There is probably no country in the world where racism has played—and continues to play—a more important role than the United States. Beginning in the early 1600s, English settlers were desperate for unpaid labor. Without this labor, they could have starved to death. In Virginia, settlers tried to force Indians to work for them, but the settlers failed because they were heavily outnumbered. Furthermore, there weren’t enough white indentured servants to be of use in agriculture. The solution was African slavery.
Zinn traces America’s long history of racism and discrimination back to some immediate historical causes: in the 17th century, white colonists needed to survive by finding a system of unpaid labor. Black slaves represented a practical, though deeply immoral, system of survival for the colonists. Zinn implies that racism was the ideology the white colonists used to justify slavery.
By the early 1600s, the Portuguese had abducted more than a million Africans from their homes and brought them to the Caribbean and South America to work as slaves. African civilization, Zinn argues, was as advanced as European civilization: Africans had advanced agriculture, metallurgy, art, and city planning. Most African societies used an essentially feudal administrative system. However, some historical evidence supports the idea that African society wasn’t as brutal in its punishments as European society: the death penalty was rare, and a strong communal spirit discouraged abuses of power. African societies had their own forms of slavery; however, the African slave system was milder and respected the rights of slaves in a way that American slavery never did. African slaves could marry, own property, and even own slaves themselves.
Zinn implies that the Portuguese subjugated the people of Africa not because the Portuguese were more technologically advanced or “civilized,” but because they were greedier and more violent and, therefore, were willing to kidnap human beings from their homes and transport them around the world. Throughout modern history, Europeans have justified slavery by pointing out that Africans had a system of slavery, too. However, Zinn makes it clear that African slavery, while immoral, was far milder and gentler than its American successor.
Portuguese slavers abducted thousands of slaves at a time and then transported them across the Atlantic ocean. Many slaves died during the voyage, but, by 1800, there were at least ten million slaves in the Americas. These slaves were psychologically traumatized and left in a state of fear and helplessness. They were, tragically, ideal slaves for the Europeans.
As Zinn sees it, the nightmarish “middle passage” from Africa to America was a critical part of the process of enslavement: by torturing Africans for weeks or months at a time, European slave owners were trying to indoctrinate the Africans and prepare them for a lifetime of submission.
Some have argued that white people enslaved black people because of a natural antipathy between the races. But even if it is “natural” to feel racism—a hotly debated question outside the scope of this book—it’s important to understand the concrete societal influences that fostered racism in America. Europeans enslaved Africans because they needed labor—not just because of a “natural antipathy.”
In essence, the question Zinn is trying to answer is, “which came first, slavery or racism?” Zinn’s argument is that, whether or not people are hard-wired to feel racism, racism as it arose in the American colonies was the product of a concrete, economic need for slavery, not the other way around.
Too many historians have characterized African slaves as frightened and submissive. However, if one looks more closely, one sees that slaves found many ways of resisting their masters. Examining Virginia slave codes, one notices how frightened slave masters were of losing their slaves to uprisings or escapes. All this would suggest that many slaves tried to rebel. In many early American colonies, slaves made up a significant chunk of the population; sometimes as much as a third. Wise slave masters did not take seriously the myth that Africans were naturally submissive—they knew that, unless they continued to torture their slaves, they faced the possibility of a revolt.
Even after being psychologically tortured and indoctrinated to be meek and docile, African slaves bravely fought for their freedom. Indeed, American slave owners were well-aware that African slaves were powerful and dangerous—that’s why they took such care to keep their slaves frightened, even after they’d arrived in America.
In New York in 1712, twenty-five slaves banded together with two Indians to attack white settlers and burn buildings. The slaves were executed for their crimes; they were slowly burned to death, so as to set an example to other slaves. Afterwards, however, there were other fires in Boston and New Haven, perhaps started by slaves in homage to the New York revolt. In other slave uprisings in the 17th and 18th centuries, white servants joined with black slaves. For American elites at the time, the only thing more frightening than a slave revolt was the possibility that disenfranchised whites would join with the slaves. To drive slaves and poor whites apart, Virginia governors passed laws strengthening property rights for white servants.
What’s notable about the New York slave uprising of 1712 is that it involved both black slaves and poor white settlers. One of Zinn’s most important observations about race in America is that the elites in America have always wanted white people to hate black people, and vice versa, to ensure that the persecuted people of America will be weak and divided. While Zinn can’t directly prove that American elites have tried to foster racism, he suggests that they’ve passed laws creating economic boundaries between slaves and impoverished whites, distancing the two groups from one another.
In all, it’s important to notice that the racism in American history wasn’t “natural”—it was the product of specific, sometimes deliberate, historical forces. In part, American elites encouraged antipathy between whites and blacks in order to strengthen their own position in society.
Zinn ends the chapter by reiterating his two main points: 1) the economic need for slavery caused the rise of racism in America; 2) powerful Americans encouraged racism between blacks and whites to reinforce their own power.