Is racism a natural impulse?
Does looking at black skin naturally invoke fear and hatred in a white mind?
If you believe that, then you believe that these cosmetic, superficial differences were enough to inspire and sustain 300 years of brutal slavery, instead of the more reasonable alternative: that racist ideology provides justification for a system that profits from another person’s free labor and immense suffering.
Historian Howard Zinn writes in his work The People’s History of the United States about two factors that distinguished American slavery from other examples of slavery in human history as the cruelest and most evil form. First was “the frenzy for limitless profit that comes from capitalistic agriculture,” and second was “the reduction of the slave to less than human status by the use of racial hatred, with that relentless clarity based on color, where white was master, black was slave.”
Racism is not a natural impulse that arose in the white mind when they first laid eyes eyes on African skin. It was a rationalization that allowed unimaginable cruelty. If your slaves are deemed by pseudo-scientists to be subhuman, then their relentless, ruthless exploitation is no worse than driving the oxen all day long.
There was another benefit to racism for the ruling class of the early colonies: it divided and distracted the class of overworked, over-exploited workers, constituted by both black and white.
In the early days of the colonies, white indentured servants and black slaves commiserated, communed, intermarried and convivially interacted. As Zinn writes, “only one fear was greater than the fear of black rebellion in the new American colonies. That was the fear that discontented whites would join black slaves to overthrow the existing order.”
The white ruling class of the early colonies began to legalize codes that granted a modicum of upward economic mobility for white indentured servants, and discouraged interaction with black slaves. Lawmakers in Virginia increased punishments for whites who conspired to escape with blacks. In 1691, Virginia provided for the banishment of any “white man or woman being free who shall intermarry with a negro, mulatoo, or Indian man or woman bond or free.”
Then, in 1705, the Virginia Assembly passed a law that required masters to give white servants whose indenture period had expired ten bushels of corn, thirty shillings, and a gun, along with 50 acres of land. Poor whites were suddenly less rebellious, and now had something to guard. They became jealous.
From there, the elites could nurture the rivalry between the black slaves and the poor white servant class to ensure that they wouldn’t join forces and unite against their common oppressor. As newly propertied, elevated people, whites now turned away at the sight of brutal black repression – it no longer affected them, and their intervention could result in losing the meager prosperity they had suddenly gained.
The conditions for racism’s efficacy in America persist today. As Zinn writes, “that class exploitation which has made poor whites desperate for small gifts of status, and has prevented that unity of black and white necessary for joint rebellion and reconstruction.”
All it takes is a little competition to perpetuate enmity between groups. But it also instills a willful blindness in the white community when police officers beat, maim, and murder members of the black community.
First, racism was used to rationalize a brutal, soulless, merciless form of chattel slavery. Then, to keep poor blacks and poor whites at odds, so that no class unity could form that might threaten the sinecure of wealthy, landowning whites.
But make no mistake, racism is a shrewd tool of class oppression. It is far from a natural tendency. It continues to serve its function in sowing division among the working class. The enforcers of these divisions have always been the functionaries of the state – police, intelligence agencies, etc. – who are tasked with making sure that the most exploited and oppressed people – black people in America – do not mount resistance.
Our view of police violence must be class conscious, otherwise it mistakes the police force for a well-intended entity that has somehow become corrupted. It is not – it is the cudgel swung by the ruling class. This is their role – to enforce class stratification, to keep us hating each other instead of looking up at the real oppressor.