How Racism Was Made

Below are our posts exploring the origins of racism.

Mar 11, 2013 @ 2:42pm
TNC mulls it over, after his illuminating NYT column:

Last night I had the luxury of sitting and talking with the brilliant historian Barbara Fields. One point she makes that very few Americans understand is that racism is a creation. You read Edmund Morgan’s work and actually see racism being inscribed in the law and the country changing as a result.

If we accept that racism is a creation, then we must then accept that it can be destroyed. And if we accept that it can be destroyed, we must then accept that it can be destroyed by us and that it likely must be destroyed by methods kin to creation. Racism was created by policy. It will likely only be ultimately destroyed by policy.

I do not see how one can remove from the human psyche the deep evolutionary urge to determine friend from enemy. Group loyalty is deep in our DNA. It was integral to our survival for over 200,000 years. The meek did not inherit the earth. They were killed by bigots.

And in fact, we have only really had a few centuries of real multi-racial and multi-cultural societies which have not explicitly adhered to codes of “us” and “them”. I don’t think group hatred will ever end in human consciousness, because I think the law reflects our original sin, and cannot erase it. I think, for example, that there will always be homophobia – even if we lived in an idea left-liberal world in which the government policed our statements and indoctrinated us effectively in schools. Gay kids – simply because they are different – will be targeted by other kids for ridicule, exclusion and bullying. We should do what we can to protect them – but lying to them by saying that homophobia will one day disappear does not seem to me to be giving them any favors.

In other words, I don’t believe the law created racism any more than it can create lust or greed or envy or hatred. It can encourage or mitigate these profound aspects of human psychology – it can create racist structures as in the Jim Crow South or Greater Israel. But it can no more end these things that it can create them. A complementary strategy is finding ways for the targets of such hatred to become inured to them, to let the slurs sting less until they sting not at all. Not easy. But a more manageable goal than TNC’s utopianism.

Mar 12, 2013 @ 12:42pm

How Racism Was Made, Ctd


Jamelle Bouie parries my argument:

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. )

Mar 13, 2013 @ 1:37pm

How Racism Was Made, Ctd


Readers debate the issue using a variety of historical snapshots:

You say that “I don’t think group hatred will ever end in human consciousness.” I suspect this is true, but it’s also irrelevant. The ways that groups have defined themselves changes over time and from one place to the next. “Race” as a concept didn’t exist until the 17th-18th century, which is what academics mean when they say race is “constructed.” Before that, Europeans disliked Africans and vice versa because they spoke different languages and followed different religions and had different cultural norms. Neither side had the modern idea that some people are biologically different as a group, and that these different groups are visibly distinguishable from each other. Of course Europeans knew that Africans had darker skin. But they typically thought this was a natural consequence of living in hot areas for generations, not that people with dark skin somehow belonged to a separate category.

Back then, Spanish Christians thought that practicing Islam or Judaism left a kind of ineradicable spiritual taint that could be passed on from parent to child, a belief that “justified” persecution of converts and the children of converts. Few people believe this now. TNC is suggesting that our ideas of race could pass out of favor in a similar way.  I don’t see why this couldn’t happen, with some luck. Probably it is impossible to eliminate hatred, as you say, but it is not impossible to push back on a type of hatred.


American racism isn’t just about us vs. them.  It’s all wrapped up in the doctrine of white supremacy, which seeks to diminish or entirely deny the humanity of non-whites. They had slavery in the classical world, obviously, but it was a state in which human beings, through misfortune, found themselves.  A slave then was a human being with a really bad job.


One of the most surprising revelations of Hugh Thomas’s great book, The Slave Trade, is the persistence and continuity of slavery in the Mediterranean world from classical times through the nineteenth century. For most of that time racism was not an ideology used to justify slavery, which was seldom thought to require justification. A religious prohibition emerged among Christians and Muslims not to enslave members of their own faith, but for most of history the accidents of conquest, not a philosophy of racial inferiority, determined who served whom.

In fact, as Thomas describes it, the movement of the slave trade down the African coast was accompanied by admiration for the physical and mental hardiness of the slaves who thereby became available because they were better able to survive the rigors of the transatlantic trade and American plantation slavery than North Africans. In the writings of sixteenth and seventeenth century slavers, it is the superiority of these southerly people, not their inferiority, that rendered them appropriate objects for purchase.


slavedealerAs you speak to this topic, you continue to state things that are completely at odds with the historic record. “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.” That is simply false. The slave trade was owned and operated by … Africans! Europeans tapped into it as an easy supply of necessary labor for the brutal conditions of plantation staple crops (specifically sugar), but Europeans were entirely incapable of penetrating beyond the coastline due to the disease environment. European involvement altered a long standing slave trade along the Slave Coast, with fascinating political and economic dynamics. However, racism had nothing to do with the enslavement of Africans.

