During those brief moments that we actually consider the notion of racism, most USAmericans either consider racism to be passé and imagined (particularly White Americans believe that) or as an unrelenting social force that always has been and always will be. Both hypotheses are wrong (they should not be considered theories as they are not shown to have been holding up to various, rigorous tests). The first hypothesis is not true and any social study or study of the criminal justice system or economics among the races can clarify that (“Accidental Racism” notwithstanding). In fact, the old stand-by for White Americans when confronted with the reality of racial economic and criminal justice belies that fact. For when evidence is displayed concerning the disparity of wealth, prison populations, unemployment, etc, between White and Black people and households, White people who don’t study history will often excuse these injustices with some variant of, “They deserve that for their laziness/ignorance/(insert other racist stereotype here)”; “They should stop living in the past”; “They should stop blaming us for their problems.” These statements underline common myths from slavery ages: that the black person is inferior, stupid, lazy.
In other words, these assertions tell us much more about the state of White American animus against Afro-Americans than they have anything to say about Afro-Americans themselves.
But they also underline a division that is not natural but man-made – and particularly man-made by those who benefit from having a divided population that – due to its division – will not and cannot rise to overthrow the shackles of oppression.
Who are “they”? Who is “us”? Were we always “us”? Were they always “they”?
This brings us to that second hypothesis: that the distinctions are natural and as old as history.
A bit of colonial US history could go a long way to dispel both lies.
When Africans were first brought to the colonies as slaves, they were not the only slaves. Many poor Europeans sailed the Atlantic (though usually by choice, often they were tricked or prisoners) and, to pay off the debt of the passage, worked as temporary slaves (“indentured servants”) with little-to-no freedom of movement themselves. Some even had their children work off their debt – if they were able to have children, that is. And when they finished their terms, they were often hardly better off than when they were servants or when they were in Europe.
As slavery in the New World and particularly in the English colonies was just beginning, it was going to be refined. And as it was being refined, it would change substantially. The ruling classes recognized the power of a united underclass and so divided them into a higher-underclass (Europeans and their descendants) and a permanent underclass (Africans and their descendants). As time would further develop, nuances would change, but generally-speaking, White Americans would always be treated a few steps ahead of their black counterparts in regards to social class (there being huge distinctions and a largely irrational racial animus among white working class people against Black working class people, and much mistrust and segregation garnered toward the Black professional class), sex (for much of its history, white feminism has largely ignored and/or marginalized non-white women within the movement, as Sojourner Truth and the Womanist Movement have shown and critiques of the new Lean In emphasis by higher-social class professionals also demonstrate), education level, and sexual preference (the idea that there is a monolithic and supportive “gay community” is a media myth for some. Many Black gay Chicagoans find Boystown to be not much more receptive than their home communities, for instance).
And we can say that these distinctions are natural – but they are not. They are intentional divisions wrought by the ruling classes, using tribalism to drive deep wedges between races that may find much in common if not in their cultural signifiers or general understanding of history, then in many of their circumstances – especially concerning how the ruling classes treat us.
From Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States:
[In] spite of special subordination of blacks in the Americas in the seventeenth century, there is evidence that where whites and blacks found themselves with common problems, common work, common enemy in their master, they behaved toward one another as equals. As one scholar of slavery, Kenneth Stampp, has put it, Negro and white servants of the seventeenth century were “remarkably unconcerned about the visible physical differences.”
Black and white worked together, fraternized together. The very fact that laws had to be passed after a while to forbid such relations indicates the strength of that tendency. ..
There is an enormous difference between a feeling of racial strangeness, perhaps fear, and the mass enslavement of million of black people that took place in the Americas. The transition from one to the other cannot be explained easily by “natural” tendencies. It is not hard to understand as the outcome of historical conditions.
Slavery grew as the plantation system grew. The reason is easily traceable to something other than natural repugnance: the number of arriving whites, whether free or indentured servants (under four to seven years contract), was not enough to meet the need of the plantations. By 1700, in Virginia, there were 6,000 slaves, one-twelfth of the population. By 1763, there were 170,000 slaves, about half the population.
And so the controlling factions needed to be bigger, tougher, more strict, and more divisive. Slaves were not allowed to fraternize with servants, and then they weren’t allowed to fraternize amongst each other, freely. Even amongst themselves, they were divided from field slaves and house slaves – and even some slaves acted as slave drivers to continue with the divided oppression.
African slaves, indigenous peoples, and European indentured servants would work together, play together, learn from each other, have babies and families together, make community together, revolt together. And it’s that last part that scared the crap out of the capitalist class. So while they made it more and more difficult for Black, White and Indigenous workers to get together, they also drew up larger differences in how each group of worker was treated. The proclaimed treatments drew wedges between the commonalities and the communities of shared love, to be replaced with material and social class distinctions of apparent superiority and inferiority. The class distinctions made it so that the White workers would feel comparatively better than their Black counterparts. Where there was love and fraternity, now there was suspicion and animosity.
These wedges will continue to divide us as long as White Americans continue to blame Black Americans for racism, for their conditions, for “driving wedges” by acknowledging the racism they continue to be targeted for, for sitting with each other during the lunch break when we Whites fail to acknowledge their own humanity, history, and shared cultural lives.
Let us all throw off the shackles of dehumanizing each other that so easily entangle and run for the race set before us.