[Marxism] Notes on David Brion Davis' review

Rakesh Bhandari bhandari at berkeley.edu
Fri Nov 3 08:56:07 MST 2006

Andrew writes:

"I proved that Englishmen thought of blacks as essentially different 
from whites during this period.  If you say that you read my essay 
and claim that I didn't prove this, or if you are familiar with the 
literature and argue that this is not the case, then you are only 
interested in appearing to be right and not concerned with actually 
seeking truth.  The record doesn't make sense unless essentialist 
racial categories are in operation.
Why didn't they enslave white people?
I claim that racism emerged with the emergence of capitalism within 
the European world-system.  If I used the term "premodern" I 
apologize.  I'm a Marxist, not a modernization theorist."

I'll try to summarize some points in this long discussion.

1. Far from there being essential racial differences between African 
and European labor in early decades of Chesapeake few distinctions 
were made between European indentured servants and African imported 
servants--you have simply refused to engage Allen's analysis! 
Africans who achieved freedom had the same status as any other free 
persons; they owned lands and houses, married, had children, and 
exercised the same civic rights as others, including the right to 
vote and own other servants. Most servants suffered under harsh and 
inhumane conditions, and often did not outlive the four to seven 
years of their contracted labor. Toward the middle of the seventeenth 
century more bonded laborers were living longer and acquiring the 
status of freed men, but they found it increasingly difficult to 
obtain land and other resources. In 1670 freedmen who did not own 
property were even denied the right to vote. As Eric Williams long 
ago underlined, it was a brutal system of bond servitude imposed on 
poor Europeans that set the stage for later permanent slavery for 

2. With prices collapsing, labor in shortage, and rebellion at hand, 
Africans were alone subjected to hereditary bondage not because of 
racism, racialization of the Curse of Ham or even their heathenism 
but simply because they had no international support, were not 
Englishmen under the common law, could not easily escape as did many 
enslaved Indians who were living on their own lands, became 
relatively very cheap with England's entry into the slave trade, and 
were relatively more healthy than other likely sources of labor. 
Because they had powerful international support and the support of 
the common law Christians and Englishmen were not enslaved en masse; 
it's an anachronism to say that the white race was not enslaved 
because the white race did not yet exist. Neither was the black race 
enslaved. Such categories do not yet exist, as shown by Audrey 
Smedley on whom I draw here. And yes I agree with Barbara Fields on 
this point.

3. You don't distinguish between racism, racial prejudice, religious 
prejudice, ethnocentrism. 

4. Had medieval Arabs not racialized the Curse of Ham, racial slavery 
would likely have taken hold anyway. First, slavery was likely the 
only economic solution to labor shortages in the land rich New World, 
and the enslavement of the outside group of Africans was simply the 
best way to satisfy the lust for profit. They were culturally 
sophisticated, healthy, cheap and available in the required numbers 
given the ravenous demand for labor.

5. The racialization of the Curse of Ham is yet not racism as its 
implicit mechanism of heredity is divine sanction, not a naturalistic 
one. Racism is an articulated pseudo-naturalistic doctrine, not the 
expression of diffuse and inchoate prejudices or simple age old 
ethnocentrism. It's important not to inflate the term as you have. 
Racism is also more about the invisible than the visible--postulated 
germinal substance; since visible somatic difference is not necessary 
for racism (as I once thought) there can be simple class racism. A 
most important fillip to racism was in fact the rationalization of 
inequality within nineteenth century England.

6. Given your agreement with Davis' focus on medieval Arab thought, 
you certainly think that anti black racism is premodern.

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