[Marxism] Barbara Fields essay request

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Feb 11 12:13:16 MST 2017


On 2/11/17 1:09 PM, Glenn Kissack via Marxism wrote:
>
> I used to subscribe to New Left Review, but let my subscription lapse. I need a copy of Barbara Field’s essay, “Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America”. If anyone has a pdf of that article you could send me, it would be much appreciated. The article was in the May-June 1990 edition.
>
> Thanks,
> Glenn


New Left Review
New Left Review I/181, May-June 1990
Barbara Jeanne Fields
Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America

Two years ago, a sports announcer in the United States lost his job 
because he enlarged indiscreetly—that is, before a television 
audience—upon his views about ‘racial’ differences. Asked why there are 
so few black coaches in basketball, Jimmy ‘the Greek’ Snyder remarked 
that black athletes already hold an advantage as basketball players 
because they have longer thighs than white athletes, their ancestors 
having been deliberately bred that way during slavery. ‘This goes all 
the way to the Civil War,’ Jimmy the Greek explained, ‘when during the 
slave trading. . .the owner, the slave owner would breed his big black 
to his big woman so he could have a big black kid, you see.’ Astonishing 
though it may seem, Snyder intended his remark as a compliment to black 
athletes. If black men became coaches, he said, there would be nothing 
left for white men to do in basketball at all. Embarrassed by such rank 
and open expression of racism in the most ignorant form, the network 
fired Jimmy the Greek from his job. Any fool, the network must have 
decided, should know that such things may be spoken in the privacy of 
the locker-room in an all-white club, but not into a microphone and 
before a camera. Of course, Jimmy the Greek lays no claim to being 
educated or well informed. Before he was hired to keep audiences 
entertained during the slack moments of televised sports events, he was 
famous as a bookie. He claims expert knowledge about odds and point 
spreads, not about history, biology or human genetics. But those 
claiming to be educated—and employed on that basis—have proved to be 
just as superstitious as Jimmy the Greek. Belief in the biological 
reality of race outranks even astrology, the superstition closest to it 
in the competition for dupes among the ostensibly educated. Richard 
Cohen, the house liberal of the Washington Post, wrote a column 
defending the underlying assumption of Jimmy the Greek’s remark, if not 
its specific content. According to Cohen, Jimmy the Greek was wrong for 
overestimating what can be accomplished by the deliberate breeding of 
human beings, not for believing in physical race. ‘Back in my college 
days,’ Cohen began, ‘I dabbled in anthropology. In physical anthropology 
we had to do something called “racing and sexing” of skulls. That 
entailed looking at a skull and determining whether it was once a man or 
a woman—and which race.’ The circular logic of first defining certain 
characteristics as ‘racial’, then offering differences in those same 
characteristics as proof that the ‘races’ differ, did not trouble him, 
even in retrospect. In matters of virtually religious faith, logic 
carries no weight. Cohen capped that shameful display with a tag that 
ought to have warned him of the intellectual quagmire into which he had 
strayed: ‘Yes, Virginia, the races are physically different.’ [1]

Most Americans, though perhaps few others, will recognize the allusion. 
Many years ago, a newspaper editor answered a query from a troubled 
child named Virginia, who was experiencing her first painful doubts that 
Santa Claus was a real person and who had written to the newspaper to 
get an authoritative answer. The answer came in a famous editorial 
entitled ‘Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus.’ Cohen spoke more truth 
than he realized in thus equating his own—and, presumably, his 
readers’—need to believe in race with a child’s need to believe in Santa 
Claus. Anyone who continues to believe in race as a physical attribute 
of individuals, despite the now commonplace disclaimers of biologists 
and geneticists, [2] might as well also believe that Santa Claus, the 
Easter Bunny and the tooth fairy are real, and that the earth stands 
still while the sun moves.

Newspaper and television journalists are entitled to be as silly and 
irresponsible as they wish, and it usually does no harm, since nobody in 
his right mind pays attention to them. (Richard Coven underlined his 
scientific illiteracy by speaking of ‘white genes’—entities known to no 
geneticist that I am aware of.) [3] But in May of 1987, the Supreme 
Court of the United States provided a much more serious example—more 
serious precisely because it was the Supreme Court and not a half-baked 
journalist. The Supreme Court had to decide whether Jewish and Arab 
Americans could seek relief under civil-rights law for acts of 
discrimination against them. Instead of taking its stand on the 
principle that discrimination against anybody is intolerable in a 
democracy, the Court chose to ask whether Jews and Arabs are racially 
distinct from ‘Caucasians’. If so, then civil-rights laws forbidding 
‘racial’ discrimination might be applied to them. The Court decided 
that, because Jews, Arabs and a variety of nationalities were regarded 
as racial groups in the late nineteenth century, they may therefore be 
so considered today. [4] In other words, the Court knew no better way to 
rectify injustice at the end of the twentieth century than to 
re-enthrone the superstitious racial dogma of the nineteenth century. In 
fact, the Supreme Court had little choice, bound as it is by American 
precedent and history—bound, that is to say, by its participation in 
those rituals that daily create and re-create race in its characteristic 
American form. The Supreme Court acts, no less than Jimmy the Greek, 
within the assumptions, however absurd, that constitute racial ideology 
in the United States. Unfortunately, so do historians and other academic 
specialists, who vitally need to take a distance from these assumptions 
in order to do their job.
The Single ‘Race’

One of the most important of these absurd assumptions, accepted 
implicitly by most Americans, is that there is really only one race, the 
Negro race. That is why the Court had to perform intellectual 
contortions to prove that non-Negroes might be construed as members of 
races in order to receive protection under laws forbidding racial 
discrimination. Americans regard people of known African descent or 
visible African appearance as a race, but not people of known European 
descent or visible European appearance. That is why, in the United 
States, there are scholars and black scholars, women and black women. 
Saul Bellow and John Updike are writers; Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison 
are black writers. George Bush and Michael Dukakis were candidates for 
president; Jesse Jackson was a black candidate for president.

Moreover, people in the United States do not classify as races peoples 
of non-European but also non-African appearance or descent, except for 
purposes of direct or indirect contrast with people of African descent; 
and even then, the terms used are likely to represent geography or 
language rather than biology: Asian or Hispanic. [5] Even when terms of 
geography designate people of African descent, they mean something 
different from what they mean when applied to others. My students find 
it odd when I refer to the colonizers of North America as 
Euro-Americans, but they feel more at ease with Afro-Americans, a term 
which, for the period of colonization and the slave trade, has no more 
to recommend it. Students readily understand that no one was really a 
European, since Europeans belonged to different nationalities; but it 
comes as a surprise to them that no one was an African either, since 
Africans likewise belonged to different nationalities.

A second absurd assumption inseparable from race in its characteristic 
American form takes for granted that virtually everything people of 
African descent do, think, or say is racial in nature. Thus, anyone who 
followed the news commentaries on the presidential election primaries of 
1988 learned that, almost by definition, Afro-Americans voted for Jesse 
Jackson because of racial identification—despite polls showing that 
Jackson’s supporters were far more likely than supporters of any other 
candidate to identify him with specific positions that they agreed with 
on issues that mattered to them. Supporters of the others regarded their 
men as interchangeable, and were likely to switch again and again, in 
response to slick advertising spots or disparaging rumours. [6]

Perhaps most intellectually debilitating of all is a third assumption: 
namely, that any situation involving people of European descent and 
people of African descent automatically falls under the heading ‘race 
relations’. Argument by definition and tautology thereby replaces 
argument by analysis in anything to do with people of African descent. 
Probably a majority of American historians think of slavery in the 
United States as primarily a system of race relations—as though the 
chief business of slavery were the production of white supremacy rather 
than the production of cotton, sugar, rice and tobacco. One historian 
has gone so far as to call slavery ‘the ultimate segregator’. [7] He 
does not ask why Europeans seeking the ‘ultimate’ method of segregating 
Africans would go to the trouble and expense of transporting them across 
the ocean for that purpose, when they could have achieved the same end 
so much more simply by leaving the Africans in Africa. No one dreams of 
analysing the struggle of the English against the Irish as a problem in 
race relations, even though the rationale that the English developed for 
suppressing the ‘barbarous’ Irish later served nearly word for word as a 
rationale for suppressing Africans and indigenous American Indians. [8] 
Nor does anyone dream of analysing serfdom in Russia as primarily a 
problem of race relations, even though the Russian nobility invented 
fictions of their innate, natural superiority over the serfs as 
preposterous as any devised by American racists. [9]

Loose thinking on these matters leads to careless language, which in 
turn promotes misinformation. A widely used textbook of American 
history, written by very distinguished historians, summarizes the 
three-fifths clause of the United States Constitution (article 1, 
section 2) thus: ‘For both direct taxes and representation, five blacks 
were to be counted as equivalent to three whites.’ [10] The three-fifths 
clause does not distinguish between blacks and whites—not even, using 
more polite terms, between black and white people. (Indeed, the terms 
black and white—or, for that matter, Negro and Caucasian—do not appear 
anywhere in the Constitution, as is not surprising in a legal document 
in which slang of that kind would be hopelessly imprecise.) The 
three-fifths clause distinguishes between free Persons—who might be of 
European or African descent—and other Persons, a euphemism for slaves. 
The issue at stake was whether slaveowning citizens would hold an 
advantage over non-slaveowning citizens; more precisely, whether slaves 
would be counted in total population for the purpose of apportioning 
representation in Congress—an advantage for slave-holders in states with 
large numbers of slaves—and of assessing responsibility for direct 
taxes—a disadvantage. The Constitution answered by saying yes, but at a 
ratio of three-fifths, rather than the five-fifths that slaveholders 
would have preferred for representation or the zero-fifths they would 
have preferred for taxation. When well-meaning people affirm, for 
rhetorical effect, that the Constitution declared Afro-Americans to be 
only three-fifths human, they commit an error for which American 
historians themselves must accept the blame.

