Where did white supremacy come from?

Gentle Readers, for some time I’ve neglected my Deep Dives category. Herein, I mean to look further back than the late antebellum and examine broader questions. Today I mean to change that with an absurdly large question. White supremacy permeates everything I study and write about, as well as our daily lives. We have the misfortune of living in a world, and for most of us likely a nation too, where few concepts matter more. With such vast power and ubiquity, it often becomes invisible. Unchallenged, white supremacy seems like the natural order of things. Our silence, our acceptance, and all the ways we consciously or passively imbibe our culture turn it into a kind of physics: white rises to the top, black -and everyone else- sinks to the bottom. Physical laws don’t answer to legislative enactments, but rather predate them and reach back to the beginning of time. Because white supremacy does not, it behooves us to understand how people came to believe in it and make it integral to their worldview and civilizations.

A blog post cannot do this subject justice. You should take what I write here as more an overview and more tentative than usual. Densely-written books go on for hundreds of pages about the question, to the point where a historian of slavery I too briefly knew always recommended the popular abridgment of Winthrop Jordan’s seminal White Over Black rather than the real thing when speaking with laypeople. Jordan’s book, the seminal work, specifically addresses the development of white supremacy among Englishmen, first on the coast of Africa, then in the Caribbean, and for most of its length within British North America. American historians usually start there, with slaves arriving in Virginia in 1619 and having an ambiguous and unclear status until later in the century and a fully-grown racial hierarchy coming about in the seventeenth century’s closing decades. That may tell us about the origins of white supremacy in the future United States, but Jordan himself acknowledges inchoate, conflicting ideas about fundamental differences between Africans and Englishmen essentially from their first encounters in West Africa and some scholars do believe that the transplanted Englishmen at Jamestown already understood those unfortunate twenty taken from the hold of that Dutch slaver as racially different, inferior, and enslaved from the moment they arrived. Others do not and on the balance I inclined somewhat more with the latter group. Whether we come down on Jordan’s side or not, we still have that white supremacy as understood by Englishmen doesn’t constitute its whole.

I aim to explore the question more broadly. To begin with, we know that slavery predates white supremacy and the very concept of whiteness. The Ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and Sumerians all practiced slavery. They did so both upon people who they might reasonably consider other to themselves, but also upon people who they must reasonably have considered culturally similar or the same. We see in what survives of their work occasional depictions of sub-Saharan Africans with features we consider racially stereotypical, but the classicists of my acquaintance caution against reading modern racial categories back in time so far. As most, we should consider these distant precursors. Slavery meant degradation and suffering, but it mostly appears to have been understood more as a personal misfortune rather than a defining, hereditary trait of a group of visibly different outsiders.

Into the Early Modern Period, Europeans had experience with slavery as both victims and perpetrators. Merchants bought people from the northern shores of the Black Sea and carried them by ship to grow crops in the Levant and Iberia, and to perform domestic service in Italy. In Renaissance Florence, one could buy a “black” Slav; the name literally means slave. Slavic slaves grew cotton and sugar on fields around the edge of the Mediterranean and a sensibility of some kind grew up that one could enslave, or at least more easily enslave, them than one’s own neighbors. The reference to blackness here refers not to actual skin color but rather acquiring a fair layer of grime from hard agricultural labor. Western European peasants could get called the same by their white -that is, clean- social betters. Of course, medieval art also depicted demons and devils with black skin. An association with dark color and moral inferiority existed, but premodern people could understand artistic metaphors.

Western and Southern Europeans also experienced slavery as the victims, captured by Muslim raiders and carried off to North Africa by the thousands. We now call one ethnicity from North Africa Berbers. You might remember them from your history books as the Barbary pirates whom Thomas Jefferson sent Stephen Decatur after. They took European Christians into slavery, which European Christians decided they did not like. They could enslave people who differed from them in certain ways, but increasingly came to see it as wrong for any Christian to suffer slavery at the hands of a non-Christian. Christendom, at least to some degree, defined itself as opposed to the practitioners of Islam. This distinction had salience especially at either end of the Mediterranean, where the Byzantine Empire slowly gave way to Muslim polities and Christian kingdoms in Iberia slowly gained ground against their Muslim neighbors.

