After Zurara, other Europeans invented new racist ideas to defend slavery. Some defended the “climate theory”—that Africans are inferior because of Africa’s hot climate. In the 1500s, the “curse theory” became popular: it said that Africans are Black because of the biblical curse of Ham. Slaveholders loved this idea because it said that they were actually good people who cared for their slaves like parents care for their children.
These racist ideas seem so absurd to modern readers because they were excuses for slavery, not genuine scientific theories of race. They were really attempting to justify a foregone racist conclusion: that white people were naturally meant to rule over Black people. When one idea went out of favor, another quickly popped up to replace it. So racist Europeans never truly asked if Black people were really inferior to white people; they only ever tried to justify why.
These racist ideas came to the U.S. in the 1600s, when the Puritan ministers John Cotton and Richard Mather set sail for Massachusetts. When they arrived, they founded new churches and the first American university, Harvard. They loved Aristotle, the famous Greek philosopher who believed that Greeks were better than non-Greeks. Since Cotton and Mather believed that Puritans were the chosen people, they used Aristotle’s teachings to argue that Puritans were better than everyone else—especially Native Americans and Africans. They taught this idea in church, and they taught Aristotle at Harvard. Therefore, they put racist ideas at the heart of the U.S.’s first religious and educational institutions.
While Cotton and Mather may not have been the first racists to land on North American soil, Kendi and Reynolds believe that they were the first to create powerful, enduring institutions dedicated to spreading racist ideas. Reynolds is not saying that these institutions are inherently racist, can never change, and have to be torn down. But he is saying that they have to transform if they want to overcome their racist legacies. Cotton and Mather also show how racist ideas are really based on self-interest: by declaring their group better than all other groups, they justified seizing power and privilege for themselves and their allies. Finally, as they borrowed the template for their racist ideas from Aristotle, they also show how such ideas develop and build on each other throughout history.
Meanwhile, the white colonists who weren’t missionaries were farmers. Planters knew that tobacco was a valuable cash crop, but they needed workers to farm it. When pirates robbed a Spanish ship and brought enslaved people to Virginia, the local landowners John Pory and George Yeardley saw an opportunity. They bought 20 men and sent them to work in the tobacco fields. Planters loved slavery because it made them money, while missionaries loved it because it gave them the opportunity to convert more people to Christianity. But many planters refused to baptize enslaved people, who they insisted were too savage for even God’s love.
Again, the principal motive behind racism is self-interest, not prejudice or hatred. White planters and missionaries became racists simply because it was profitable for them to oppress and convert Black people, and inconvenient to stand against such ideas. In this way, racism was economically advantageous for the early American planters: it allowed them to feel like they truly deserved their fortunes. Curiously, like many assimilationists throughout history, the missionaries were racist even though they thought they were helping Black people.