Slavery and the origins of racism
International Socialist Review

Selfa, Lance

Publisher:  International Socialist Review
Year Published:  2002  
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX12661

Racism is not part of some unchanging human nature. It was literally invented.

Published in Issue 26, November-December 2002 of International Socialist Review.


These fragments of Marx's writing give us a good start in understanding the Marxist explanation of the origins of racism. As the Trinidadian historian of slavery Eric Williams put it: "Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery."

Between the 10th and 16th centuries, the chief source of slaves in Western Europe was Eastern Europe. In fact, the word "slave" comes from the word "Slav," the people of Eastern Europe. In the Middle Ages, most people sold into slavery in Europe came from Eastern Europe, the Slavic countries. In Eastern Europe, Russia stood out as the major area where slaveholders and slaves were of the same ethnicity. Of course, by modern-day racial descriptions the Slavs and Russian slaves were white.

Notwithstanding the horrible conditions African slaves endured, it is important to underscore that when European powers began carving up the New World between them, African slaves were not part of their calculations. When we think of slavery today, we think of it primarily from the point of view of its relationship to racism. But planters in the 17th and 18th centuries looked at it primarily as a means to produce profits for them. Slavery was a method of organizing labor to produce sugar, tobacco, and cotton. It was not, first and foremost, a system for producing white supremacy. How did slavery in the U.S. (and the rest of the New World) become the breeding ground for racism?

For much of the first century of colonization in what became the United States, the majority of slaves and other "unfree laborers" were white. The term "unfree" draws the distinction between slavery and servitude and "free wage labor" that is the norm in capitalism.

For most of the 1600s, the planters tried to get by with a predominantly white, but multiracial workforce. But as the 17th century wore on, colonial leaders became increasingly frustrated with white servant labor. For one thing, they faced the problem of constantly having to recruit labor as servants' terms expired. Second, after servants finished their contracts and decided to set up their farms, they could become competitors to their former masters. And finally, the planters didn't like the servants' "insolence."

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 character:

The planters' economic calculations played a part in the colonies' decision to move towards full-scale slave labor. By the end of the 17th century, the price of white indentured servants outstripped the price of African slaves. A planter could buy an African slave for life for the same price that he could purchase a white servant for ten years. As Eric Williams explained:

Here, then, is the origin of Negro slavery. The reason was economic, not racial; it had to do not with the color of the laborer, but the cheapness of the labor.Ö[The planter] would have gone to the moon, if necessary, for labor. Africa was nearer than the moon, nearer too than the more populous countries of India and China. But their turn would soon come.

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