Re: [OPE-L] slavery, racism

From: Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@BERKELEY.EDU)
Date: Sun Nov 05 2006 - 21:30:10 EST

>"And is this from your own writing?"
>Andrew Austin replied:
>"Of course it's my own writing, Rakesh"
>In solidarity, Jerry

Wow. A hot exchange over one week. While many 
people complained about my interlocutor's 
debating tactics and even desired his expulsion, 
there was not one complaint lodged against me 
(except from Andrew who simply thought me blind 
to logical fallacy) even though most people 
probably did not agree with my narrow definition 
of racism. And I received several letters of 
thanks and interest in my minority position, 
though a medieval historian expressed agreement 
with my major criticism of David Brion Davis.

As you can see from the exchange, people twice 
attributed to me others' articles I was 
forwarding; I had to correct the mistake. Andrew 
attached to the bottom of an informal message an 
excerpt from a scholarly article, but there was 
no title to it. I had no idea what he had sent 
us. He later sent the whole article with title 
and name to the list.

I have no idea you would forward this most 
uninteresting post given the seriousness of the 
issues discussed, but you have a very good eye 
for the trivial, Jerry.

going from the last messages to some earlier 
ones. Many, many more points were raised.

Here then are some of my musings though long 
excerpts from others are included within.


In the Mendelian Revolution Peter Bowler  does 
say that "race" provided "a model for the 
subsequent development of hereditarian 
ideologies" (p.162); he points here to Lamarckian 
ideas as developed by Herbert Spencer. The idea 
here was that 'inferior races' had spent so much 
time in unchallenging environments that there was 
little chance that they would catch up to 
superior ones through the gradual process of 
transmitting of new culturally higher acquired 

As well known Galton's ideas were quite a bit different

Galton did not begin with the belief that that 
the inheritance of acquired characteristics was 
unlikely, but he wanted to explain why the 
acquiring of new positive characters was very 
likely for his relatives and very unlikely 
especially for Africans (and also the dangerous 
classes). From this he reasoned that something 
must be transmitted through, while independent 
of, the parents' bodies which that something puts 
variable limits on the acquiring of new 

With the Enlightenment attack on Christianity, 
there was skepticism that God's curses served as 
an explanation for permanent inferiority and 
cultural stagnation of some peoples. The 
Lamarkian explanation did not rule out the 
possibility of racial equality or progress 
towards it.  Centuries of racial slavery created 
more pessimism than the Lamarckian theory allowed 
(though it could be argued that it required more 
pessimism than allowed by the even the more 
conservative Mendelian heredity which over time 
can also yield changes in populations, hence the 
grand synthesis).

It was  in attempting to make a post theological 
explanation for heritable  inferiority that 
Galton became fascinated with his cousin Darwin's 
studies of animal breeding and proposed both the 
separation of germinal and somatic cells and the 
preformationist power of the germinal cells.

He conducted experiments on rabbits to show that 
acquired characteristics were not inherited as 
implied by his cousin Darwin's theory of 
pangenesis. But the experiments were 
inconclusive, and his own theory of multiple 
germinal cells was confused.

Science alone does not explain the emergence of a new theory of heredity.

Racism as well as its policy arm of eugenics is 
borne here, and racist sentiment motivated 
scientific advance in terms of making the 
distinction between germinal and somatic cells 
and regress in the form of both a renewed 
preformationism (it's all already given in the 
germinal) and the horrific postulation of  deep 
differences in the quality of the all powerful 
germinal cells  as distributed among classes and 

With great insensitivity Alan Sokal mocked 
charges of bias against Galton by including in 
his prank spurious proofs of the implicit racism 
in his statistical concepts.***

Centuries of slavery were not only the pivot for 
the divergence of the West from the East, 
retrospectively imagined to be the result of a 
millennium of Western cultural and political 
superiority; racial slavery was also the 
progenitor of genetic determinism, a most 
insidious and historically novel ideology which 
is outliving the old forms of racism.

   Galton's work would be most enthusiastically 
embraced in the United States  resulting in 
racially restrictive immigration laws and a 
hardening of anti black sentiment as shown by 
Desmond King in his book Making Americans.

