Myths about Slavery & Racism
by John Spritzler
July 11, 2013
The URL of this article for sharing it is https://www.pdrboston.org/myths-re-slavery-racism
[Also related: Book Review: They Were White and They Were Slaves: The Untold History of Whites in Early America, by Michael A. Hoffman II ]
[Also, please read: "REPARATIONS FOR SLAVERY AND JIM CROW AND GENOCIDE AGAINST NATIVE AMERICANS."]
Anybody reading this article hoping to find evidence that slavery in the United States wasn't really that bad, or that nothing in the present day United States deserves to be called "the new Jim Crow," should stop reading, because that's not what this article is about. The myths this article debunks are: 1) the myth that slavery and Jim Crow (overtly racist laws) in the United States arose because "back then, people didn't understand, like we do today, how wrong such things were"; 2) the myth that people of European descent have an innate tendency to view darker-skinned people as inferior and not fully human; 3) the myth that slavery and subsequently Jim Crow and other forms of discrimination against darker-skinned people benefits lighter-skinned working class people; and 4) the myth that the way to end racial discrimination is to have a strong central government (because the only alternative is "states' rights," which amounts to giving power to racists.)
Myth #1: "They didn't know better back then."
A common excuse made for America's slave owning Founding Fathers is that "they didn't know better back then." The excuse conjures up an image of people hundreds of years ago just not understanding that racism was wrong because, through no fault of their own, they didn't enjoy the benefits of our modern enlightened way of thinking. According to this myth, being a racist in the past was like thinking that the sun revolves around the earth--just plain ignorance. The facts belie this view.
In 1723, a full twenty years before Thomas Jefferson was born, a British lawyer named Richard West was the Attorney-General who, on behalf of the British Crown, was "responsible for advising the Lords of Trade and Plantations whether laws passed in colonial legislatures merited approval, or should be rejected in whole or in part as being prejudicial or contradictory to the laws of England. In due course, West had occasion to examine a measure that was passed by the Virginia Assembly in May 1723 entitled 'An Act directing the trial of Slaves committing capital crimes; and for the more effectual punishing conspiracies and insurrections of them; and for the better government of Negros, Mulattos, and Indians, bond or free.' Article 23 of that 24-article law provided that:
'...no free negro, mulatto, or indian whatsoever, shall have any vote at the election of burgesses, or any other election whatsoever.' (See Myth #3 below for the reason why the Virginia Assembly passed this act.)
"The Attorney-General made the following categoric objection:
'I cannot see why one freeman should be used worse than another, merely upon account of his complexion..., to vote at elections of officers, either for a county, or parish, etc., is incident to every freeman, who is possessed of a certain proportion of property, and, therefore, when several negroes have merited their freedom, and obtained it, and by their industry, have acquired that proportion of property, so that the above-mentioned incidental rights of liberty are actually vested in them, for my own part, am persuaded, that it cannot be just, by a general law, without any allegation of crime, or other demerit whatsoever, to strip all free persons, of a black complexion (some of whom may, perhaps be of considerable substance,) from those rights, which are so justly valuable to every freeman.'" [from The Invention of the White Race, Volume II, by Theodore W. Allen, pg. 241]
At this time, class (as opposed to racial) inequality was an established part of "respectable" thinking in England and its colonies, with people of both European and African descent literally owned as property and made to work for no pay and denied the freedom to leave their master [which is what "bond labor" meant]. In 1640, Virginia, for the first time, punished such an indentured servant--an African American named John Punch--by extending his period of indenture to life, while punishing the two European-American bond laborers who ran away with him with lesser punishments. Thus began what became the slavery of African-Americans in the colonies. But in 1723 the concept of an entire race of people, regardless of their economic (i.e, class) status, being inferior and undeserving of rights enjoyed by another race of people was only just being introduced by the propertied class, for reasons of social control that are discussed in fascinating detail by T.W. Allen in the above referenced book.
The fact that an Attorney-General in 1723 could write, "it cannot be just, by a general law, without any allegation of crime, or other demerit whatsoever, to strip all free persons, of a black complexion (some of whom may, perhaps be of considerable substance,) from those rights, which are so justly valuable to every freeman" demonstrates that, long before Thomas Jefferson was even born, educated and "respectable" people may have seen nothing wrong with a more brutal form of class inequality than is accepted today, but they nonetheless understood the wrongness of racial discrimination no less than people today.
