When white supremacy came to Virginia

Members of white nationalists march in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts - RTS1BIBT

The racist violence in Charlottesville is an appalling chapter in the very long history of white supremacy in America. Watching marchers with torches and Confederate flags near the site of Thomas Jefferson’s university, I was reminded of Edmund Morgan’s classic history of the origins of black slavery in colonial Virginia. Morgan demonstrates how the seeds of modern racism were planted in the American colonies; that history provides valuable lessons if we are ever to confront white supremacy as it exists today.

In the early 17th Century, would-be plantation owners in Virginia were facing a problem: to be profitable, tobacco farming required a lot of extremely unpleasant labor. Clearly these tasks were not to be undertaken by the plantation owners themselves; that would really undermine the appeal of plantation ownership. But, unlike England, Virginia did not have a class of already-poor people desperate for any work that would provide subsistence. So who would do the work?

At first, Virginia plantation owners filled their labor shortage by relying heavily on white indentured servants. Given the very high mortality rates in Virginia, purchasing indentured servants was more cost-effective, since slaves and servants often died within a few years of their arrival. Thus it was only in the second half of the 1600s that, “as life expectancy rose, the slave became a better buy than the servant.”

As a result, the working population in late-17th Century Virginia was quite diverse, including white indentured servants, black and Native American slaves, and free whites who had completed their term of service. Outnumbered, plantation owners grew increasingly fearful of threats to their political control. In particular, there was the danger of a cooperative insurrection across racial lines.

The solution was to divide and conquer. Through new laws passed by the Virginia assembly, plantation owners consciously encouraged racial hatred between blacks and poor whites. First, the distinction between freedom and enslavement was specified in explicitly racial, rather than religious, terms. The Virginia assembly established in 1667 that converting to Christianity did not change the condition of blacks and Native Americans in bondage. Previously, some black and native people who could prove that they had been baptized had successfully sued for freedom. Second, the assembly created social distinctions between white servants and black slaves. In 1680, the Virginia assembly passed new legislation preventing “any negroe or other slave” from raising a hand to any white person, a measure that put servants on a par with their masters in their impunity for abuse of enslaved people, and stripped enslaved people of any right of self-defense. In 1691, laws punishing intermarriage between whites and blacks were put in place. Finally, in 1705, the assembly decided that, while white servants could own property, all property owned by slaves was to be seized and sold, with profits “applied to the use of the [white] poor.” Thus the white poor materially benefited from additional oppressions put upon black slaves.

In this way, the legal construction of racism helped diffuse the threat of insurrection. Poor white people would now see themselves as allied with those far wealthier than themselves, and would define themselves by race rather than by class.

The paradoxical result, Morgan argues, is that republican ideas—the kind that would be so beautifully espoused by Thomas Jefferson—found fertile soil in Virginia, not in spite of slavery, but in part because of it. “Aristocrats could more safely preach equality in a slave society than in a free one,” Morgan concludes. “[B]ecause Virginia’s labor force was composed mainly of slaves, who had been isolated by race and removed from the political equation, the remaining free laborers and tenant farmers were too few in number to constitute a serious threat” to the political elite.

Thus the origins of white supremacy in Virginia reveal just how much the events in Charlottesville were a home-grown phenomenon. But how racism came to be codified in the United States is a history worthy of close examination, because it is a history that tells us something important about the contemporary moment of racial reaction. Racism is not just a psychological proclivity, but a tool of the elite, a deliberate system of legal, political and economic control. As intimidating as this truth is, it is also, in some sense, empowering. Because our history makes clear that systemic racism as it developed in the United States was not an inevitability, it was a series of intentional choices. If the framework for white supremacy was deliberately built in this country, it can also be deliberately dismantled.