Many other Europeans developed creative racist ideas in the 1600s. Richard Baxter said that Africans wanted to be enslaved, John Locke said that white people had superior minds, and Lucilio Vanini developed the theory of polygenesis, which says that Black people are a different species descended from “a different Adam.” Meanwhile, in 1688, a group of Pennsylvania Mennonites developed the first antiracist idea by publishing a pamphlet against race-based oppression.
All these 17th-century racist ideas might seem illogical and absurd, but the point is that they continue to exist in different forms today: racists still say that Black people choose to live in poverty, that they have lower IQs, or that they are a biologically distinct category of people. So even though nobody would seriously believe Baxter, Locke, and Vanini’s ideas today, these ideas have still deeply influenced the contemporary conversation about race. In short, today’s racist ideas are really just recycled, updated versions of racist ideas from the past. However, antiracist ideas also have a long history: they have battled with racist ideas for almost as long as those racist ideas have been around. They have also been recycled and updated, depending on the era. But their essential point is always the same: racial oppression and inequity is wrong because all people are inherently equal.
Meanwhile, white colonists were fighting with Native Americans all around the Thirteen Colonies. In 1676, hoping to create problems for the government, the poor Virginia farmer Nathaniel Bacon organized an attack on local Native people. He convinced both poor white people and enslaved Black people to join him, which scared the white elite. After quelling the rebellion, the government wrote certain privileges for white people into the law—like pardons and power over Black people—to prevent poor white people from cooperating with Black people.
Bacon’s rebellion further illustrates how racist ideas let powerful people divide and conquer the less powerful. Enslaved Black people and poor white farmers shared a natural enemy: the wealthy white elite. But throughout American history, white elites have used racist ideas and policies to pit poor white people against poor or enslaved Black people, so that they don’t work together to redistribute wealth and resources. This shows that anti-Black racism actually hurts poor white people, too. It’s also important to remember that “white privilege” isn’t just a feeling, idea, or informal social norm. For centuries, white privileges were actual laws, and they continue to shape the world today.