When virtually the whole of a society, including supposedly thoughtful, 
educated, intelligent persons, commits itself to belief in propositions 
that collapse into absurdity upon the slightest examination, the reason 
is not hallucination or delusion or even simple hypocrisy; rather, it is 
ideology. And ideology is impossible for anyone to analyse rationally 
who remains trapped on its terrain. [11] That is why race still proves 
so hard for historians to deal with historically, rather than in terms 
of metaphysics, religion or socio- (that is, pseudo-) biology.

Nothing so well illustrates that impossibility as the conviction among 
otherwise sensible scholars that race ‘explains’ historical phenomena; 
specifically, that it explains why people of African descent have been 
set apart for treatment different from that accorded to others. [12] But 
race is just the name assigned to the phenomenon, which it no more 
explains than judicial review ‘explains’ why the United States Supreme 
Court can declare acts of Congress unconstitutional, or than Civil War 
‘explains’ why Americans fought each other between 1861 and 1865. [13]

Only if race is defined as innate and natural prejudice of colour does 
its invocation as a historical explanation do more than repeat the 
question by way of answer. And there an insurmountable problem arises: 
since race is not genetically programmed, racial prejudice cannot be 
genetically programmed either but, like race itself, must arise 
historically. The most sophisticated of those who invoke race as a 
historical explanation—for example, George Fredrickson and Winthrop 
Jordan—recognize the difficulty. The preferred solution is to suppose 
that, having arisen historically, race then ceases to be a historical 
phenomenon and becomes instead an external motor of history; according 
to the fatuous but widely repeated formula, it ‘takes on a life of its 
own’. [14] In other words, once historically acquired, race becomes 
hereditary. The shopworn metaphor thus offers camouflage for a 
latter-day version of Lamarckism.
The History of an Ideology

Race is not an element of human biology (like breathing oxygen or 
reproducing sexually); nor is it even an idea (like the speed of light 
or the value of) that can be plausibly imagined to live an eternal life 
of its own. Race is not an idea but an ideology. It came into existence 
at a discernible historical moment for rationally understandable 
historical reasons and is subject to change for similar reasons. The 
revolutionary bicentennials that Americans have celebrated with such 
unction—of independence in 1976 and of the Constitution in 1989—can as 
well serve as the bicentennial of racial ideology, since the birthdays 
are not far apart. During the revolutionary era, people who favoured 
slavery and people who opposed it collaborated in identifying the racial 
incapacity of Afro-Americans as the explanation for enslavement. [15] 
American racial ideology is as original an invention of the Founders as 
is the United States itself. Those holding liberty to be inalienable and 
holding Afro-Americans as slaves were bound to end by holding race to be 
a self-evident truth. Thus we ought to begin by restoring to race—that 
is, the American version of race—its proper history.

As convenient a place as any to begin a brief summary of that history, 
along with that of plantation society in British North America, is in 
seventeenth-century Virginia. Virginia foundered during its early years 
and survived only through the good will and, when the colonists had 
exhausted that, the extorted tribute of the indigenous Indians. But 
during the second decade of the seventeenth century, Virginia discovered 
its vocation: the growing of tobacco. The first boom in what would 
eventually become the United States took place during the 1620s, and it 
rested primarily on the backs of English indentured servants, not 
African slaves. Not until late in the century, after the boom had 
passed, did landowners begin buying slaves in large numbers, first from 
the West Indies and, after 1680, from Africa itself. [16] During the 
high years of the boom it was the ‘free-born’ Englishman who became, as 
one historian put it, ‘a machine to make tobacco for somebody else’. [17]

Indentured servants served longer terms in Virginia than their English 
counterparts and enjoyed less dignity and less protection in law and 
custom. They could be bought and sold like livestock, kidnapped, stolen, 
put up as stakes in card games, and awarded—even before their arrival in 
America—to the victors in lawsuits. Greedy magnates (if the term is not 
redundant) stinted the servants’ food and cheated them out of their 
freedom dues, and often out of their freedom itself, when they had 
served their time. Servants were beaten, maimed, and even killed with 
impunity. For expressing opinions unfavourable to the governor and the 
governing council, one man had both his arms broken and his tongue bored 
through with an awl, while another lost his ear and had to submit to a 
second seven-year term of servitude—to a member of the council that had 
judged his case. [18]

Whatever truths may have appeared self-evident in those days, neither an 
inalienable right to life and liberty nor the founding of government on 
the consent of the governed was among them. Virginia was a 
profit-seeking venture, and no one stood to make a profit growing 
tobacco by democratic methods. Only those who could force large numbers 
of people to work tobacco for them stood to get rich during the tobacco 
boom. Neither white skin nor English nationality protected servants from 
the grossest forms of brutality and exploitation. The only degradation 
they were spared was perpetual enslavement along with their issue in 
perpetuity, the fate that eventually befell the descendants of Africans.

Scholars occasionally maintain that English indentured servants escaped 
that fate while Africans fell victim to it because Europeans would go 
only so far and no farther in oppressing people of their own colour. But 
they really only believe such folklore when they are floating in the 
twilight world of racial ideology, a world in which even the Supreme 
Court of the United States finds itself mentally disarmed. Once restored 
to honest daylight, they know better. They know that the Greeks and 
Romans enslaved people of their own colour. They know that Europeans 
held other Europeans in both slavery and serfdom, and that the law in 
Tudor England provided for the enslavement of vagabonds. They know that 
the English considered no brutality too extreme in bringing to heel the 
supposedly savage and undoubtedly fair-skinned Irish. Oliver Cromwell 
sold survivors of the Drogheda Massacre as slaves in Barbados, and his 
agents systematically auctioned Irish children off to planters in the 
West Indies. Nazi concentration camps swallowed up not only Jews and 
Gypsies but also partisans, resistance fighters, and Communists, whom 
even the United States Supreme Court would be hard-pressed to define as 
racial groups. From Peterloo to Santiago, Chile, to Kwangju, South 
Korea, to Tiananmen Square and the barrios of San Salvador, humanity has 
learned again and again that shared colour and nationality set no 
automatic limit to oppression. Ultimately, the only check upon 
oppression is the strength and effectiveness of resistance to it.

Resistance does not refer only to the fight that individuals, or 
collections of them, put up at any given time against those trying to 
impose on them. It refers also to the historical outcome of the struggle 
that has gone before, perhaps long enough before to have been hallowed 
by custom or formalized in law—as ‘the rights of an Englishman’, for 
example. The freedoms of lower-class Englishmen, and the somewhat lesser 
freedoms of lower-class Englishwomen, were not gifts of the English 
nobility, tendered out of solicitude for people of their own colour or 
nationality. Rather, they emerged from centuries of day-today contest, 
overt and covert, armed and unarmed, peaceable and forcible, over where 
the limits lay. Moral scruples about what could and what could not be 
done to the lower classes were nothing but the shoulds and should nots 
distilled from this collective historical experience, ritualized as 
rules of behaviour or systematized as common law—but always liable to be 
put once again on the table for negotiation or into the ring for combat. 
[19] Each new increment of freedom that the lower classes regarded as 
their due represented the provisional outcome of the last round in a 
continuing boxing-match and established the fighting weights of the 
contenders in the next round.
Custom and Law

In the round that took place in early colonial Virginia, servants lost 
many of the concessions to their dignity, well-being and comfort that 
their counterparts had won in England. But not all. To have degraded the 
servants into slaves en masse would have driven the continuing struggle 
up several notches, a dangerous undertaking considering that servants 
were well-armed, that they outnumbered their masters, and that the 
Indians could easily take advantage of the inevitably resulting warfare 
among the enemy. Moreover, the enslavement of already arrived 
immigrants, once news of it reached England, would have threatened the 
sources of future immigration. Even the greediest and most short-sighted 
profiteer could foresee disaster in any such policy. Given how fast 
people died in Virginia, the lifetime’s labour of most slaves would 
probably have amounted to less than a seven-year term of servitude 
(fifteen thousand immigrants between 1625 and 1640 only increased the 
population from some thirteen hundred to seven or eight thousand). [20] 
And the prospect of gaining enslaveable children in the future—an 
uncertain prospect, considering how few women arrived during the boom 
years [21] —could not compensate for the certain loss of adult 
immigrants in the present.

