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Chickens and Eggs, Oppression and Race

Here's a riddle: Long ago, did race exist and then people decided to oppress people based on it, specifically in the form of slavery? Or did oppression exist first, followed by the emergence of race at a later time? To many (most) this sounds like a chicken-or-the-egg question. But it's only a riddle because of the society in which we live, and the continuous and pervasive lessons we learn while immersed in it. In fact, the answer is clearly spelled out in our nation's history, and there is a bright line that connects the distant past to our current state of affairs. Following this bright line can help us understand much about our country, from police shootings, to the paucity of people of color on our university faculties, to the emergence of an autocratic racial demagogue as our national leader. 

So let's go back and take a look. What follows is spelled out in greater detail in this essay, and this book (and here and here).

The ~Start of That Bright Line

In 1619, a Dutch ship arrived in Jamestown with roughly twenty people originally from Africa onboard. Not much is known about these African arrivals to North America, but it is likely that they were indentured servants who worked alongside their European counterparts. Around this time, and in the years leading up to it, there were few,  if any, records or accounts of "race," particularly as we know it today (the concept of limpieza de sangre perhaps comes as close as one will find, but even that was in reference to the blood lineage of religion). There existed strong distinctions in nationality, and certainly divisions among religions. But the concept of race was still in its infancy, and there were far more European indentured servants in the early American colonies than anyone else. This was due to both convenience, as colonists were coming from Europe; necessity since England had too many poor people and too little land for them to work; and pragmatism since reducing labor costs is and has always been the most effective way of maximizing profits. 

As Fields states:
Whatever truths may have appeared self-evident in those days, neither an inalienable right to life and liberty nor the founding of government on the consent of the governed was among them. Virginia was a profit-seeking venture, and no one stood to make a profit growing tobacco by democratic methods. Only those who could force large numbers of people to work tobacco for them stood to get rich during the tobacco boom. Neither white skin nor English nationality protected servants from the grossest forms of brutality and exploitation.
What is clear from an examination of the history of 17th century Virginia is that oppression existed before any recorded notion of race, and race-based slavery specifically. Indeed, by sheer numbers, English people were by far the most oppressed people of that time, considering that the total number of African people in Virginia was no more than 2,000 in 1660. Oppression and slavery did not exist because of race or notions of white superiority. People were in bondage because growing tobacco was only profitable through cheap labor. It's also important to note that long before privilege could be afforded to "white" people, the wealthy elite were busy oppressing and deriving most, if not all of the benefit from it.

However, this situation was not sustainable as a number of dilemmas presented themselves to the wealthy elite. The first problem was that indentured servants started living long enough to reach the end of their terms. Prior to that, life expectancy in the colonies was much shorter than the seven-year terms of servitude. At the same time that life expectancies started lengthening, the landowners were facing down several other problems. The price of tobacco started falling, and the number of poor, exploitable Europeans flowing from the old continent started to slow to a trickle. Faced with rising labor costs, the landowning elite started reneging on the terms of servitude by adding time for petty offenses and refusing to pay out land to freedmen. Predictably, this led to resistance among the indentured servants. One of the most famous incidents was Bacon's Rebellion, which saw working class people rise up in armed revolt against the wealthy landowners, Africans and Europeans side by side. 

While these early rebellions failed to change the status quo in favor of the working class, they did instill a great deal of fear in the landowners. Faced with a growing number of revolts, the elite decided to shift to slave labor imported from the Caribbean as their primary source of cheap labor. As an added benefit, these African slaves had been "seasoned" during their time in the harsh conditions of the sugar cane fields. Further, their dark skin provided a highly visible marker in the colonial society. Unlike their European counterparts, it was far more difficult for them to blend into the general colonial populace should they escape. 

This historical narrative demonstrates that slavery as practiced in colonial America was motivated by the same forces as slavery in other societies such as Rome and Egypt, namely: the building of wealth for a powerful few. That Africans were enslaved had nothing to do with the color of their skin, the texture of their hair, or any of the other markers of race as we know it today. Indeed, our modern conception of race was unknown to the ruling class of the time. What was known, then as it is now, is that cheap labor leads to increased profits.

From this, we can see the correct "order of operations" in the riddle I offered at the beginning of this post: oppression came first, race came decades after. As always, Prof. Fields puts it better than I can:
Race as a coherent ideology did not spring into being simultaneously with slavery, but took even more time than slavery did to become systematic. A commonplace that few stop to examine holds that people are more readily oppressed when they are already perceived as inferior by nature. The reverse is more to the point. People are more readily perceived as inferior by nature when they are already seen as oppressed. Africans and their descendants might be, to the eye of the English, heathen in religion, outlandish in nationality, and weird in appearance. But that did not add up to an ideology of racial inferiority until a further historical ingredient got stirred into the mixture: the incorporation of Africans and their descendants into a polity and society in which they lacked rights that others not only took for granted, but claimed as a matter of self-evident natural law.
Its probably tempting for academic types to nod sagely at this point. But this order of operations is a subtle point that many educated individuals (myself included) miss completely. Evidence for this "whiff" usually comes in the form of a comment such as, "Well, it's human nature to classify people, and divide them into groups. Race was what was used at that particular time." The history of slavery in our country gives lie to this notion: African and European people alike were oppressed long before the racial classification, and these people resisted and revolted side by side before the ruling class switched to African slave labor over indentured servitude.