Another offers an excellent historical narrative that supports both sides of the debate:

The debate you are having with TNC and Jamelle Bouie about the roots of American racism is one that has a long tradition in academic historiography. TNC referenced Edmund Morgan’s 1977 work, American Slavery, American Freedom, which argues, in effect, that the establishment of the system of African slavery in Virginia was a conscious decision by wealthy elites, and that racism grew out of slavery. The gist of the argument is that the growing population of landless whites in late 17th-century Virginia became a threat to wealthy landowners, who turned to legal means (increased terms of service for minor legal infractions) to try to keep them subservient.  However, most of the landless poor were English, and they came from a cultural tradition in which they could claim the “rights of Englishmen” that guaranteed them certain legal protections (access to courts, trial by jury, property rights, and liberty of their persons).  Because of this heritage, wealthy elites realized they couldn’t create a system of perpetual servitude for English subjects, so they settled on imported African slave labor as the solution.

According to Morgan, this strategy “allowed Virginia’s magnates to keep their lands, yet arrested the discontent of the repression of other Englishmen.”  Though the white society that emerged would be highly stratified and unequal, the presence of a debased class of enslaved black that inhabited the bottom of the racial hierarchy effectively became a release valve for class antagonisms within the white community.  If some whites weren’t as rich as others, they were at least always above the permanent caste of enslaved blacks.  And thus the rise of an institutionalized anti-black racism in Virginia and later the United States.

Though Morgan’s interpretation has become standard within the academic community, there are dissenting voices.  A historian by the name of Winthrop Jordan wrote a book a few years before Morgan called White Over Black, which argued that Europeans in general, but the English in particular, had a cultural predisposition to view blackness as “a symbol of baseness and evil.”  When they encountered black Africans for the first time, the English came to view them as the antithesis of whites – uncivilized, sinful, irreligious, over-sexed, and dangerous.  His evidence for this interpretation ranges from English travel narratives to a brilliant exegesis of the sexual imagery of Shakespeare’s Othello, which was, for its time (1965), cutting edge.  Ultimately, for Jordan, it was the combination of economic expediency and preexisting cultural prejudice that caused the English to make what he calls the “unthinking decision” to embrace African slavery.

If you subscribe to Jordan’s interpretation, Bouie’s argument that “white Europeans had contact with black Africans well before the trans-Atlantic slave trade without the emergence of an anti-black racism” is historically inaccurate.  In fact, Jordan’s interpretation is probably closer to your contention that there is a “deep evolutionary urge to determine friend from enemy.”  In this case, the English tendency to see blackness as debased and evil – inculcated and reinforced, as Jordan argues, over countless generations – was far more important in the flowering of anti-black racism than was the economic logic of African slavery or the need to relieve intra-community social pressures amongst whites through the creation of a black underclass.

Of course, I’m not sure how comforting it is to think that the English were inherently racist before they even encountered black Africans.  But then again, you’re of Irish ancestry, so you probably understand English racism – er, “group loyalty” – at an instinctual level.


Slaves_Zadib_Yemen_13th_century_BNF_ParisBouie’s claims that racism among white Europeans was non-existent prior to the trans-Atlantic slave trade is demonstrably false. Consider, for example, the notion of blue-blooded royalty,which arose in Spain at some point around the 9th century, during the early stages of the Reconquista. While the first legal codification  had to wait until Toledo in 1449, pale white skin – which allowed blue veins to show through -was a sign of royalty since the early days of the Spanish aristocracy.  Much more research refuting Bouie’s claims can be found on the Wikipedia page on “Racism in the Middle Ages“.

The image to the right is of a 13th century slave market in Yemen. Another reader:

The most interesting theory I’ve heard about modern racism is that it is actually a subset of anti-Semitism, and it has roots in the Spanish Inquisition. A little odd, perhaps, but I find it fascinating for several reasons. For one thing, for most of European history (and the history of Christendom), if a Jew or Muslim converted to Christianity, then he ceased to be a heretic and the rules of Christian society applied to him. Talk of Africans or strange folks from other parts of the world were along those lines. It was a wholly religion-based society, and xenophobia and other ugliness were defined in religious terms.

