Origins of Racism

The Beginnings of Racism in the Colonial United States


How did racism start in the US?  Why were black men and women singled out for enslavement?  How did the land owners make this acceptable to white workers?


Lerone Bennett answers these questions in his famous article The Road Not Taken.  He traces the evolution of free black and white workers and Native Americans collaborating and socializing together in the 17th Century before the planters established slavery.


“… before Jim Crow, before the invention of the Negro or the white man or the words and concepts to describe them, the Colonial population consisted largely of a great mass of white and black bondsmen, who occupied roughly the same economic category and were treated with equal contempt by the lords of the plantations and legislatures. Curiously unconcerned about their color, these people worked together and relaxed together. They had essentially the same interests, the same aspirations, arid the same grievances. They conspired together and waged a common struggle against their common enemy — the big planter apparatus and a social system that legalized terror against black and white bondsmen. No one says and no one believes that there was a Garden of Eden in Colonial America. But the available evidence, slight though it is, suggests that there were widening bonds of solidarity between the first generation of blacks and whites. And the same evidence indicates that it proved very difficult indeed to teach white people to worship their skin.

… The first road (the colonialists considered) was the road of fraternal cooperation with the Indians in a program of free and creative development of the immense resources of the American continent. This road — the only road to justice — was rejected out of hand by the white founding fathers, who adopted a policy of genocide.

The second road, also rejected, was a free and cooperative system of labor for all immigrants. …Because the Europeans were already hooked on the master principle, because they could never somehow get over the idea that it was necessary for somebody else to work for them, this road was not taken. And the decision not to take that road left only two alternatives: temporary servitude and eventual freedom for all workers — red, black, and white — and the road of permanent servitude based on the work of one or possibly all three of the subordinate labor groups. This last road was taken, and one group was singled out for permanent servitude. Why?

To answer that question, we must back up again and consider the groups not selected.

First, the Indians. A popular idea to the contrary notwithstanding, the Indians were enslaved in all or most of the colonies. But Indian slavery and servitude created problems that the colonists preferred to deal with in other ways. To begin with, there was the problem of security. It was difficult to keep Indian servants and slaves from running away because they knew the country and could easily escape … and the supply was relatively limited. Finally, and most importantly, Indian servants and slaves were members of groups with a certain amount of power. These groups could (and did) retaliate. For this combination of reasons, it was considered unwise to enslave large groups of Indians, who were usually sold into slavery in the West Indies.

From the standpoint of the masters, the poor whites of Europe presented equally serious problems. The supply of poor whites, like the supply of Indians, was limited; and poor whites, like Indians, but for different reasons, could escape and blend into the whiteness of their countrymen. The most serious problem, however, was that poor whites had tenuous but nonetheless important connections with circuits of power. There were pressure groups in England that concerned themselves with the plight of poor whites. This fact alone drastically limited the options of Colonial masters. For in order to safeguard the relatively limited supply of poor whites, it was necessary to make costly — from the standpoint of the masters — concessions to white servants and to improve their living conditions.

The last group — the group finally selected — did not have these disadvantages … and they had — again from the standpoint of the planters — distinct advantages. They were marked by color and hence could not escape so easily. The supply seemed to be inexhaustible, and the labor of Africans was relatively inexpensive when compared with the cost of transporting and maintaining white indentured servants for a limited number of years. … the Africans were vulnerable. There were no large power groups nearby to retaliate in their name. Nor did they have power groups on the international scene to raise troublesome questions. They were, in fact, naked before their enemies, and their enemies were legion.

…the power brokers of England suddenly and dramatically increased the odds against Africans by announcing a new policy of restricted white emigration and massive support of the African Slave Trade. With the formation of the Royal African Company (1672), the wheel of fate came to an abrupt halt before the black square. For henceforth, as James C. Ballagh has pointed out, it would be “the policy of the king, and of the Duke of York, who stood at the head of the [Royal African] Company, to hasten the adoption of slavery by enactments cutting off the supply of indented servants, at the same time that large importations of slaves were made by their agents.”

