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Prejudice & Slavery

In response to:

How Freedom Took Root in Slavery from the November 27, 1975 issue

To the Editors:

I believe that in his review of Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom [NYR, November 27], J. H. Plumb perpetuates at least two misunderstandings about the recent historical literature on the origins of American slavery and racial prejudice as well as accepting a flawed argument of Morgan. Contrary to Mr. Plumb’s review, no historian of recent times has contended that “racism” was a “cause of slavery.” First of all, racism is an inappropriate word here since it means imputing biological inferiority to other people. Mr. Plumb—and Mr. Morgan as well—use it, however, to mean any kind of pejoratively discriminatory attitude or behavior toward blacks, regardless of motive or belief. It would have been more precise historically to have referred to “prejudice or discrimination on grounds of race.” In the second place, even if we define “racism” as broadly as Mr. Plumb does, his statement misrepresents what has been at issue in the historical literature on the origins of slavery and racial prejudice. It has not been a question of whether “racism” caused slavery; all modern writers on the subject have recognized that slavery developed from a need for labor in a social context of readily available land. In that sense the roots of slavery were economic. The debate has been over whether prejudice against blacks preceded or followed the development of black slavery. For if it followed slavery then slavery was most likely a significant part of the cause of prejudice. Those of us who have contended that prejudice preceded slavery have been struck by the fact that only blacks and Indians that is, people of color—were ever enslaved. This undisputed fact is even more striking when it is recognized, as Mr. Plumb observes, that indentured servants, who were usually white, were treated as harshly as slaves, indeed, suffered all the manifestations of legal subordination except indeterminant service and the legal extension of their subordinate status to their offspring.

Wherever slavery occurred in the New World—and its geographical extent was enormous—it was confined to colored peoples. No matter how harsh or degraded the status to which some white people were reduced, none was ever pressed down to the level of the lowest class of Indians and Negroes. Plumb seems to applaud Morgan for minimizing this social or “racial” fact and for emphasizing the class interest of Virginia’s rulers in seeking to differentiate blacks from the white poor. Thus he finds “telling” that in the early years of Virginia, slaves and indentured servants fraternized and even lived together; “racism,” Plumb writes, “did not yet divide them.” The evidence on which this statement is based are a few individual examples, though the interpretation of such scanty evidence is always tricky. We know, for example, that at the height of slavery in the nineteenth-century South there were always some white men (like Vice President Richard M. Johnson), who freely acknowledged their black mistresses and mulatto children, yet no historian takes such examples as typical of white behavior or attitudes. We need more than a few individual examples for us to conclude that whites did not discriminate against blacks in seventeenth-century Virginia because we know that virtually from the outset of settlement blacks, whether slave or free, were set apart from whites. Black women, for example, were taxed like white men because, unlike white women, they were expected to work in the tobacco fields, though they may not have yet been slaves in law. No black, whether slave or free, could bear arms, though all white males, servant or not, were expected to. But perhaps the most striking instance of pejorative distinction is the identification in the extant records of all people who were black. Always they were singled out as “Negroes”—not Africans, not Yorubas or Ibos, or some other tribal designation. Moreover, this designation by color was assigned whether they were free or slave, new arrivals, old residents, or born in America. The uniformity of designation and the emphasis upon color clearly imply pejorative discrimination. It was this early and enduring recognition of difference and inferiority that permitted blacks to be enslaved, that is, additionally exploited, and not, as Plumb or Morgan aver, because of the upper class’s desire and need to-placate or subdue the unruly white poor.

Since Plumb, following Morgan, does not accept the idea that discrimination against blacks was present from the outset, he has to account for the rise, some time later in the seventeenth century, of what he calls “racism.” He does this by seeing pejorative discrimination as a function of numbers. “As the slave population grew, racism naturally followed; so, too, did the specter of slave rebellion. Racism and fear tied the small men to the greater. The class divisions between the whites closed.” In another place he sets forth the causal pattern even more directly: “there was no social need for racism until there was a vast army of black slaves.” What “vast army”? We know from Morgan’s own figures that at the very end of the seventeenth century blacks made up no more than 15.5 percent of Virginia’s population or about 10,000 people. Yet almost a generation earlier, in 1680, with fewer blacks making up a smaller proportion of the population, the phrase “any Negro or other slave” was already appearing in the statutes of Virginia, indicating that a Negro was by then assumed to be a slave. In fact, as early as the 1640s some blacks were being held in a subordinate status that lacked only the name of slavery since it was for life and inheritable. No white, servant or free, then or later, was subjected to a comparable status. In short, it is difficult to believe that “racism” developed “naturally” out of the growing number of slaves. It seems much more likely that white men could and did reduce these strangers to slave status because they looked different and were therefore deemed to be inferior. Mr. Plumb may not be able to discern a “social need” for discriminating against blacks when their numbers were small, but apparently they were not only discriminated against, but enslaved very early in Virginia’s history and certainly long before they constituted “a vast army.”

The argument from numbers is faulty from another angle. Toward the end of his review Mr. Plumb correctly calls Mr. Morgan’s attention to Caribbean societies in which slavery took root, but which were hardly known for their love of liberty and the rights of man, even for whites. Mr. Plumb might well have taken his own comparative advice and looked beyond Virginia—northward, rather than southward. If he had done so, he would have found the connection between the numbers of slaves and the discrimination against blacks less convincing. The same discrimination against blacks and Indians, including enslavement, that developed in Virginia came into early existence in New England and the middle Atlantic English colonies, too. Yet in none of those colonies was black labor important nor were blacks in sufficient numbers to threaten whites. If the rise of racial prejudice or discrimination is a function of the desire to subordinate the poor or to divide the poor, as Plumb and Morgan contend, then the northern English colonies with their few blacks ought to have been free of it and its most degrading form, chattel slavery. Yet, by the end of the founding century all of the English mainland colonies held blacks and Indians, and only them, in slavery.

That slavery returned a profit and that there was an economic or class interest in the exploitation of that form of labor goes without saying. But that conclusion does not help us to explain why only colored people were slaves. Nor does it help us to explain how slavery came to the New World since its presence—in the modern world depended upon the availability of colored peoples. To explain those developments we need something more than economic motives; we need pejorative attitudes toward dark-skinned people. And we need those attitudes as a cause and not only as an effect, or as an “ingredient” as Mr. Plumb refers to “racism” in one place. It is undoubtedly inadvertent, yet highly symbolic of Plumb’s and Morgan’s approach to this question, that when I looked up “Negro” in the index to Morgan’s book I was told “See Blacks,” only to discover that there is no entry at all for “Blacks”!

Carl N. Degler

Stanford University

Stanford, California

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