Sullivan is right to throw water on the idea that the law can “create racism any more than it can create lust or greed or envy or hatred.” But Coates is making a more precise claim: That there’s nothing natural about the black/white divide that has defined American history. White Europeans had contact with black Africans well before the trans-Atlantic slave trade without the emergence of an anti-black racism. It took particular choices made by particular people—in this case, plantation owners in colonial Virginia—to make black skin a stigma, to make the “one drop rule” a defining feature of American life for more than a hundred years. By enslaving African indentured servants and allowing their white counterparts a chance for upward mobility, colonial landowners began the process that would make white supremacy the ideology of America. The position of slavery generated a stigma that then justified continued enslavement—blacks are lowly, therefore we must keep them as slaves.
I don’t dispute this, but equally, the slave trade itself, along with colonialism everywhere, presumed a racial inferiority before the Southern states codified it so precisely along Nuremberg lines. And it endures in the human soul as long as sin does.
(Painting: Slavers throwing overboard the Dead and Dying — Typhoon coming on “The Slave Ship” by JMW Turner, 1840. )