WITH ROBIN D.G. KELLEY
Robin D.G. Kelley is chair of the history department at New
York University. He is also author of Race Rebels: Culture,
Politics and the Black Working Class.
What's the big deal about classifying people into different
Race was never just a matter of categories. It was a matter of
creating hierarchies. Race was about a racist system of supremacy
in which one group dominated the other. And I think that when
we look at the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries the key moment where
race becomes congealed as a system is where we can see the creation
of a color line.
or the creation of racism, was really about the invention of a
dominant group. In this case the dominant group were the slave
owners - the dominant group were those who conquered the world
- the Spanish, Portuguese and English. And here you get the emergence
of this idea of a white race, you know a kind of pan-European
white race. On the other side of that color line are all these
different groups: indigenous peoples, Native Americans, Africans,
Asians, who then get marked as something different and combined.
in India for example, in the 19th century, or 18th century, the
Indians would be considered black in some ways by the British.
They are not exactly the same as the Africans, they wouldn't be
conceived the same way, but they ultimately would be placed on
the other side of the color line. And so that is where the binary
Native Americans in North America for example, were
the enemy. They were the Other - the ones who had to be conquered
in order for Manifest Destiny to expand across North America.
And they end up being lumped together with Africans, with Asians.
So I guess what I am saying is that even within the categories
of non-whiteness, you may have all these multiplicities, all these
specific groups. But they still get lumped together as one, that
What was unique about the situation in North America that
led to race as we know it today?
Well it is an
interesting question because you can go back to Ancient Greece
and you can see the development of categories and hierarchies
where the ancient Greeks may think of the Persians as barbarians.
But something changed in the 17th and 18th centuries. And in
some ways the creation of these new racial hierarchies were tied
directly to the emergence of a New World economy. It's tied directly
to the creation of a world system of slavery, the enslavement
of Indian populations in Mexico, and the enslavement of Africans
in Brazil and North America. You have a moment historically when
Europe is expanding across the rest of the world.
Yet that expansion
of Europe is also tied to a moment when all of Europe is inspired
by democratic revolution, inspired by the Enlightenment. The potential
for a world where, at last theoretically, everyone is equal and
free - where liberty is the catch word of the day.
that they had to figure out is, how can we promote liberty, freedom,
democracy on the one hand, and a system of slavery and exploitation
of people who are non-white on the other? How can we do this?
initially in the early stages of colonial America a lot of those
poor whites and indentured servants who worked alongside Africans
on early plantations and farms in North America, they rebelled
together. Sometimes they took to arms such as in Bacon's Rebellion,
sometimes they formed Maroon societies in which Native Americans
and Africans and renegade whites ran away together and formed
colonies to defend themselves against slave masters.
the way for the planter elite to undermine that potential unity
among the renegade whites and the Africans and Native Americans
was to begin to pass laws which created a very strict racial hierarchy.
first set of laws were laws that made African slavery permanent.
In other words you were property until death. They distinguished
that kind of permanent slavery from indentured servitude, which
was a limited amount of years and after that you are free.
laws were passed against interracial marriage. Interracial marriage
and interracial relationships had been fairly common in the early
part of the 16th and 17th centuries. By the late 17th and early
18th century a lot of that stuff was outlawed. There were laws
passed which promoted harsher punishment for Africans for crimes
versus white Christians.
And that in some ways helped destroy
any potential for unity across those color lines and made the
line sharper between black and, white, or white and other.
here you get the formation of a really foundational system of
racism which was necessary in order for America to become both
a democracy on one hand and a slave state on the other.
course, another problem is that the way liberty really gets translated
in real life is the right to own property. And if you have liberty
rooted in the right to own property, that includes the right to
How did early American peoples see themselves?
The first thing to keep in mind in this early period of 17th
century America is that blackness and whiteness weren't clear
categories of identity. When Africans came here they came to the
New World not as black people, not as Negroes. They didn't see
themselves that way. They saw themselves according to their own
sort of ethnic identities. The same with the Europeans. They were
Portuguese, they were English, and Irish.