Some of these same considerations argued against employing 
Africandescended slaves for life on a large scale; others did not. 
Needless to say, adverse publicity did not threaten the sources of 
forced migration as it did those of voluntary migration. Much more 
important: Africans and Afro-West Indians had not taken part in the long 
history of negotiation and contest in which the English lower classes 
had worked out the relationship between themselves and their superiors. 
Therefore, the custom and law that embodied that history did not apply 
to them. To put it another way: when English servants entered the ring 
in Virginia, they did not enter alone. Instead, they entered in company 
with the generations who had preceded them in the struggle; and the 
outcome of those earlier struggles established the terms and conditions 
of the latest one. But Africans and Afro-West Indians did enter the ring 
alone. Their forebears had struggled in a different arena, which had no 
bearing on this one. Whatever concessions they might obtain had to be 
won from scratch, in unequal combat, an ocean away from the people they 
might have called on for reinforcements.

Africans and Afro-West Indians were thus available for perpetual slavery 
in a way that English servants were not. Indeed, Virginians could 
purchase them ready-enslaved and pre-seasoned; and so they did in the 
earliest years of the traffic. Only much later did this become a matter 
of what we now call race. It took time, indeed, to become systematized 
as slavery. Although African or African-descended slaves dribbled in 
from 1619 on, the law did not formally recognize the condition of 
perpetual slavery or systematically mark out servants of African descent 
for special treatment until 1661. Indeed, African slaves during the 
years between 1619 and 1661 enjoyed rights that, in the nineteenth 
century, not even free black people could claim. [22] Simple 
practicality decided the matter. 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, and stood a better-than-even 
chance of dying before five years could elapse. [23]

Not until the 1660s did that morbid arithmetic change; and by then other 
things had changed as well. The price of tobacco had fallen, and so had 
the numbers of English servants emigrating to America. Afro-Americans 
began living long enough to be worth enslaving for life, and 
Euro-Americans began living long enough to claim both the freedom and 
the freedom dues—including land—to which they were entitled at the end 
of their terms of servitude. This last provoked countermeasures by those 
whose fortunes depended on the labour of servants. One such 
countermeasure was to concoct excuses for extending servants’ terms, and 
that the Virginia Assembly set about with a vengeance during the 1650s, 
’60s and ’70s. Another was to engross all the available land in the 
tidewater, forcing freed servants either to rent from the land-owners 
(and thus continue working for the landowners’ enrichment) or to settle 
in frontier regions, remote from water transportation and exposed to 
reprisals by Indians, who understandably resented this new encroachment 
by the aliens who had already driven them from the tidewater. By the 
1670s, the rulers of Virginia faced a potentially serious problem: a 
large class of young (white) freedmen, landless, single, 
discontented—and well armed. [24]

Sure enough, trouble arrived on cue. In 1676, a group of just such young 
freedmen, joined by servants and slaves as well, launched the largest 
popular rebellion of colonial America, plundering the property of the 
well-to-do, burning the capital, and sending the royal governor and his 
cronies temporarily into hiding on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. The 
rebellion ended abruptly, without accomplishing—or for that matter 
attempting or proposing—changes in the prevailing system of power and 
authority. What it did succeed in doing was planting suspicion and fear 
of the growing white lower class in the minds of the rich and powerful. [25]

It was a fortunate circumstance—fortunate for some, anyway—that made 
Africans and Afro-West Indians available for plantation labour at the 
historical moment when it became practical to buy slaves for life, and 
at the same time difficult and dangerous to continue using Europeans as 
the main source of plantation labour. The importation of African slaves 
in larger and larger numbers made it possible to maintain a sufficient 
corps of plantation labourers without building up an explosive charge of 
armed Englishmen resentful at being denied the rights of Englishmen and 
disposing of the material and political resources to make their 
resentment felt. [26]

Eventually, European settlement pushed into the interior, and 
freedmen—declining in numbers anyway as the immigration of servants 
slowed down—found it possible to take up land of their own. As the 
labour of slaves for life replaced that of servants for a term, the 
problem of providing for freedmen receded into the past. (So far into 
the past, indeed, that when providing for freedmen appeared once again 
on the nation’s agenda, during the Civil War era, the ancient precedent 
of freedom dues had been all but forgotten. When Abraham Lincoln and his 
contemporaries spoke of compensated emancipation, they did not feel a 
need to specify compensation for whom. No one talked of freedom dues, 
only of the folly of offering Negroes an unearned ‘gift’.)
 From Oppression to Inferiority

Race as a coherent ideology did not spring into being simultaneously 
with slavery, but took even more time than slavery did to become 
systematic. A commonplace that few stop to examine holds that people are 
more readily oppressed when they are already perceived as inferior by 
nature. The reverse is more to the point. People are more readily 
perceived as inferior by nature when they are already seen as oppressed. 
Africans and their descendants might be, to the eye of the English, 
heathen in religion, outlandish in nationality, and weird in appearance. 
But that did not add up to an ideology of racial inferiority until a 
further historical ingredient got stirred into the mixture: the 
incorporation of Africans and their descendants into a polity and 
society in which they lacked rights that others not only took for 
granted, but claimed as a matter of self-evident natural law. [27]

All human societies, whether tacitly or overtly, assume that nature has 
ordained their social arrangements. Or, to put it another way, part of 
what human beings understand by the word ‘nature’ is the sense of 
inevitability that gradually becomes attached to a predictable, 
repetitive social routine: ‘custom, so immemorial that it looks like 
nature’, as Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote. The feudal nobility of the early 
Middle Ages consisted of people more powerful than their fellows through 
possession of arms or property or both. No one at that time, not even 
they themselves, considered them superior by blood or birth; indeed, 
that would have been heresy. But the nobleman’s habit of commanding 
others, ingrained in day-to-day routine and thus bequeathed to heirs and 
descendants, eventually bred a conviction that the nobility was superior 
by nature, and ruled by right over innately inferior beings. By the end 
of the fifteenth century, what would have been heresy to an earlier age 
had become practically an article of faith. [28] The peasants did not 
fall under the dominion of the nobility by virtue of being perceived as 
innately inferior. On the contrary, they came to be perceived as 
innately inferior by virtue of having fallen under the nobility’s dominion.

Facts of nature spawned by the needs of ideology sometimes acquire 
greater power over people’s minds than facts of nature spawned by nature 
itself. Some noblemen in tsarist Russia sincerely believed that, while 
their bones were white, the serfs’ bones were black; [29] and, given the 
violence that prevailed in those times, I must presume that noblemen had 
ample occasion to observe the serfs’ bones at first hand. Such is the 
weight of things that must be true ideologically that no amount of 
experimental observation can disprove them. But because tsarist Russia 
had no conception of absolute equality resting on natural law, it did 
not need as consistent or radical a version of absolute inequality 
resting on natural law as developed in the United States in the wake of 
the Revolution. [30] When self-evident laws of nature guarantee freedom, 
only equally self-evident laws of equally self-evident nature can 
account for its denial.

Historians can actually observe colonial Americans in the act of 
preparing the ground for race without foreknowledge of what would later 
rise on the foundation they were laying. A law enacted in the colony of 
Maryland in 1664 established the legal status of slave for life and 
experimented with assigning slave condition after the condition of the 
father. That experiment was soon dropped. Paternity is always ambiguous, 
whereas maternity is not. Slaveholders eventually recognized the 
advantage of a different and unambiguous rule of descent, one that would 
guarantee to owners all offspring of slave women, however fathered, at 
the slight disadvantage of losing to them such offspring as might have 
been fathered on free women by slave men. Nevertheless, the 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: ‘And 
forasmuch as divers freeborne English women forgettfull of their free 
Condicon and to the disgrace of our Nation doe intermarry with Negro 
slaues by which alsoe diuers suites may arise touching the Issue of such 
woemen and a great damage doth befall the Masters of such Negroes. . .’ [31]

‘Freeborne English women’—not white women—were forgetting their free 
condition and disgracing their nation—not yet forgetting their colour 
and disgracing their race. And from their forgetting and disgracing 
arose ‘diuers suites’ and ‘a great damage’ to the slaveowners. Race does 
not explain that law. Rather, the law shows society in the act of 
inventing race. [32] Practical needs—the need to clarify the property 
rights of slaveholders and the need to discourage free people from 
fraternizing with slaves—called forth the law. And once practical needs 
of this sort are ritualized often enough either as conforming behaviour 
or as punishment for non-conforming behaviour, they acquire an 
ideological rationale that explains to those who take part in the ritual 
why it is both automatic and natural to do so.

