Today? Which comes first?
Specifically . . . in the United States – did the institution of slavery cause racism or did European racism create American slavery?
Fritz Fischer had us look at a few of the earliest laws of Virginia (1660-1669) establishing the concept of slavery with the guiding question:
What can we learn about slavery and Virginia society by looking just at these primary sources?
Much of the discussion centered around the idea that the laws were passed to codify existing behavior. It was a nice way to introduce the topic and provide some context to the period. Fritz then asked us to look at the documents again and develop a new set of observations based on our deeper understanding of the period.
He then dropped the big one.
Do these laws support the idea of racism creating the American institution of slavery or did the creation of slavery help establish racism?
Most of the group seemed to agree with Degler and Jordan who suggest that racism came first. If we define racism (in very simple terms) as someone who not only notices racial differences but acts in a position of power in response to those differences, I find it hard to accept the alternative.
Laws were written in Virginia that differentated between African servants and English servants, for example. What was the basis for differentiating? Race.
But so what?
For me, the “so what” relates to today. If slavery comes first, an argument can be made that because slavery has been abolished, racism should disappear. It lets us off the hook. If racism came first, getting rid of slavery doesn’t necessarily solve the problem. We still have work to do.
That’s the message we need to be sharing with our students!
Challenging topic. What are you thinking?
(We had further conversations concerning slave owners of the period. Were they bad or good? Was Thomas Jefferson a “bad” person because he owned slaves, for example?
But that’s for another day. My head hurts from thinking too much right now!)