Then in 1492, with the Spanish expulsion of the Jews and forced conversions, for the first time you had the theory that baptism was not enough – that there was something in the blood that was different and stronger than the power of baptism. Generation by generation after 1492, Spain increased the blood purity needed by conversos to be considered real Christians. Xenophobia became a blood issue for the first time.

(Top image via Wiki: “An illustration from the influential American magazine Harper’s Weekly shows an alleged similarity between “Irish Iberian” and “Negro” features in contrast to the higher “Anglo-Teutonic.” The accompanying caption reads “The Iberians are believed to have been originally an African race, who thousands of years ago spread themselves through Spain over Western Europe. Their remains are found in the barrows, or burying places, in sundry parts of these countries. The skulls are of low prognathous type. They came to Ireland and mixed with the natives of the South and West, who themselves are supposed to have been of low type and descendants of savages of the Stone Age, who, in consequence of isolation from the rest of the world, had never been out-competed in the healthy struggle of life, and thus made way, according to the laws of nature, for superior races.”)

Mar 14, 2013 @ 11:59am

How Racism Was Made, Ctd


Readers continue the debate:

I take your point that you “don’t believe the law created racism any more than it can create lust or greed or envy or hatred.” I think, though, that this depends on how you define racism. It seems that what you’re describing is less racism than prejudice.  I agree that you cannot totally erase prejudice - that unconscious separation of those “like me” from those “unlike me” – from people’s psyches.  The origins of that are surely evolutionary, and were once very valuable on the savannahs of Africa.  But racism is an institutionalized system of discrimination based on prejudice.  In short, it’s prejudice plus power.  That is something that can and should be addressed in policy. In fact, there’s no other way to address it.

Another adds, “Government policy may not be able to “end” racism, but it can definitely reduce it to levels where it may be effectively extinguished.” Another:

It fascinates me how a guy who is clearly one of the most brilliant people out there still has this strange blind spot when it comes to the use of the term “race.” Maybe it’s because “race” took on a different connotation when you grew up in England than it does in the U.S.

Group loyalty may be part of our DNA. But what you fail to understand is that how the “groups” are determined is a separate question altogether. Each of us identifies with dozens of “groups” in a lifetime. Those loyalties change, they can be invoked in countless ways, and circumstances can alter them dramatically. All TNC – along with practically every historian of “race” in America – is trying to illustrate is that the way we’ve chosen to draw up “races” (i.e. groups) in America is not a part of nature. A mere survey of racial imaginings throughout the world will illustrate, for instance, that “the one drop rule” is distinctively American.

And not also Nazi? Or South African? Another:

I suspect that you and TNC may agree more, or at least disagree less, than you realize when it comes to his assertion that racism is created by policy. The issue is, I suspect, a difference in terminology rather than TNC’s “utopianism.” Note that both your and TNC’s uses are options in the following definition:

rac·ism, [rey-siz-uhm] noun

1. a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others.

2. a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination.

3. hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.

In short, I think you and TNC are using the term racism in different but not contradictory, and even complementary, ways. And I am not sure TNC is suggesting that eliminating existing racist institutions or correcting past ones will eliminate human prejudice (although we are witnessing how these hatreds diminish as people of younger generations gain increasing exposure to difference, which would not be possible without the dismantling of policies that keep them separate from other groups).

Another reader:

I have a very distinct memory of being a small child, probably no older than 5 or 6, and, wanting to be more grown-up, announcing to my parents that I had a “girlfriend” (who of course was just some random fellow kindergartener in my class). They were amused. The punchline, of course, is that she was black (and I am white). At the time, it literally did not register that this aspect of her appearance had any significance whatsoever. I think anyone who works with small children will say my example is typical, and race is simply not important to a child who has not been taught racism. Clearly, then, racism is learned, not innate.

Along those lines, another sends the above photo:

I agree with TNC that racism is taught. I also take your point about evolutionary urges. The attached photo tells more than my words could ever muster. My granddaughter, Lilian, the white one on the left, has spent every week of her life interacting with Adrielle, the black baby to the right. We have been told that when Lilian is at her large community daycare, she wants to play with the black toddlers as her first choice. If racism can be taught, acceptance sure as hell can be taught as well. We chose the latter.