As it turned out, Attorney-General Richard West's views, no doubt shared by others in his social class, were jettisoned by "respectable" property owners in order to create what became known as the "white race"--a concept designed specifically by the propertied class to persuade people of European descent, no matter how much they were exploited as tenant farmers or even chattel bond laborers themselves, to believe it was morally right, and in their best interest, to help the propertied class enslave or at least deny basic rights to all people of African descent. The point is that the propertied class invented the idea of racial discrimination knowing full well how morally wrong the idea was, and how thoroughly it violated extant cultural norms. Attorney-General Richard West is proof of this.
In 1776 a man named Thomas Day wrote:
"If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves."
Myth #2: "Racism is innate in people of European descent."
According to this myth--that people of European descent have an innate tendency to view darker-skinned people as inferior and not fully human--intensive "anti-racist" training and social engineering can reduce the overt manifestation of racist thinking, but cannot eliminate the innate tendency of people of European descent to view darker skinned people as inferior.
The reason this myth has credence in the United States is that the ruling propertied class in the American colonies (and subsequently the United States), starting in the early 18th century, deliberately used massive racial discrimination against people of African descent (slavery being the most blatant example) as part of a social control strategy for dominating all races of working class people. The strategy was to entice working class people of European descent to ally with the propertied class who exploited them, and to assist the propertied class in enforcing racial discrimination.
This enticement depended on persuading people of European descent that being exploited and oppressed less than people of African descent benefited them, that it was a "privilege" that they would lose if the racial discrimination ended. This method of social control unfortunately was quite successful, and has affected the way people think about race even into the present time, making the myth of innate racism among people of European descent credible in spite of its not being true, as will be made evident by the following story of the Irish working class in the United States.
In the early 19th century, huge numbers of Irish people, mostly peasants and workers, immigrated to the United States and became a large section of the urban working class. The Irish leadership of the Catholic Church in the United States told Irish working class people that if they wanted to be accepted as "respectable" full citizens in their new home they had better learn to obey the maxim, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do," meaning specifically to avoid any hint of support for the abolitionist (anti-slavery) cause, and therefore to embrace their new status as "white" by helping to enforce racial discrimination against people of African descent. Unfortunately, many Irish workers in the U.S. at this time did indeed fall for the trap. Their "white" status in the United States was in marked contrast to their status as a despised and horribly oppressed race back in Ireland where British Protestants had subjugated and oppressed them for many years.
But while the working class Irish in the United States were opposing the abolitionists, back in Ireland they were supporting the abolitionists in an explicit rejection of racial discrimination. As recounted by T.W. Allen in volume 1 of Inventing the White Race, pg. 172 and Appendix L, here is a little known story of how American abolitionists in 1841-2 mobilized the Irish public in Ireland in an attempt to persuade the Irish in the United States to join the movement to abolish slavery:
"The implement chosen was conceived and shaped in Ireland by two American abolitionists, the African-American Charles Lenox Remond and the European-American John Anderson Collins, together with members of the Hibernian Anti-Slavery Society. It was a simple device--an 'Address from the People of Ireland to Their Countrymen and Countrywomen in America.' For some four months the Irish abolitionists and repealers organized and supported a campaign to collect signatures to the Address. In addition to [Daniel] O'Connell, signers included two other figures revered among Irish-American Catholics: the Capuchin father Theobald Mathew, of Tipperary and Cork, the leader of the campaign against alcohol addiction, and the historian of the rebellion of 1798, Richard Robert Madden.
"Remond was the tireless featured speaker at meeting throughout most of Ireland. Starting in Dublin, he enthralled and enthused audiences in Cork, Waterford, Wesford, Limerick, Belfast and elsewhere. Night after night, this descendant of American Revolutionary War forebears poured out testimony and logic and historical exmple against the chattel-bondage in which African-Americans were held in the South, and no less against the humiliation of the petty and gross racial discrimination to which African-Americans were systematically subjected in the 'free' states of the North. Understandably given to bitterness, he was nevertheless energized by the warmth of his reception by the Irish people, and by the sympathetic coverage of his appearance in the Irish press. During Remond's tour, sixty thousand people subscribed their names to the Address, and in the following year another ten thousand did so. As Remond embarked for America at the end of his tour in mid-December , he said, 'Never were my hopes higher, my expectations stronger, or my zeal more ardent, than at present.'"
