Behind the Veil: White Racism, White Privilege, and Americas Long Road Ahead. (Part III)

I hope my readers will be gracious in affording me the opportunity to take more time to lay out the final installments of my writing on the ubiquity of racism in America. This comes at a time when events in Ferguson, Missouri should remind us of the importance of understanding the dynamics of racism in all of its various amplitudes and degrees.  Because of the recent shooting of Michael Brown I thought I would present two final installments so that a broader view of what Drake considered to be a unique moment in humanity’s racial history, one that culminated in the birth of white racism.

In the first two installments of Behind the Veil, we became familiar with Drake’s stunning work on the degree at which black skin color was venerated and held in high regard throughout much of literate human history.   Drake’s work, Black Folk, Here and There (BFH&T) presented a mountain of scholarship that clearly demonstrates that racism, was in fact, a recent human invention and more importantly–white racism came to be the trough that continues to feed western society.   If, as Drake argued in BFH&T, (There can never be any substitute for your own close reading of Drake) that white racism is the key to unlocking the success of western society, then where did white racism originate?

White racism is the direct result of European expansion & exploration during the period historians call The Age of Exploration (from the 1500’s through the 1800s). During this time period Europeans seized vast swaths of the world’s land mass and quickly capitalized on the pirating and exporting the world’s mineral wealth and raw materials to feed its growing mercantile economies. The Treaty of Tordesillas signed in 1494–two years after Columbus landing in Haiti–divided the entire world, outside Europe, between Portugal and Spain.   Later, the Dutch, French and English would all contest Papal authority, Spain and Portugal’s mysterious religious and hegemonic control over the world’s territories. The vast numbers of wars in Europe, ending with the Haitian Revolution and the American & Indian Wars in the 1880’s were a direct result of the fight over this territory, particularly in North America.

Europeans, such as the English were ever more realizing that wealth could be created through global plunder and eventually trade.  English Lord’s were salivating as Spain and Portuguese tales of conquest and riches made them envious. English, French, Dutch spies brought back confirmed reports of Spanish ships loaded with bars of Aztec and Peruvian silver and gold.   Naval piracy would get its start with the English, who came late to the game of conquest.   When the bars of silver dried up, or when English efforts to locate sources of mineral wealth failed (This was the principle goal of the English chartered companies in early North America) off the coast of America they turned as the Spanish and Portuguese had done to exploiting the captive regions natural resources.  But before we press on I need to say a few things about the economic system of the time: mercantilism.  Mercantilism was not a unified economic theory so actually describing its full tenants is quite difficult as it varied from region to region.  But the basic tenants, for our purposes is that nations believed that they should export more than import between existing countries.  They all believed that do trade with other kingdoms would result in a loss of treasure.  Therefore, to rectify this and to ensure job creation, a stable tax base, and a steady flow of raw materials nations came to realize that if they could capture large vast “pagan” people, Christianize them they could be reduced to not only slavery but would be captive commercial markets for the finished goods sent back to conquered territory by French, English or Spanish workers in the “mother” native country.  Mercantilism predicated that one could be both a slave to work and to consumption.  Ghandi’s message to Indians subjugated under British rule in 1930 was to march to the Sea and to make: Salt! In short, mercantilism helped to drive European exploration, and necessitated the entrapment of indigenous populations to a form of hegemonic consumption.  The eradication of the First Nation’s Potlatch system in Canada by the French and English is an example of  predatory vampiric economics.

In order to move raw materials from its newly captured territories it would require massive amounts of labor.   Getting the necessary labor to cooperate would be a Europe’s  and later America’s only real contribution to world economic history.   The reality was however, another issue.  Governments could entice people to leave the security of home for lands unknown or persuade the local indigenous population to work for or against their own interests.   The first resulted in Indentured Servitude circa 1620.   This proved unworkable, especially when news of the wretched conditions that awaited them in the New World spread throughout Europe.  Eventually a booming European economy and the horrors of British indentured servitude dried the pool of the willing labor.   (Indentured servitude did not completely end during the Revolutionary era. There is much debate on this subject. But for our purposes can say that slavery replaced indentured servitude as a dominant labor system in much of the Americas, the United States included).

Aside from a few marginal religious groups, enticing the required amount of European labor necessary for European plantations and fields would prove unworkable and was abandoned for Native American and African slavery.  In order to make overseas expansion profitable indigenous labor would have to be institutionalized and scaled to make the movement of raw materials in the Americas profitable.  To achieve this institutionalized forms of physical and psychological torture were necessary to ensure cooperation from both enslaved and non-slave owner alike. Economies built on mass production necessitated the subordination of labor to the demands temporally, spatially and eventually to the whim of consumer demands.

How was the racial debasement of Black people in general (Native American genocide followed an almost parallel trajectory) intertwined with slavery?   In order to answer this question we must turn to John Haller’s, Outcasts From Evolution (1971).   Haller’s argument points us in the direction of the developments of modern science in the 18th century.   As European ships spanned out into the oceans in search of wealth they found not only a vast treasure of natural resources, animals, plants and mineral wealth (gold, silver, etc.) they also discovered within the human species a wider variety of skin colors, languages, and religions as previously unknown to them.   They were well aware of some Africans and “Arabs,” and through the adventures of Marco Pollo had some knowledge of those living in the Far East.   From experience and by reading travel accounts of Moors of Al-Andalus, Europeans had some sense of the complexity of cultures but nothing to compare to what waited for them as they spanned over the oceans.