The legal groundwork for race was laid near the end of the 17th century, motivated primarily by the need of the elite to keep the workers class divided. Divide and conquer is a tried and true tactic employed by the powerful, and given how badly outnumbered they were by free—and armed—Europeans spreading across the nascent country, the tactic was absolutely vital at this point in history. The relative privilege of poor European colonists compared to the bondage of their African counterparts was one of the first, and most visible "wages of whiteness" on this continent.

Once the colonies asserted their independence from the English royalty based on the radical notion that all men are created equal, race made a key evolutionary step from expedient tactic to national ideology. The claim of freedom and equality for all in a nation in which a sizable portion of the population is in bondage for perpetuity makes no sense on its own. However, by linking the oppression of African slaves to their inferiority, the framework of race provided an out: African (black) slaves were not fully human and exempt from the founding principles of the new nation.

This is how ideologies work. They provide a set of narratives, customs and a language to help people understand their social landscape. Why was she born enslaved, while he enjoys the freedom to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness with the protections of our Constitution? Thanks to the construction of race, that quandary has "simple," common-sense answer: her Blackness is inferior to his whiteness. This conclusion need not even be stated explicitly. All that is needed is a populace willing to see millions of Black people in bondage and accept the situation under the implicit assumption that all is normal and right.  The ideology of race allows one to see injustice of a double standard and not name it. As long as this is the case, then the profits of oppression roll in unabated.

Social Construct? But Why and for What?

Many people in various anti-racism workshops I've run and attended over the past couple years can quickly identify race as a "social construct." The problem is that what follows is a dusting of hands and an eagerness to move on with the discussion. But to do so overlooks a key aspect of a construction, social or otherwise. Generally speaking, one does not construct, say, a bridge without a reason to do so, namely the need to get from one point to another. If someone points to the Golden State Bridge and asks "what is that," replying "a construct" is accurate but grossly inadequate. Stating that race is a construct is similarly inadequate. Race was constructed out of necessity to solve a problem: maximizing profit through cheap labor (and in so doing, building a country), and race is still constructed and reconstructed today because its utility remains undiminished.

Without the ability to use race to get things done, race is as meaningless as hand size or the shape of people's ears. Indeed, if categorizing is such an innate human tendency, then why do we not categorize people by hand shape? Hands are almost always visible, and we often touch hands when greeting each other. Haven't you noticed that some people have square hands, and other people have round hands? No? Well, neither have I. But if the median round-handed family had 20 times the wealth of a square-handed family, then we'd be keenly aware of the hand sizes of people in any given social setting. We'd probably also talk disparagingly about the culture of poverty embraced round-handed people living in ghettos, and wonder why they can't just obey and respect police officers.

While one's social class isn't determined by hand size, it is by race. This is the present-day utility of race: it marks the boundaries between the various castes in US American society. It's not just stereotypes and bigotry. It's the power of one group to make those stereotypes stick and the societal sanction of the words and actions of bigots. It's one thing for someone to assume that another person is a criminal based on the color of their skin and texture of their hair. In isolation we'd simply call this person mentally unstable. However, its an entirely different thing to reinforce this stereotype through media images, from The Birth of a Nation in 1915 to modern day news broadcasts.

Creating and reinforcing stereotypes with the blessing of the larger national culture is the what. But why? Well, we live in a country with a staggeringly large and steadily increasing wealth disparity between the elite few and the rest of everyone else. The wealth gap between the richest and poorest Americans is so large that numbers fail to capture it. Ian Haney-Lopez in his book provides a helpful analogy: "The six heirs to the Wal-mart empire currently hold the same amount of the poorest 30 percent of Americans combined." Six of the top have as much wealth as the 73 million people at the bottom!

I believe that Trump supporters sense the outlines of this problem and suffer from the symptoms—joblessness, poverty, despair leading to drug use—albeit not to the extent that Black and Brown folks do. But rather than becoming angry at those who are hoarding all of the wealth at the top, such as people like Trump, the white working (middle) class have been conditioned to see poor Black and Brown people as the problem, and a wealthy con man as their savior. This reaction is as old as our country, and politicians on both sides of the aisle have found ways to take advantage of the structural racism woven into the fabric of our culture, as well as the historical narratives that, e.g., link Blackness to criminality, Muslim-ness to terrorism, femininity to weakness, in order to mobilize the electorate to vote against their apparent best interests.

Indeed, as I'll explore in a future post based on Ian Haney-Lopez's Dog Whistle Politics, over the past sixty years, racism has been the most powerful force shaping US American politics, and this election cycle was a strong demonstration of this fact on many levels. Today, the lower caste comprising "illegal" Latinx immigrants, "radical Islamic" terrorists, and Black "welfare queens" and "thugs" receive the outrage of of the white middle caste, while the uber-wealthy upper caste get away with looting everyone's pockets. And while ultimately everybody, white and non-white, suffers to some degree, there are actual people—human beings with hopes, dreams, and the full range of human emotions—who suffer most severely under the influence of racism in our country. It is this human suffering that should mobilize those who consider themselves progressive. This is not a theoretical, academic matter. This is very real. Unless people, white Americans in particular, start learning about the history and nature of race, we are doomed to continue the same vicious cycle of racial oppression and general exploitation for another 400 years. 


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