The Origins of Racism

Who is to blame for racism? What is its cause and aim?
Is it merely a matter of skin colour?
Of genetics? Or of so-called "human nature"? Historian and political economist Isaac Saney explores the futility of an ethnocentric approach.

Shunpiking Magazine No. 38

Racism, one of the dominant features of the world, is often treated as a permanent phenomenon in human relations. Entwined with the belief that racial antipathy and ethnocentrism are primordial is the assumption that racism is a natural, characteristically European legacy. This perspective ignores the mass of evidence that demonstrates that racism has a definite origin in a particular historical period, linked to very specific circumstances and conditions. Discovering the origins of racism may not account for its persistence. Understanding its origins casts an essential light not only on the functioning of racism but on the nature of governance.

In previous supplements we have commented on the general lack of global and universalised racial prejudice and notions of racial superiority and inferiority before the advent of the Atlantic slavetrade. Before this horrendous traffic in human flesh, Europeans had positive attitudes and images of African and Africans. In the art of ancient Greece, Africans are often portrayed in positions of power and authority. The Greco-Roman societies did not generate or create a racist ideology to justify their extensive systems of slavery.

In Blacks in Antiquity, Frank Snowden, an African American historian, states that interactions between Blacks and whites "did not give rise among the Greeks and Romans to the colour prejudices of certain later Western societies. The Greeks and Romans developed no theories of white superiority." Jan Pieterse in White on Black: Images of Africa and Blacks in Western Popular Culture, further observes that generally in the world of antiquity "differences in skin colour did not play a significant role" and that "black carried a positive meaning."

Furthermore, the African contribution to the treasury of world history and culture was universally acknowledged. One has only to read the works of the acclaimed Greek Herodotus - considered in the West the father of historical study - to appreciate the esteem in which the Black world and its accomplishments were held.

This ancient perspective is reflected in the Renaissance. The art of that period - Reubens and Rembrandt being prominent exemplars - treated Africans with respect and honour. Extremely positive images of Africans predominated in Europe up until the fifteenth century. These images are starkly delineated by the emergence and production of the deluge of negative and debased images that arise in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

The question is thus posed: What lead to the destruction of this climate of mutual respect?
Weymouth Falls School
Weymouth Falls School, built in the late 1800s. 70-80 students were taught in one room. Nova Scotia, and other provinces such as Ontario, maintained segregated schools to 1964. Photograph from Telling the Truth: Reflections; Segregated Schools in Nova Scotia by Lois Evans and Gertrude Tynes, Lancelot

History gives one dominating answer: the Atlantic Slave Trade.

While slavery is an ancient institution, for most of world history it was not a condition identified or linked to skin colour. What is often forgotten is the fact that the Irish were bought and sold in English markets in the Middle Ages. Eric Williams, in his celebrated and extremely influential work Capitalism and Slavery, documents that the Irish were the first people sold as slaves in the Caribbean.

The racialization of slavery, the development of the biological concept of race - the division of humanity into biologically distinct categories where phenotypical characteristics (especially skin colour) are identifiers - is a construct created to justify African bondage and - later - the colonial and imperialist projects. This became an integral component of the emergent Eurocentric world-view that considered people of colour, particularly those of African descent as inferior: peoples without history, destined for servitude. Before the trans-Atlantic commerce in African humanity in the service of burgeoning European capitalist economies racism as a global historical phenomenon, universalized and uniform - inherent at all levels of society - did not exist.

Early Black-White Relations


Early Black-white relations in North America are usually conceived as defined by the racial divide and inevitable conflict. The historical record reveals quite a different relationship: one in which both blacks - those in servitude and those who had earned and won their freedom - and poor whites - the overwhelming majority of the white population - shared weal and woe, trial and tribulation. The idea of whiteness and white people, separate and apart from blackness and black people did not as yet exist. This was to come later as a direct product of the development of racist ideology, not just to justify slavery but to drive a wedge between black and white.

Lerone Bennett in his acclaimed work Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America poignantly summed up this early relationship:

Working together in the same fields, sharing the same huts, the same situation, and the same grievances, the first black and white Americans, aristocrats excepted, developed strong bonds of sympathy and mutuality. They ran away together, played together and revolted together. They mated and married, siring a mixed population. In the process, the black and white servants - the majority of the colonial population - created a racial wonderland that seems somehow un-American in its lack of obsession about race and colour. There was to be sure prejudice then, but it was largely English class prejudice which was distributed without regard to race, creed or colour.