Here are some excerpts from the "Address from the People of Irleand...":
"Slavery is the most tremendous invasionof the natural, inalienable rights of man, and of some of the noblest gifts of God, 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.' What a spectacle does America present to the people of the earth! A land of professing christian repubicans, uniting their energies for the oppression and degradation of three millions of innocent human beings, the children of one common father, who suffer the most grievous wrongs and the utmost degradation for no crime of their ancestors or of their own!
"Slavery is a sin against God and man. All who are not for it, must be against it. None can be neutral! We entreat you to take the part of justice, religion and liberty.
"It is in vain that American citizens attempt to conceal their own and their country's degradation under this withering curse. America is cursed by slavery! We call upon you to unite with the abolitionists, and never to cease your efforts, until perfect liberty be granted to every one of her inhabitants, the black man as well as the white man. We are all children of the same gracious God; all equally entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
"Irishmen and Irishwomen! treat the colored people as your equals, as brethren. By all your memories of Ireland, continue to love liberty--hate slavery--cling by the abolitionists--and in America, you will do honor to the name of Ireland."
Clearly whatever was innate to the Irish in Ireland regarding attitudes towards darker-skinned people was equally innate to the Irish in the United States. But the former strongly opposed slavery while the latter supported it. Irish opposition, in Ireland, to slavery and racial discrimination against Africans proves that there is no innate tendency of people of European descent to view darker-skinned people as inferior and not fully human. When such views do exist, they are the result of ruling class efforts to cause them to exist. Since racist views are not innate, they are not permanent.
It is unfortunate beyond words that the "Address from the People of Ireland" failed in its mission. One must wonder if part of the explanation for its failure is that it did not refute a key ruling class lie. It didn't explain that the enticement by the ruling class to working class people of European descent to ally with slave owners and the other architects of racial discrimination--the claim that "white" people benefit from racial discrimination against people of African descent--was a flat out lie. Which leads to the next myth.
Myth #3: "Discrimination against darker-skinned people benefits lighter-skinned people."
In 1676-7 there was a rebellion of English and African descended bond laborers (indentured servants and slaves) against the ruling class of Virginia, known as Bacon's Rebellion. Few Americans have heard about this momentous event because the ruling class in charge of our education knows that if Americans knew about this event they would understand how racial discrimination is a weapon used by the rich against all working class people regardless of the color of their skin.
Nathaniel Bacon was a member of the ruling elite who launched a rebellion for aims that did not involve liberating bonded laborers* from their bondage. Bacon, however, relied on bonded laborers for his armed uprising and in the course of it, in order to maintain the support of his followers, he was obliged to do the unthinkable: he "proclam'd liberty to all Servants and Negro's" [this and the following account are from T.W. Allen's The Invention of the White Race, volume 2, pp 213-14].
"The Royal Commissioners noted that "sundry servants and other persons of desperate fortunes in Virginia during the late rebellions deserted from their masters and ran into rebellion on the encouragement of liberty...It became clear, in the words of one Virginia account, 'the name of Authority had but little power to [w]ring the Sword out of these Mad fellows hands.' Authority failing, [Captain Thomas] Grantham [of the thirty gun Concord] 'resalved to acoste them with never to be performed promises" of pardon for the freemen [former indentured servants] and freedom for the bond-laborers, English and Negroes, such as had constituted the rebel army from the time of the burning of Jamestown [by the rebels]...Grantham described the historic encounter:
'I went to Colonel West's house about three miles further, which was their Cheife Garrison and Magazine; I there mett about foure hundred English and Negroes in Armes, who were much dissatisfied at the Surrender of the Point, saying I had betray'd them, and thereupon some were for shooting mee, and others were for cutting mee in peeces; I told them I would willingly surrender myselfe to them, till they were satisfied from his Majestie, and did ingage to thr Negroes and Servants, that they were all pardoned and freed from their Slavery: and with faire promises and Rundletts of Brandy, I pacified them, giving them severall Noates under my hand, that what I did was by the Order of His Majestie and the Governor...Most of them I persuaded to goe to their Homes...except about Eighty Negroes and Twenty English which would not deliver Armes.'
