic conditions in Britain reduced the supply of workers willing to come to America and increased the price of their contracts. Africans continued to be readily available, and because many were not Christian, they could be enslaved and regulated in a manner that indentures could not. Virginia enacted a series of laws, constituting a formal slave code that removed many of the rights slaves had previously enjoyed and added further restrictions to slavery including anti-miscegenation statutes. Previously one of several labor sources, slaves became Virginia's primary workforce for its plantations, and slavery an integral institution within its society.


Knowing that they needed some way to keep the poor from rebelling again, this new found race division still casts a looming shadow over the populace and, in fact, still redirects ire away from the wealthy elite and keeps lower class citizens at each other's throats rather than that of the monied interests. This all leads to the answer to my question; we aren't educated about the origin of racism because that education would also require an honest look at how capital is distributed, how it was initially acquired and it would eventually lead us to ask the question-"Why do we allow capital that was aquired by immoral means to remain in the hands of the decendants of these criminals when they've done nothing to deserve it any more than you or I have?"


Aaron said...

Isn't it astounding the pride people have in blood we didn't shed?

Multiculturalism isn't anywhere near able to be a perfect system in the world we live in. But whether it be for the South, or for the Army, or for their injustices, or injustices done to them. Bad decisions are made on these feelings, drawn out of us by necessity and greed. If we're going for the space race victory here, let's build a world where we let go of the fact that we all struggle, and maybe get off our asses and do something about it. Why isn't THAT the preferred method of motivation advertised? Let's share our eternal struggles and hardships with each other in the only way we can, and redefine our distinctions and divisions. And for the sake of decorum, maybe we stop waiving our cocks around in the air about any unnecessary pride as a culture. It's a manufactured need. That kind of pride doesn't have to be made into a renewable, exploitable, and dangerous resource.

This has just been bugging me recently.

Jonathan Cunningham said...

Good point Aaron--I'm sure in the future I'll write about motivations and why Capitalism is not only the worst way to induce achievement gaining competition, but also questioning the efficacy of competition as motivation for achievement.