Perhaps the most powerful feature of this early era is, as Bennett notes, "the equality of oppression" between white and black. Indeed, in the first years of slavery indentured white servants were often treated as badly as enslaved Africans, with blacks and whites being held in the same contempt and assigned similar tasks. White women not only worked in the fields but were also flogged by the colonial authorities. Barbara Fields, in her Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States, notes that indentured servants

could be bought and sold like livestock, kidnapped, stolen, put up as stakes in card games and awarded - even before their arrival in America - to victors in lawsuits.

The ruling circles and the resulting laws, at that time, did not distinguish between black and white. But why and how did this situation change? This answer is as chastening and revealing as the evidence is clear: by deliberate choice of the ruling circles. The salient feature in comprehending this fact is the observation that blacks and whites, as Bennett notes, "revolted together." This assumes vital significance when one couples the singular economic significance of slavery to the ruling classes with the continual resistance and revolt of Africans. Herbert Aptheker, the renowned historian, documented nearly 250 instances of revolts against slavery in North America. What also stands out is the frequent aid and, in many cases, participation of poor whites in these events.

Some examples suffice to illuminate the prevailing state of affairs. In 1663, white servants and black slaves in Gloucester County, Virginia planned to stage a rebellion to win their freedom. Their plans were discovered and many were executed. In New York in 1741, poor whites and slaves were accused of conspiracy. After a trial 35 persons were executed. Bacon's Rebellion - lead by Nathaniel Bacon - was probably the most dramatic example. Occurring in 1676, this uprising of white frontiersmen, slaves and servants forced the English government to dispatch a thousand troops across the Atlantic in order to restore order. A group of 80 Africans and 20 English servants were among the last to surrender

It should be emphasized that while African resistance and revolt, widespread and numerous, was the crucial factor in the struggle to abolish slavery, Black people did not stand alone: either before or after the conscious creation of the colour line. This aid - overwhelmingly from the lower socio-economic strata - persisted in the face of concerted efforts by the slaveholders to eliminate anti-slavery opponents and organizations. As Aptheker notes, joining this great struggle were white allies:

who came in the main from among the poor...No, it was the 'plain' man and woman, the artisan and mechanic, the factory worker, the yeoman and small farmer, the poor housewife who formed the bulk of the membership of the Abolitionist societies, despite intimidations; who contributed the largest part of the pennies and dollars with which the Abolitionist movement printed and distributed the pamphlets, petitions and papers appealing for justice and condemning oppression.

While the ruling elites were terrified of black revolt; they were thrown into panic by the prospect of continued and widespread joint white-black rebellion. This would threaten to overthrow the existing order. Edmund Morgan, in American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, notes that in the wake of these uprisings, particularly Bacon's Rebellion, the plantation owners concluded that "if freemen (i.e., whites-Ed.), with disappointed hopes, should make common cause with slaves of desperate hope, the results might be worse than anything Bacon had done."

Thus, the Anglo-American ruling class, by deliberate policy, drew the colour line between freedom and slavery, as Theodore Allen notes in his Class Struggle and the Origin of Racial Slavery: The Invention of the White Race, "on race lines: any trace of African ancestry carried the presumption of slavery." Consequently, the Virginia Assembly enacted various measures toward this end, including the slave codes that dictated discipline and punishment. Concomitantly:

Virginia's ruling class, having proclaimed that all white men were superior to black, went on to offer their social (but white) inferiors a number of benefits previously denied them. In 1705 a law was passed requiring masters to provide white servants whose indenture time was up with ten bushels of corn, thirty shillings, and a gun, while women were to get fifteen bushels of corn and forty shillings. Also, the newly freed servants were to get fifty acres of land.

In short, the racialization of slavery, the construction of racist and white supremacist ideology in North American was a direct and carefully thought-out class response to the problem of labour solidarity. By instituting a system of racial privileges for white workers it was possible to generate, define and establish the idea of the white race, which then operated as an instrument of social control.

The legacy of this slide from, in Bennett's phrase, "racial wonderland" to a North America where racism is endemic - ideologically and institutionally - is not an accidental outcome. As a smokescreen, it hid - and continues to hide - the real dynamics and control of productive forces and finance; used not just to justify the bondage and exploitation of Africans - and other non-white peoples - but also to deflect the struggles of white workers into the cul-de-sac of national chauvinism. Moreover, racism has developed beyond a method to divide and splinter workers to encompass a pervasive set of social relations deeply rooted in the functioning and material reproduction of capitalism. By polarising society it splits the body politic.

The inheritance of today is to overcome this. When we grasp what it was that lead to the creation of these social relations, ideology and negative images and stereotypes, when we understand why they were created, how they were created and who they were created by, then, and only then, are we better able to overcome them in the present conditions.


-Isaac Saney is on faculty, Dalhousie University


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Copyright New Media Services Inc. 2004. The views expressed herein are the writers' own and do not necessarily reflect those of shunpiking magazine or New Media Publications.