During the heyday of the cotton empire in the nineteenth century, 
slavery continued to perform the service it had pioneered in colonial 
times: that of limiting the need for free citizens (which is to say 
white people) to exploit each other directly and thereby identifying 
class exploitation with racial exploitation. But it also did much more 
than that. The domination of plantation slavery over Southern society 
preserved the social space within which the white yeomanry—that is, the 
small farmers and artisans who accounted for about three-fourths of the 
white families in the slave South just before the Civil War—could enjoy 
economic independence and a large measure of local selfdetermination, 
insulated from the realm of capitalist market society. By doing so, 
slavery permitted and required the white majority to develop its own 
characteristic form of racial ideology.
The White Yeomanry

Two-thirds of the people of the Old South were free and white. Of these, 
most owned no slaves and the few who did used them mainly for hunting, 
fishing, general farming and household chores, not for growing cash 
crops like cotton and tobacco. They tended to live in the backcountry, 
in areas too hilly, rocky, sandy, infertile, chilly, or far from 
navigable water to be of interest to planters. In fact, many had seen 
their parents or grandparents driven from better land as the slave 
plantations expanded to the west. [33] For reasons of their own 
selfinterest, slaveholding planters did not wish either to antagonize 
nonslaveholders in their backcountry sanctuaries (since the yeomen 
outnumbered and thus potentially outvoted them) or to interfere in their 
local communities. Schools, roads, railroads and other improvements in 
the backcountry would require the planters to tax themselves—something 
they did as little as possible. For their part, the yeomen were jealous 
of their local independence and self-determination. They did not want 
the state telling them to send their children to school, and many 
mistrusted railroads, with their land speculators and pirates and their 
locomotives that might set fields ablaze or run over children and 
livestock. [34]

Within their local communities, the white non-slaveholders developed a 
way of life as different from that of the slaveowning planters as from 
that of farmers in those Northern states where capitalist agriculture 
already prevailed. They grew only enough cash crops (that is, cotton or 
tobacco, because rice and sugar were chiefly plantation crops) for home 
use or to pay for those few purchases that required cash. For the rest, 
they concentrated on food crops—grain, potatoes, vegetables—and 
livestock. A custom long defunct in the Northern states permitted anyone 
to graze livestock or to hunt and fish on any land, public or private, 
that was not fenced. Thus, even people who owned little or no land could 
still keep livestock. The nonslaveholders traded in local markets, not 
national and international ones, and usually on the basis of barter or 
‘swap-work’. (‘Swap-work’ meant that someone might, for example, repair 
the roof of his neighbour’s barn, in exchange for the neighbour’s 
putting a new wheel on his wagon or making him a pair of boots.) Local 
stores sold mainly commodities that the community could not produce—for 
example, firearms and ammunition, molasses, and nails—since the 
community was largely self-sufficient in food, furniture, shoes and 
clothing. Nearly every household owned a spinning-wheel, with which 
homegrown cotton could be turned into yarn for making the family’s 
clothes. A network of indebtedness held the community together, at the 
same time that it started arguments and lawsuits: everybody owed 
something to somebody else. The local store did not even charge interest 
until a debt was over a year old. The law itself recognized the rules of 
basic justice that prevailed within the nonslaveholders’ communities. 
Most states of the lower South had a law known as the ‘homestead 
exemption’. Even if the head of a household went bankrupt, his creditors 
could not strip him of his house and its furnishings and land—enough to 
permit him to retain his social and economic independence.

Strong belief in the value of social independence led the 
nonslaveholders to share with planters a contempt for both the hireling 
labourers of the North and the chattel slaves of the South; it also bred 
in them an egalitarian instinct that never gracefully accepted any white 
man’s aristocratic right to rule other white men—a right the planters 
never doubted with regard to the lower classes of whatever colour. The 
racial ideology of the yeomanry therefore could not possibly replicate 
that of the planters. Instead, it emerged as a byproduct of the 
practical, day-to-day business of the yeomen’s lives.

This is perhaps a good moment to say a few words about what ideology is 
and what it is not; because without an understanding of what ideology is 
and does, how it arises and how it is sustained, there can be no 
genuinely historical understanding of race. Ideology is best understood 
as the descriptive vocabulary of day-to-day existence, through which 
people make rough sense of the social reality that they live and create 
from day to day. It is the language of consciousness that suits the 
particular way in which people deal with their fellows. It is the 
interpretation in thought of the social relations through which they 
constantly create and re-create their collective being, in all the 
varied forms their collective being may assume: family, clan, tribe, 
nation, class, party, business enterprise, church, army, club, and so 
on. As such, ideologies are not delusions but real, as real as the 
social relations for which they stand.

Ideologies are real, but it does not follow that they are scientifically 
accurate, or that they provide an analysis of social relations that 
would make sense to anyone who does not take ritual part in those social 
relations. Some societies (including colonial New England) have 
explained troublesome relations between people as witchcraft and 
possession by the devil. The explanation makes sense to those whose 
daily lives produce and reproduce witchcraft, nor can any amount of 
rational ‘evidence’ disprove it. Witchcraft in such a society is as 
selfevident a natural fact as race is to Richard Cohen of the Washington 
Post. To someone looking in from outside, however, explaining a 
miscarriage, a crop failure, a sudden illness, or a death by invoking 
witchcraft would seem absurd, just as explaining slavery by invoking 
race must seem absurd to anyone who does not ritually produce race day 
in and day out as Americans do. Ideologies do not need to be plausible, 
let alone persuasive, to outsiders. They do their job when they help 
insiders make sense of the things they do and see—ritually, 
repetitively—on a daily basis.

So much ideology is. Here is what it is not. It is not a material 
entity, a thing of any sort, that you can hand down like an old garment, 
pass on like a germ, spread like a rumour, or impose like a code of 
dress or etiquette. Nor is it a collection of disassociated 
beliefs—‘attitudes’ is the favoured jargon among American social 
scientists and the historians they have mesmerized—that you can extract 
from their context and measure by current or retrospective survey 
research. (Someday the reification of conduct and demeanour in 
‘attitudes’ will seem as quaint and archaic as their reification in 
bodily ‘humours’—phlegmatic, choleric, melancholic, sanguine—does now.) 
Nor is it a Frankenstein’s monster that takes on a life of its own.

Ideology is not the same as propaganda. Someone who said, ‘Antislavery 
ideology infiltrated the slave quarters through illicit abolitionist 
newspapers’, would be talking rather about propaganda than about 
ideology. The slaves’ anti-slavery ideology could not be smuggled to 
them in alien newsprint. People deduce and verify their ideology in 
daily life. The slaves’ anti-slavery ideology had to arise from their 
lives in slavery and from their daily relations with slaveholders and 
other members of slave society. [35] Frederick Douglass was not 
propounding a paradox but speaking the simple truth when he said that 
the first anti-slavery lecture he ever heard was delivered by his master 
in the course of explaining to his mistress why slaves must not be 
taught to read. By the same token, slaves who decided at the first shot 
of the Civil War—or even earlier, with Lincoln’s election—that 
emancipation was finally on the nation’s agenda were not responding to 
prevailing Northern propaganda (which, indeed, promised nothing of the 
kind at that time). It was their experience with slaveowners, not least 
the slaveowners’ hysterical equation of the Republican Party with 
abolition, that made slaves see Lincoln as the emancipator before he saw 
himself that way. And, I might add, it was the slaves’ acting on that 
foreknowledge that forced Lincoln to become the emancipator.
Ideology, Propaganda and Dogma

To insist that ideology and propaganda are not the same is not to 
suppose that they are unrelated. The most successful propagandist is one 
who thoroughly understands the ideology of those to be propagandized. 
When propagandists for secession before the American Civil War 
emphasized the danger that the Northerners might encroach upon 
Southerners’ right of self-determination, they emphasized a theme that 
resonated as well with the world of non-slaveholders as with that of 
planters, even though the two worlds differed as night from day. ‘We 
will never be slaves’ was good secessionist propaganda. ‘We must never 
let them take our slaves’ would have been poor propaganda and the 
secessionists knew it; just as today ‘Strategic Defence Initiative’ 
makes a good advertisement for a weapons programme, whereas ‘Strategic 
Offensive Initiative’ or ‘First-Strike Initiative’ would not.