… the first legal enactment in favor of slavery in the colonies came in 1641 in Massachusetts, which declared in its Body of Liberties that there “shall never be any bond slaverie, villinage or Captivitie amongst us, unless it be lawfull Captives taken in just warres, and such strangers as willingly sell themselves or are sold to us.” This was, all things considered, a fateful and ominous “unless,” for the following words clearly authorized African, Indian, and European slavery. Once the genie was out of the bottle, there was a more or less deliberate effort to create a legal structure for slavery, a fact noted by Herbert S. Klein, who said: “Once these first hints about the existence of a status of slavery within the colony [of Virginia] had been made by the legislature, there seems to have developed at this point a conscious effort on the part of the Virginians to create a statutory framework on which to firmly base this condition.”

This effort unfolded, roughly, in four stages. The first stage, linked, in part, with the Massachusetts precedent, was the extension of the term of black servants from a specified number of years to life. Following Massachusetts on this point were Connecticut in 1650, Virginia in 1661, Maryland in 1663, New York and New Jersey in 1664, South Carolina in 1682, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island in 1700, North Carolina in 1715, and Georgia in 1755.

The second and more momentous stage, a stage that marked the institutional divergence of servitude and slavery, was the introduction of the principle of heredity. Virginia pioneered in this development, declaring in December, 1662: “Whereas some doubts have arisen whether children got by any Englishman upon a negro woman shall be slave or free, Be it therefore enacted and declared by this present grand Assembly, that all children borne in this country shall be held, bond or free only according to the condition of the mother. …”

The third phase of the process — defining slavery and providing a rationale for the system…

… Virginia was embarking on the process (completed in the eighteenth century ) of basing slavery on race rather than religion.

In this manner Virginia (and America) crossed a great divide, a divide that requires some elaboration. For what was involved here was the idea of racism, which is not an individual idea or peculiarity but an institutionalized ideology that commits the institutions of a society to the destruction of a people because of race. The idea developed by the Virginians (and Americans) was simple and profitable. The idea was that all whites were biologically superior to all blacks, who were infidels and heathens, a dangerous and accursed people who embodied an evil principle that made them dangerous to the morals and the politics of the community. The truth or falsity of this idea disturbed few men then (or now) . The only thing that mattered was that this idea or something like it was necessary to justify past, present, and future aggression against blacks.

With the institutionalization of this idea, the structure of slavery was almost complete. There remained only the fourth phase, a phase that continued for two hundred years and involved the destruction of the legal personality of the slave.

The first step in this direction was the declaration that the slave was the property of the master. As such, the slave could not hold property or engage in trade or commerce. Nor could the slave as a piece of property move without the express consent of his master. He could not leave the plantation without a pass, he could not gather in large groups, he could not commit himself to a marriage vow. More ominously, he could not even defend himself. In the words of the codes, he was in the “condition of a natural person, in which, by the operation of law, the application of his physical and mental powers depend[ed] …upon the will of another. …”

… (To accept slavery) One must condition the mind and the eye and the heart. (Slave owners ) began in the middle of the seventeenth century to separate blacks and whites and to create a race problem in America.

… blacks and whites had to be taught the meaning of blackness and whiteness. This is not to deny “differences” in color and hair formation, etc. It is only to say that perceptions had to be organized to recognize the differences and that men had to be organized to take advantage of them. The so-called differences were not the cause of racism; on the contrary, men seized on the differences and interpreted them in a certain way in order to create racism. Not only did they exploit “differences,” but they also created “differences” and preserved them by force and violence. The differences, in other words, were rationalizations and excuses, not the causes of racism. Once established, however, the ideology of rationalizations assumed a calamitous autonomy and influenced the interests from which they derived.

Who was responsible for this policy?

The white founding fathers, the Byrds, the Mathers, and Winthrops, the Jeffersons, the Washingtons, the heroes of all the Fourths of July: they divided blacks and whites, they sowed the seeds of division and hate and blood.

