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Slavery, and the Idea of Race

Which came first - slavery or race?

Throughout human history, societies have enslaved others due to conquest, war or debt, but not based on physical difference. The word "slave" in fact comes from "Slav": prisoners of Slavonic tribes captured by Germans and sold to Arabs during the Middle Ages. Prior to the Enlightenment, slavery was simply a fact of life, unquestioned. Race, on the other hand, is a much more recent idea, tied up with the founding of the U.S.

In colonial America, our early economy was based largely on slavery. When the new concept of freedom was introduced during the American Revolution, it created a moral contradiction: how could a nation that proclaimed equality and the natural rights of man hold slaves? The idea of race helped resolve the contradiction by setting Africans apart. The notion of natural Black inferiority helped our founding fathers justify denying slaves the rights and entitlements that others took for granted.

Later, as the abolitionist movement gained popularity and attacks on slavery grew, so did arguments in its defense. Slavery was no longer explained as a necessary evil, but justified as a positive good. The rationale for slavery was so strong that after emancipation, ideas of innate inferiority and superiority not only persisted but were intensified.

Were Africans enslaved because they were thought to be inferior?

In colonial America, Africans weren't enslaved because they were thought to be inferior. On the contrary, they were valued for their skill as farmers and desired for their labor. Planters had previously tried enslaving Native Americans, but many escaped and hid among neighboring tribes or were stricken by diseases brought to the New World by Europeans. 

In the early years of the colonies, the majority of workers were poor indentured servants from England. In fact, during Virginia's first century, 100,000 of the 130,000 Englishmen who crossed the Atlantic were indentured servants. Conditions of servitude were miserable, and nearly two-thirds died before their term of indenture ended. After several decades, African slaves began arriving in the U.S. and worked side by side with indentured servants. Many played together, intermarried, and ran away together. Racial categories were fluid, and slavery was not yet codified into law.

In the mid-17th century, a crisis arose in the colonies. As economic conditions in Mother England improved, the number of volunteers willing to journey across the Atlantic to endure such harsh treatment dropped dramatically, causing a labor shortage. At the same time, tension and hostilities were mounting domestically, as more servants were surviving their indenture and demanding land from the planter elite. The entire plantation labor system and colonial social hierarchy was threatened; the situation came to a head when poor servants and slaves allied and attacked the elite classes during Bacon's Rebellion.

After the system of indentured servitude proved unstable, planters turned increasingly to African slavery and began writing laws to divide Blacks from whites. Coincidentally, African slaves became more available at this time. Poor whites were given new entitlements and opportunities, including as overseers to police the slave population. Over time, they began to identify more with wealthy whites, and the degradation of slavery became identified more and more with Blackness.

How was the racial idea expanded to include other groups?

Imbued with a new validity by scientists, race evolved into the "common-sense" wisdom of white America by the middle of the 19th century. It was invoked not only to justify the enslavement of Africans, but also the taking of Mexican and Indian lands, the exclusion of Asian immigrants, and eventually, the acquisition of overseas territories such as the Philippine Islands, Guam and Puerto Rico. Racial superiority was seen not only as "natural" and inevitable but a moral responsibility for whites. The notions of Manifest Destiny and the White Man's Burden best capture this ideology of "civilization" and racial difference.

Ideas of racial inferiority have been institutionalized - both explicitly and implicitly - within our laws, government, and public policies. Not surprisingly, racial definitions have also changed over time, depending on the political context. They have also been arbitrary and inconsistent from group to group.

Mexicans, for example, were classified as white until 1930, when nativists lobbied successfully for them to be classified separately in order to target them for discrimination and emphasize their distinctness from whites. Historically, African Americans in the Jim Crow South were classified according to "blood" ancestry, but the amount (one quarter, one-sixteenth, one drop) varied from state to state, which meant that, as historian James Horton points out, "you could cross a state line and literally, legally change race."

Since the 19th century, Native Americans have been defined in terms opposite those defining African Americans. Rather than the "one-drop" rule, a minimum "blood quantum" requirement has been the standard for tribal membership and racial classification. Historically, membership in many Native American tribes was based on acceptance of tribal language, customs, and authority, not "blood" degree. Escaped slaves, whites and other Indians were able to join tribes and be accepted as full members. However, in the 1930s, tribes wanting federal recognition were forced to follow government guidelines, including membership based upon "blood" degree. A 1991 Bureau of Indian Affairs inventory of 155 federally recognized tribes in 48 states showed that 4 out of 5 condition membership on proof of blood, ranging in amount from 1/2 to 1/64th. 

Since the Civil Rights era, we are faced with the conundrum of having arbitrary racial categories which nevertheless reflect real social experiences and are necessary to track and remedy discrimination. As we grapple with what to do about race, it's useful to understand the historical circumstances and historical meanings surrounding the concept.

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