The birth of racism in the United States

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The birth of racism in the United States

Racism in America has in roots in British snobbery. However, it was more economic than "racial". The first settlers brought a lot of the Old World, uniquely English snobberies with them. The main one was that anyone who was not English and /or who did not act, speak or look English was somehow inferior. However, the colonial elite were responsible for racism becoming a cornerstone in the American psyche. They used a new white identity to separate dangerous free "whites" from dangerous black slaves by a screen of "racial" contempt.


Black slaves worked on plantations in small numbers throughout the 1600s. But until the end of the 1600s, it cost planters more to buy slaves than to buy white servants. Blacks lived in the colonies in a variety of statuses—some were free, some were slaves, some were servants. The law in Virginia didn’t establish the condition of lifetime, perpetual slavery or even recognize African servants as a group different from white servants until 1661. Blacks could serve on juries, own property, and exercise other rights. Northampton County, Virginia, recognized interracial marriages and, in one case, assigned a free Black couple to act as foster parents for an abandoned white child. There were even a few examples of Black freemen who owned white servants. Free Blacks in North Carolina had voting rights. In the 1600s, the Chesapeake society of eastern Virginia had a multiracial character.

There is persuasive evidence dating from the 1620s through the 1680s that there were those of European descent in the Chesapeake who were prepared to identify and cooperate with people of African descent. These affinities were forged in the world of plantation work. On many plantations Europeans and West Africans labored side by side in the tobacco fields, performing exactly the same types and amounts of work; they lived and ate together in shared housing; they socialized together; and sometimes they slept together. White servants’ ditty of the time said, “We and the Negroes both alike did fare/Of work and food we had equal share.”

The planters’ economic calculations played a part in the colonies’ decision to move towards full-scale slave labor. By the end of the 17th century, the price of white indentured servants outstripped the price of African slaves. A planter could buy an African slave for life for the same price that he could purchase a white servant for ten years. As Eric Williams explained:

Here, then, is the origin of Negro slavery. The reason was economic, not racial; it had to do not with the color of the laborer, but the cheapness of the labor. [The planter] would have gone to the moon, if necessary, for labor. Africa was nearer than the moon, nearer too than the more populous countries of India and China. But their turn would soon come.

The birth of racism

Free white workers were better off than slaves or servants, but they still resented unfair treatment by the wealthier classes. With the problem of Indian hostility, and the danger of slave revolts, the colonial elite had to consider the class anger of poor whites-servants, tenants, the city poor, the propertyless, etc. As the colonies passed their hundredth year and went into the middle of the 1700s, as the gap between rich and poor widened, as violence and the threat of violence increased, the problem of control became more serious. It was the potential combination of poor whites and blacks that caused the most fear among the wealthy white planters. The answer to the problem, obvious if unspoken and only gradually recognized, was racism, to separate dangerous free whites from dangerous black slaves by a screen of racial contempt.

They forced landless whites to move westward to the frontier, there to encounter the Indians and to be a buffer for the seaboard rich against Indian troubles. Better to make war on the Indian, gain the support of the white, divert possible class conflict by turning poor whites against Indians for the security of the elite.

There was still another control which became handy as the colonies grew, and which had crucial consequences for the continued rule of the elite throughout American history. Along with the very rich and the very poor, there developed a white middle class of small planters, independent farmers, city artisans, who, given small rewards for joining forces with merchants and planters, would be a solid buffer against black slaves, frontier Indians, and very poor whites.

The growing cities generated more skilled workers, and the governments cultivated the support of white mechanics by protecting them from the competition of both slaves and free blacks. Middle-class Americans might be invited to join a new elite by attacks against the corruption of the established rich. The New Yorker Cadwallader Golden, in his Address to the Freeholders in 1747, attacked the wealthy as tax dodgers unconcerned with the welfare of others (although he himself was wealthy) and spoke for the honesty and dependability of "the midling rank of mankind" in whom citizens could best trust "our liberty & Property." This was to become a critically important rhetorical device for the rule of the few, who would speak to the many of "our" liberty, "our" property, "our" country.

Similarly, in Boston, the rich James Otis could appeal to the Boston middle class by attacking the Tory Thomas Hutchinson. James Henretta has shown that while it was the rich who ruled Boston, there were political jobs available for the moderately well-off, as "cullers of staves," "measurer of Coal Baskets," "Fence Viewer." Aubrey Land found in Maryland a class of small planters who were not "the beneficiary" of the planting society as the rich were, but who had the distinction of being called planters, and who were "respectable citizens with community obligations to act as overseers of roads, appraisers of estates and similar duties." It helped the alliance to accept the middle class socially in "a round of activities that included local politics ... dances, horseracing, and cockfights, occasionally punctuated with drinking brawls..."

As Richard Hofstadter said: "It was ... a middle-class society governed for the most part by its upper classes." Those upper classes, to rule, needed to make concessions to the middle class, without damage to their own wealth or power, at the expense of slaves, Indians, and poor whites. This bought loyalty. And to bind that loyalty with something more powerful even than material advantage, the ruling group found, in the 1760s and 1770s, a wonderfully useful device. That device was the language of liberty and equality, which could unite just enough whites to fight a Revolution against England, without ending either slavery or inequality.

Profit is almost always above racial or national solidarity.

For a long time now, an average white American employer, a “John Smith” has discovered that hiring a Jose Rodriguez from Mexico costs less than hiring another John Smith from the US. Jose Rodriguez will work for less because his family is often in Mexico, and Mexico is cheaper than the US. $50 a day is a fortune in Mexico. Jose Rodriguez is working hard and is very happy with his job. But the other John Smith, the employee, is complaining that he is not making enough. The Smiths live in the US; not Mexico. School tuition is high, housing is expensive. He wants more money. ‘To hell with a fellow John Smith,” says the Gringo employer-“I am hiring Jose Rodriguez who is here illegally. I’ll save money in the process and make a fatter profit.”

In the US, when it comes to money, profit by any means possible often takes precedence over race, nationality, ethnic origin, citizenship or patriotism. Americans will usually hire anybody who costs less. The “white cause” is now opium for the poor, unemployed, and oppressed rural whites. But the economic reality is still this: an illegal Mexican plumber will come to your house and repair your faucet for $30. An American plumber (often white, but, sometimes, black, Hispanic or Asian) will charge you $200 for the same job.

What will a white American rather have- a white mechanic who presents him with an $800 bill for simple repairs on his vehicle, or an illegal Mexican mechanic who will repair his car for $300 or less? The answer is obvious.