Neither is ideology the same as doctrine or dogma. Pro-slavery doctrine 
might well hold, for example, that any white person’s word must take 
precedence over any black person’s. But the push-and-shove reality of 
any planter’s business would tell him or her that some situations call 
for accepting a slave’s word over an overseer’s. [36] After all, 
overseers came and went, but slaves remained; and the object was to 
produce cotton or sugar or rice or tobacco, not to produce white 
supremacy. The perfect subordination of the slaves to the overseer, if 
coupled with poor production, would spell disaster for a planter. Thus, 
the ideology of a planter—that is, the vocabulary of day-to-day action 
and experience—must make room for contest and struggle (perhaps couched 
in paternalistic or racist language), even if doctrine specified an 
eternal hierarchy. Doctrine or dogma may be imposed, and they often are: 
dissenters can be excommunicated from a church or expelled from a party. 
But ideology is a distillate of experience. Where the experience is 
lacking, so is the ideology that only the missing experience could call 
into being. Planters in the Old South could have imposed their 
understanding of the world upon the non-slaveholders or the slaves only 
if they could have transformed the lives of the non-slaveholders and 
slaves into a replica of their own.

An ideology must be constantly created and verified in social life; if 
it is not, it dies, even though it may seem to be safely embodied in a 
form that can be handed down. [37] Many Christians still think of 
kneeling with folded hands as the appropriate posture for prayer, but 
few now know why; and the few who do know cannot, even if they choose, 
mean the same thing by it as was meant by those to whom the posture was 
part of an ideology still real in everyday social life. The social 
relations that once gave explicit meaning to that ritual gesture of the 
vassal’s subordination to his lord are now as dead as a mackerel, and 
so, therefore, is the ideological vocabulary—including the posture of 
prayer—in which those social relations once lived.

The foregoing line of argument raises the question of how one group’s 
understanding of reality, its ideology, appears to prevail over others 
when it comes to real and effective political power. Depending on who 
poses the question, it is the problem of social order, of converting 
power into authority, or of political hegemony. The most obvious 
answer—force—is not an answer. There is never ultimately enough force to 
go around, particularly since submission is hardly ever an end in 
itself. If the slaveholders had produced white supremacy without 
producing cotton, their class would have perished in short order. A 
colonial ruler does not just want the natives to bow down and render 
obeisance to their new sovereign. The natives must also grow food, pay 
taxes, go to work in mines and on estates, provide conscripts for the 
army, and help to hold the line against rival powers. For these 
activities to proceed, the natives must not just submit, they must 
cooperate. Even in those few cases in which submission is an end in 
itself, force is never enough in itself. Slaveholders, colonial rulers, 
prison guards and the Shah’s police have all had occasion to discover 
that when nothing remains except force, nothing remains—period. The rule 
of any group, the power of any state, rests on force in the final 
analysis. Anyone who gives the least thought to the matter reaches that 
conclusion, and thinkers as different in other respects as Weber, Marx, 
Machiavelli and Madison would have no trouble agreeing on that. Rule 
always rests on force in the last analysis. But a ruling group or a 
state that must rely on force in the first analysis as well is one 
living in a state of siege, rebellion, war or revolution.

It will not do to suppose that a powerful group captures the hearts and 
minds of the less powerful, inducing them to ‘internalize’ the ruling 
ideology (to borrow the spurious adjective-verb in which this artless 
evasion has so often been couched). To suppose that is to imagine 
ideology handed down like an old garment, passed on like a germ, spread 
like a rumour, or imposed like a dress code. Any of these would 
presuppose that an experience of social relations can be transmitted by 
the same means, which is impossible.

And yet, power does somehow become authority. A red light, or the 
upraised palm of a traffic policeman, brings people to a stop (at least 
in places where people tend to obey them) not by the exercise of 
power—neither a light nor a hand can stop a moving automobile—but by the 
exercise of authority. Why? Not, surely, because everyone shares a 
belief, an ‘attitude’, about the sanctity of the law, or holds the same 
conception of a citizen’s duty. Many citizens who would unhesitatingly 
stop for a red light, even at a deserted intersection at 2:00 a.m., 
would painstakingly calculate the relative cost and benefit of breaking 
laws against environmental pollution, insider-trading in securities, or 
failing to report income to the Internal Revenue Service, and then obey 
or violate the law according to how the calculation worked out.

It is not an abstract belief or attitude that brings people to stop at a 
red light. Rather, people discover the advantage of being able to take 
for granted what everyone else will do at a busy intersection. Or, to be 
more exact, they have grown up in a society that constantly ritualizes 
that discovery—by making people stop again and again for red 
lights—without each person having to make the discovery anew by ad hoc 
calculation at every intersection. Both parts are necessary: the 
demonstrable advantage of stopping and the constant re-enactment of the 
appropriate conduct, a re-enactment that removes the matter from the 
realm of calculation to that of routine. The ritual repetition of the 
appropriate social behaviour makes for the continuity of ideology, not 
the ‘handing down’ of the appropriate ‘attitudes’. There, too, lies the 
key to why people may suddenly appear to slough off an ideology to which 
they had appeared subservient. Ideology is not a set of attitudes that 
people can ‘have’ as they have a cold, and throw off the same way. Human 
beings live in human societies by negotiating a certain social terrain, 
whose map they keep alive in their minds by the collective, ritual 
repetition of the activities they must carry out in order to negotiate 
the terrain. If the terrain changes, so must their activities, and 
therefore so must the map.
Shaping the Terrain

Let me pursue a bit further this analogy of terrain. But imagine a 
physical landscape: trees here, a river there, mountains, valleys, 
quicksand, desert and so on. And imagine an observer at the altitude of 
an earth satellite, who for some reason can follow the paths of people 
over the terrain, but cannot see the details of the landscape. The 
observer sees people tunneling under, climbing over, jogging to left or 
right, moving with odd swimming motions, even disappearing 
unceremoniously into the quicksand. Given a modicum of training in the 
orthodox tradition of American history, he might conclude that people in 
this part of the landscape have ‘attitudes’ calling for one kind of 
movement, while people in that part have ‘attitudes’ calling for another 
kind—all of these ‘attitudes’ possessing a ‘life of their own’. Given a 
modicum of wisdom, he would realize that the key to understanding the 
people’s movements is to analyse the terrain.

Therein, also, lies the key to understanding how one group acquires 
authority, imposes order, or achieves hegemony. Exercising rule means 
being able to shape the terrain. Suppose that the ruling group wants 
everyone in our landscape to move east, and therefore starts fires in 
the forests to the west. Mission accomplished: everybody moves east. 
Because they all share a conviction—an ‘attitude’—glorifying the virtues 
of easterly movement? Not necessarily. All that order, authority or 
hegemony requires is that the interest of the mass in not getting burned 
alive should intersect the interest of the rulers in moving everyone to 
the east. If easterly movement subsequently becomes part of the routine 
by which the masses organize their lives independently of the rulers so 
that such movement becomes part of a constantly repeated social routine, 
a vocabulary will soon enough explain to the masses—not analytically, 
but descriptively—what easterly movement means. And that vocabulary need 
not and cannot be a duplicate of the one spoken by the rulers.

Racial ideology supplied the means of explaining slavery to people whose 
terrain was a republic founded on radical doctrines of liberty and 
natural rights; and, more important, a republic in which those doctrines 
seemed to represent accurately the world in which all but a minority 
lived. Only when the denial of liberty became an anomaly apparent even 
to the least observant and reflective members of EuroAmerican society 
did ideology systematically explain the anomaly. But slavery got along 
for a hundred years after its establishment without race as its 
ideological rationale. The reason is simple. Race explained why some 
people could rightly be denied what others took for granted: namely, 
liberty, supposedly a self-evident gift of nature’s God. But there was 
nothing to explain until most people could, in fact, take liberty for 
granted—as the indentured servants and disfranchised freedmen of 
colonial America could not. Nor was there anything calling for a radical 
explanation where everyone in society stood in a relation of inherited 
subordination to someone else: servant to master, serf to nobleman, 
vassal to overlord, overlord to king, king to the King of Kings and Lord 
of Lords.