… Not only did the planters have the power; they also had a vested interest in black exploitation. It was on their plantations that the new system of black servitude was tried out for the first time, and by mid-century, as Elkins notes, blacks had accumulated in large enough parcels in the hands of the colony’s big planters to develop in these men a vested interest in the new system.  …one can hardly escape the impression that it was the big planters and their allies who reduced the vulnerable and powerless black servants to slavery and enacted legislation that committed every white person and every white institution to support of the new order.

How was all this done?

It was done by the creation of a total system of domination, a system that penetrated every corner of Colonial life and made use of every Colonial institution. Nothing was left to chance. The assemblies, the courts, the churches, and the press were thrown into the breach. A massive propaganda campaign confused and demoralized the public, and private vigilante groups supplemented the official campaign of hate and terror.

It was all done deliberately, consciously, with malice aforethought. To mold the minds of whites, to teach them the new ideas, and to let them know who was to be loved and who was to be despised, the planter-merchant aristocracy used every instrument of persuasion and control. In every colony, from New York to South Carolina, the same mechanisms of separation and subordination were elaborated and imposed. From New York to South Carolina, the same penalties were used to keep blacks and whites apart, the same rewards were developed to make poor whites support a system that penalized them, the same statutes were elaborated to crush and diabolify blacks.

The statutes were designed to instill a sense of superiority in whites and a sense of worthlessness in blacks. They were designed to create stereotypes and invidious images. The language of these statutes (“abominable mixture,” “barbarous,” “savage”) was instructive; it designated, pointed out, authorized, and it was a legal requirement, in many cases, for parsons and politicians to read the language at public meetings and church services.

They were passing laws to preserve a decent Distinction between blacks and whites.

They were passing laws to fix a perpetual Brand upon blacks.

They were passing laws with design. make free blacks sensible that a distinction should be made between their children and the children of Englishmen. .

They were passing laws to break the Pride of blacks.

They were passing laws to leave this mark on them.

And it can be said, by inverting this language, that the laws were also passed to leave a mark on whites, who were instructed, under pain of punishment, how to act in relation to blacks. Under these laws whites of all classes were penalized for expressing human impulses. It therefore became very expensive for a white person to like black people or to love them. This was not, it should be emphasized, a matter of hints and vague threats. The laws were quite explicit. Symptomatic of this were the laws passed to punish whites who befriended blacks or ran away with them.

Masters were also disciplined. The right of the master to free his slave was curbed and finally eliminated. The master was also forbidden to teach his slaves or to permit them to gather in large assemblies. … the laws were designed to force workers and masters to treat black people like slaves. He writes:

While the colonial slave codes seem at first sight to have been intended to discipline Negroes, to deny them freedoms available to other Americans, a very slight shift in perspective shows the codes in a different light; they aimed, paradoxically, at disciplining white men. Principally, the law told the white man, not the Negro, what he must do; the codes were for the eyes and ears of slave owners. …Members of the assemblies, most of whom owned slaves, were attempting to enforce slave-discipline by the only means available, by forcing owners, individually and collectively, to exercise it.

As the years wore on, and as the number of slaves multiplied, the laws increased in severity and scope. The first laws applied only to some blacks, primarily non-Christians. But by the middle of the eighteenth century, many of the laws applied to all blacks, free and slave, Christian and non-Christian.

Behind the legislator and the planter stood the writer, teacher, and priest. The perceptions of whites and blacks were organized and manipulated by churches, which were an integral part of the governing mechanism. In some cases churches were directly involved in carrying out laws relating to indenture and sexual irregularities. In other cases churches and ministers bought and sold slaves. In still other cases churches led the campaign of vilification, openly identifying blacks with Ham and the Indians with the devil.

Equally important as an adversary was the press. The owners and writers of many of the first American newspapers had direct or indirect interests in slavery, and their journals were in the front ranks of the white crusade. It is not at all surprising therefore to learn that editorials and news stories accentuated antagonisms in the colonies and that advertisements for black runaways were to the first American newspapers what advertisements for deodorant and detergent are to the electronic media of the seventies. The Boston News Letter, the first permanent American newspaper, published slave advertisements almost from the first edition.

