When Eric Williams said that racism was a consequence and not a predecessor of slavery, he started a debate on these subjects: Racism and Slavery, and their antecedents. There are plenty of evidences offered by proponents of both the sides of the question whether racism preceded slavery or vice versa.
Racism has its origins in the very beginning of the human society as there has always been prejudice, fear and hatred towards people who are different in their colour or place of origin.
Ruth Benedict was one of the first scholars to define racism in her book Race and Racism thus: “the dogma that one ethnic group is condemned by nature to congenital inferiority and another group is destined to congenital superiority”. Racism is only one of the contributing factors for justifying slavery.
Racial prejudice of the dark skinned Africans by the white skinned Europeans was one of the major causes of the transatlantic slave trade. This trade was further reinforced by the racist ideology that considered the superiority of whites over the blacks. According to the UNESCO, the slaves were considered as property that was moveable and had no rights of possession or contract. The world body reiterates the view that racism was used for legitimising the slave trade and all its horrifying practices.
Race relations in Brazil and the United States indicate that prejudice caused by colour differences was universal and the domination and discrimination of the blacks by the non-blacks can be seen wherever and whenever the non-blacks have the power and incentive to show it. Hence racial prejudice led to enslavement.
The roots of racism cannot be imputed to the immoral concepts or human nature. In fact the concept of racism can be traced to the rise of capitalism, and the slave trade. In the ancient Roman and Greek civilisations where racism and oppression of a racist nature did not exist, slavery did exist and the slavery was justified by even thinkers and philosophers such as Aristotle who said that slavery was both pragmatic and suitable for those in bondage. Slavery not only originated in ancient countries such as Greece and Rome, it was first institutionalised by Greece and later spread to other civilizations. When slaves were freed, they then mixed with the general population and enjoyed rights as any of the other citizens. In fact, slaves in Greece were deemed as barbarians and could belong to any race. The ancient Greeks and Romans knew nothing about race. They had another standard – civilized and barbarian – and you could have white skin and be a barbarian, and you could be black and civilized.
During the 17th century, there was a great inflow of poor white people from Europe who came to America to work as indentured servants: there was not only a great rise in the population of Europe, there was also a move to relocate people who were considered to be undesirable in their own country such as vagabonds, convicts, dissenters, poor or prisoners of war. However, they were not enslaved even in the Deep Southern states where slavery was defended vociferously. In fact, it would have been cheaper to have enslaved these Europeans than to spend money to buy and transport black slaves from Africa. In fact, the deportation of such people into slavery in the Americas would have reduced the social and political upheavals that took place during that era. These arguments clearly demonstrate that there was no intention of enslaving white people even if they were found to be society misfits and worked for measly sums: Their freedom or that of their children was never questioned. Destitute white people were indentured as servants but not brought into slavery.
However, in the USA, the main thrust of slavery is generally agreed to be money and not racism as such. Slavery developed for over four centuries into a major industry especially in the US that, in the 18th century, drove and powered the world economy. Owners of large properties in the colonial era only wanted profit and would have enslaved anybody to increase their revenue, irrespective of their origin or colour. This fact is seen from the cruelly treated indentured servants they had during those times from Europe or even from their own country. Some slave owners even tried to justify the enslavement of black people by quoting the Bible.
The Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676 served to change the basis of slavery from one founded on economic standing to one based on the colour of the skin. This is because of the divide and rule policy of the owners who wished to subdue the rebellion by isolating the poor whites from the Africans thus preventing the united strength of the two labour forces. If it is a given that the main function of racism is to deny some people equal access to resources, then it is apt to intensify radically when the authority instituted by slavery is disputed, as happened in the United States when slavery was abolished.
The struggle against and later the abolition of slavery did not lead to a race-free social order. In fact, the development of a different type of racialization has come into being, one, that is not categorised by the economic or hierarchical position of the person. This is because the non-slave people still retained some of the racialist tendencies. Race-free societies developed only in places where the slave population was much more in numbers and power than the local non-slave population.
Slavery of the black people was a direct result of the class and race consciousness of the planters and slavers and not the materialistic advantage that selling and buying the slaves would accrue to them. And once the black skin ancestry was linked to slavery, racism took on a power of its own and continued unabated even when slavery came to an end.
From all these arguments and counter-arguments, we can state it is not clear whether racism is the result of slavery or vice versa. The available evidence points one to the conclusion that is in fact a combination of both elements and the time and place of origin does not really matter. As is well known, slavery is legally not allowed anymore in almost all the countries around the world. However, there seems to be no end to the prejudicial views of people regarding the societal superiority or inferiority of people according to the colour of their skin or place of origin.
Winning Entry 3- Written and submitted by Adeyinka Eze