Thursday July 2, 2015
By Joe Bowman
Way before the Charleston massacre, the Baltimore riots, the Trayvon Martin shooting, the beating of Rodney King, and the countless lynchings of blacks during a disgustingly hideous time in the United States, white supremacy was planting it's seeds of hatred and self entitlement. There is a widespread attitude held by certain white Americans that racial issues are best left to the past, even though we see countless examples that racism is alive and well in America today. Wanting to forget the racial past is not a new attitude for those of us who are white. This was a common desire among whites after the American Revolution as they struggled to reconcile their new found freedoms with the institution of slavery. But when it comes to addressing issues of race today, history is critical because our current race relations are deeply embedded in our history.
For me, coming to terms with our history is essential if we are to move toward becoming a more racially just society. In addition any attempt by those of us who are white to deal with issues of white identity must be grounded in an understanding of how white identity came to be shaped over the past four hundred years. White supremacy is what you might call a social construct. Over many years scientists tried to develop concepts of race and white superiority. These theories have no truth as science. But they are very powerful as social constructs that give power to whites and disempowers people of color. White Supremacy is a historically based, institutionally perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of continents, nations, and people of color by white people and nations of the European continent, for the purpose of maintaining and defending a system of wealth, power, and privilege.
In the early days of the American colony, when lands belonging to the Powhatan and Pequot tribes of indigenous North America, were first stolen and settled by evading British forces, the project of empire faced a major dilema. It quickly became clear that labor was desperately in need if the colony was going to survive. The British did not have the skills or knowledge necessary to survive here in the ways indigenous communities had for all of human history. Additionally, the British had designs on growing this empire outwards to dominate more lands and people.
Many of the British colonizers died in those early years as winters came and the settlers found themselves unprepared. In the winter of 1609 – 1610, the "starving time" as it came to be called, the colonists died in scores, reduced from a population of 500 to about 60. They took to digging up corpses, fruitlessly hunting for nuts and berries among the forests, and in many cases the colonists deserted and sought shelter with the Powhatan. The English elite had no intention of working this stolen land themselves, and needed a labor supply if their desire to expand the imperialist conquest of the lands and people of North America were to continue. They turned to English merchants who delivered poor English teenagers along with African people that had been kidnapped from their homes lands and stolen away to the new colonies. In these days there were few differences in the conditions of servants from Africa and England. They were all subject to the same horrors of forced labor. Workers were regularly whipped, nearly starved to death, denied days of rest, and were refused permission to marry.
As is the case in any situation where people are being subjugated and oppressed, there grew great unrest and resistance among the working servants. In fact, after roughly two decades of colonization, working servant outnumbered the English elites who purported to own and govern the colony, by as many as 100 to 1. This presented a very precarious situation for the colonial establishment. African and English servants were beginning to marry one another, to create bonds of consciousness to their shared oppression, and to organize.
Virginia records document 10 servant revolts in the mid-1600's culminating in Bacon's Rebellion of 1676. Bacon's rebellion represented a strange combination of popular resentment against the Virginia establishment and frontier hatred for Native People. Bacon, for his part, came from the ruling class and was mostly interested in securing his power and autonomy as a frontier leader who could raid and kill Indian people at will. The rebellion though, was much greater than Bacon himself. It was a large armed insurrection of African and British servants, free workers and farmers. They burned Jamestown, the capitol, to the ground and chased out the governor, demanding land and pay for their labor. Terrified that their power was slipping, the British sent the army in to crush the rebellion. They eventually did, hanging 23 of the rebel leaders in the process.
Bacon's rebellion represented a growing class-consciousness among African and English servants and a willingness to respond militantly. This threatened the Colonial establishment, who then took to a divide and conquer strategy, and introduced the first piece of law that legislated Black and White in America. This moment was a fundamental turning point in the history of a country built on the back of stolen land and labor. It drew the color line into law as well as into the America psyche, and set a precedent for the tactics of divide and conquer that have been employed ever since to make sure that power continue to reside in the hands of few, at the expense of many.
The Slave Codes and Beyond
Between 1680 and 1705, a series of laws were passed that sought to control the working poor/ enslaved populations of Colonial America by driving a wedge between a developing class affinity based on Race, a new construct for the time that has become the primary underpinning of Capitalism, Empire, and these forces' violent manifestations in the United States. Again, these were laws introduced with the specific intention of dividing class unity at a time that it threatened to collapse the growing empire.
The Slave Codes of the 1680's legitimized chattel slavery as an institution, by designating that children born to enslaved women would also become property of the master. This created an important designation from white servants who, under the British poor laws, were required to be released after a designated time of servitude. The laws also severely restricted the rights of free Africans and equated, for the first time, the terms "slave" and "Negro" — thus codifying the world's first institutionalized system of racialized slavery.
From the formal system of slavery to sharecropping to the modern Prison Industrial Complex — this logic of Blackness being regarded as slaveable has remained a constant. This premise is a foundational assumption of modern capitalism in the United States as well.
The capitalist system ultimately commodifies all workers – one's own person becomes a commodity that one must sell in the labor market while the profits of one's work are taken by someone else. To keep this capitalist system in place… the logic of slavery applies a racial hierarchy to this system. This racial hierarchy tells people that as long as you are not Black, you have the opportunity to escape the commodification of capitalism. This helps people who are not Black to accept their lot in life, because they can feel that at least they are not at the very bottom of the racial hierarchy – at least they are not property; at least they are not slaveable.
Indeed, the slave codes sought to reinforce this idea of racial superiority in the minds of poor whites by offering certain privileges to some servants and not others based on the color of one's skin. At first these rights and restrictions applied ambiguously to "servants", but as "slave" came to be synonymous with "Negro", "servant" came to designate "white" — the term which would ultimately replace "English," "Christian", or "wench" in refereeing to poor indentured Europeans.
The privileges granted to white servants through the Slave Code legislation included the ability to file grievances of unjust behavior by one's master through the court system; the payment of a "freedom due" to a servant at the end of their servitude; mandating that only white women could work in the masters house, and black women in the fields; and access to small plots of land, provided that the white servant guard the frontier. Poor white males were also offered some of the first job in the colony acting as slave patrols. They were paid a bounty for every slave they caught. These poor whites were given arms to defend the colony against the Native Americans on the frontier as well as from escaping slaves within the colony. This cleverly put poor whites in the fore of administering the divisive policy of the ruling elite.
At too many times in our history, whites made choices assuming that without maintaining our whiteness we will lose our power, privilege, and status. Or whites believed that if we give more power to people of color the benefits of our white skin color would be devalued. Too many of us who are white were socialized to believe that with racism we gain and with the end of racism we lose. But as we look back at our history we see our white power and privilege has come at great emotional and spiritual cost to us as white people. We have an identity that is limited to our power and privilege. We live in a fearful, controlling and often violent society. We have no useful ways of affirming being white - apart from saying we are not a person of color. We experience a contradiction between our freedom and the oppression of people of color. Above all we have never achieved recognition of the common humanity of all Americans. Is there any way out of the tragic drama of our history of white supremacy?
Can we make more liberating and humane choices about racial relations going forward? I live with the hope and faith that we can tempered by the realities of this history. Stop arguing about flags and symbols of oppression and start building better relationships based on understanding and coexistence. Don't let the media perpetuate the narrative that we're at a boiling point in race relations. They have an agenda. Yes, racism is still a systemic problem but together we can fix this. Don't listen to me, listen to that muscular organ that pumps blood to ever fiber of your body. Of course these problems won't be solved simply by the recognition of historic grievances. Absent a truly candid conversation about the culture that emerged from slavery and segregation, they won't be solved at all