Posted on March 11, 2020

The History of Slavery Remains with Us Today

Ariela Gross and Alejandro de la Fuente, Washington Post, March 9, 2020

Now that the Democratic primary race has narrowed to two older white male candidates, political analysts have begun to focus on the allegiances of African American voters, who are the core of the Democratic Party base. Some have suggested that African American support of Joe Biden rests less on their trust in him, than on their distrust of white voters’ willingness to vote for a woman, a person of color or a progressive.

This reasoning suggests that African American voters make pragmatic political choices based on an understanding of the persistence of anti-black racism in our society, sometimes settling for a white candidate who they think will be least objectionable to white voters while causing African Americans the least harm.

To understand where we are today, we need to understand the deep roots of anti-black racism in the history of the Americas.

As a powerful ideology, racism did not remain static or set in stone but shape-shifted and transformed historically, through legal and religious discourses and institutions. This process itself guided and transformed politics, the economy, and ultimately the course of American history. Enshrined in law from our earliest days, it was, ironically, the establishment of a republic in the United States that gave race its ultimate political and legal significance because it directly tied citizenship to whiteness.

By the early 18th century, settlers in Spanish, French and British colonies in the New World had all codified racial distinctions into law. The first Africans arrived in Havana about 100 years before 1619, and in Louisiana a little more than 100 years after 1619. But in all three places, by the early 1700s, European colonists had committed themselves to legal regimes that aligned freedom with whiteness, blackness with enslavement. {snip}

A crucial turning point in the creation of race through law occurred in the late 18th century, known as the Age of Revolution for the war, revolutions and slave rebellions that roiled the Atlantic between 1763, at the close of the Seven Years’ War, and 1831, when Nat Turner’s Rebellion shook the U.S. South. Some believed it would result in slave emancipation across the Americas. And yet the Age of Revolution ultimately deepened the strength of anti-black racism in American law and politics in a way it did not elsewhere.

Not only did the Constitution protect slavery, but enslaved people’s claims to freedom were met with retrenchment and reform in the new United States. {snip}


The restrictions on free people of color, limiting their mobility and their ability act as citizens have a powerful echoes today. Assumptions that people of color don’t have the capacities of full citizenship are behind efforts to suppress voting, restrict immigration and enforce criminal laws through practices like stop-and-frisk in communities of color. The establishment of race through law in the slavery era led to the development of race as an ideology, as a hierarchy, as an understanding that this is a group of people who are uniquely fit for this degraded status of enslavement. And that ideological basis has since justified other terrible forms of degradation and subordination, including the presumption of criminality based on race.

As we think about our political future, this history lives on. It is part of our present. Will the ideals of the Revolution, of freedom, equality and justice, be for all Americans? Can we break the link between whiteness and citizenship?