I have been talking about the origins of slavery in America. In part, I’ve been doing so because there is a lot about that subject that most people don’t know - and our current political climate, especially in red states like ours, suppresses honest discussion and true understanding of the subject. You can’t understand the present without understanding the past, nor can you effectively build the future, and some people would rather you not do any of those things. Their strategy for controlling the present and shaping the future is controlling your ability to know the past.
That said. For roughly the first century of the English colonies, labor in the South was done by three groups: African slaves, white indentured servants, and American Indian slaves. For reasons discussed last week, by about 1720, it had become exclusively the task of African slaves. Southern colonies started passing laws to keep even free blacks separate from poor whites, the better to control them both and avoid a replay of Bacon’s Rebellion.
Those laws became, in fits and spurts, more and more restrictive as the eighteenth century progressed. Every time there was a failed slave revolt, or word was leaked of a planned one, Southern colonial legislatures passed more laws exerting ever more control over the black population, free and slave alike. Free blacks lost most of the rights they had possessed the previous century, and slavery became harsher and harsher. This continued after the Revolution and into the nineteenth century. Race was simultaneously defined by LAW, and shaped by custom. This was a way for the planter class - who controlled the economy and the politics - to tell poor white workers and farmers, “Hey, you may not have any money or access to education or many opportunities in life, but you are white like us and we are all on the same side. You are not like those OTHER people... so stop hanging around with them. They are inferior to US.” This was a way to both delude the white “lower classes” and keep them from turning on the powers that be, and to protect the institution of slavery which was making the elites rich.
I’ll return to the cookie analogy I’ve used often. Picture three guys sitting around a table: a black guy, a poor white guy, and a rich white guy. There are 10 cookies at the table. The rich guy has eight and the other two each have one. The rich guy tells the poor white guy, “You’d better watch that black guy, he wants to steal your cookie.” And while the poor white guy and the black guy are watching each other, neither notices that the rich guy now has ALL the cookies. Or, as Lyndon Johnson put it, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
This was done to maintain the social status quo, and keep the empowered in power. And it worked. Thousands and thousands of poor white Southerners who had never owned a slave and never would fought and died to protect the institution that only benefited the people at the top. And when that war ended slavery in America, the same economic/political class leaned in heavier than ever on reinforcing racism in order to hold on to that control -and that worked, too.
Today many Americans - 95% or more of them white, I would guess -want to gloss over all the history I have laid out these last few weeks, because they think it makes America look bad… and because they want people to stop complaining about racial injustice, because doing so is a “divisive concept.” “Let’s forget it and move on.” But “forgetting” it (or never learning it in the first place) only further cements it.
--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.
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