Has the election of Barack Obama put to rest the debate of historians about race in America? Especially, whether they think race will continue indefinitely to divide American society?
This depends first on how one interprets the origins of the nation’s racial situation. Such early twentieth century historians as U. B. Phillips thought that the lowly jobs held by African Americans could be explained by their limited mental capacity. During the Cold War, however, when blacks took to the streets in the 1950s and ‘60s, the theory of their inferiority fell into disfavor. But then a school of white historians, stressing psychology and culture, held that the problem lay not with the nature of blacks but with the nature of whites. Whites’ prejudice derived, not from the way they treated blacks–from black slavery and segregation–but from the way they perceived them. These scholars thought that black had always been a color that whites associated with disagreeable things, and that this limited the white majority’s ability to fully accept black people. Two narratives but one conclusion: the status quo. Because of either the nature of blacks or the nature of whites, American society was likely to remain racially stratified.
Of the scholars stressing whites’ color psychology, many have considered Winthrop D. Jordan’s White Over Black to be the book of record about race. According to their view, anti-black color psychology was older and more fundamental to anti-African prejudice than was black slavery. They grant that black slavery and then segregation worsened the prejudice of whites, but still hold that Europeans had always associated the color black with filth, death and other disagreeable things, and were therefore predisposed to dislike Africans and to enslave them before they ever saw one.
It is important to consider historically how Europeans’ ideology of slavery fundamentally changed. For much of the Middle Ages, western European slaveholders so frequently bought captive Slavs that “Slav” became the root word for slave in western European languages. But then in the late 1400s, the Portuguese opened a sea route to the Guinea coast of Africa, and traders marketed evermore African captives in Europe’s traditionally multi-racial slave markets. With the conquest of the Americas and the rise of the Atlantic commercial network of the 1500s, the European conquerors discovered an insatiable market for sugar, rum, and tobacco. But they discovered also that in their plantation colonies, the American natives whom they had enslaved to produce these commodities died in apocalyptic numbers from the European and African diseases that their conquerors had introduced. Their European workers lasted longer. But only sub-Saharan Africans survived long enough to form the basis of stable plantation production.
Traditionally, slaves in Old World society had served mainly in wealthy households or in local economies, such as in the shops of artisans. Their servitude was justified by religion. “Believers” saw slavery as the just fate of “unbelievers.” But in the developing Atlantic World, as the core labor force of its plantation colonies became black, an historic ideological mutation occurred: Race, not religion, became the justification. Now masters, often distant investors, were motivated by profit; and a slave was recognized by color.
A century later, Anglo American planters, as a booming economy in the home country more and more deprived them of their cheap English servant labor, also adopted Atlantic black slavery. The adoption in the future United States of market-driven, color-defined slavery, together with a legacy of anti-African lore that came with the Atlantic slave trade, was the beginning of what came to be called “American racism,” a system of mutually reinforcing practices and ideas that first justified slavery and then later forms of discrimination.
In the early American republic, racial ideas became its “King Cotton” economy’s ideological defense, above all in the North. Racial ideas became orthodox, and the critics of slavery were marginalized. Slaves had come to produce two-thirds of the nation’s exports, which provided much of the capital accumulation in the North that financed its rapid growth. Slaves were making their masters the richest class in the nation and making the northern bankers and commodity brokers who financed and marketed plantation crops, the second richest class. This economic partnership became the dominant political partnership. This “Slave Power” sharply reduced its loss of plantation labor by virtually eliminating opportunity for blacks in the North. To this end, it mobilized, especially in the North, every vehicle of culture–schools, churches, newspapers, political campaigns, minstrel theater–cultivating a white racial consensus, whose central idea was the proper “place” of blacks: as slaves on southern plantations, they were happy and useful; free in the North, they were miserable and dangerous.
Scholars who locate the origins of the American racial system in a permanent color psychology of whites are not only mistaken about how the system began, but they also underestimate the significance of the changes that have taken place. There have been three great movements to reform the American racial system. Each arose out of a national crisis. The first was during the War for Independence, when American slavery became a threat to the struggle for American freedom. The unraveling of slavery in the North began. The second came during the “irrepressible conflict” over slavery, culminating in the Civil War and Reconstruction. It ended slavery but left African Americans half free.
The latest reform movement occurred during the Cold War when a Jim Crow nation set out to “lead the free world,” which was then seething with revolution and colonial revolt by people of color. The civil rights movement seized the moment and struck down the nation’s racial laws and provided new opportunities for many African Americans. Each of these crises opened a window of opportunity for idealists to challenge the defenders of the racial status quo. Each of these movements made an historical advance, but one that fell far short of the Declaration of Independence’s expression of human equality.
Black slavery and the racial system that it generated have left their imprint on the nation. Now the economic meltdown threatens the foothold that many African Americans have gained in mainstream America, and threatens also to widen the gap between the mainstream and those trapped in jobless black ghettoes. Yet, the long view shows that since this racial system had a beginning, and important changes have taken place, one can venture that it will also have an end. The election of Barack Obama is an encouraging sign.
William McKee Evans
Mr. Evans is professor emeritus of history at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. His latest book is Open Wound: The Long View of Race in America (University of Illinois Press, 328 pages, $34.95)
Republished with permission from The History News Network.