In seeking to understand if racism existed before slavery, or if slavery was in fact a development of racism, there is an inescapable dilemma; namely, the two so rely on one another that it is difficult to conceive of either as existing without the other. A society that allows for one race to be actually enslaved must believe on a deep level that it is racially superior to the victims. At the same time, it is likely that the institution of slavery, however it comes into being, must promote ideas of racism within those empowered to practice it. To an extent, then, there can be no real answer to the question simply because the processes of slavery and racism are inextricably linked. This acknowledged, it must as well be recognized that, if a “bottom line” approach is taken, some form of racism must be in existence before any type of slavery can be in place. At some point and on some level, the society must believe it has the right to enslaves because the slaves, when designated by race, are racially inferior. Slavery certainly validates the belief, as legislation usually provides a kind of ethical sanction for ideologies. Nonetheless, and no matter the variations in policies, laws, and societal attitudes, the ultimate conclusion is that slavery could not exist without racism generating it.
While the issues discussed here go to African American slavery and the underlying racism of it in the first centuries of the United States, it is first necessary to understand that both racism and slavery have never been historically limited to blacks in the U.S. Slavery was a common practice in ancient cultures, usually occurring after conquest. Moreover, its history is not necessarily ancient; in the 17th century, just as Americans were increasingly legislating slavery of blacks, the British were transporting large numbers of Irish to work in their West Indies plantations. This was outright slavery, and what is important to note is that racism was embedded in the practice. As the British seized the Irish, they felt themselves entitled to because the Irish were to them less than human (Wilson 50). The British perceived themselves to be advanced and civilized. Then, as a more powerful society, they felt entitled to exercise that power over inferiors.
It then appears inevitable that, whenever one race subjugates another, more than merely the legal or military subjugation is at play; on a deep level, the race enslaved is perceived to be less deserving of human status, and consequently more fit to be of service to the dominant race or culture. When the scene shifts to the early America, the patterns and interactions are consistent.
There has been long debate as to how exactly Africans were perceived in this setting, with opinions and research supporting varying levels of racism at play, and sometimes to a minimal degree. However, no matter how many blacks – and whites – were used in some form of indentured servitude, or even permitted to live and work as free persons, racism played an enormous role is setting the parameters for what would be the slavery of African Americans. Vaughn notes that plantation owners of the 17th century were happy to use white labor, but slavery developed because the sheer difference of the Africans set them apart as marginalized (317). This indicates that the creation and practice of slavery was very much an evolving thing, and racism then clearly accounts for it. The process is exponential, as most cultural processes are; a difference in one population marks that population, and the social parameters are reinforced by the identification as different itself. Put another way, once an individual is perceived as different from the mainstream, the society treats the individual in ways reinforcing the initial difference, and this is actually where the root of racism grows into slavery.
In strict terms, of course, “racism” is any perception of any race defining the nature of that race by its own overt appearances and/or customs based on ethnicity. Slavery is certainly not the only tangible expression such thinking takes, as racism exists on multiple levels within societies. That slavery derives from racism, however, is further supported by developments in the U.S. related to it. It is argued, for example, slavery actually facilitated racism in the North; Northerners, aware of the power of slavery somewhat distant from them, began to assess themselves in terms of racial status, and among themselves (Melish 5). The slavery of one people promoted racist thinking among others, and a simple inversion of this process points to the force of racism as enabling or creating slavery. More exactly, the Northern racist attitudes not focused on blacks nonetheless support just how deeply ingrained in the culture it was for dominant races to marginalize others. This is the vast and insidious power of racism, in that it is manifested, not due to ideas about a single race, but about any that is viewed as different and consequently lesser. The Northern forms of racism then fully validate that racism is so strong, it is a causal agent, and far less an ideology generated by slavery.
Further evidence of this power of racism may be seen in what occurred after slavery was abolished. It is agreeable to believe that the ends of the Civil War and slavery set in motion a growing racial equality between whites and blacks, but the reality was different. While some emancipated slaves found legitimate work as free men and women in the North, the majority of former slaves took on lives not very different from what they had known. Tenant farming and sharecropping, for instance, were little more than new forms of serfdom (Reilly, Kaufman, & Bodino 232). On a basic level, then, if slavery was the general cause of racism in the America of this era, the end of slavery should have initiated a process of racial equality, and a growing socital ideology discarding racism against blacks. As the Civil Rights movements of the 20th century plainly reveal, however, this was hardly the case. It is thus evident that racism did not rely upon slavery, which reinforces its presence as a force greater than slavery, and therefore more likely to be causal.
As noted, scholars have long struggled over how blacks were viewed and treated before and after the Civil War, and it is generally acknowledged that much is unknown regarding exactly how the presence of blacks was addressed in the middle of the 17th century. What evidence there is, however, suggests that slavery and social debasement were ongoing practices at the time (Vaughan 321). This may seem to confuse the issue of which came first, but logic demands that a reasonable view proceed from most probable causes and effects. As noted, it is certainly true that racism may exist when no laws are in place to make slaves of a race, or even discriminate against it in any way. At the same time, and importantly, slavery of a race cannot exist if the power creating the slavery is not racist. It must believe that, based on whatever rationales, it is superior to that which it enslaves, or it could not so reduce the human status of those being enslaved.
Given the complex ways in which societies and nations develop, it is inherently difficult to separate a cause from the reaction which then reinforces the cause. It may be that this issue is most evident in regard to racism and slavery. It is certainly valid to note that slavery, in perpetuating racism, must in a sense cause it, or at least perpetuate it. The law fully supports the ideology, so the ideology is strengthened. When all factors are considered, however, there must be a turning to just what may be the greater force, as that force must then be the true cause. It is then inevitable that, no matter the changes within policies, laws, and societal attitudes, slavery could not exist without racism of a kind first generating it.
Melish, J. P. Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780- 1860. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998. Print.
Reilly, K., Kaufman, S., & Bodino, A. Racism: A Global Reader. Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, Inc., 2003. Print.
Vaughan, A. T. The Origins Debate: Slavery and Racism in Seventeenth-Century Virginia. The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 97. 3 (1989): 311-354. Print.
Wilson, C. A. Racism. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1996. Print.