Note: I provide links to all of my sources. They are underlined and in boldface. I want my readers to be able to check out all sources for themselves.
There are two ways to lead people — either you divide-and-conquer, or you unite and build up. This has been true since Roman times.
Julius Cesar notoriously used this strategy to conquer Gaul twenty two centuries ago. The Latin phrase for it was Divide et impera.
It is a moral strategy?
According to Nicolo Machiavelli, “politics have no relations to morals”. He also said, “one who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived.”
Origins of black skin being associated with slavery in America
In the United States, divide-and-conquer was used by the Southern planter class originally to drive a wall between white and black workers. The consequent association of black skin with slavery was one of the sins of early American history and we continue to pay a price for this injustice today.
In the early colonial period, both blacks and whites were kept as indentured servants. Many of the white workers came from the English working class. Black and white women and men worked side by side and those who broke their contract were equally punished.
An example of a free black man who owned property in early Virginia was Anthony Johnson. He was listed in the 1625 Virginia census as a servant, not a slave. He married another black servant. Once they served out their indenture, he went on to went on to buy land, cattle, and to acquire indentured servants of his own. His servants could have been black or white. By 1650, he was one of only 400 people of African origin in the colony of 19,000.
This changed in 1705, when the Virginia General Assembly declared that any servants brought into the country who were not Christian in their native land would henceforth be slaves. That meant all people of African origin. “Mulattos and Indians” were also “held to be real estate”.
Suddenly humanity in the colonies acquired a skin color.
However, the roots of this had begun in 1641, when Massachusetts became the first colony to legally accept slavery. In 1662, Virginia declared that all children born in the colony to a slave would remain enslaved.
The motivation for this evil?
Greed and lust for power.
Advantages of slavery for the power-hungry
Because indentured servants were freed after their contract was over, they could buy land and thereby compete with the property owning elite. In 1676, working class men burned down Jamestown to protest mistreatment. The wealthy saw them as a threat to the power structure. They also didn’t like that servants were able to move on, which meant they had to pay to replace them. They would either have to hire people and pay wages or pay for another contracted servant.
Slaves, on the other hand, particularly if easily identified by skin color, had no rights.
Racial slavery created a permanent labor force that could be exploited and used. New England shipping owners were happy to make money transporting African slaves.
Note, these people considered themselves to be Christians. Yet they justified this cruelty.
Their greed blinded them to the human suffering they caused.
As Machiavelli noted, the deceivers deceived — white workers, who should have been natural allies of their black compatriots, turned against them because they were convinced that skin color matters.
After the Civil War
W.E.B. Du Bois noted that after the Civil War, poor whites continued to side with powerful whites rather than the blacks with whom their economic interests aligned. He stated, “racial solidarity…has historically always been used to obscure class, to make the white poor see their interests as one with the world of white privilege. Similarly, the black poor have always been told that class can never matter as much as race.”
As early as 1892, Tom Watson told a crowd of both black and white laborers that “you are made to hate each other because upon that hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism that enslaves you both.” He argued that elites established and perpetuated segregation because it benefitted them.
Many of the problems that plague our nation to this day are a direct result of racism.
However, as Watson told his interracial audience 130 years ago, “you are deceived and blinded that you may not see how this race antagonism perpetuates a monetary system which beggars both.”
Seeing how wealthy whites have used racism for their own economic gain might open the eyes of those who have been deceived.
Prior to the Civil War, there were many incidents where the white elites of the master class tried to divide poor whites from having any type of friendly association with blacks.
For example, it was forbidden for poor whites to sell liquor to blacks. For this offense, in Alabama, an illiterate poor white named Franklin Veitch was was dragged down to the margin of the river, laid across a log, and whipped by black slaves who were ordered to do so. Then he was hanged.
As the possibility of Civil War loomed, the white plantation owners sought to remove any associations between poor whites and blacks, who had previously sometimes traded or worked with each other and sometimes even interacted socially.
Uprisings, revolts, and the KKK
People have this misconception that there weren’t many slave rebellions and that there were no biracial revolts against the white power structure. This is false.
There were hundreds, if not thousands of uprisings. Some of these were planned by both poor whites and blacks in the decades leading to the Civil War. But the powerful crushed these rebellions.
Both poor whites and free blacks were targeted and regulations were put in place to make sure they didn’t interact with each other. When this proved insufficient, the master class enforced a totalitarian system based on spying and torturing people.
Vigilante groups worked with the local criminal justice system — the people who ran local and state governments — to brutalize both the enslaved and free blacks and any white sympathizers.
These terrorists were the precursors to the Ku Klux Klan.
Martin Luther King Jr. was undercut by President Johnson?
According to an account by Andrew Young, who was working side-by-side with Martin Luther King Jr., President Johnson called King “that godd*mn n*gger preacher”. According to Young, the Johnson White House pretended to ally with King but, while smiling and seemingly providing support on the surface, they were undercutting him.
There was also an account that Ronald M. MacMillan, a former Air Force One steward, overheard Johnson say, when discussing his proposed civil rights bill with two governors, that it would “have them n*ggers voting Democrat for two hundred years.”
Are either of these accounts credible? Given the historical propensities of the white elites, they seem possible.
Credible historian Doris Kearns Goodwin quotes LBJ in her biography of him; according to her, he says “these Negroes, they’re getting pretty uppity these days and that’s a problem for us since they’ve got something now they never had before, the political pull to back up their uppityness. Now we’ve got to do something about this, we’ve got to give them a little something, just enough to quiet them down, not enough to make a difference.” According to Goodwin, this was said to Richard Russell, a Democratic Senator from Georgia.
Malcolm X and segregation vs. separation
Given the historical reasons for mistrust of the white power structure, perhaps Malcolm X had good reason to call for separation instead of integration.
In a speech at Michigan State University in 1963, he outlined the difference between separation, which he favors, and segregation, which he did not. He points out that this is what the Chinese do in Chinatowns across America. It is a separate community, not a segregated one, in that the Chinese choose where they will live and own their own businesses and control their own politics. Whereas with segregation — blacks are forced to live apart and whites control their economy and politics.
Ongoing attempts to find justice
More recent attempts to find greater social justice have included everything from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter to Moral Mondays and the Poor People’s Campaign. Racism continues to plague the country and falling incomes, rising inflation, inadequate social safety nets, drug addiction, homelessness, and a broken mass incarceration system continue to hurt people. While black people may suffer more, poor whites and other groups are also hurting.
The real issue is that rich elites continue to look out for their own interests at the expense of the rest of us. Politicians, including black politicians, often do nothing to improve the lives of poor constituents despite paying lip service to voters.
Will this ever change?
I am fighting stage IV cancer. If you can help with medical bills, I would really appreciate it. Or if you enjoy my writing and would like to buy me a cup of coffee, that’s great too. Maybe someday I can return the favor.
This post was previously published on Shefali O’Hara’s blog.
You may also like these posts on The Good Men Project:
|White Fragility: Talking to White People About Racism||Escape the “Act Like a Man” Box||The Lack of Gentle Platonic Touch in Men’s Lives is a Killer||What We Talk About When We Talk About Men|
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