So you have a situation
in which alliances are formed on these new plantation economies
and in the new town of the New World in which sometimes being
Irish was close to being Ibo. Sometimes people met together in
taverns and bars who were considered sort of riff-raff, the lower
classes, and they were a mix of different people across racial
Over time those alliances were broken up, and as the
alliances were broken up, it became clear that many of the European-descended
poor whites began to identify themselves with, if not directly
with the rich whites, certainly with being white. As a way to
distinguish themselves from those dark-skinned people who they
associate with perpetual slavery.
To what extent do we make our own racial self-identities?
There is a difference between
racial identity imposed upon people like a marker, like a brand,
versus a self-formed identity. And of course these things are
connected but there is a distinction.
In the case of black people
you could see the evolution in how they saw themselves from their
own ethnic identities to a pan-African identity, to maybe seeing
themselves as part of a larger solidarity with other people from
the African continent.
For example, if you look at the history
of black naming of the 19th century you have names like African,
Afro-Saxon, Anglo-African, colored, free people of color, Negro,
and each one of these self-named identities are saying something
about the relationship to the larger world.
And when black people
early in the 19th century stopped calling themselves African and
began calling themselves Negro or colored American, it was to
make claims upon citizenship. It was to say look, you want to
send us back to Africa, and even though we may feel ourselves
of African descent, we want to claim American-ness, claim "colored
American," claim "Negro," in order to support our claims to being
in this country.
The same thing with Asian identities. In the
19th century you don't see people self-identifying as Asian because
they were tied to very specific nationalities. A pan-Asian identity
is a modern thing. It is a modern 20th-century notion which is
intended to build solidarity against racism and for a broader
pan-Asian culture - a new kind of culture in some ways.
that is why we can never talk about identities as fixed, they
are always dynamic and changing.
To what extent is racial self-identity a negotiation?
My whole life is a personal experience about
understanding racism. Every day as a black person in this country
I am reminded that I am black. But interestingly, this is a world
where even the definition of blackness is multiple and complex,
so I get these questions: "Are you Puerto Rican?" "Are you Dominican?"
"You must not be from the United States." "Why?" "Because you
don't talk like those southern Negroes." There is a whole range
of ways in which blackness gets marked. The same with whiteness.
so I think that one of the things that young people need to always
realize is race is this dynamic process of identity formation
and reformation where the identities that you cling to are made
within the context of other people making identities and imposing
them on you.
And so sometimes just the resistance to someone
else's identity imposed on you itself becomes a new identity.
And that is why so much of anti-racism in America is about overthrowing
stereotypes but also finding ways to celebrate what is distinct
and unique about us as a community. No matter what that community
Sometimes it is about building communities that didn't exist
before. You know, there is no necessary reason why people from
North Africa and Morocco, or the Gnawa people of Morocco or the
people of the Congo should necessarily be united as one community.
Yet it is precisely racism that produced the circumstances for
that basis of unity. But there is also more than that. It is also
the recognition that there are certain cultural elements that
we share as a community, certain values that we share as a community,
which lay the foundation for new identities.
And that is what
is so tricky about it. When you see those new racial identities
you have young people who say that that itself is a racism. And
I think that is a mistake. It is a mistake to argue that in the
context in which we live that we can't form new identities because
I think the dream that everyone has is a moment in which we not
only recognize the dynamism of identities but we can all see ourselves
not as one group, but as multiple groups that can share and exchange
ideas from one another so that we can always be changing, and
always become something different and yet never lose the sense
of difference and community and individuality.
Why does the one-drop rule develop in North America?
North America is unique
because it had this one-drop rule. That is, is if you have any
African ancestors that makes you black. And of course it is not
the same in every state. And it is unlike the Caribbean or Brazil
or other places.
Now why is this the case in North America?
That is the question. In part, it's because every slave society
had to have a buffer class. In the Caribbean, which had a 90 -95%
African-descended population, that buffer class was the mulatto
In North America you had a buffer class of poor whites.
And as long as you had that continual immigration of poor whites,
white working-class people in North America with limited privileges,
that class that would always oppose these Africans.
therefore every single person of African descent in a multiracial
culture like North America would be considered not only black,
but would be considered potential slaves. In a system where slavery
is generational, the offspring of interracial relationships could
then be enslaved and so the slavemaster wouldn't lose his property.
even if they were free they would have limited access to citizenship
and democracy. So laws were passed that limited their movement
or access to rights and privileges.