It was not Afro-Americans, furthermore, who needed a racial explanation; 
it was not they who invented themselves as a race. EuroAmericans 
resolved the contradiction between slavery and liberty by defining 
Afro-Americans as a race; Afro-Americans resolved the contradiction more 
straightforwardly by calling for the abolition of slavery. From the era 
of the American, French and Haitian revolutions on, they claimed liberty 
as theirs by natural right. [38] They did not originate the large 
nineteenth-century literature purporting to prove their biological 
inferiority, nor, by and large, did they accept it. Vocabulary can be 
very deceptive. Both Afroand Euro-Americans used the words that today 
denote race, but they did not understand those words the same way. 
Afro-Americans understood the reason for their enslavement to be, as 
Frederick Douglass put it, ‘not color, but crime’. [39] Afro-Americans 
invented themselves, not as a race, but as a nation. They were not 
troubled, as modern scholars often are, by the use of racial vocabulary 
to express their sense of nationality. AfroAmerican soldiers who 
petitioned on behalf of ‘These poor nation of colour’ and ‘we Poore 
Nation of a Colered rast [race]’ saw nothing incongruous about the 
language. [40]

Racial ideology in its radical American form is the ideology to be 
expected in a society in which enslavement stands as an exception to a 
radically defined liberty so commonplace that no great effort of 
imagination is required to take it for granted. It is the ideology 
proper to a ‘free’ society in which the enslaved descendants of Africans 
are an anomalous exception. There is no paradox; it makes good, common 
sense. Indeed, I dare go further. In the wake of the American 
Revolution, racial ideology assumed its greatest importance in the free, 
bourgeois society of the Northern states, where both slavery and the 
presence of Afro-Americans became increasingly minor exceptions. [41] 
The paroxysm of racial violence that convulsed the South during the 
years after emancipation, and the ever more detailed legal codification 
of racial proscription, represent the nationalization of race, an 
ideology that described the bourgeois North much better than it did the 
slave South.

For those living within the maturing slave society of the South, racial 
ideology in its radical American form could not fully account for the 
social landscape. There, slavery was not a minor exception but the 
central organizing principle of society, allocating social space not 
just to slaveholders and slaves but to the free black population [42] 
and the non-slaveholding white majority as well. Inequality was not a 
necessary evil to be tolerated only in the instance of uncivilized 
Negroes, nor was its necessity commonly derived from biological science. 
(In the South, the heyday of scientific racism—as of scientific 
sexism—came after, not during, slavery.) [43] Inequality was ordained by 
God, not by science, and was applicable not only to relations between 
slaveholders and slaves, but also to relations between men and women and 
between the planter elite and the non-slaveholding majority. Democracy 
and majority rule did not rank high in the aspirations of the planter 
class. [44] In fact, the organic intellectuals of the planter class (who 
rivalled Engels in well-aimed propaganda denouncing the suffering of 
workers under industrial capitalism) regretted that the white labouring 
poor of their own society could not be brought under the benevolent 
regime of slavery—called by tactful euphemisms like ‘warranteeism 
without the ethnical qualification’ and ‘slavery in the abstract’. It 
would not do, after all, to tell an armed and enfranchised white 
majority that they, too, would be better off as slaves. [45]
Race Today

The pro-slavery intellectuals’ reticence in stating that conclusion 
publicly and forthrightly goes far to explain why the United States to 
this day has failed to develop a thorough, consistent and honest 
political conservatism. The only historical ground that might have 
nourished such a tradition—namely, the slave society of the South—was 
contaminated by the need to humour the democratic aspirations of a 
propertied, enfranchised, and armed white majority. Few self-styled 
conservative politicians in the United States today dare argue on 
principle (at least in public) that hereditary inequality and 
subordination should be the lot of the majority. Instead, those prepared 
to defend inequality do so on the basis of a bastard free-market 
liberalism, with racial, ethnic or sexual determinism tacked on as an 
inconsistent afterthought.

Meanwhile, many well-intentioned believers in truth and justice succumb 
to biological determinism, the armour of the enemy, when they see around 
them the ugly signs that racism continues to thrive in our world. Weary 
of the struggle, they throw up their hands and declare that racism, if 
not genetically programmed, is nonetheless an idea so old and entrenched 
that it has ‘taken on a life of its own’. They thereby come much closer 
than they realize to the views of those they ostensibly oppose. Although 
it is now frowned upon to attribute biological disability to those 
designated to be a race, it is eminently fashionable to attribute 
biological disability—or its functional equivalent—to those demonstrated 
to be racists. Either way, Africans and their descendants become a 
special category set apart by biology: in the one instance their own, in 
the other that of their persecutors.

But race is neither biology nor an idea absorbed into biology by 
Lamarckian inheritance. It is ideology, and ideologies do not have lives 
of their own. Nor can they be handed down or inherited: a doctrine can 
be, or a name, or a piece of property, but not an ideology. If race 
lives on today, it does not live on because we have inherited it from 
our forebears of the seventeenth century or the eighteenth or 
nineteenth, but because we continue to create it today. David Brion 
Davis had the courage and honesty to argue the disturbing thesis that, 
during the era of the American Revolution, those who opposed slavery 
were complicit with those who favoured it in settling on race as its 
explanation. We must be courageous and honest enough to admit something 
similar about our own time and our own actions.

Those who create and re-create race today are not just the mob that 
killed a young Afro-American man on a street in Brooklyn or the people 
who join the Klan and the White Order. They are also those academic 
writers whose invocation of self propelling ‘attitudes’ and tragic flaws 
assigns Africans and their descendants to a special category, placing 
them in a world exclusively theirs and outside history—a form of 
intellectual apartheid no less ugly or oppressive, despite its righteous 
(not to say self-righteous) trappings, than that practised by the bioand 
theo-racists; and for which the victims, like slaves of old, are 
expected to be grateful. They are the academic ‘liberals’ and 
‘progressives’ in whose version of race the neutral shibboleths 
difference and diversity replace words like slavery, injustice, 
oppression and exploitation, diverting attention from the 
anything-but-neutral history these words denote. They are also the 
Supreme Court and spokesmen for affirmative action, unable to promote or 
even define justice except by enhancing the authority and prestige of 
race; which they will continue to do forever so long as the most radical 
goal of the political opposition remains the reallocation of 
unemployment, poverty and injustice rather than their abolition.

The creators and re-creators of race include as well a young woman who 
chuckled appreciatively when her four-year-old boy, upon being asked 
whether a young friend whose exploit he was recounting was black, 
answered: ‘No; he’s brown.’ The young woman’s benevolent laughter was 
for the innocence of youth, too soon corrupted. But for all its 
benevolence, her laughter hastened the corruption whose inevitability 
she laments, for it taught the little boy that his empirical description 
was cute but inappropriate. It enacted for him, in a way that 
hand-me-down stereotypes never could, the truth that physical 
description follows race, not the other way around. Of just such small, 
innocuous and constantly repeated rituals, often undertaken with the 
best of motives, is race reborn every day. Evil may result as well from 
good as from ill intentions. That is the fallibility and tragedy of 
human history—or, to use a different vocabulary, its dialectic.

Nothing handed down from the past could keep race alive if we did not 
constantly reinvent and re-ritualize it to fit our own terrain. If race 
lives on today, it can do so only because we continue to create and 
re-create it in our social life, continue to verify it, and thus 
continue to need a social vocabulary that will allow us to make sense, 
not of what our ancestors did then, but of what we ourselves choose to 
do now. [*]

© Barbara Jeanne Fields


[1] Richard Coven, ‘The Greek’s Offense’, Washington Post National 
Weekly Edition, 25–31 January 1988.

[2] For example, see Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man, New York 
1981; Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose and Leon Kamin, Not in Our Genes, 
New York 1984.

[3] Cohen is by no means alone. An nbc network broadcast during the 
spring of 1989, anchored by the gullible Tom Brokaw and vigorously 
defended by one of its producers in the columns of the New York Times, 
similarly affirmed the essence of Jimmy the Greek’s instinctive 
prejudice. The broadcast featured an Israeli doctor who, by measuring 
muscular movements of world-class athletes, claimed to identify typical 
‘racial’ characteristics. No one asked whether ordinary people use their 
muscles the same way world-class athletes do; that is, whether his 
experiment proved something about typical racial characteristics or 
something about exceptional athletes. Nor did anyone ask whether 
athletes classed as black are more likely than those classed as white to 
have learned their moves from coaches and fellow athletes also classed 
as black; that is, whether the experiment dealt with race or training. 
Needless to add, no one ventured to ask the most embarrassing question 
of all, the one that stumped the scientific racists of the late 
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: how to assign the subjects of 
the experiments to one ‘race’ or the other without assuming the very 
racial distinction the experiment is supposed to prove? Try as they 
would, the scientific racists of the past failed to discover any 
objective criterion upon which to classify people; to their chagrin, 
every criterion they tried varied more within so-called races than 
between them. It is likely that Brokaw’s neo-racist would find the same 
true of muscular movements had he the honesty and intelligence to pose 
the question.

[4] St. Francis College, et al. v. Majid Ghaidan Al-Khazraji, and Shaare 
Tefila Congregation v. John William Cobb et al., 18 May 1987.