The whole system of separation and subordination rested on official state terror. The exigencies of the situation required men to kill some white people to keep them white and to kill many blacks to keep them black. In the North and South, men and women were maimed, tortured, and murdered in a comprehensive campaign of mass conditioning. The severed heads of black and white rebels were impaled on poles along the road as warnings to black people and white people, and opponents of the status quo were starved to death in chains and roasted slowly over open fires. Some rebels were branded; others were castrated. This exemplary cruelty, which was carried out as a deliberate process of mass education, was an inherent part of the new system.

… And before long slavery and the slave trade were the twin fountains of the economic system of New England and the Southern colonies. The phenomenal growth of the slave trade, the development of the plantation system, the expanding drive against Indian land — all these factors created iron bands of interests that compelled every Colonial institution to support the politics of division.

Despite this fact, there was widespread opposition to the new order in the white community, particularly among poor whites, many of whom were still indentured servants or former indentured servants. What is amazing here and worthy of detailed examination is that so many whites openly flouted the new laws and conspired with blacks to evade them. How to explain this? The explanation is simple: whites, in general, had not been prepared for the new departure. In the words of one white historian, opinion had not “hardened sufficiently” against black people. In the words of another, many whites “had not learned to hold the attitude toward the Negro” that the new script demanded. In addition to these purely passive considerations, there were positive and active links between blacks and white indentured servants, who continued to run away together and to conspire together. A point of considerable importance here is that slavery did not immediately displace white servitude. For more than one hundred years, the two systems existed side by side, mutually influencing one another. For almost as long a period, the white servant and the black slave continued to interact, threatening the stability of this dual system of servitude.

In order to preserve domestic tranquility, the leading groups in the colonies made it a matter of public policy to destroy the solidarity of the laborers. Laws were passed requiring different groups to keep to themselves, and the seeds of dissension were artfully and systematically sown.

Indians were offered bounties for betraying black runaways; blacks were given minor rewards for fighting Indians; and poor whites were used as fodder in the disciplining of both reds and blacks.

At the same time masters used Draconian measures to stop the mingling and mating of blacks and whites. From the last quarter of the seventeenth century to the end of the eighteenth century, policy-makers legislated against these practices. In the process white women were whipped, banished, and enslaved to keep them from marrying black men. …  In this instance, as in so many others, it was necessary to teach whites the value of whiteness. Under the ground rules of the time, a master could virtually enslave a white woman who married a black man and could hold in extended servitude all the issue of such a marriage. In this situation, as might have been expected, Puritan greed triumphed over Puritan morals, and many masters encouraged or forced white women to marry black men. It finally became necessary to pass laws penalizing masters for forcing white women to marry black men.

Neither statute law nor terror stopped intermarriage and interracial dating, which continued for more than a century. Strange as it may seem today, there were even some open protests against the laws. …

In the last decades of the seventeenth century and the first decades of the eighteenth, the laws became increasingly liberal toward white servants, and special efforts were made to accentuate the differences between blacks and whites. As the number of blacks increased, the heavy labor was shifted to blacks, whites were employed as overseers of the slave population, and sympathetic attention was given to the petitions of white artisans. At the end of the seventeenth century, white workers in New York City filed a complaint alleging that black labor had “soe much impoverisht them, that they Cannot by their labours gett a Competency for the Maintenance of themselves and Family’s.” Similar petitions were filed in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and other colonies. Responding to these fears, the South Carolina Assembly voted in 1743 that “no slaves that shall hereafter be brought up to any mechanic trades shall be suffered to be hired out or to work for any other than their own masters.”

