The roots of American racism

Why is America so racist? In the first of four articles, American socialist Bill Crane explains how today’s struggles around Ferguson and police racism have their roots in a history of slavery and dispossession.

Photo: denisbin, Flickr

Photo: denisbin, Flickr

It’s often difficult for me, as an American socialist, to explain many things about my homeland to comrades and friends in England, where I live. In fact it’s only since coming to England that I’ve begun to appreciate just how strange many features of American society must seem to an outsider. The kabuki theatre of two-party politics, the prevalence of evangelical Christian faith as a significant force in society, and the culture of gun ownership are a few things Europeans in particular must struggle to understand when they look at the United States.

Yet it seems to me that one basic factor – racism – in the current climate of rampant police brutality, the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and the unabashed support this has received from grand juries and a significant amount of the American population, must stagger anyone looking in from the outside as a black mark on my country.

Asking the question, “why is America so racist?” – one I often struggle to answer when meeting new people in Britain after they place my accent – is not to set the United States apart as a reservoir of backward prejudice next to enlightened Europe. Britons, for example, can hardly claim in the wake of the police killings Mark Duggan, Christopher Alder, and so many others to reside in a country that prides itself on racial harmony and restraint by the forces of law. However the sheer barbarity of racism in America is staggering when compared with the UK or any other country. In my homeland, the police kill a black person every 28 hours. That’s almost one a day.

This says something distinctive about racism in America as opposed to racism in England, continental Europe or elsewhere, though these places have their share of racist brutality. How do we understand racism in America? In my view, this question has a concrete (though not uncomplicated) answer. This series is an attempt to summarise one.

What is “race”?

Here, following most halfway intelligent understandings, I do not see racism as a problem of individual attitudes towards black or brown people, though these require explanation. (See the Note on language at the end for more on the use of “black”.) Racism here is understood as a social relation supported by the ideology of race. In my view, Barbara Fields has the best definition of ideology:

Ideology is best understood as the descriptive vocabulary of day-to-day existence, through which people make rough sense of the social reality that they live and create from day to day. It is the language of consciousness that suits the particular way in which people deal with their fellows. It is the interpretation in thought of the social relations through which they constantly create and re-create their collective being, in all the varied forms their collective being may assume: family, clan, tribe, nation, class, party, business enterprise, church, army, club, and so on.

In Fields’ analysis, race is an ideology. This has significant consequences for how we view the problem. First of all, race does not correspond to any biological reality. The only “race” is the human one.

This is shown nowhere better than in Americans’ tortured attempts to come to a suitable categorisation of the different races. A Brazilian who is regarded as “white” in her native land will often find, as she steps off a plane in New York, that she has become “black.” Brazilians must also bear a special indignity under American law: for purposes of classification in the census they are regarded as part of the “Hispanic” race. Spanish-speakers apparently not only constitute a race of vastly differing ethnic types, but also include people whose native language is Portuguese!

Race therefore is immaterial, not a material fact of biology – but it is real. As Fields writes, it is as real as the social relation – racism – for which it stands. Understanding racism as an outgrowth of races in whatever form is to view the problem upside-down. Rather, we must see race as an ideology, “constantly created and re-created,” to explain existing inequalities and violence that are part of the social structure of American life.

Racism’s causes are concrete and identifiable in American history. But the past lasts a long time. To understand racism, we have to understand almost four centuries of the development of American society. My attempt to do so will necessarily be heavily simplistic and abbreviated, but I hope to summarise the most significant elements.

The origins of racial slavery

Most historians of race in America fetishise the categories of “racism” and “race” as existing independently of the social systems that produce them. But to explain slavery as a system of race relations is, as Fields notes, to see things as if “the chief business of slavery were the production of white supremacy rather than the production of cotton, sugar, rice and tobacco.”

The origins of racialised plantation slavery on the North American continent can be found in the Virginia colony of the mid-seventeenth century. Early on, the colonial enterprise was not profitable, existing on the coastal tidewater at the sufferance of American Indians who inhabited the land. In this period it was worked for the most part by indentured servants. These were Englishmen (almost always men) who signed a contract pledging a certain number of years’ free labour for a colonial master in exchange for the cost of their passage and the promise of a parcel of land to farm upon completing the period of their indenture.