[5] That is not, of course, to deny the well-justified annoyance of 
Japanese-, Chinese-, Korean-, Vietnamese- and Indian-Americans at being 
classed together as Asian-Americans or, still more inaccurately, as 
simply Asians. Nor is it to overlook the nonsense that flourishes 
luxuriantly around the attempt to set terms of language and geography 
alongside the term that supposedly represents biological race. 
Survey-researchers for the United States government often ask 
‘Hispanics’ whether they wish to be considered ‘white’ or ‘black’. The 
resulting classifications can divide members of a single family. As 
often as not, the report of the results proceeds to distinguish 
Hispanics from blacks and whites. Moreover, the government regards 
Portuguese-speaking Brazilians as ‘Hispanic’ and requires that they so 
identify themselves when applying for a social security number, as the 
Brazilian novelist Jorge Amado discovered during a recent visit.

[6] New York Times, 10 March 1988, A26.

[7] John Anthony Scott, ‘Segregation: A Fundamental Aspect of Southern 
Race Relations, 1800–1860’, Journal of the Early Republic 4, Winter 
1984, p. 425. Scott did not originate this preposterous assertion. 
Nevertheless, he endorses it enthusiastically.

[8] Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of 
Colonial Virginia, New York 1975, ch. 1; Leonard P. Liggio, ‘English 
Origins of Early American Racism’, Radical History Review 3, 1976.

[9] See Peter Kolchin, Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian 
Serfdom, Cambridge, Mass. 1987, pp. 170–91.

[10] Winthrop D. Jordan, Leon F. Litwack et al., The United States, 
combined edition, 5th edition, Englewood Cliffs, N.J. 1982, p. 144.

[11] A well-known historian once illustrated this fact for me in the 
very act of denying it. Challenging me for having made a statement to 
the same effect in an earlier essay (Barbara J. Fields, ‘Ideology and 
Race in American History’, in Region, Race, and Reconstruction: Essays 
in Honor of C. Vann Woodward, ed. J. Morgan Kousser and James M. 
McPherson, New York 1982), he declared: ‘Someone could accept the 
evidence that there is a racial disparity in iq and still believe in 
integration.’ Well-intentioned, but trapped in racial ideology, he 
cannot bring himself to question the scientific status of race itself, 
let alone iq. Nor, although an accomplished user of statistical methods, 
can he perceive the fallacy of statistical studies claiming to have 
eliminated the social determinants of intelligence and isolated the 
genetic ones, while perforce using social criteria—there are no 
others—to assign subjects to their proper ‘race’ in the first place.

[12] Inseparable from this conviction is the reification of race that 
impels many scholars to adopt and impose on others, as a pious duty, the 
meaningless task of deciding whether race is more or less ‘basic’ to 
historical explanation than other—and similarly reified—categories; a 
waste of time to which I drew attention in ‘Ideology and Race in 
American History’, p. 158. Someone might as well undertake to decide in 
the abstract whether the numerator or the denominator is more important 
to understanding a fraction, instead of settling down to the more 
sensible task of trying to define and specify each one, recognizing 
their difference as well as their relationship and their joint 
indispensability to the result. A recent example is David Roediger, 
‘“Labor in White Skin”: Race and Working-Class History’, in Reshaping 
the US Left: Popular Struggles in the 1980s, ed. Mike Davis and Michael 
Sprinker, Verso, London 1988, pp. 287–308. Roediger apparently believes 
that distinguishing analytically between race and class necessarily 
implies ‘privileging’ one over the other (to use his slang). And, in 
defending the identification of racism as a ‘tragic flaw’ that helps to 
explain American history, rather than as part of the history that needs 
explaining, he confuses a rhetorical device with a historical explanation.

[13] Alden T. Vaughan, ‘The Origins Debate: Slavery and Racism in 
Seventeenth-Century Virginia’, Virginia Magazine of History and 
Biography 97, July 1989, is a good example of the use as explanation of 
the very facts needing to be explained. The argument ends in explicit 
tautology: ‘It may be more useful to see Anglo-American racism as a 
necessary precondition for a system of slavery based on ancestry and 
pigmentation.’ That is, Anglo-American racism is a necessary 
precondition for Anglo-American racism. The argument ends as well in 
unseemly agnosticism about the possibility of rational explanation: 
‘[R]acism was one cause of a particular type of slavery, though it may 
be better to avoid the term cause, for causation is itself a shaky 
concept in complex situations.’ The quoted sentences appear on p. 353.

[14] George Fredrickson has attempted to retread the old tyre once again 
in ‘Race, Class and Consciousness’, the introduction to his collection 
The Arrogance of Race: Historical Perspectives on Slavery, Racism, and 
Social Inequality, Middletown, Conn. 1988. See also Winthrop D. Jordan, 
White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550–1812, Chapel 
Hill, N.C. 1968.

[15] In elegant fashion, David Brion Davis has located the moment when 
racial ideology came into its own in the United States precisely in the 
era of the American Revolution, and has had the courage to admit that 
anti-slavery publicists and agitators were complicit with their 
pro-slavery counterparts in establishing race as the frame of the 
discussion. See The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 
1770–1823, Ithaca, N.Y. 1975, esp. chs. 4, 6, and 7.

[16] Edmund S. Morgan estimates that Virginia’s black population 
numbered fewer than 500 in 1645 and fewer than 2,000 in 1660. American 
Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, New York 
1975, p. 298.

[17] Ibid., p. 129.

[18] Ibid., pp. 114–30.

[19] For illustration, see Rodney Hilton, Bond Men Made Free: Medieval 
Peasant Movements and the English Rising of 1381, London 1977; Thomas A. 
Green, Verdict According to Conscience: Perspectives on the English 
Criminal Trial Jury, 1200–1800, Chicago 1985; and C.S.L. Davies, 
‘Slavery and Protector Somerset: The Vagrancy Act of 1547’, Economic 
History Review, 2nd ser., 19 December 1966.

[20] Morgan, p. 159.

[21] Men outnumbered women more than five to one in 1624. Morgan, p. 111.

[22] Willie Lee Rose, ed., A Documentary History of Slavery in North 
America, New York 1976, pp. 16–18; Morgan, pp. 154–57.

[23] Morgan, pp. 197–98.

[24] Morgan, pp. 297, 215–49, 404; Allan Kulikoff, Tobacco and Slaves: 
The Development of Southern Cultures in the Chesapeake, 1680–1800, 
Chapel Hill, N.C. 1986, ch. 1.

[25] Morgan, pp. 250–70.

[26] Slaves imported into Virginia came first from the West Indies and 
then, beginning in the 1680s, increasingly from Africa. By the first 
decade of the eighteenth century, three-quarters of black people in 
Virginia were of African origin. Ira Berlin, ‘Time, Space, and the 
Evolution of Afro-American Society on British Mainland North America’, 
American Historical Review 85, February 1980, p. 71.

[27] See Fields, ‘Ideology and Race in American History’, pp. 143–77.

[28] Jerome Blum, Our Forgotten Past: Seven Centuries of Life on the 
Land, London 1982, pp. 34–36.

[29] Kolchin, Unfree Labor, p. 170.

[30] In explaining why slaveholders in the American South developed a 
more thorough and elaborate pro-slavery ideology than Russian lords of 
serfs, Kolchin comes to the brink of this conclusion, only to back away 
from it into tautology. He argues that the presence of a ‘racial’ 
distinction between owner and slave that did not exist between lord and 
serf ‘partly’ accounts for the difference. But, as he quickly concedes, 
owners of African-descended slaves elsewhere in the Americas did not 
develop a thorough or consistent pro-slavery argument either. The racial 
distinction did not ‘exist’ in either the American South or Russia, but 
was invented in one and not the other. The ‘racial’ distinction between 
Southern owners and their slaves does not explain anything, but is 
itself part of what needs to be explained.

[31] ‘An Act Concerning Negroes & amp; other Slaues’, in Willie Lee 
Rose, ed., A Documentary History of Slavery in North America, New York 
1976, p. 24.

[32] A law enacted in colonial Virginia illustrates the pitfall of 
anachronism awaiting historians who handle such material ahistorically. 
An entry under ‘Negroes’ in the index to a compilation of Virginia’s 
laws refers readers to a provision against Negroes ‘Lifting hand against 
a white man’, and that is how Ira Berlin characterizes the law. (Slaves 
Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South, New York 1974, 
p. 8.) But the index was prepared for a compilation published in 1823. 
The law itself, enacted in 1680, provides a penalty for ‘any negroe or 
other slave [who] shall presume to lift up his hand in opposition 
against any christian.’ William Waller Hening, The Statutes at Large; 
Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, From the First Session 
of the Legislature, in the Year 1619, vol. 2, New York 1823, pp. 481, 602.

[33] Ulrich B. Phillips, ‘The Origin and Growth of the Southern Black 
Belts’, in Phillips, The Slave Economy of the Old South: Selected Essays 
in Economic and Social History, ed. Eugene D. Genovese, Baton Rouge, La. 
1968.