As Europeans marveled at the world’s complexity of cultures they sought to make sense of the unfolding world around them.  They began by using the services of Naturalists (a precursor to modern scientists) who had begun to develop systems to classify “newly” discovered animal and plant species.   By the mid 1700’s the Naturalists were well on their way to classifying the varieties of humans into a scientific taxonomic system. As Haller noted, the difficulty was in formulating a sound methodology.   This difficulty stemmed from the vast gradations of skin color and physical types that can and did exist within human groups that were being discovered.   Carl von Linnaeus (1707-1778) one of the first Naturalists developed the first taxonomic system based on skin color.   Linnaues’ Systema nature (1735) was a Eurocentric work that fixed four families of man to certain moral, intellectual and physical attributes.   He described Homo Americanus (Indian) as reddish, choleric, obstinate, contented and regulated by customs; Homo Asiaticus (Asians) as sallow, grave, dignified, avaricious and ruled by opinions; and Homo Afer as black, phlegmatic, cunning, lazy, lustful, careless and governed by caprice; and most equally important Linnaeus then classified Homo Europaeus as fickle, sanguine, blue-eyed, gentle and governed by laws, as white.  As Haller notes “These ‘insights’ into what Linnaeus divined as racial character, personality traits, behavior, intelligence, language, and a host of other related categories were transmitted into subsequent attempts at a science of classification and became more fixed than the races themselves.” None of Linnaeus’ classification system–obviously guided by a pride in all things European and Nordic–had any scientific or rational basis but the ideas stuck.    Degrading Africans (and Indigenous Americans) and attributing them to the bottom rungs of the Naturalists evolutionary ladder, fed the idea to the public that Africans and Indians were inherently created by God as lower creatures built for manual labor.  Beginning with Linnaeus generations of Americas and Europe’s finest academic minds would side with the thesis that those of the African race were inferior, physically and mentally.   It was well accepted by the American public well into the 1960s’ that black Americans were intellectual inferior to whites.   Ironically, by the 19th century this would be a driving concept of Northern Republicans in the education of blacks just liberated from slavery. Black industrial and agricultural colleges are a reminder of the degree to which this as a symbol and value system permeated Black America.

But how could one justify enslaving other humans to a system of labor as the Romans and other pagan people had done for their own pleasure or economic benefit?   Are they not the one’s that killed Christ?   Ironically, to solve this dilemma of conscious Europeans turned to Christianity.   Europeans asserted that the failure of Africans to hear God’s revelation in Christianity was the primary evidence that Africans were a debased and savage people.   In short, to whites divine revelation conscripted Africans to labor per la vita as an expendable labor supply.   Plantation slavery was then predicated on Blacks being placed on the lowest evolutionary rungs.   Whites then developed an ideology that the only redemption for blacks was to live as African Christians and hope to be saved by White Christianity.   The debasement and humiliation of Blacks could then be justified as the “White Man’s Burden” to civilize both Africans and darker skinned peoples of the world.   Slavery could then be justified as offering religion and enslavement as redeeming institutions for Africans and Native peoples.   Much of the mythology revolving around the so-called Curse of Ham, a fable that cursed the sons of Ham (allegedly Africans and Arabs, & other dark skinned people) was often cited by Europeans and Americans as religious justification for slavery. After the demise of slavery this philosophy was re-tooled into a campaign of “free” markets and democracy for all. Much of the resistance in the 20th century to American overseas foreign policy is directly related to this antiquated 19th century hegemonic philosophy.

So let us take a look at how slavery contributed to what historian Winthrop Jordan called White Over Black. Hugh Thomas author of The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440 – 1870 (1997) an impressive and exhaustive study of the slave trade supports Drake’s argument that development and sustainment of the U.S. & Western European mercantile and later capitalist economies was predicated on the growth of plantation slavery.   Thomas wrote, “By century’s end (1700’s) the slave trade ”seemed an essential part of the economies of all advanced countries.” Without labor there would be no men and women to search for gold, silver or other minerals. The demand for labor was unquenchable, as the demand for products in European households exploded—Native American workers were needed for Peruvian and Mexican mines; Natives and Africans for Caribbean and Brazilian sugar and coffee plantations, and ultimately for North American rice, tobacco, and cotton fields. Thomas noted that Europeans transported 750,000 African slaves to the Americas in just one decade. Simply stated: American and Western European economies were underpinned by bedrock of Red and later Black slavery.

