Monday in my African American History class, I discussed the question “did racism cause slavery, or did slavery cause racism?” One answer to the question appears in Major Problems in African-American History, vol 1, which reprints a 1962 essay by Winthrop Jordan. In this article, Jordan argues two things: one, that the answer to this question is necessarily a reflection of contemporary racial norms and two, that the answer is neither, they both arose in tandem and in response to each other.
For the first answer, he notes that in the late 19th and early 20th century, when this question first arose, historians assumed that whites innately (and rightly) believed blacks were inferior. This reflected the political reality of the time. By the 1920s, this idea had begun to loosen and it was proposed that slavery might have come first, before prejudice. By 1950, Oscar and Mary Handlin suggested there was a period of same-status for whites and blacks, till 1660, by which time whites were becoming more free and blacks less free. This meant that “if whites and Negroes could share the same status of half freedom for forty years in the seventeenth century, why could they not share full freedom in the twentieth?”
Jordan argues that the evidence is not strong for this perception. That from 1620 to 1640, there is simply not enough evidence to confirm or deny that white and black servants experienced the same treatment. Then from 1640 to 1660, there are several instances of blacks being assumed to have a life time of service. For instance, in a list giving the prices of different white and black servants, the white servants have a span of time after their name, while the black servants have just “Negro.”Jordan’s conclusion, and his own stab at the contemporary implications, was
But what if one were to regard both slavery and prejudice as species of a general debasement of the Negro? Both many have been equally cause and effect, constantly reacting upon each other, dynamically joining hands to hustle the Negro down the road to complete degradation. Mutual causation is, of course, a highly useful concept for describing social situations in the modern world. Indeed it has been widely applied in only slightly altered fashion to the current racial situation: Racial prejudice and the Negro’s lowly position are widely accepted as constantly reinforcing each other.”
This essay was written, I am sure, during the preparation of Jordan’s famous White over Black. I read that book a long time ago and learned a lot at the time, particularly about the role sexuality played in creating white prejudice.
As I am not a scholar of slavery, this makes me ask how White over Black is perceived today. There’s an interesting article in History and Theory from 2005 about the way the book has stood up over time. Laurence Shore writes
However, the book’s grasp of the fundamental historical issues requiring explanation has received recent affirmation from influential scholarly and political quarters.A dispassionate review of the literature leading up to and following White over Black’s publication indicates that Jordan’s emphasis on the causal contribution of racist attitudes to the rise of African slavery in British North America was on target. Moreover, Jordan’s appreciation that academic historians should write for non-professionals is now widely held inside the academy. The historical accuracy and cogency of expression of Jordan’s perspective on race and slavery make White over Black worth re-examining.
Does anyone out there have a contemporary sense of the answer to the question “Did slavery cause racism or did racism cause slavery?” The textbook I’m using also takes a middle path. Darlene Clark Hine, et al argue
This suggests that before the 1670s the English in the Chesapeake did not draw a strict line between white freedom and black slavery. Yet the ruling elite had since the early 1600s treated black servants differently from white servants. Over the decades, the region’s British population gradually came to assume that persons of African descent were inalterably [sic] alien. This sentiment was the foundation of the establishment of chattel slavery, in which slaves were legally private property on a level with livestock, as the proper condition for Africans and those of African descent.