[34] My discussion of the white non-slaveholders rests largely on the 
important work of Steven Hahn, including The Roots of Southern Populism: 
Yeoman Farmers and the Transformation of the Georgia Upcountry, 
1850–1890, New York 1983, esp. part 1; ‘Common Right and Commonwealth: 
The Stock-Law Struggle and the Roots of Southern Populism’, in Region, 
Race, and Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of C. Vann Woodward, ed. J. 
Morgan Kousser and James M. McPherson, New York 1982; and ‘Hunting, 
Fishing, and Foraging: Common Rights and Class Relations in the 
Postbellum South’, Radical History Review 26, 1982. Also see Orville 
Vernon Burton and Robert C. McMath, eds., Class, Conflict, and 
Consensus: Antebellum Southern Community Studies, Westport, Conn. 1981, 
and Michael P. Johnson, Toward a Patriarchal Republic: The Secession of 
Georgia, Baton Rouge, La. 1977. J. Mills Thornton iii, Politics and 
Power in a Slave Society: Alabama, 1800–1860, Baton Rouge, La. 1978, and 
Lacy K. Ford, Jr., Origins of Southern Radicalism: The South Carolina 
Upcountry, 1800–1860, New York 1988, offer interpretations of the white 
yeomanry differing from Hahn’s, but much of their evidence tends rather 
to sustain it.

[35] The slaves’ religion arose in the same way. In an astute and 
eloquent passage, Donald G. Mathews diagnoses the error of supposing 
that the slaves should or could have had a ‘correct’ version of 
Christianity transmitted to them by an outside agency. To argue that 
way, Mathews correctly insists, presupposes that the slave could ‘slough 
off his enslavement, ancestry, traditional ways of viewing the world, 
and sense of selfhood in order to think the oppressor’s thoughts after 
him. . . .The description of action in which the slave is expected to 
remain passive while receiving a discrete body of ideas and attitudes 
which exist apart from social and cultural conditions reveals one of the 
most mischievous and flawed assumptions which scholars make.’ Religion 
in the Old South, Chicago 1967, p. 187.

[36] Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The Word the Slaves Made, New York 
1974, p. 16.

[37] Some people imagine that ideology can indeed be handed down in the 
form of law. If that were so, then the law could do without courts, 
lawyers, judges, and juries.

[38] Eugene D. Genovese, From Rebellion to Revolution: Afro-American 
Slave Revolts in the Making of the Modern World, Baton Rouge, La. 1979; 
C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins, 2nd ed., rev., New York 1963; Willie 
Lee Rose, ‘The Impact of the American Revolution on the Black 
Population’, in Rose, Slavery and Freedom, ed. William W. Freehling, New 
York 1982.

[39] Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, New York 1969 (orig. 
ed. 1855), p. 90.

[40] Sargint Wm. White et al. to Dear President, 3 July 1866, document 
333, and Capt. G.E. Stanford et al. to Mr. President and the Ceterry of 
War, 30 May 1866, document 341, in Ira Berlin, Joseph P. Reidy, and 
Leslie S. Rowland, Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 
1861–1867, ser. 2, The Black Military Experience, Cambridge, 1982, pp. 
764, 780.

[41] Ralph Waldo Emerson is an excellent illustration of how such racial 
ideology could become chillingly systematic and loathsome racial 
doctrine in the hands of a first-rate Northern intellectual. Lewis P. 
Simpson perceptively and relentlessly probes Emerson’s bigoted views 
about Afro-Americans (and, for that matter, his bigoted views about 
white Southerners) in Mind and the American Civil War: A Meditation on 
Lost Causes, Baton Rouge, La. 1989, esp. pp. 52–57, 65–69, 72–73.

[42] During the 1850s, the state of Georgia levied a property tax of 
$0.39 on each slave but a poll tax of $5.00 on each free black person. 
(For white people, the poll tax was $0.25 and applied to men only.) 
Annual road duty was required of slavemen and white men aged sixteen to 
forty-five, but of free black men and women aged fifteen to sixty. 
(Peter Wallenstein, From Slave to New South: Public Policy in 
Nineteenth-Century Georgia, Chapel Hill, N.C. 1987, pp. 41, 93.) In July 
1981, a white citizen of Lynchburg, Virginia, complained to Jefferson 
Davis, the President of the Confederacy, about the ‘large number of Free 
Negroes in this City,’ branding them at once a ‘degraded and worse than 
useless race’ and a ‘class who. . .is more than useless’. (John Lenaham 
to Hon. Jeff. Davis, 15 July 1861, document 299, in Ira Berlin, Barbara 
J. Fields, Thavolia Glymph, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie S. Rowland, 
Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861–1867, series 1, 
volume 1, The Destruction of Slavery, Cambridge 1985, p. 760.) In the 
eyes of that Virginian and of state and county law in Georgia, slaves 
and free people of African descent were not the same ‘race’ and neither 
biology nor ancestry nor prejudice of colour had anything to do with it. 
By word and deed, white citizens in slave society proved that they, 
unlike many scholars, were not fooled by the language of race into 
mistaking its substance.

[43] Josiah C. Nott provoked a hostile reaction from other pro-slavery 
Southerners when he expounded a scientific theory of racism that seemed 
to contradict scripture. See Drew Gilpin Faust, The Ideology of Slavery: 
Proslavery Thought in the Antebellum South, 1830–1860, Baton Rouge, La. 
1981, pp. 206–38; Gould, The Mismeasure of man, pp. 69– 72. On the 
nature of white Southerners’ arguments for women’s subordination during 
and after slavery, see Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, ‘The Conservatism of 
Slaveholding Women: A Comparative Perspective’, Porter L. Fortune 
Chancellor’s Symposium on Southern History, University of Mississippi, 
11–13 October 1989.

[44] For example, John C. Calhoun’s doctrine of the ‘concurrent 
majority’ was explicitly designed to frustrate the will of an 
anti-slavery majority, should one ever gain control of the United States 
government, by guaranteeing the slaveholding minority a veto no matter 
how large the numerical majority arrayed against it. See Calhoun’s ‘A 
Disquisition on Government’, ed. Richard K. Crallé, in The Works of John 
C. Calhoun, vol. 1, New York 1968. Many historians, following the lead 
of George Fredrickson, characterize the slave South as a ‘herrenvolk 
democracy’. It is a specious concept that fails to take account of the 
ways in which slavery curtailed the political rights of the 
non-slaveholding white majority, the supposed herrenvolk. An obvious 
example is the overrepresentation of slaveholders secured by the 
three-fifths provision of the United States Constitution (replicated in 
the constitution of the Confederacy). Another example is the requirement 
for the posting of bond—ranging from $1000 to $500,000—that replaced 
property qualifications for county officers in the plantation districts, 
ensuring that humble citizens could hold office only under the patronage 
of their betters. See Steven Hahn, ‘Capitalists All!’, review of James 
Oakes, The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders, in Reviews 
in American History 11, June 1983.

[45] Eugene D. Genovese developed this argument long ago in his essay 
about George Fitzhugh, ‘The Logical Outcome of the Slaveholders’ 
Philosophy’, in Genovese, The World the Slaveholders Made: Two Essays in 
Interpretation, New York 1969. A number of historians at first dismissed 
the argument on the grounds that Fitzhugh was a one-of-a-kind 
aberration—a charge occasionally repeated even today; for example, 
George C. Rable, Civil Wars: Women and the Crisis of Southern 
Nationalism, Urbana, Ill. 1989, p. 291n. Subsequent work has 
demonstrated that, although Fitzhugh was indeed one of a kind in some 
respects, he was no aberration in considering slave society morally 
superior to capitalist society (‘free trade’ in his terminology) 
regardless of the slaves’ nationality or descent. See Drew Gilpin Faust, 
‘The Peculiar South Revisited: White Society, Culture, and Politics in 
the Antebellum Period, 1800–1860’, in Interpreting Southern History: 
Historiographical Essays in Honor of Sanford W. Higginbotham, ed. John 
B. Boles and Evelyn Thomas Nolen, Baton Rouge, La. 1987, esp. pp. 
102–105; Simpson, Mind and the American Civil War, pp. 30–32.

[*] The author wishes to acknowledge the helpful comments of David Brion 
Davis on an earlier version of this essay. She has benefited from 
discussions with Karen E. Fields, Leslie S. Rowland, Julie Saville, and 
Michael R. West, and from the spirited reaction of audiences who heard 
the paper in Brazil in the Universidade Federal de Ouro Preto in 
Mariana, the Universidade Federal de São Paulo, and the Universidade 
Federal Fluminense in Niterói; and in the United States at the 
University of California, San Diego; The University of North Carolina at 
Chapel Hill; the University of Mississipi in Oxford; and Columbia 
University in New York City.

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