"Grantham's testament has significance that is beyond exaggeration: in Virginia, 128 years before William Lloyd Garrison was born, laboring-class African-Americans and European-Americans fought side by side for the abolition of slavery. In so doing they provided the supreme proof that the white race [as a concept designed to achieve social control by the ruling class] did not then exist."
The solidarity between laboring-class African-Americans and European-Americans* fighting alongside each other against the upper class that exploited them both, demanding the abolition of bond labor, frightened the Virginia ruling class. It was precisely to prevent such solidarity--to destroy it!--and thereby secure their domination over all laboring people, that the ruling class did something drastic. They instituted overt racial discrimination in order to foment mistrust and resentment and even fear between the working class people of European descent and those of African descent.
They broke with centuries of English common law to create an entirely novel system of social control based on creating something that had not previously existed--a "white race" defined as people of European descent who, no matter how poor, would, by newly enacted law, hold a higher social position than absolutely every person of African descent, no matter how wealthy.
As recounted by T.W. Allen in his book, the British ruling class in the American colonies had enormous fear of solidarity existing among all the bond-laborers, both of European and African descent, and for that reason knew that they needed to use a new and very different method to control the bond-laborers: explicit discrimination based on race rather than property.
"In January 1677 the Lieutenant Governor of Maryland, Thomas Notley, watching with understandable anxiety the unfolding events in Virginia, had sounded a warning. 'There must be an alteration though not of the Government yet in the Government[;] new men should be put in power. the old men will never agree with the common people, and if that not be done, His majesty will never find a well settled Government in that Colony.' Four months later, Notley again made the point in a letter to Lord Baltimore. if a new leader came forward ready to risk his life in the cause, he said, 'the Commons of Virginia would Emmire themselves as deep in Rebellion as ever they did in Bacon's time.' The plantation bourgeoise must find a new strategy for social control, for 'if the Ould Course be taken, and if Coll. Jeoffreys [Herbert Jeffreys, Berkeley's successor as Royal Governor of Virginia] build his proceedings upon the Ould foundation its neither him nor all his Majesties Souldiers in Virginia will either satisfy or Rule these people.'" [The Invention of the White Race, Volume II, pg. 221-2]
"The [Bacon's] rebellion was over, but the rebelliousness of bond-laborers was not. In 1698, Francis Nicholas, then Governor of Maryland, reported to the Board of Trade the arrival of 326 'Negro' bond-laborers directly from Africa, and 70 more from Virginia and Pennsylvania....[H]e estimated that another 600 or 700 bond-laborers had arrived from Europe, 'Chiefly Irish.., most if not all, papists.' If that trend were to continue, he said, the to groups might join forces in both Virginia and Maryland to make 'great disturbances, if not a rebellion.' The following year, 1699, the Virginia House of Burgesses rejected the Board of Trade's idea of arming their 'servants' against the possibility of a French invasion should war be renewed. With the signing of the Peace of Ryswick, a lull in the war with France had begun, but a by-product of the peace was that too many ungovernable Irish veterans were being shipped as bond-laborers to the Chesapeake. 'If they were armed...we have just reason to fear they may rise upon us,' said the Burgesses. Although of one mind with the Board of Trade on the possibility of a French invasion, the Burgesse feared the bond-laborers, 'from the sake of their freedom and the difference of the religion, a great many of them (especially the Irish) and for other reasons...would rather be our enemies than contribute to our assistance.'" [The Invention of the White Race, Volume II, pg. 218-19]
