I suspect that if one asked most white Americans what the word “racism” meant, they would say that racism entails hatred. People fear and loathe a racial other. From this, it follows that they both personally mistreat the objects of their scorn and accept and support similar mistreatment practiced by others. From the hatred, all else flows. However deeply one understands the vacuity of racial categories, people clearly built up identities around fitting in one and hating people in the other. We learn in school, from the media, and well-meaning people in our lives that we should condemn such hatreds because, at least in part, no one has any control over what category they end up in. We have the parents we do who had the parents they did, all the way back. Hating someone for their choice of biological parents seems perverse and absurd, as no one has any such choice.
A few years ago, I would have told you the same. I think what I sketch out here describes the general, well-intentioned white moderate-to-liberal understanding of racism. It casts racism as an attitude and feeling, with attendant theories, about something called race. Consequently, a generous application of tolerance and empathy could cure it all. Bring a white racist into a black community. Talk to the people. Look at their kids. They have all the same hopes and dreams anybody else does. They have struggles, but so do the rest of us. The scales fall away from the racist’s eyes. The Grinch hears the Whos singing and his heart grows ten sizes, breaking the x-ray machine.
It works in fiction. Maybe sometimes it works in real life too, but I think that this narrative relies on the idea that the notion that people adopt the hatreds they do out of some irrational reason. They have real empathy for people different from themselves, but have found ways to redirect or suppress it. Fundamentally fragile, those rationalizations collapse at once on contact with the facts. Compassion prevails because ultimately we understand that people hate for bad reasons and good thoughts can chase out the bad.
What if they don’t? The enslaver could walk around the plantation every single day and see the enslaved at work. At a whipping, the enslaver could hear the screams of pain and pleas for mercy. An enslaver might hear the same screams in his bedroom, or see the terror in the eyes of his victim. It would take no effort at all to likewise see the meager joys that slaves struggled for at the margins of the system, that they loved and hated, dreamed and feared the same as any person. These mysteries require no initiation to learn, but rather would pour in through every sense the human body possesses. Enslavers could tell themselves lies; they might even believe them. But they could not miss the essential humanity of their prey.
On the contrary, understanding that humanity and exploiting it put slave “wenches” into white beds and more and more bales of cotton in the barn. Because slaves could think ahead and understand cause and effect as well as any free person, their fear and pain could be turned on them in ways that would never have worked for non-human livestock. You cannot threaten a horse with being sold down the river. It has no language to understand the threat. If you beat a cow it will not produce more milk. But you can terrorize people. You can wage a war against them. They can understand the threats and connect the pain to specific behaviors. They can read the cotton scale and know if they came in light and what beating would come if they did. An enslaver profits not despite his lack of empathy, but because of it. The mistreatment comes not from a lack of understanding, but arises out of a deep understanding of the slave’s humanity. One who could not effectively terrorize would not profit as one who did have such talents.
From the perspective of the enslaver, most everything done to the slave makes good sense. Every whipping serves a rational purpose. A whipped slave will learn to mind and not abscond, fearing whipping more than remaining. The more terrible the punishment, the more deeply one learns the lesson. Each drop of blood becomes a drop of profit. Mistreatment can arise out of hatred; hatred will sustain it. But the interest in profits and advantage, financial or otherwise, remains. As long as they exist, someone will seek them. We all feel our own pain rather more keenly than that of others, after all. Things we would never accept become the smallest levies upon others. Rationalizations will follow, but rationalization must always come after the decision. We do not seek to justify what we have rejected, but only things we have done and imagine ourselves doing.
Looking at it this way, the conventional narrative has cause and effect reversed. We did not hate and thus forced black Americans to the bottom of the national totem pole. We hated because we set them there and forbade their advancement. All of this, I imagine, sounds like so much theory. It comports well with political preferences I have expressed before. One could easily sketch an alternative theory of racism. Against the alternative, I offer this account from Alan Taylor’s American Colonies.
Taylor discusses the Chesapeake in the middle to late 1600s. The colony had no slave code until 1670 and consequently no established baseline as to how one must treat the few African slaves on the ground. Some enslavers saw them as indentured servants, due their freedom after so many years. “More commonly, masters permitted slaves to acquire and manage their own property.” Thus “dozens of early slaves purchased their freedom and obtained the tools, clothing, and land to become common planters.” The state did not forbid or confiscate black gains, so
black freedmen and women could move as they pleased, baptize their children, procure firearms, testify in court, buy and sell property, and even vote. Some black men married white women, which was especially remarkable given their scarcity and high demand as wives for white men. A few black women took white husbands.