All this changed when tobacco was added to the equation. Suddenly, the colonists of Virginia could produce a crop that was in high demand. English indentured labour could be used to produce tobacco – but only up to a certain limit. English labourers when they came to America did not come alone. They came with the history of their class – for example, from the revolutionary struggles of the recent Civil War. Enslavement of Englishmen would have upset the precarious social balance of the colony and put the future sources of immigration in jeopardy.

The explosive pressure that exploitation of Englishmen could generate was shown in Virginia during Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676. A group of young freedmen, joined by groups of indentured labourers and a few slaves, launched a revolt, plundering the rich estates and chasing the colonial administration back to the coast. More than any other, it is the event marks the “origin” of slavery. Colonial notables had the problem of white settlers’ resentment, and the potentially available solution of using black people from Africa to solve it. Africans came to America without a long history of struggle behind them. To quote Fields once again:

It was a fortunate circumstance – fortunate for some, anyway – that made Africans and Afro-West Indians available for plantation labour at the historical moment when it became practical to buy slaves for life, and at the same time difficult and dangerous to continue using Europeans as the main source of plantation labour. The importation of African slaves in larger and larger numbers made it possible to maintain a sufficient corps of plantation labourers without building up an explosive charge of armed Englishmen resentful at being denied the rights of Englishmen and disposing of the material and political resources to make their resentment felt.

Slavery and expropriation in the “rosy dawn” of America

From here on, the story gets complicated. We must skip around the trans-Atlantic trade and the many horrors of plantation slavery in the American South if we are to get some idea of their significance in terms of race relations. These stories are, for the most part, well known.

Plantation slavery was over time shifted to the requirements of the English textile industry for cotton. The southern US, from the late eighteenth century until the US Civil War, was the main producer of cotton for the world market. Race relations in this period of American history were therefore a product of the drive to profit through capitalist production on the world scale. The profits from the slave trade also played a central role in the Industrial Revolution, as Eric Williams noted in Capitalism and Slavery.

Slavery, which could produce cotton cheaply and effectively, was a highly profitable enterprise. But three factors rendered it a social system distinct from that of modern capitalist production. First, the production of cotton requires heavy and unsustainable exploitation of the land. Soil was worn out after a couple decades. To remain profitable, slavery had to continue to expand into new territory. Secondly, while industrial capitalism can technologically innovate and expel workers from the process of production in the process, slaveholders had no option but to keep their workers in employment forever. For them innovation after a certain point was not profitable. Finally, an economy without prevalent wage labour is an economy where there is no significant demand for the consumer goods produced by modern industry. Producers in such an economy are unwilling or (like slaves) unable to buy goods that can generate and sustain an industrial takeoff of the kind that every developed nation today has gone through.

The northern English colonies developed in a very different way. The North was at first populated mostly by free homestead farmers. They farmed their own subsistence, only afterward producing commodities such as wheat, soap and clothing for the domestic market. Slavery never emerged as a system here, although most Northern states did not make it illegal until well after the American War of Independence.

Whether they were poor or rich, free farmers or slaveowners, the land of American Indians was regarded as forfeit by English colonists, who engaged in numerous conflicts with them to seize more land. This was common whether the colonists sought more land to farm freely, as in the North and some of the South, or whether they were Southern planters seeking the vast tracts on which their slaves could continue cotton production for the world market.

Hence, the dynamic of America’s origin lies in two trends of racism: enslavement of Africans and expropriation of American Indians. From the emergence of the colonies that became the United States, these two groups were singled out for harsh and relentless oppression.

Conflict in the early American republic

It was the American War of Independence that intensified this dynamic. As Charlie Post writes in The American Road to Capitalism, the establishment of the colonies as a republic, followed by the Constitution of 1789, sounded the death knell of independent commodity production by farmers in the North. The Constitutional republic was the result of a compromise between northern elites who sought to generate a native capitalism through capturing and expanding a home market for industrial goods, and southern planters who sought to preserve and expand the territories of slavery.

If it was petty commodity production that had provided the motor for expropriation of American Indians’ land before the revolution, this was intensified by the industrial capitalism that sought more and more territory on which to grow and settle workers. “Free” farmers were pushed further and further west by their desire to obtain parcels of land where they would be free of capitalist social relations such as debt and wage labour. Both North and South drove West in pursuit of their needs. It was therefore the establishment of the US as an “independent centre of capitalist accumulation” which drove and intensified the genocide of American Indians.

