U.S. Intellectual History Blog

intellectual origins of racism

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.

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I question whether we can correctly pinpoint relations of causality on fixed events. There is always a possibility that, when we choose a particular event to constitute the cause for another, a cause is first of all the effect of another cause. If we are interested with searching the discursive traces that configure race relations, we can go further into the past than a specific date. Plus, what about Atlantic intellectual exchanges between people, states, crowns, and other institutions that employ terms like race. Is there, for example, a relationship to the Middle Ages “raça” and its notions of “limpieza/pureza de sangre” (purity of blood) in the Castillian Crown? Anyway, my point is that when it comes to discursive practices, a genealogical approach might prove more illuminating than a causal one.

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  3. Steve Innes and Tim Breen’s _Myne Owne Ground_, now 25+ years old, makes a pretty convincing case that many of the first Africans to arrive in post-1607 Virginia were treated as servants, similarly to white Englishmen and women. Their discussion of the larger question of the origins of slavery suggests that racism preceded the institution of slavery (as far as the English were concerned, at least), which didn’t become the presumed status of African-Virginians until sometime either side of 1700.

    Larry Hartzell
    Dept. of History
    Brookdale Comm. Coll.
    Lincroft, NJ 07738

  4. This is very much not my field, and I apologize in advance if my historiography is out of date, or even if my interpretations are incorrect. But I seem to recall from my grad student days that Edmund Morgan’s “American Slavery, American Freedom” is a (the?) classic statement of the “slavery causes racism” view. I also liked the book recommended by Professor Hartzell, but think of it as a much more accessible version of an argument similar to Morgan’s, one that is suitable to assign to undergrads. In fact, I’m not really aware of the “other” view, though this could very well be because, again, I haven’t read much in the subject.

    • An essay by Morgan was actually linked with the essay by Jordan in the edited collection I was using. I think “racism causes slavery” has gone out of fashion because it can presuppose that racism is natural and ever existent (as historians believed in the 19th century, according to Jordan). The essay by Morgan was more arguing that slavery was the foundation of American freedoms, rather than that slavery caused racism. I’ll have to go back to my copy of American Slavery, American Freedom, which I haven’t read since undergrad.

  5. There is also a 2nd edition of Jordan’s “White Over Black” published recently, with new forwards by Peter Wood and Christopher Leslie Brown, two experts on slavery.

    I haven’t had a chance to look, but their new essays will probably illuminate the significance of Jordan’s book in today’s context.

  6. I agree with Chaar-López that it is problematic to reduce questions like racism and slavery to a chicken or the egg logic, especially since both have roots in the so-called premodern era. In the first pages of Inhuman Bondage, David Brion Davis does an excellent job of tracing the complexities of the intersection between racial constructs and slavery, specially in regards to when the figure of the slave becomes naturalized as black.

  7. The Religion in America blog has a 3 part interview with Rebecca Goetz, who has a new book: http://www.amazon.com/The-Baptism-Early-Virginia-Christianity/dp/1421407000

    From the Amazon blurb:

    In The Baptism of Early Virginia, Rebecca Anne Goetz examines the construction of race through the religious beliefs and practices of English Virginians. She finds the seventeenth century a critical time in the development and articulation of racial ideologies—ultimately in the idea of “hereditary heathenism,” the notion that Africans and Indians were incapable of genuine Christian conversion. In Virginia in particular, English settlers initially believed that native people would quickly become Christian and would form a vibrant partnership with English people. After vicious Anglo-Indian violence dashed those hopes, English Virginians used Christian rituals like marriage and baptism to exclude first Indians and then Africans from the privileges enjoyed by English Christians—including freedom.

    Resistance to hereditary heathenism was not uncommon, however. Enslaved people and many Anglican ministers fought against planters’ racial ideologies, setting the stage for Christian abolitionism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Using court records, letters, and pamphlets, Goetz suggests new ways of approaching and understanding the deeply entwined relationship between Christianity and race in early America.

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