[Marxism] RE: Notes on David Brion Davis' review

Rakesh Bhandari bhandari at berkeley.edu
Fri Nov 3 18:51:56 MST 2006


From Andrew:

>First, I have been unsubbed.
>Second, I am done with this discussion.

So I guess he will not consider this evidence 
below against early so called racial differences 
as he has moved and been moved on. But see below.

At any rate, I think there is originality in my 
argument  that racism is by definition tied to a 
naturalistic conception of heredity via some 
postulated germinal essence  and that since such 
a conception of heredity was late in development 
as Matthew Cobb has brilliantly and vividly 
shown, so must have racism been late in 

But it also seems to me that the naturalistic 
conception of heredity is darkly implicit in the 
centuries of hereditary racial servitude, as I 
argued in my dissertation. That is, racial 
slavery provided a model of heredity, of some 
force expressing itself across generations 
perhaps as influential as the models  suggested 
by animal breeders or physicians studying 

The attempt to rationalize racial slavery and 
more importantly the subjugation of emancipated 
blacks must have created a crucially imporant 
intellectual context for the study of heredity

After all,  with enslaved Africans (putatively 
inferior) like  bred like for reasons 
mis-recognized as natural.

While bloodline was still a vague, semi-mystical 
view of the power of an imprecise quality, as 
Cobb shows, what the modern African slave was 
implied by some to pass on in the blood was  some 
substance or force to the extent that it 
established at birth the sub-human nature of one 
generation after another without in any way being 
changed in the process or eroding in any way; 
racial substance thus became conceived as an 
unmoved mover, an essence which determined 
existence in perpetuity, a system of hard 
heredity. Long before Francis Galton and August 
Weismann would claim that germinal material is 
transmitted through, but remains independent, of 
the parents' bodies,  thinkers such as Hume and 
Jefferson had already implicitly and perhaps 
unawares postulated the existence of such a 
substance that overrode epigenetic variation, 
acquired characteristics and even juridical 
transformations: a member of an oppressed 'race', 
even if born free, was considered to have 
inherited every inferiority that justified 

The separation of germinal and soma and the 
absurd investment of preformationist power in the 
germinal was already implied in the naturalistic 
defenses of racial slavery in its twilight

While modern eugenics was based on the idea of 
hard inheritance--that is, the idea that 
individuals do not transmit their acquired 
characteristics, but rather qualities that they 
had been given by their parents' germinal 
elements; education and hygiene thus being 
incapable of countering alleged degeneration-- 
North American slavery seems to have veering 
towards an idea of hard inheritance  before 
Galton's and Weismann's radical advances, for it 
was the basis of the idea the disposition of 
Africans that putatively made them suited to 
slavery would not change with their freedom. New 
World slavery was the birthplace of the hesitant 
postulation of race as a metaphysical germinal 
substance that is "extra-dialectical, 
extra-historical and extra-temporal." 

Of course my conception of racism has an affinity 
with Foucault's biopower theory of racism.  Cobb 
thinks I am onto something original here.

Now in terms of Andrew's historical claims:

Andrew's response has been that blacks today 
enjoy the freedoms of Africans in the first 
decades of the Virginia colony and since we say 
blacks today are still subject to racism, then 
there is no reason why we can't say that the 
first African Americans may have been treated in 
a racist manner too. That argument only 
establishes the possibility of early racism; it 
does not prove it. And I don't see how Andrew has 
proven the early existence of racism rather than 
the workings of religious intolerance and 
ethnocentrism and effects of international power 
politics on the fate of aliens.
Moreover, today's freedoms are the result of anti 
racist victories while those early freedoms and 
equalities resulted in part from the absence of 

At any rate,  see


Black slaves worked on plantations in small 
numbers throughout the 1600s. But until the end 
of the 1600s, it cost planters more to buy slaves 
than to buy white servants. Blacks lived in the 
colonies in a variety of statuses-some were free, 
some were slaves, some were servants. The law in 
Virginia didn't establish the condition of 
lifetime, perpetual slavery or even recognize 
African servants as a group different from white 
servants until 1661. Blacks could serve on 
juries, own property, and exercise other rights. 
Northampton County, Virginia, recognized 
interracial marriages and, in one case, assigned 
a free Black couple to act as foster parents for 
an abandoned white child. There were even a few 
examples of Black freemen who owned white 
servants. Free Blacks in North Carolina had 
voting rights.16 In the 1600s, the Chesapeake 
society of eastern Virginia had a multiracial 

There is persuasive evidence dating from the 
1620s through the 1680s that there were those of 
European descent in the Chesapeake who were 
prepared to identify and cooperate with people of 
African descent. These affinities were forged in 
the world of plantation work. On many plantations 
Europeans and West Africans labored side by side 
in the tobacco fields, performing exactly the 
same types and amounts of work; they lived and 
ate together in shared housing; they socialized 
together; and sometimes they slept together.17
A white servants' ditty of the time said, "We and 
the Negroes both alike did fare/Of work and food 
we had equal share."

Bacon's Rebellion was a turning point. After it 
ended, the Tidewater planters moved in two 
directions: first, they offered concessions to 
the white freemen, lifting taxes and extending to 
them the vote; and second, they moved to 
full-scale racial slavery. Fifteen years earlier, 
the Burgesses had recognized the condition of 
slavery for life and placed Africans in a 
different category as white servants. But the law 
had practical effect. "Until slavery became 
systematic, there was no need for a systematic 
slave code. And slavery could not become 
systematic so long as an African slave for life 
cost twice as much as an English servant for a 
five-year term," wrote historian Barbara Jeanne 
Fields.21 Both of those circumstances changed in 
the immediate aftermath of Bacon's Rebellion. In 
the entire 17th century, the planters imported 
about 20,000 African slaves. The majority of them 
were brought to North American colonies in the 24 
years after Bacon's Rebellion.
In 1664, the Maryland legislature passed a law 
determining who would be considered slaves on the 
basis of the condition of their father-whether 
their father was slave or free. It soon became 
clear, however, that establishing paternity was 
difficult, but that establishing who was a 
person's mother was definite. So the planters 
changed the law to establish slave status on the 
basis of the mother's condition. Now white 
slaveholders who fathered children by slave women 
would be guaranteed their offspring as slaves. 
And the law included penalties for "free" women 
who slept with slaves. But what's most 
interesting about this law is that it doesn't 
really speak in racial terms. It attempts to 
preserve the property rights of slaveholders and 
establish barriers between slave and free which 
were to become hardened into racial divisions 
over the next few years.
Taking the Maryland law as an example, Fields made this important point:

Historians can actually observe colonial 
Americans in the act of preparing the ground for 
race without foreknowledge of what would later 
arise on the foundation they were laying.Ö [T]he 
purpose of the experiment is clear: to prevent 
the erosion of slaveowners' property rights that 
would result if the offspring of free white women 
impregnated by slave men were entitled to 
freedom. The language of the preamble to the law 
makes clear that the point was not yet race.Ö

Race does not explain the law. Rather, the law 
shows society in the act of inventing race.22

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