From independence until the Civil War, the United States contained two distinct social systems: one based on the wage labour of white workers in the factory, and the other based on the extorted labour of enslaved Africans and their descendants on the plantation. Both systems were ruthlessly expansionist and sought after virgin western territory to expand. It was inevitable that they would come into bloody conflict over which system would prevail.

For the Southern aristocracy of planters, oriented toward the textile mills of England, expanding slavery into the territory west of the Mississippi River was a matter of life or death. Equally, however, the emerging ruling class of industry in the North could not allow them unfettered expansion. This would severely limit its ability to reproduce itself and expand its borders in imperialist competition with the European powers, in addition to threatening its independence towards Britain in the international economy. Southern slavery also stood in the way of Northern capitalism’s long-term goal of capturing the home market. Slaves, instructed to farm their own food and make their own clothes and having no wages, could not provide demand for northern industrial goods. The same was true of white Southern subsistence farmers.

The early republic stumbled its way through a worsening series of crises involving ‘nullification’ of federal laws by existing states and ‘popular sovereignty’ in the territories on the slavery question. All these had conflict over the expansion of slavery and the powers of the federal government to restrict its expansion as their root cause.

The election of Illinois lawyer Abraham Lincoln to the presidency on the Republican platform of restricting slavery to the states where it already existed was the signal for the final conflict of the two social systems that existed within the early American republic. The result would be a popular revolution of white and black that would extinguish the slave system and unite the country. It was a powerful social revolution, the only one up till now that the United States has experienced. However, this is running in advance of the next part of my article.

Summing up the origins of American racism

If we are seeking to answer the question of police violence against black people in America today, it might seem strange to respond with details of Bacon’s Rebellion and the nullification crisis. Yet the history of American society is necessary to reaching an even marginally satisfactory answer to the question “why is America so racist?”

  • The ideology of “race” originated in the need for colonial labour
    Race is based on the inequalities produced in the course of operation by a certain social system at a given time. The original cause of the rise of racism in America lies in the colonies of the seventeenth century, when it became necessary for a non-English labour force to produce crops for the English market and African slaves were available to fill this need.
  • The development of American capitalism depended on plantation slavery and genocide
    From the point of American independence onwards, we saw the divergence of two social systems in the US, one of industrial capitalism and one of plantation slavery. Both of these systems operated in the context of the growth of a global capitalist market, especially English industrialisation. Both, to satisfy their needs, had to be ruthlessly expansionist. The birth of capitalism in America was that described by Marx in part eight of Volume One of Capital: “the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population… the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.”
  • Industrial capitalism and plantation slavery then came into fundamental conflict
    While the Southern ruling class could not survive without continually extending the territory on which slavery operated, this was a fundamental threat to the Northern ruling class. This does not mean that the North was not racist itself, or that the US would be free of racism once it was free of slavery. As we will see, racism is also produced by, and itself produces, non-slave capitalist labour relations.

The legacy of slavery today is the ideology of race. Police violence today is a direct outcome of a system that was founded on slavery. The particular operation of racism in the US today targets one group – blacks – for systematic oppression. The “white race” has been defined in opposition to this oppressed group, and peoples in the US outside of either group are slotted somewhere between “black” and “white.”

The only group with an experience similar to the position of blacks is the American Indians. But while blacks have been used at every stage as a cheap and expendable labour force, American Indians were targeted for complete exclusion from American society. Their oppression is not central to the system in the same way that oppression of blacks is. Understanding anti-black racism is the first step towards understanding American society at any stage of its history.

If the oppression of blacks is central to American capitalism, this means that its overthrow is dependent in no small part on the agency of blacks, who by virtue of their position are in a unique position to understand the contradictions of American society. We shall see in the second part of this article how the cycle of revolt against racism, starting with the Civil War, has twice revolutionised America, culminating in the situation of the present day.


Notes on language

“Black” in America specifically means Afro-American – people of African descent. The British use of “black” often refers to people of any non-European ethnicity – the American equivalent is the phrase “people of colour”. I use the word “black” consistently here in the American sense.

My use of the term “American Indian” as opposed to “Indian” or “Native American” follows the terminology of most native groups in America today.

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