Could understanding how white people first became indoctrinated into white supremacy help us un-indoctrinate ourselves now? After finishing Ibram Kendi’s smart, accessible, and much-needed recent book How To Be an Antiracist, with its emphasis on actively resisting racist policies, decisions, and other manifestations of white supremacy, I keep going back to when it all began. For guidance, I look to Kendi’s earlier book Stamped from the Beginning as well as the recent attention to the year 1619, when enslaved Africans arrived in colonial Virginia (see The 1619 Project, created by Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times). (Find my Part 1 blog post on this project here.) As I highlight here, we might see this indoctrination several centuries ago in two phases, the first by an elite fueled by their own self-interest and the second by the masses, pressured by the elite.
In Stamped from the Beginning, Kendi makes it clear that when we look at history globally, we see that enslaved people initially encompassed a variety of skin colors and that slavery existed before the creation of what he calls “racist ideas.” How did we go from this period of slavery without racist ideas, if you will, to centuries later in August 1619 with colonial Virginia’s arrival of “more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists,” as the cover of the August 18, 2019 New York Times Magazine explicitly states? Furthermore, how did we go from August 1619 to 1705, when colonial Virginia passed the “slave codes” that identified enslaved black people as “real estate” at the same time as it provided a list of benefits to European servants who occupied the newly-created racial category of “white”?
These are questions I’ve been thinking about for years and that my book, Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox (Routledge, 2018), attempted to consider. In retrospect, though, I think I did not give enough attention to the impact that “racist ideas,” again using Kendi’s words, had already had on the minds of colonial Virginia elite by 1619. Kendi helps us recognize that the early propagators of antiblackness tended to be the elite, first in Europe and then in colonial America: intellectuals, politicians, royalty, clergy, and major landowners. It served their interests to believe in black inferiority because that was a convenient rationale for slavery, which in turn allowed them to carry out their imperial, colonial, missionary, and capitalist ventures, which in turn led to increased power, wealth, and profit. “Racist ideas” were at first generally limited to the elite, not yet indoctrinating the minds of European servants.
How and why did this elite become indoctrinated into a racial ideology? Here are a few highlights, which also reveal the inter-connectedness of this elite:
- Kendi describes a commissioned biography of Portugal’s Prince Henry, completed in 1453 by Gomes Eanes de Zurara, as the beginning of “the recorded history of anti-Black racist ideas” (10). Kendi makes it clear that these “racist ideas” were created in order to rationalize Prince Henry’s slave trading of African people, which had become financially lucrative for Prince Henry. While Eastern Europe had earlier been a source of slaves, that became more challenging at the same time as Portugal began venturing further down the western coast of Africa. Even though Prince Henry’s motivations for slave-trading in Africa were driven by greed and a desire to grow his wealth, his biographer Zurara needed a more palatable justification, so, as Kendi describes, Zurara rationalized the slave trading of African people at the exclusion of anyone else as necessary for their “salvation” and “improvement” (12). Kendi therefore concludes that the “racist idea” of black inferiority was “a product of, not a producer of” Prince Henry’s slave-trading (10). It is essential to recognize this pattern of a “racist idea” being created in order to rationalize elite self-interest.
- About a century after Zurara’s text initiated an ideology of anti-blackness, a second text by Leo Africanus affirmed these “racist ideas” and depicts Africans as hypersexual and less than human (17).
- In 1600, an Englishman named John Pory translated this second text into English (21), less than a decade before England invades what is now Virginia and establishes the colony of Jamestown.
- In 1619, George Yeardley is governor of Jamestown and owner of 1,000 acres (26). John Pory is Yeardley’s cousin and in 1619, he arrives in Jamestown to work as his cousin’s secretary (26).
- Yeardley then organizes a foundational meeting of local elected politicians, which included the great-grandfather of Thomas Jefferson, and they elect Pory to be their speaker (26). In other words, as Kendi spells out, the English translator of one of two major texts spewing an antiblack ideology “became colonial America’s first legislative leader” (26).
- The very next month after this first meeting of what became the General Assembly, enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown, and Yeardley bought twenty enslaved Africans (26). The rationale of a racist ideology served the self-interest of the elite.
The elite were using a racial ideology to protect their self-interest and grow their profit at the same time as their racial ideology was not permeating the minds of European servants. After all, if European servants were fully indoctrinated into antiblackness, would there be so much evidence that European servants and enslaved Africans ran away together and engaged in relationships with each other? Would Bacon’s Rebellion have occurred, an interracial uprising by people who may not have focused on their difference in skin color as much as their common fight against the wealthy landowners?
Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676 was one major catalyst for the elite to carry out their racial ideology in full force against the European masses. As Kendi writes, “For Governor Berkeley’s wealthy White inner circle, poor Whites and enslaved Blacks joining hands presaged the apocalypse. . . . Rich planters learned from Bacon’s Rebellion that poor Whites had to be forever separated from enslaved Blacks. They divided and conquered by creating more White privileges” (41).
Likewise, as Mary Elliott and Jazmine Hughes of The 1619 Project put it: “In the wake of Bacon’s Rebellion, in which free and enslaved black people aligned themselves with poor white people and yeoman white farmers against the government, more stringent laws were enacted that defined status based on race and class. Black people in America were being enslaved for life, while the protections of whiteness were formalized.”
As I discuss in Dismantling the Racism Machine, the 1705 Virginia “slave codes” not only codified the status of enslaved black people as chattel, as property with no rights, but it also elevated the status of the newly-white servants and granted them specific benefits upon the conclusion of their period of indenture.
In dividing and conquering white servants and enslaved Africans, white servants had to be taught this racial ideology. They had to be indoctrinated into a belief system of white superiority and black inferiority. In other words, they had to be taught that whiteness was real, that whiteness was an inherent special quality that they naturally possessed. This is a lie, of course, and so whiteness itself is a lie. Moreover, it is a lie that taught white servants and other poor whites to accept their low status because at least they were white. This ideology is deeply intertwined with capitalism, a zero-sum game that depends on people believing that they need to fight each other for crumbs, while the elite amass far more than their share. Colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism are all interconnected systems of power that, not coincidentally, emerged at the same time as “racist ideas.”
I don’t believe that in 1619 American racialized slavery was a foregone conclusion, but by 1705 it most certainly was. The colonial elite of early Virginia made a choice to come here in the first place. That choice is not one of innocent “discovery” or “exploration.” It is a choice about greed and self-interest. They built their colonial elite power on a foundation of white supremacy and capitalism, something The 1619 Project makes especially clear. The servants who came to be seen as white also made a choice – they accepted that whiteness. They didn’t have to.
Today, 500 years later, we have another choice to make. Are white people in the US today going to continue to accept the lie of whiteness? The lie of white superiority? Or we going to disavow this lie? If we look back at the gradual indoctrination of the elite and then the masses into a racial ideology, we can see that the group with the least self-interest in this ideology was the group indoctrinated last, which is not a surprise, the masses. Ironically, today, it is often the poorest of whites who are blamed for the persistence of white supremacy when it was and continues to be an elite who creates and perpetuates this system for their own self-interest. Not only do poor whites today not have a self-interest in whiteness, but it is actually hurting them. In fact, Jonathan Metzl’s recent book Dying of Whiteness shows exactly how an ideology of white supremacy is killing white people today. Likewise, Kendi reiterated this point at his recent appearance at the Morristown Festival of Books. The last to be indoctrinated may have the most to gain from becoming un-indoctrinated today.
We need to recognize the lie of whiteness for what it is in order to begin to un-indoctrinate ourselves.
by Karen Gaffney