Explore The Evolution of an Idea
Race hasn't always been with us. Ancient people didn't stigmatize
physical difference, and our modern concept of race emerged out
of specific historical circumstances.
||Ancient views of difference
||The ancient Greeks distinguish themselves
from others according to culture and language, but not physical
differences. In fact, the word for "barbarian" comes from
the Greek "barbar," which means a person who stutters, is
unintelligible, or does not speak Greek. People from many
regions of the world, including Africa, can shed their barbarian
status and be accepted as Greek citizens if they adopt the
language, customs and dress. Conversely, Greece, like Rome,
is an "equal opportunity" society that enslaves people regardless
||Origin of "slave"
||It is thought that the word "slave" derives
from the word Slav: prisoners from Slavonic tribes of northern
and eastern Europe captured by Germans and sold to Arabs during
the Middle Ages. Throughout much of human history, societies
enslave others, as a result of conquest, war or debt, but
not because of physical characteristics or a belief in natural
inferiority. In America, a unique set of historical circumstances
leads to the enslavement of peoples who share similar physical
traits and common African ancestry. Justification in terms
of "race" comes later.
||Pocahontas marries John Rolfe
||When the English first arrive in America, neither
the colonists nor Indians think of themselves or each other
in terms of race. On the contrary, Protestant England's hated
rival is Catholic Spain, while the Indians see themselves
not as Indians, but different nations divided by language,
custom and power. When the Powhatan princess Pocahontas marries
colonist John Rolfe, the union causes a scandal in the British
court, not because Rolfe has married an Indian, but because
Pocahontas, a princess, has married a commoner. In 17th-century
England, status and social station are more important than
||Social identities fluid
||In early colonial America, social identities
are fluid, and class distinctions trump physical difference.
On Virginia plantations, European indentured servants and
African slaves mix freely - they work, play, and make love
together. In 1676, Bacon's Rebellion unites poor Africans
and Europeans against Indians and wealthy planters. Although
the rebellion is short-lived, the alliance alarms the colonial
elite, who realize the labor system based on indentured servitude
is unstable. Coincidentally, captured Africans, perceived
as stronger workers by Europeans, become more available at
this time. Planters turn increasingly to African slavery for
labor, while granting increased freedoms to Europeans.
||Virginia slave codes passed
||As wealthy planters turn from indentured servitude
towards slavery, they begin to write laws transforming Africans
and their descendantsinto permanent slaves , dividing Blacks
from whites and slaves from free men. As skilled farmers,
resistant to European diseases and unable to escape and hide
among neighboring tribes, Africans are an ideal labor source.
African Americans are punished more harshly for crimes and
their rights (whether as slaves or freemen) are increasingly
curtailed. Poor whites are given new entitlements and opportunities,
including as overseers who police the slave population. Over
time, poor whites identify more with wealthy whites and the
degradation of slavery is identified more and more with Blackness.
||Freedom creates contradiction
||Wealthy planter and slaveholder Thomas Jefferson
pens the Declaration of Independence establishing a radical
new principle: human equality and the natural rights of man.
Although this document lays the foundation for our American
democracy, it also creates a moral contradiction - how can
a nation built on freedom hold slaves? Previously, slavery
has been unquestioned. It is only challenged on moral grounds
when freedom and equality are introduced. Rather than abolish
slavery, some founding fathers seek justification in the "nature"
of slaves. Contempt for slaves begins to harden into an ideology
of racial difference and white supremacy.
||Indians take on racial idea
||Increasingly lumped together as the enemy by
encroaching settlers, some Indians begin to think of themselves
as sharing a unified identity - or at least a common fate.
Delaware, Miami, Sauk, Mesquakie, Potawatmi, and Kickapoo
warriors join the Shawnee warrior Tecumseh and his brother
Tenskwatawa (known as the Prophet) to forge a pan-Indian movement
and drive white Americans off their lands. However, many tribes
divide or refuse to join their army, and in October 1811,
the alliance is attacked and defeated in the Battle of Tippecanoe.
Tecumseh himself is later killed during the War of 1812. "Where
today are the Pequot, Narraganset, Mohican, Pokanet and many
other such powerful tribes? They have vanished before the
avarice and oppression of the white man....[note: 4 dots]The
only way to stop this evil is for all the red men to unite
and claim an equal and common right to the land." - Tecumseh
||Abolition fuels racial idea
||The American Anti-Slavery Society forms in Philadelphia.
By 1835, the society has established hundreds of branches
throughout the free states, and anti-slavery sentiment is
on the rise. But as attacks on slavery grow, so do the arguments
in its defense. Slavery advocates turn to scientific and biblical
arguments to "prove" that Negroes are distinct and inferior
to whites. The "nature" of slaves, they maintain, not slaveholders'
greed and avarice, is the cause of their condition. No longer
is slavery defended as a "necessary evil" but as a "positive
good." The rationale for slavery is so strong that when the
institution is finally abolished in 1865, the racial idea
||Manifest Destiny and war with Mexico
||In a news editorial about the annexation of
Texas, John O'Sullivan writes of America's "manifest destiny
to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the
free development of our yearly multiplying millions." This
now-famous phrase is used throughout the latter 19th-century
to justify the U.S.-Mexican War and American territorial expansion.
White superiority and innate racial difference have become
"common sense" and are invoked not only against Native Americans,
Mexicans, and African Americans, but also to rationalize the
acquisition of overseas territories.
||White Man's Burden
||In February 1899, McClure's Magazine publishes
a poem by Rudyard Kipling which advocates American imperialism
in Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. Picking up where
Manifest Destiny leaves off, the concept of the White Man's
Burden not only justifies expansion, it presents the colonization
of people as a noble enterprise. Racial superiority has become
more than common sense - whites now have a moral imperative
to govern inferior peoples, a mission preordained in the hierarchy
of races. Against the backdrop of Jim Crow segregation and
mass immigration from Europe and Asia, the concept figures
prominently in debates over citizenship and social fitness
at home and in the newly acquired territories.