Black Africans were necessary to pick, cut, chop, make, build or dig out natural resources that would in turn be used to create commodities to be sold to European and later American households.   The vast amounts of raw materials enabled, through economies of scale, European men and their nations to increase and spread their wealth beyond what had previously been known in human history.   Europeans and Americans at every social and class level benefited materially from forced Black labor.  In Europe, no matter who you were, where you lived, or your occupation you benefited directly or indirectly from the extinction of Native Americans and the exploitation and near extinction of Black slaves in the Americas. For example as one historian noted, three quarters of sugar and coffee produced in the American colonies and sent to France was re-exported to other countries in Europe. Roughly one million of the 25 million inhabitants of France depended directly on the colonial trade. In the mid 1700’s roughly £21 million British pounds worth of goods were illegally smuggled by future Founding Fathers per year to support French and Spanish slave plantations in the Caribbean. (Much of the crisis between the British Crown and American colonists was due to smuggling activity by many of the Founding Fathers, i.e. Alexander Hamilton). The results? According to Thomas, as a direct result of American & European slavery Africans perished by the millions.

As more slaves came into the Americas its plantation system was transformed into what Laurence Thomas called “Vessels of Evil” on par with the Shoah (Vessels of Evil: American Slavery and the Holocaust, 1993).   In real time, the pseudo science of the Naturalists gave colonial societies, awash in cruelty, the mythology necessary to be able to live with the day to day cruelty, violence and crushing guilt necessary to physically force Black Africans to labor against their will.   The slave ship and the plantation were instruments of torture used to break Africans and to reduce them to what Orlando Patterson called natally alienated creatures.  Orlando Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (1982) shows us that slavery was a parasitic relationship between master and slave which necessitated turning of former members of their societies into natally alienated, socially dead, marginalized persons for which manumission or death was the only escape. Today, we Americans have pushed so far down into our unconscious the horrors of slavery in order to be able to live with the blood and deprivation that is the foundation of our collective American heritage. The Civil War is a testament to my argument.

Thus, Africans were re-made into Blacks. This is exactly the point where we begin to see how forms of domination fermented into White Racism. “Seasoning” was a term used to describe the process used by plantation owners and overseers to break Africans, turn them into slaves, and to keep order within the plantation. The seasoning process necessitated that Africans were subjected to dehumanizing and degrading conditions, brutal punishment, negative signs, symbols to such a degree as to render herself unable to organize an effective resistance to their material conditions.   In the American colonies and later the United States, Black slaves, men, women, children the elderly, suffered from leprosy, malnutrition, intestinal worms, poor and rotted teeth, mental and other physical ailments. Whippings were used as torture; hot peppers, lemons or ashes were rubbed into wounds. Wounds were burned over open flames to inflict more pain. Male slaves were castrated regularly as a form of punishment. One man wrote in 1730’s about the practice of placing gunpowder in the anus of slaves and lighting it.   Women’s “private parts” were burned with hot coals.   Some were boiled alive with cane juice.   Others were forced to dig their own graves and then buried alive in them.   Historian Kenneth Kipple estimated in his work, The Caribbean Slave: A Biological History (2002) that at least 5 million Africans may have died in these seasoning camps. The reversal of this psychological trauma inflicted on people of African descent would be the life’s work of Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey and later Malcolm X.   Two significant works that reveal the damage caused by this trauma to the psyche are William H. Griers’ & Price M. Cobbs’ Black Rage (1968) and Stanley Elkins’ Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (1976).   Criticism withstanding Elkin’s crude portrayal of seasoned Black slaves as docile, irresponsible, and perpetual children he outlined what I believe is real psychological damage inflicted upon Blacks during American slavery.   Elkin’s main argument was poignant: “Basically, slavery in the United States was much worse than slavery in other countries and had a much more severe effect on the slaves. American slavery was comparable in many ways to a concentration camp. It took away personal initiative from slaves and destroyed their personalities.”   Critics pointed to the cruelty of plantation slavery in the Caribbean and elsewhere but failed to grasp the significance of Elkins thesis.   Racism worked to ensure that Blacks would be incapable of conducting themselves as equal citizens in a modern industrial and technologically advancing world. When placed against Cobbs’ and Grier’s (two African American psychiatrists), work Elkins Slavery gets much needed revival.  Writing at the height of Civil Rights demonstrations and racial tensions in America Cobb and Grier argued that many of the ailments that afflict Black America were directly attributed to slavery.  Cobbs and Grier wrote, “History is forgotten. There is little record of the first Africans brought to this country. They were stripped of everything. A calculated cruelty was begun, designed to crush their spirit.”                                                   

In another work, The Redemption of African and Black Religion (1970), St. Clair Drake illustrated that the slave master’s socialization process transformed the African tribesman, deeply rooted in his society and with all the rights and privileges of his society into a “worthless Black” or “Heathen N_____.” The objective was to degrade the individual to break any feelings or sentiments of self worth.   Dependency and fear were necessity to maintain and increase economic production. In North America where absentee landlordism (where plantation were seldom visited by their owners) were of less of a formal system than in the Caribbean, a fierce system of degradation was necessary to allow for close living between master, slave and the free population. To grasp the desperation of Slaves on these plantations all one has to do is hear the lamentations of Negro Spirituals:

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.

There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.

One of these mornings bright and fair,

I’m gonna lay down my heavy load.

Gonna kick my wings and cleave the air,

I’m gonna lay down my heavy load.


The final installment of Behind the Veil is forthcoming.


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