"What was to be done? What was the 'alteration in the government, but not of the government' that would exorcise the ghost of Bacon's Rebellion? How was laboring-class solidarity to be undone? Back to first principles, never better enunciated by an English statesman than by Sir Francis Bacon. '[I]t is a certain sign of wise government, " Sir Francis advised, "...when it can hold men's hearts by hopes, when it cannot by satisfaction.' And, with acknowledgment to Machiavelli, Bacon advocated 'dividing and breaking of all factions and combinations that are adverse to the state, and setting them at distance or at least distrust among themselves.'...The solution was to establish a new birthright not only for Anglos but for every Euro-American, the 'white' identity that 'set them at a distance,' to use Sir Francis's phrase, from the laboring-class African-Americans, and enlisted them as active, or at least passive, supporters of lifetime bondage of African-Americans. Edmund S. Morgan [another scholar Allen cited earlier] introduces a catalogue of these white-skin privilege laws, with the assertion that "The answer to the problem [of preventing a replay of Bacon's Rebellion]...was racism, to separate dangerous free whites from dangerous slave blacks by a screen of racial contempt." In this way, he emphasizes, 'the [Virginia] assembly deliberately did what it could to foster contempt of whites for backs and Indians." Bruce [another scholar Allen cited] attests that '[t]oward the end of the seventeenth century' there occurred 'a marked tendency to promote a ride of race among members of every class of white people, to be white gave the distinction of color even to the agricultural [European-American bond-]servants, whose condition, in some respects, was not much removed from that of actual slavery; to be white and also to be free, combined the distinction of liberty.'" [pg. 248-9]
Allen discusses how the ruling class aimed to, as Sir Francis Bacon advised, "hold men's hearts by hopes, when it cannot by satisfaction" to obtain a loyal 'intermediate stratum' with which to make governance of the laboring class sustainable:
"The exclusion of free African-Americans from the intermediate stratum was a corollary of the establishment of 'white' identity as a mark of social status for masses of European-Americans without real prospects of upward social mobility, and yet induce them to abandon their opposition to the plantocracy and enlist them actively, or at least passively, in keeping down the Negro bond-laborer with whom they had made common cause in the course of Bacon's Rebellion, the presumption of liberty had to be denied to free African-Americans." [pg 249]
"Thus when Virginia Governor William Gooch was asked in 1723 by the Lords of Trade and Plantations what were the reasons that induced the Assembly to pass the act, articles of which Attorney-General Richard West said "cannot be just," the Governor said that the racially discriminatory curtailment of the franchise was in order "to fix a perpetual Brand upon Free Negros and Mulattos." Allen notes that this "proceeded from a conscious decision in the process of establishing a system of racial oppression, even though it meant repealing an electoral principle that had existed in Virginia for more than a century...[The] hallmark [of this system of racial oppression] is the insistence on the social distinction between the poorest member of the oppressor group and any member, however propertied, of the oppressed group." [pg. 242-3]
Another break with centuries of prior English common law was also necessary to enforce white superiority. A child's social status had always heretofore been inherited from the father; now it was changed to be inherited from the mother so that the children of a slave would be a slave even if the father was "white"; otherwise the child of a slave owner father and a slave mother would have been both "white" and of African descent, which had to be made impossible. If a "white" woman ever had a child by a non-white man, then according to the law at the time the child would be both "white" and of African descent, which would again threaten the system of social control. This is probably the origin of the ruling elite's overwrought fear in the American South of a black man having relations with a white woman.
Absent solidarity between all working class people regardless of skin color, there is no way any working class people of any color can mount a successful fight against ruling class domination and exploitation. Being exploited less than others is not a benefit, as the word "privilege" implies in the phrase "white skin privilege." Being exploited less than others is the opposite of a benefit; it is an injury because being exploited at all is an injury.
The English bond laborers in Bacon's Rebellion knew that even though African-Americans were worse off as slaves for life, nonetheless English bond laborers were suffering oppression, not enjoying a benefit or a "privilege." This is why the English- and African-American bond laborers were able to mount a struggle that seriously threatened to end the ruling class's domination of society. The imposition of "white race" laws, and the subsequent acceptance by some European-American working class people of the lie that these laws benefited them, is the chief cause of the impoverishment of American working class people of all shades of skin color. For more discussion of this, please see "True or False: An Injury to One Is an Injury to All?" and "Is it a 'Privilege' Not to be Discriminated Against?"
Myth #4: "The way to end racial discrimination is to have a strong central government."