How did Enlightenment science affirm ideas of race?
Another reason why the context of the
Enlightenment is so important to race is because this is when
the idea of science is being invented. And what ends up happening
is that science becomes a challenge to Christianity.
ideas basically suggest that everyone evolved from Adam and Eve.
And if that is the case, the only way to explain 'racial' difference
is the climate - that old idea that a temperate climates produce
superior people and that hot climates produce dim-witted people
but for different reasons.
What is interesting is that the Enlightenment
produced a challenge to Christianity. And what ends up happening
is scientists begin to talk about the races as separate human
species emerging over time.
And when you can talk about different
species, it solves the problem of saying that we are all part
of the Christian world. It allows you to begin to designate some
people as just one step out of the animal kingdom, in the case
of Africans. It even allows you in some ways to talk about the
noble savage in the case of Native Americans, who are celebrated
in some ways initially as having a certain kind of superior primitive
knowledge that could be liberating for the West.
Now what is
also interesting is that science in the 18th and 19th century
requires a rewriting of the histories that they already knew in
order to justify these claims. Perhaps the best example is that
in the 19th century, ancient history gets rewritten so that the
connection of Egypt and North Africa to ancient Greece gets erased.
Almost all historians who write histories of the formation of
Europe and Greek lineage begin to literally, systematically remove
the present of Egyptian philosophers.
And of course we think
of this as a small deal. But it is a huge deal in terms of the
way that these new regimes could justify the idea that Africans
are perpetually, intrinsically and inherently inferior to this
new group we call Europeans.
Why didn't we do away with racism after slavery?
Post-Civil War Reconstruction represents one
of those moments when I think racism might have been overthrown
- one of those roads not quite taken.
After Emancipation, all
these freed African Americans began to build institutions and
homes and communities. At the end of the Civil War, the first
task was to reconstruct the South, to reconstruct democracy. The
Republican Party consisted of some poor southern whites, African
Americans, and northern radicals who were committed to a new democracy.
And together they passed laws and produced a vision of society
in which everyone would have a right to land, everyone would have
the right to free universal public education, everyone - at least
all males - would have the right to vote. And as a result of Reconstruction,
many poor whites who couldn't vote before were able to vote. As
a result of Reconstruction and the leadership of these ex-slaves,
many poor whites who never had access to public schools suddenly
got to go to school.
That was a moment when the frame of racism
could have been broken and it didn't happen. It didn't happen
precisely because many of those same poor whites, who were enjoying
the fruits of democracy for the first time, ended up choosing
their skin color over their class - and that was one of the biggest
tragedies in American history.
In some ways there is a parallel
between the period of Reconstruction and what we think of as the
modern Civil Rights Movement. And in both of those periods there
were whites who were inspired by the black freedom struggle, who
saw the potential for a new society rooted in the destruction
of racism - a society that would benefit themselves and benefit
all of humanity.
In the Civil Rights Movement there were many
poor people who in fact were inspired by the demands of the Student
Nonviolent Coordinated Committee, who were inspired by the demands
for economic justice.
In fact, it is not an accident that the
tail end of that Civil Rights Movement put economic justice at
the forefront, much like during Reconstruction when economic justice
became a critical issue. But once again, in both of those moments,
many of the whites who could benefit from the struggle for economic
justice decided that it didn't make sense to make an alliance
with black people and again they chose race over class. Which
was again, a big tragedy for America.
Isn't racism just a form of ignorance and fear?
When I teach about racism the first thing
I say to my students is that racism is not ignorance. Racism is
knowledge. Racism in some ways is a very complicated system of
knowledge, where science, religion, philosophy, are used to justify
inequality and hierarchy. That is foundational. Racism is not
simply a kind of visceral feeling you have when you see someone
who is different from you.
Because in fact if you look at the
history of the world there are many people who look different
who are seen as both attractive and unattractive. It is not about
how you look, it is about how people assign meaning to how you
look. And that is learned behavior, you see.
And that is why
you can't think of racism as simply 'not knowing.' That is not
the case at all - on the contrary.
<BACK TO TOP