Race & Murder

Mark Rickling rickling at netzero.net
Tue Apr 27 23:22:49 PDT 1999

Carrol Cox wrote:
>> I would say
>> that slavery and racism were mutually constitutive of each other -- one
>> simply can't imagine slavery in the US without racism, and it makes little
>> sense trying to figure out which gave rise to the other.
>Nonsense. To begin with, slavery in the U.S. was primarily white to
>begin with: under the conditions of tobacco cultivation, 7 years of
>bondage was a lifetime, and white slaves were cheaper. It was only
>by a very complex process that "slavery" and "black slavery" and
>"racism" became identical.

You are correct to cite the example of indentured servitude and it was certainly an overstatement on my part to say it makes little sense to try to figure out which gave rise to the other -- at least in terms of understanding history (as opposed to reified theorizing). Much has been learned in the debate concerning the advent of slavery and racism in colonial America.

Seeing indentured servitude as an antecedent of chattel slavery, Edmund Morgan in American Slavery American Freedom argues that the economic system of unfree labor gave rise to racism. His narrative turns on a historical moment of lost opportunity when, shifting from indentured servants to slaves due to a change in their relative prices, black and white could have united against their masters before racism became institutionalized and poisoned race relations for centuries.

However, in White over Black, Winthrop Jordan takes the opposite tack and argues that the preexisting racism of the English facilitated the development of slavery. That racism existed before slavery took root is a fact that cannot be denied, yet Morgan is also correct to state that a fluidity existed in race relations that was later lost and that in certain areas white and black could sometimes act on terms of equality. IMO, abstract theorizing over "systems of exploitation existing prior to racism" obscures the kinds of contributions Jordan makes to the study of race and slavery.

I must confess I've always liked Morgan's history better than Jordan's; perhaps it is time to develop a newly found appreciation for White over Black <grin>.

>"Mutually constitutive" is a question-begging phrase which has never
>explained anything -- and it certainly has never pointed the way to
>actually fighting something.

Mutually constitutive is jargon-esque but I still like it. Far better than collapsing race into class.

>Your assumption, by making racism an independent force, leaves no
>way to fight it. Fields's assumptions, on the contrary, let us see some
>of the reasons that the black struggle of the '50s and '60s had such
>an impact. Blacks in complex motion (organized campaigns, riots,
>etc.) create huge contradictions in racialist ideology.

I don't think racism is an independent force; semiautonomous is more like it. It has become nearly a cliche to say that one cannot discuss race, class, or gender in isolation.

For your pleasure, yet more Roediger on Fields: "Nor has the privileging of class over race by any means given way within Marxist and neo-Marxist historical analysis. Even Fields wavers. At times she nicely balances the ideological creation of racial attitudes with their manifest and ongoing importance and their (albeit ideological) *reality*. She writes, 'It follows that there can be no understanding the problems arising form slavery and its destruction which ignores their racial form; recognizing that race is an ideological notion and that not all white Americans held the same ideology does not mean dismissing racial questions as illusory or unreal.' But shortly thereafter we learn that, during Reconstruction, however much 'the Republicans may have perceived the situation through the veil of racial ideology, their frustration with the freedmen had nothing to do with color.' Instead, their frustrations were those that 'have . . . appeared again and again, in every part of the world, whenever an employer class in the process of formation has tried to induce men and women unbroken to market discipline to work . . . for a wage.' Race disappears into the 'reality' of class."

I don't know how Field's assumptions bear on interpreting the modern civil rights struggle, but the implication for political praxis of her ideas is clear: take care of class first and racial and gender problems will be solved. The failures generated by this kind of thinking in the history of the left are legion.


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