Saturday, September 17, 2011
The real reason we became white
In the mid-1600s, plantation owners in colonial Virginia looked through their lace curtained windows and saw a disturbing sight. What they saw was their workers in their fields. Those workers included European indentured servants and African indentured servants, as well as African slaves. *
The workers all lived in the same quarters, ate the same food and socialized together, essentially sharing the same abominable conditions. What troubled the planters was not the idea of race mixing (indeed, the concept of “race” had not yet been invented), but the fear that African and European workers would unite to rise up and slaughter their masters. The plantation owners were desperate to do something to protect themselves from this threat.
The British were not savvy imperialists for nothing. They had perfected the skill, first in Ireland and later throughout the Empire, of pitting one group against another through favorable treatment of selected populations. My own Lowland Scot ancestors accepted an offer of free land in Ireland. The British made this offer not to save us from frequent raids by Highlanders, but to establish a Protestant class, loyal to the crown, that would control the indigenous, largely landless, Irish crofters. It was the tried and true practice of divide and conquer. At the behest of the plantation owners, Virginia’s colonial legislature passed laws that required planters to award fifty acres of land to European indentured servants (but not those of African descent) who had completed their servitude. In the Colonies at that time the ownership of land was the ultimate form of status. In addition, landless white Europeans were eventually allowed to testify in courts, further enhancing their status. The importance of these early laws cannot be understated as precedents for how our nation eventually evolved. These were the first laws that based human rights on skin color.
The genius of this became evident over time. The paltry benefits afforded poor whites were clearly less important to them than their status as “white” people. Poor whites were hired to form slave patrols in order to cement the notion that they had more in common with the wealthy white elite than they did with black slaves. The overriding irony of this system was that slavery tended to diminish the wages and opportunities for poor whites. Poor whites and black slaves had significantly more in common with each other than either did with the white elite. Despite this, the importance of “whiteness” had become so powerful by the time of the Civil War that millions of poor whites fought and died to preserve a system that exploited them nearly as much as it did blacks.
We whites in the 21st century can no longer expect fifty acres of land, but what we can expect (statistically at least) is that we will have, as compared to the descendents of slaves, more of society’s benefits. We can expect to live longer, healthier, safer lives. We can expect to earn more money and to have accumulated more wealth. We can expect better education and more lucrative jobs. We can expect to be much less likely to be incarcerated or harassed by the police. For all these apparent benefits for being white we are, by and large, intensely supportive of the status quo and the corporate capitalist system that provides these benefits. Our loyalty and participation in this system provide us what we in shorthand call white privilege. These privileges have become so commonplace and ordinary that they have become largely invisible to us and at some deep level we have the sense that they are deserved. We are, in short, the loyal constituency of a wealthy elite.
This insidious and brilliant system functions today as well as it did in 1670. The divide that exists between blacks and whites still prevents us from working together for our common economic and social interests. The knee jerk tendency to blame blacks for the economic problems experienced by whites is still a vibrant tool of political manipulation. It is currently being used to scapegoat Latino immigrants, with claims that they threaten the wages and standard of living of (white) American workers. Even if our borders were slammed shut right now, capital and jobs would continue to flow abroad, to the continuing detriment of all American workers – black, white and brown.
This white privilege that we protect with such ferocity is based on an illusion created by the wealthy to protect their status. The illusion is that whites are more deserving than people of color. And the purpose of this illusion is precisely the same as it was in 1670 – to sow divisions between groups who might threaten the wealth of those in power.
* At that time, chattel slavery, the ownership of a person and all of that person’s offspring for life, had not yet become a norm in the Americas. Some plantation owners who used European indentured servants for cheap labor also made indentured servants of the Africans they purchased. Indentured servants were required to provide their masters with a certain number of years of labor, and then were freed. By about 1700 it became a law that Africans and their descendents could not be indentured servants. Those who were then indentured servants entered chattel slavery, becoming slaves for life. Like all free blacks, former indentured servants were always at risk of being captured and sold into chattel slavery.