There have been debates among scholars over whether racism preceded slavery or vice versa. Present an argument on this question using course materials (lectures, readings, film) While some argue that racism preceded slavery, I firmly believe that racism did not precede slavery. Before examining the reasons behind my opinion, it is important to note how race feeds into racism, and how slavery then latches on to racism. Race is a socially constructed idea through which a hierarchy largely stemming from the fairness of skin color is formed.
As a result, different racial groups are formed with the White race occupying the top position of this hierarchy. Because of this skin-color based hierarchy, White people developed a sense of superiority and dominance over the Black people who lie at the bottom of this hierarchy. This perception of being superior and dominant over another race based on this hierarchy is racism. A connection between slavery and racism can then be formed when the White elites decide to only enslave the Black people when they feel their dominance and superiority is jeopardized in one way or the other.
Therefore, the components of racism and slavery together form racialized slavery. Holistically speaking, a three-part system involving race, racism and slavery is effectively formed. While keeping components of this system in mind, it is also necessary to consider how money, productivity and social relations influence my view. When British settlers entered the New World, among their priorities was to hire relatively inexpensive slave labor to generate profits for them. While the freely available, local Native Americans were auditioned, the White settlers realized they had to look elsewhere.
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Native Americans died via diseases contracted by White settlers, and as a result were neither fully adaptable to slave labor nor productive. Instead, White settlers turned to indentured servitude. As discussed in lecture, indentured servitude saw White settlers import fellow British people and ordered them to work like slaves on cheap, 5-7 year contracts. However, this method of labor was not entirely successful since indentured servants too contracted diseases from settlers and died in numbers, while settlers also couldn’t dictate work conditions once their contracts expired.
At this point, the frustrated White settlers wanted to bring in a people on whom they could place unlimited workloads to maximize productivity. This was when the British settlers turned to the African market. While the first British colonialists arrived in 1607, the first Africans were not brought in until 1619. It is thus wrong to say that racism prompted and preceded the enslavement of Africans, since it was instead the failure of the Native Americans along with high mortality rates and contract laws of indentured servants that preceded and induced the enslavement of Africans.
Moreover, the desire to become wealthier, not racism, convinced White settlers to enslave Africans. After failing with indentured servitude, White settlers imported Africans in pursuit of maximizing productivity and consequently receiving higher profits. As we discussed in class, planters in Virginia were aware of the rewards they could reap by enslaving Africans. Unlike the indentured servants contracts that limited the duration of work summoned by White settlers, enslaving Africans meant that planters could put no limits on the amount of work and time they ordered of them.
Therefore, the more work you assign to slaves for much longer periods, the more productivity you get, and the more money your plantation gets you. On top of this though, planters also wanted more slaves to increase the supply of money they ultimately received. Accordingly, “state laws adopted the principle of partus sequitur ventrem- the child follows the condition of the mother regardless of the race of the father. ” (Cannon, 1993, p. 415) Thanks to this law, enslaved mothers gave birth to enslaved children who went on to become extra pairs of hands on plantations.
In the case of children being enslaved because of their enslaved mothers, racism once again does not precede slavery. Since child enslavement holds “regardless of the race of the father”, (Cannon, 1993, p. 415) it is the mother’s status as a slave and not race that precedes and assigns the same title to her children. White settlers wanted enslavement to be cyclical, and it is for this reason why enslaved women were valuable; they produced and reproduced. Although African enslavement eventually became slavery as torture only applicable to Africans, racism does not precede slavery here.
As more Africans were imported for enslavement purposes, the White elites’ fears exacerbated. Even though African enslavement was the principal answer to increased wealth for White planters, indentured servitude was not extinct. Friendships between Africans and lower-class Whites existed, and the White elites were concerned these alliances would undermine their summoning powers and provoke a class insurrection. It was at this juncture in 1660 that racialized slavery in Virginia, a product of components in the system, was only specific to the Africans.
Not only did racialized slavery prevent a class conflict between Whites, but also brought racism to the fore. As a system component in this case, racism is a perception of superiority and dominance from the White elites’ to the Africans. Hence, racialized slavery again supports my view since it was the enslavement of Africans and their interactions with lower-class Whites that preceded and incited racism. One can easily get confused by racism and slavery, and claim that slavery would never have occurred without an onslaught of racism.
However, the series of events involving White settlers, Native Americans, indentured servants and imported Africans are most logical when we argue that racism did not precede slavery. If the White settlers were racists ever since they arrived in the New World, indentured servitude would never have existed. Without the interaction of Africans and lower-class Whites, racialized slavery would not have been legitimatized, and Black people would not have been historically associated with slavery the most.
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