A corollary of the strategy of the carrot was the creation of a common white front. The planters needed the silence and/ or support of the poor whites. To get this support, they manipulated symbols and sanctions in such a way as to persuade poor whites to identify with masters instead of their fellow workers. The designation of poor whites as a buffer class was a particular expression of this general policy. In some colonies, “Deficiency acts” were passed to increase the number of poor whites. These acts usually offered bounties to encourage white immigration and required planters to employ a certain number of poor whites. A 1698 law of South Carolina offered the captains of ships thirteen pounds for each white servant imported and required every owner of six black slaves to buy one white servant. This and similar acts said frankly that poor whites were needed not only for labor but also for protection. …

poor whites were deliberately used to insure the social system against black rebellion. In the words of Abbot Emerson Smith, poor whites were viewed as a “defense against the Negro menace.” A revealing example of this was a South Carolina act “for the better securing of this province from Negro insurrections & encouraging of poor people by employing them in the Plantations.” This was, to a great extent, a ruse of the planters, who bought the cooperation of poor whites by throwing them crumbs from the table. But many, perhaps most, poor whites had neither the space nor the consciousness to look gift horses in the mouth. And so, many accepted the bait, never noticing, perhaps not even caring, that it was bait and that it covered a sharp steel hook. One of the by-products of this was that most poor whites were persuaded that they had a stake in the system and that it was working to their advantage. Steadily and inescapably, a new rhythm was imposed on them, and by the middle of the eighteenth century a solid white front was developing. A curious and crucial point here is that concerted action by blacks and whites virtually ceased after the creation of the white front. What is even more interesting is that white revolt against the system disappeared. “Significantly,” Winthrop Jordan said, “the only rebellions by white servants in the continental colonies came before the firm entrenchment of slavery.”

The impact of all this on blacks and whites was disastrous. The development of the slave system and the systematic separation of blacks and whites created a race problem in America, divided the working force, made it impossible to create a single American community, and laid the foundation for an anti-democratic, hierarchical police state, taut with tensions and fears. …

As it turned out, the emerging slave system had an immediate and disastrous impact on poor whites. Unable to compete with the large planters, poor whites retreated to the marginal land in the hills, where they eked out a hand-to-mouth existence. To the untutored mind of the poor whites, it seemed that blacks were the cause of their misery. They therefore began to hate black people with a passion. Notice the emphasis in the following passage from the conservative historian, T. J. Wertenbaker: “While not destroying entirely the little farmer class, it [slavery] exerted a baleful influence upon it, driving many families out of the colony, making the rich man richer, reducing the poor man to dire poverty. Against this unfortunate development the Virginia yeoman was helpless. Instinctively, he must have felt the slave was his enemy, and the hatred and rivalry which even today exists between the Negro and the lowest class of whites, the so-called ‘poor white trash,’ dates back to the seventeenth century.” The poor white was wrong: slavery, not the slave, was his enemy. But it would take time — and blood — to see this.

It was against this background that the white identity in America was forged. American whites developed a sense of personality and nationality in response to the presence of blacks and Indians. They were not black, they were not red, they were white. Black and red, as Jordan has pointed out, “rapidly came to serve as two fixed points from which English settlers could triangulate their own position in America: the separate meanings of Indian and Negro helped define the meaning of living in America.” What Jordan fails to mention and what is equally supported by the evidence is that the white sense of identity developed in response to the forced degradation of blacks. “When the Negro slave had supplanted the indentured servant upon the plantations of the colony,” Wertenbaker wrote, “a vast change took place in the pride of the middle class. Every white man, no matter how poor he was, no matter how degraded, could now feel a pride in his race. Around him on all sides were those whom he felt to be beneath him, and this alone instilled into him a certain self-respect. Moreover, the immediate control of the Negroes fell almost entirely into the hands of white men of humble means, for it was they, acting as overseers upon the large plantations that directed their labors in the tobacco fields. This also tended to give them an arrogance that was entirely foreign to their nature in the seventeenth.” What this means, if it means anything, is that white character structure underwent a fundamental transformation in the crucible of slavery.

As the seventeenth century ended and the eighteenth century began, white arrogance increased, and a yawning chasm opened up between blacks and whites.

One more decision in the history of black and white had passed, never to be called back, never to be erased, never to be forgotten.