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Monday, August 14, 2017


The events next door in Virginia have brought a certain amount of clarity to the issue of race in America.  It might be useful to remind ourselves of some facts that, although well known, are often forgotten.  Africans were brought to this continent against their will for one reason, and one reason alone:  to serve as a controllable source of labor for Europeans seeking their fortune in the New World.  The legal institution of chattel slavery developed slowly during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.  New World slavery was unlike traditional European and Asian slavery first in being hereditary, and then, over time, in being racial in its definition.  The Africans were not seized, brought to the Americas and enslaved because they were thought to be inferior.  Quite to the contrary, they were enslaved because they were thought to be good workers, and hence well worth their price and the cost of their upkeep. 

The slave owners did not hate their slaves, any more than they hated their mules or horses.  Because some of the slaves were used as servants – cooks, nurses, nannies, footmen, hairdressers, and handmaidens – the slave owners lived in very close proximity to at least some of their slaves, and on occasion they developed a fondness for them.  The male slave owners were often sexually attracted to their female slaves and forced themselves on them, thereby cheaply increasing the size of their slave holdings.

The slave owners drove their slaves mercilessly in the fields and beat them cruelly at will for the slightest disobedience, but they were by and large extremely careful not to kill them or maim them in ways that interfered with their work, because the slaves were expensive pieces of property, and a man would no more hang his slave on a tree by the neck than he would kill a recalcitrant mule.

All of this changed once the slaves were freed.  The slave owners could be easy and intimate with their slaves because there was a legally enforced absolute divide between the legal status of a white man and the legal status of a slave.  After liberation, the Whites were perpetually terrified of “uppity negroes,” of the divide being bridged, of Black men and women behaving as though they were the equals of White men and women.  What we now call segregation was the result:  separation of Whites and Blacks and domination of Blacks by Whites, maintained by law, by custom, and by force.

North America was a White Supremacist society from the early seventeenth century until the founding of the United States in the late eighteenth century.  The United States was then a de jure White Supremicist state – what is in other contexts called a White Settler state – for the first three quarters of a century of its existence, and then a de facto White Supremicist state for at least an additional century or so.  White Supremacy has been formally illegal and socially in question for only the past fifty years or so.

Hatred has fundamentally very little to do with White Supremacy.  White Supremacy is a policy of domination and economic superiority of Whites in a multi-racial society.  African-Americans are not worried about whether White people want to be friends.  Most of the African-Americans I know have quite enough friends, thank you very much.  African-Americans demand legal, economic, and political equality.  And that terrifies many Whites, who do not want to give up the superior legal, political, and economic position in American society that they acquired through being born White.

For all of these reasons, the Charlottesville events have been usefully clarifying.  It is not at all surprising that there is a very large and enthusiastic audience for Trump’s racism.  Anyone familiar with the history of this society both before and after the founding of the United States would expect as much. 

In the words of the old union song, Which side are you on?


Frank said...

Professor Wolff,

Does your critique extend to white racists who are not within any positions of power (social, economic, or political)? If so, I'm wondering how one could square the view of white supremacy for the power it provides white people with the fact that many of the people holding up Nazi symbols and whatnot in Charlottesville likely do not hold any position of power or privilege in this society.

Anonymous said...

"The Africans were not seized, brought to the Americas and enslaved because they were thought to be inferior. Quite to the contrary, they were enslaved because they were thought to be good workers, and hence well worth their price and the cost of their upkeep."

What an odd assertion. To be sure, the motivation to enslave was not black inferiority, any more than a farmer's motivation to employ a mule is the inferiority of the beast. But the status of the mule as beast is the cause of its employment by the farmer, just as the perception of blacks as something inferior was the cause of their enslavement. Blacks were enslaved because they were thought to be inferior (your strange "quite to the contrary" notwithstanding).

Jerry Fresia said...

Great blog because the notion of the disinterested "surplus getter" is so important and ought to be required reading by every American. I was just reading Paul Krugman's blog which celebrates the great American idea that "all men are treated equal," bla bla bla - in other words, a blog written at the level of ideology. Too bad we couldn't hack into the Krugman blog and insert this one. Thank you.

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