The notion that a strong central government (in the United States, at least) is the way to end racial discrimination has many proponents, especially among supporters of the Democratic Party. Robert Parry expresses this view in his, "The Marriage of Libertarians and Racists," in which his concluding paragraph is:
"Yet, this marriage of slavery/segregation and small-government philosophy has endured as long as there has been a United States of America. It is how the worst aspects of America’s Founding era – the enslavement of African-Americans and the Southern white fear that a strong federal government would eventually right that wrong – reach to the present day."
It is certainly true that racists have used "states' rights" arguments to defend racist state laws and practices, and that the Federal government in the 1950s and 1960s used its power to end Jim Crow laws in the South. But the Federal government of the United States is hardly a reliable force against racial discrimination. Franklin D. Roosevelt, the epitome of a strong federal government president, used the Federal government during World War II to intern over 127,000 citizens in concentration camps for the "crime" of being of Japanese descent.
More recently, as Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, discusses online here, the Federal government declared a "War on Drugs" in 1982 when drug crimes were declining, not rising. The War on drugs increased the prison population from 300,000 to 2 million; it targeted black and Hispanic men because they were black or Hispanic, not because they were using or selling drugs more than whites and not because crime was increasing. This was a bi-partisan racist attack. Bill Clinton's "tough on crime" policies increased the prison population more than any other president. "He and the 'New Democrats' championed legislation banning drug felons from public housing (no matter how minor the offense) and denying them basic public benefits, including food stamps, for life. Discrimination in virtually every aspect of political, economic, and social life is now perfectly legal, if you’ve been labeled a felon." In federal prisons 40.5% of prisoners are non-white whereas in the U.S. population only 22.1% of the people are non-white. Linking criminality with being black or Hispanic by reminding the public of the disproportionately black and Hispanic character of prisoners (with all sorts of TV shows among other things) fuels racist fears that in turn allow racist policies to continue.
The Federal government is an instrument for promoting, not fighting, racism and racial discrimination. Some people have been fooled into believing the opposite by the fact that the federal government implements Affirmative Action. The actual effect of Affirmative Action, however, has been exactly what the ruling class intended it to be, from the beginning: resentment among white working class people against blacks and Hispanics. When the Civil Rights Movement made racial discrimination, in particular Jim Crow laws, its target, the movement gained enormous support from white working class people, because equality is a widely shared value. When Richard Nixon initiated Affirmative Action and persuaded Civil Rights leaders to change their goal from ending racial discrimination to obtaining preferential treatment for blacks and Hispanics, however, it was an attack on the solidarity of the working class.
Decades of white people hearing "I'm sorry. We couldn't give you the job (or school admission) because we had to give it to a less qualified minority person" have taken their toll on the solidarity that existed in the 1960s--exactly as intended by the ruling class. Ruling class-controlled liberal media call people, who object to Affirmative Action's use of different passing scores and qualifications for different races, racists. The purpose is to intensify white resentment against blacks and Hispanics. It tries to turn whites against blacks and Hispanics, just as the invention of the "white race" attempted to do that centuries ago. (Please read, "We Need THIS, Not Affirmative Action."
The way to fight racial discrimination is not by supporting states' rights, nor is it by giving more power to the Federal government. The way to fight racial discrimination is by identifying racial discrimination and mobilizing ordinary people to demand that it stop, employing direct action as necessary. This is how the Civil Rights Movement ended Jim Crow.
In a good society, the people who want equality and mutual aid should organize to shape society by these values, and fight against those who oppose them. The best way for people who support equality and mutual aid to organize, in other words to cooperate for shared goals, is by voluntary federation. This means that they make policies and laws at the local level at meetings ("assemblies") open to them all, as equals. Localities send delegates to meet with delegates from like-minded assemblies and these delegates craft proposals (not laws!) that the local assemblies accept or reject as they wish, with assemblies and delegates making amendments to arrive at proposals that are carried out only when a sufficient number of local assemblies voluntarily wish to do so. With voluntary federation there is social order and cooperation on as large a scale as desired, but there is no powerful central government that people are obliged to obey. When necessary, voluntary federation is a way to create an armed militia to forcibly prevent racists from doing racist things. For more discussion about how to make a good society, please see Thinking about Revolution and "What Is An Egalitarian Revolution?"
* Read here about bond labor versus slave labor at this time; the distinction had not yet become as sharp as it did later.