Sunday, April 29, 2018

The creation of racism

I believe categorizing people into “us” and “them” is a natural human instinct, but racism is not. Racism was created. When my children have asked me where it came from, I have always told them that slavery caused racism. In scale and brutality, American slavery was unlike anything the world had seen. The phrase I use is that European slave traders and American planters had to “look at themselves in the mirror every day.” They couldn’t bear facing their own evilness, so they created the myth of racial superiority to justify their actions.

If something was created, that means there was a time before it existed. That’s kind of an obvious point, but I had never really thought about the time before racism existed and about how it was brought into being. Recently I’ve been reading a lot about that time. It’s a very specific time and place – a few decades beginning in 1620 in the English colonies of Virginia and Maryland. I’m learning about the very first time the word “white” was used in law in North America to describe a group of people – in Maryland in 1681.

Before there were “white” people, there were English, Irish, Africans, and Indians; “civilized” people and “savages”; Christians and “heathens”; free people, tenants, and bonded laborers. These were all categories of “us” and “them” and it cannot be overstated how much life SUCKED for almost everyone. A few English landowners grew rich and everyone else struggled to survive and often didn’t.  I am not romanticizing this as an egalitarian society. But in the time before racism, the categories were different, and an Irish bonded laborer aligned himself with an African bonded laborer, not with an English landowner. Before the creation of “white” people, Africans and Europeans in Virginia and Maryland shared experiences of servitude and land ownership, married each other, voted at similar rates, and were treated similarly (mostly poorly) by the law.

During Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, European and African laborers united against the ruling class (to hasten the theft of native land - again, not romanticizing). To prevent these kinds of rebellions from continuing, the English elite made a conscious and deliberate decision to create the category of “white” and the myth of white racial superiority. It is this consciousness and deliberateness that is new information to me. In the mid and late 17th century, the colonial assemblies of Virginia and Maryland passed law after law establishing different treatment for Europeans and Africans in owning bond laborers, manumission, owning livestock, marriage, holding public office, voting, serving in militias, owning weapons, and punishments for transgressions. They then required parish clerks to read these laws aloud in church once every spring and fall, and sheriffs to read them aloud in courthouses during the June or July terms of court. Historian Theodore Allen writes, “We must conclude that the general public was regularly and systematically subjected to official white-supremacist agitation. It was to be drummed into the minds of the people… thus was the ‘white race’ invented.”

I realize, as I learn this history, that I have participated in a “great forgetting.” Even though I knew race was an invented social category and I could put the creation of racism into its historical context for my children, somehow I had never thought about the details. Realizing this makes me feel horrified at how successful the myth of white supremacy has been. But it also makes me slightly hopeful. If many of us have forgotten, maybe we can collectively try to remember. Life in the English colonies in the mid 17th century was brutal and oppressive, but “white” and “black” people lived and worked and resisted together with no awareness of our current racial divisions. That image, that knowledge that it happened, helps me visualize a world where it will happen again.

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