These people had names and some of them have survived:
The most successful and conspicuous black freedman, Anthony Johnson, acquired a 250-acre tobacco plantation and at least one slave. With apparent impunity, Johnson boldly spoke his own mind to his white neighbors, telling one meddler: “I know myne owne ground and I will worke when I please and play when I please.” When white neighbors lured away his slave, Johnson went to court, winning damages and the return of his property. That the authorities supported an African against whites and upheld his right to own slaves reveals that slavery and racism had not yet become inseparably intertwined in the Chesapeake. That a black man would own a slave also indicates that getting ahead in planter society was more important to Johnson than any sense of racial solidarity with his fellow Africans in Virginia.
Anthony Johnson may have had more freedom in the Virginia of the 1650s than most black Americans did in the Virginia of the 1950s. He not only escaped slavery, but lived in a society that defended his freedom and rights against the aggression of whites. His grandchildren, living in a rather different cultural milieu with more and more distinctly African slaves, quit Virginia for safer lands.
Studying the history I do rarely fills one with hope. My research interests would not delight dinner parties. Friends have asked me to tell them less, not more. One can get the feeling that white supremacy not only persists, but will and must always prevail. The logic of the system demands it. White self-interest, well aware of the numerous advantages that our skin bestows upon us, will never materially surrender a single one. We have, after all, a proven road to racial equality: school integration. We celebrate its de jure end have rejected its de facto termination at all hazards. Confronted with the stolen property in our hands, we imagine ourselves as hard-working, self-made individuals. Someone else, as we saw in the news reports on post-Katrina New Orleans, does the looting.
When I read Johnson’s story a few years ago, it brought tears to my eyes. I mean that literally; I sat with book in hand and teared up. I don’t admire Johnson’s slaveholding any more than I would a white man’s, but I saw in him proof that we did not have to always do as we have done. We could have done otherwise. We could still do otherwise. Forty years of fighting integration need not continue. No law of nature requires them. The sky does not rain down injustice; we do. It follows that we can stop. If white America really wanted to end the fruitless “discussions on race” and fix whatever problems we imagine exist within “the black community” that we also imagine, we could do it.
But the plunder of lives enriches all those of the right color. We do not all benefit equally, but we all do benefit. Our ancestors arranged the system that we and we, their faithful stewards, maintain it. We accept it as the default, automatic as breathing and so natural we have made it simultaneously invisible enough to take for granted and visible enough for us all to feel it. I have felt it when pulled over, late at night, on suspicion of drunk driving. I actually knew I had a police car behind me and paid too much attention to it in my mirror rather than the white line at the road’s shoulder. It never crossed my mind that the officer would do me harm. He didn’t even ask to see my registration before he let me go. I feel it now and then when my father and I walk into a restaurant near the State Police post and see the uniformed men with guns in abundance. The presence of so many armed men doesn’t thrill me, I have the luxury of fearing a fatal misunderstanding only in the abstract. The police rarely do so much as look twice at us.
A dark skin became synonymous with slavery, just as freedom became equated with whiteness. In the eighteenth-century Chesapeake colonies almost all blacks were slaves and almost every slave was black (with the exception of occasional captive Indians). A Virginian remarked, “These two words Negro and Slave had, by custom, grown Homogeneous and Convertible.”
Newly obsessed with racial difference, Chesapeake whites felt more equal despite the growing inequality of their economic circumstances. The new sense of racial solidarity rendered white Virginians indifferent to the continuing concentration of most property and real power in the hands of the planter elite. By increasing the capital requirements for tobacco cultivation, slavery gave competitive advantage to the already wealthy planters, discouraging the smaller planters, who had to rely on the labor of their own families. The more restless and ambitious young commoners moved westward or southward in search of the frontier opportunity to build farms out of the forest.
So went the South and, ultimately, the nation. As long as we imagine an identifiable group that has it much worse, distinctions between those we imagine within our own group seem far more trifling. White Americans rarely received whippings. No one sold our children or forced those children into separate and inferior schools. No one excluded them from the suburbs. On the contrary, the American state helped us and did all in its power to ensure we would have every advantage if not over one another, than over those we imagine not worthy of consideration. Their lack of freedom, then and now, liberates us. We have not had it any other way.