How White People Got Made
Part Two of a Series on Whiteness (Part One)
“When the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, there were no ‘white’ people there; nor, according to the colonial records, would there be for another sixty years.” — Theodore W. Allen
“There’s nothing that a white man with a penny hates more than a nigger with a nickel!” — Chris Rock
There’s a perception that whiteness is working for white people. It’s not. Whiteness is one of the biggest and most long-running scams ever perpetrated.
It started in the late 1600s in America, but like so many scams, it spiraled out of control until it had a life of its own.
Not long after Europeans started arriving on the east coast of North America and the Caribbean Islands they found themselves rich in land but desperate for labor to work the land. The answer they struck upon was importation of bond labor, initially mostly Irish. The Irish had not been considered fully human under English law for centuries, and they ended up in plantations and working sugar under the Caribbean sun. The easy part of importing Irish (and Scottish) slave labor was that they were right next to England. The downside is there wasn’t enough of them for the amazing amounts of land laid before the eager English settlers, and thus the Atlantic slave trade with Africa was born. This is the story we hear in school, but the abridged version we get, intentionally or not, hides the scam of it. Initially the bond terms of convict, Scotch-Irish, and African labor was a set period of time, at the end of which they received bond money and their freedom in this new land. In fact, not that many bondsmen and women lived to be free, but some did, and established themselves as a mixed-race, free peasantry of the new world. If you’ve ever wondered where the free blacks of so many stories of early America came from, a large number were the families of freed African bond laborers.The white cry, from the 17th century, to George Wallace, and still alive in the present day.
As time went on, the labor needs of the land holders continued to grow, and desperate to cultivate the land, they were loathe to let go of their bond servants and the bondsmen and bondswomen’s children (whom they kept in bondage for a legally defined time as well). In the mean time, a growing American peasantry was proving as difficult to govern as the European peasantry back home, periodically rising up in riot and rebellion, light skinned and dark skinned together. The political leaders of the Virginia colony struck upon an answer to all these problems, an answer which plagues us to this day.
The Virginians legislated a new class of people into existence: the whites. They gave the whites certain rights, and took other rights from blacks. White, as a language of race, appears in Virginia around the 1680s, and seems to first appear in Virginia law in 1691. And thus whiteness, and to a degree as well blackness, was born in the mind of America.
As of the 18th century whites could not be permanently enslaved as they sometimes had been before, and black slaves could never work their way to freedom. The whites were told this was because God had made the blacks inferior to the whites, just as the whites were inferior to the superior classes that owned property. It’s worthwhile to remember that they didn’t give whites political rights, they didn’t give whites the vote — that would not happen then nor at the revolution and independence. Whites didn’t get the vote until the presidency of Andrew Jackson. Property owners, both of land and slaves, were the only ones who could vote. That included black land and slave owners until various states passed laws in the early 18th century to take their franchise away.
This Reconstruction era election poster is free of any content that is not inarticulate blind fear of black people.
This plan worked gorgeously. It broke all efforts of the majority of people, African or European, to fight for civil and political rights in America against a landed class that ruled everything. It reduced a portion of the people to the status of the negro slave, and gave the poor but now white people a precious and entitled inch to stand above the permanently enslaved on the social ladder. The next thing the politicians did sealed the deal: they paid poor whites a bounty for runaway slaves, and often made them overseers for slaves, turning every poor white in America into a prison guard against the people who had once been their neighbors and allies.
Racism drafted every intellectual endeavor to reinforce the idea of an intrinsic superiority to the upper class European. When Darwinism came along, it was immediately adapted as a justification for exactly the same message that had been presented as the will of God previously.
If this seems like a crazy way for people to behave, it’s important to think about what was believed about the natural order of things back in the 1600s. Nowadays, we don’t really think about class as a