The fall of Constantinople in 1453 greatly reduced the flow of Slavic slaves into the Christian parts of the Mediterranean basin. Some had made it all the way to the east coast of modern Spain, but the supply diminished. As that happened, the advance of Christian powers in seizing the peninsula increasingly put them in direct contact with the West African coast. The mariners who preceded Columbus sought their fortunes to the South, where they found powerful but visually and culturally distinct people. The Portuguese and Spanish lacked the strength to dominate the Atlantic littoral of Africa, but they could and did come with an interest in the local merchandise. That included people and by the 1450s, enslaved people of African descent appear on the streets of Lisbon.

They had better luck on the Canary Islands, where they eradicated the local, African-descended population and then needed someone else to man the plantations. They didn’t have to go searching long for replacements. Centuries of on-again, off-again wars against religious enemies created something often recognized as either European nationalism or an important precursor in Iberia. It included Catholic Christianity, but also notions about the natural aristocracy of people of pure blood who had not mixed their lineage with Muslims. It did not include Iberia’s Jewish population. Even those who converted could not qualify as entirely trustworthy, unless they had converted rather far in the past. Here we see something approaching the notion of race as a fixed, unchanging identity in that one of the great markers of belonging, Christian faith, no longer suffices to make one a part of the perceived community. Africans, even those who might adhere to some form of Christianity, didn’t qualify either.

The era we call the Age of Discovery, but might better consider an era of slavery and genocide, began in and helped create this broader ferment. Europeans found it acceptable to dispossess and destroy Native Americans. They had a supply of enslaved labor on the African coast, if not as much free access to it or ability to dictate terms as they would like. One might assume that they just used what seemed most convenient. At first, maybe they did. The plantation agricultural complex that defines so much of the Early Atlantic World didn’t get its start in the West Indies. Before Columbus sailed, and for some time afterwards, Europeans grew sugar and other cash crops on islands off Africa’s coast from the Canaries down to the Bight of Benin. As long as the plantations operated there, African slaves make simple logistical sense and need not indicate racial hierarchies in general rather than the horrific, ordinary slavery that might correspond to ancient precedents.

Plantations in the Caribbean don’t have that excuse. If Europeans could not or would not use enslaved Native American labor -they tried, but the genocide got in the way- then they must get their labor from elsewhere. Given the highly hierarchical nature of European civilization, it wouldn’t take a great reach to enslave people right at home and carry them off from Lisbon, Paris, or London. It might transgress existing norms about how one treated fellow countrymen and fellow Christians, but that would save the expense and difficulty of an additional voyage down to Africa to pick up slaves. If only pecuniary motives existed, then the European poor would have served just fine.

They obviously did not, because no European power sought to build a colony in the New World out of the bodies of enslaved whites. Instead they chose Africans. It took some form of previous thought about difference and inferiority to render Africans available to enslave in European minds, which we might fairly argue constitutes white supremacy. We might also argue that it constitutes a precursor and that white supremacy as a conscious thought system developed as a justification for what Europeans had already decided based on less comprehensive, more tentative notions. Probably the best explanation splits the difference and casts Early Atlantic plantation slavery and white supremacy as phenomena that co-created one another in a fiendishly complex interplay of premises, justifications, profit, and horror.

I can’t give you a firm date for when this all took place. Like most social and intellectual changes, white supremacy came about as a process. It had many parents who worked together, across generations, national lines, a great ocean, and four continents. I have elided many nuances and complexities here. To acknowledge again the most important, the Iberian seafaring powers led the way here. Everything I have written may hold firm for them and still leave the origin of white supremacy among Englishmen as a later development more continent on the West Indian and North American experiences. That said, Europeans read and spoke one another’s languages. More still might read others in translation. The pioneers of English colonialism knew their Iberian authorities and eagerly sought information about Africa and the Americans from them. The general story of Western European white supremacy’s origins includes the English, French, and Dutch just as much as the Spanish and Portuguese, even if it doesn’t perfectly reduce to them.

Either way, we live with the story unknowing and make others live with it still today. Just as they chose white supremacy, so we often do the same. It may not cure us to know that, but it should shake our confidence in all those horrors that seem to just happen or be the way things are. These things are the way we all, as societies, as citizens, as voters make them. We could do otherwise.

Further Reading

The literature on the origins of white supremacy is vast and I have only begun to take it in. If all of this interests you, Gentle Readers, you can get a chapter-length overview on which I have heavily relied from David Brion Davis’ Inhuman Bondage. The encounters of Europeans and Africans in West Africa constitute a large focus of David Eltis’ The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas. For a more theory-driven work on the intellectual origins of white supremacy among Englishmen, the starting point must be Winthrop Jordan’s White Over Black.

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