The Spirit of Truth, 2: Divide and Keep Conquered

In Colonial America of the 1600s, the main difference between indentured servants and slaves was from the point of view of the masters. The workers that came from Africa cost more, but they paid off in the long run because you didn’t have to release them after a certain period of time – and, as an additional bonus, you also owned their children. For that reason, the slave demand brought a steady increase in African slave populations through the late 1600s. As time went by, the trend of increased numbers of African slaves combined with more and more of the indentured serving out their time and more and more European-born poor freedmen in the population.

Only then did the masters begin to draw the sort of race line that today is so familiar to us. They did it as a strategy against rebellion.

The freedmen were persons without house or land, rankled by unfair taxes, the greed of legislators who then, as now, were in the pockets of the wealthy, and land use regulations that made it very difficult for them to ever own land. Freedmen with “disappointed hopes” and slaves of “desperate hope” were joining forces to mount ever more virulent rebellions (Thandeka, Learning to Be White 45).

The landowners strategy was to invent American racism as we know it. Whereas previously the big divide was between the vile rabble over here and the landowners over here, the new way of grouping people encouraged the European-born part of the rabble to think of themselves as “white” – as sharing something crucial with the landowners which the African-born did not. Thus the freedmen were co-opted into betraying their own economic self-interest to support the landowners’ interests with which they identified by virtue of their shared whiteness. It was a brilliant divide-and-keep-conquered strategy “to separate dangerous free whites from dangerous slave blacks by a screen of racial contempt” (Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia 327).

The trick was accomplished by such means as passing new laws offering some protections to whites even while still indentured. As of 1705 in Virginia, any negro slave could be given 30 lashes on the bare back, but it was forbidden to whip a Christian white servant naked. The whipping happened, but the extra indignity did not – which helped the indentured begin to learn to be white, to identify with their oppressors against the even more oppressed. That same year, 1705, horses, cattle, and hogs were confiscated from slaves and sold to benefit poor whites. Any white was given the right to whip a black servant or slave. Slave owners were urged to bar their black slaves from learning the skills of a trade in order to preserve that work for white artisans.

In ways subtle and obvious, a dignity based on whiteness alone was created where nothing of the sort had been imagined 50 years before.
“The gap between the wealthy and poor widened as a result of slave productivity. Thus the sense that poor whites now shared status and dignity with their social betters was largely illusory.” (Thandeka, Learning to Be White 47)
But that illusion was powerful. Being white meant despising blacks, which afforded this illusory dignity that kept poor whites from agitating for economic reform on their own behalf and instead adopting attitudes and behavior to assist the landowners in keeping the blacks down.

We carry that legacy today.

Many of the whites among us, if we think back, would be able to tell a story of how we learned to be white. I’m talking about stories like Dan’s.
“In college during the late 1950s, Dan joined a fraternity. With his prompting, his local chapter pledged a black student. When the chapter’s national headquarters learned of this first step toward integration of its ranks, headquarters threatened to rescind the local chapter’s charter unless the black student was expelled. The local chapter caved in to the pressure, and Dan was elected to tell the black student he would have to leave the fraternity. Dan did it” (Thandeka 1)
-- with tremendous shame.

Or stories like Sarah’s.
“At age sixteen, Sarah brought her best friend home with her from high school. After the friend left, Sarah’s mother told her not to invite her friend home again. ‘Why?’ Sarah asked, astonished and confused. ‘Because she’s colored,’ her mother responded....[Sarah thought] what kind of reason was that for not inviting her to Sarah’s house? So Sarah persisted, insisting that her mother tell her the real reason for her action. None was forthcoming. The indignant look on her mother’s face, however, made Sarah realize that if she persisted, she would jeopardize her mother’s affection toward her.” (Thandeka 2)
Or stories like mine. I was a timid first-grader in North Carolina when one-day, on the school bus, a big third-grader asked me if I liked President Johnson. And I shrugged. And the big kid said he didn’t like Johnson ‘cause he lets – and here he used the N word – go to our school. The look of contempt upon his face made me feel such a relief to not be the object of that contempt. I learned to be white on that day. I was whited by a system invented in this country two and a half centuries before by landowners who wanted to suppress rebellion, a system that took on a life of its own and long outlived its original purpose.

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This is part 2 of 4 of "The Spirit of Truth"
Click for other parts: Part 1, Part 3, Part 4
Audio (with slideshow) on Youtube: CLICK HERE

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