Genetic determinism reinforces its hold on people 
today in the form of astonishing(ly overhyped) 
stories of commonalities of long separated twins 
and breathless announcements of a gene for this 
and that.

And The Bell Curve has enjoyed practical success 
in the halls of political power even if fell flat 
in sociology departments..

***Here is Sokal's joke which is on him if he is 
actually ignorant of just how destructive and 
pernicious Galton proved to be; at the least the 
joke is in very poor taste.

Francis Galton and the Reverend H.W. Watson wrote (1874):
The decay of the families of men who occupied 
conspicuous positions in past times has been a 
subject of frequent research, and has given rise 
to various conjectures ...The instances are very 
numerous in which surnames that were once common 
have since become scarce or have wholly 
disappeared. The tendency is universal, and, in 
explanation of it, the conclusion has hastily 
been drawn that a rise in physical comfort and 
intellectual capacity is necessarily accompanied 
by a diminution in `fertility' ... Let  be the 
respective probabilities that a man has 0,1,2,... 
sons of his own, and so on. What is the 
probability that the male line is extinct after r 
generations, and more generally what is the 
probability for any given number of descendants 
in the male line in any given generation?
One cannot fail to be charmed by the quaint 
implication that human males reproduce asexually; 
nevertheless, the classism, social-Darwinism and 
sexism in this passage are obvious.
At any rate, I think there is originality in my 
argument  that racism is by definition tied to a 
naturalistic conception of heredity via some 
postulated germinal essence  and that since such 
a conception of heredity was late in development 
as Matthew Cobb has brilliantly and vividly 
shown, so must have racism been late in 

But it also seems to me that the naturalistic 
conception of heredity is darkly implicit in the 
centuries of hereditary racial servitude, as I 
argued in my dissertation. That is, racial 
slavery provided a model of heredity, of some 
force expressing itself across generations 
perhaps as influential as the models  suggested 
by animal breeders or physicians studying 

The attempt to rationalize racial slavery and 
more importantly the subjugation of emancipated 
blacks must have created a crucially imporant 
intellectual context for the study of heredity

After all,  with enslaved Africans (putatively 
inferior) like  bred like for reasons 
mis-recognized as natural.

While bloodline was still a vague, semi-mystical 
view of the power of an imprecise quality, as 
Cobb shows, what the modern African slave was 
implied by some to pass on in the blood was  some 
substance or force to the extent that it 
established at birth the sub-human nature of one 
generation after another without in any way being 
changed in the process or eroding in any way; 
racial substance thus became conceived as an 
unmoved mover, an essence which determined 
existence in perpetuity, a system of hard 
heredity. Long before Francis Galton and August 
Weismann would claim that germinal material is 
transmitted through, but remains independent, of 
the parents' bodies,  thinkers such as Hume and 
Jefferson had already implicitly and perhaps 
unawares postulated the existence of such a 
substance that overrode epigenetic variation, 
made highly unlikely the acquiring of positive 
characters: a member of an oppressed 'race', even 
if born free, was considered to have inherited 
every inferiority that justified enslavement.

The separation of germinal and soma and the 
absurd investment of preformationist power in the 
germinal was already implied in the naturalistic 
defenses of racial slavery in its twilight

While modern eugenics was based on the idea of 
hard inheritance--that is, the idea that 
individuals do not transmit their acquired 
characteristics, but rather qualities that they 
had been given by their parents' germinal 
elements; education and hygiene thus being 
incapable of countering alleged degeneration-- 
North American slavery seems to have veering 
towards an idea of hard inheritance  before 
Galton's and Weismann's radical advances, for it 
was the basis of the idea the disposition of 
Africans that putatively made them suited to 
slavery would not change with their freedom. New 
World slavery was the birthplace of the hesitant 
postulation of race as a metaphysical germinal 
substance that is "extra-dialectical, 
extra-historical and extra-temporal."

Of course my conception of racism has an affinity 
with Foucault's biopower theory of racism.  Cobb 
thinks I am onto something original here.

Now in terms of Andrew's historical claims:

Andrew's response has been that blacks today 
enjoy the freedoms of Africans in the first 
decades of the Virginia colony and since we say 
blacks today are still subject to racism, then 
there is no reason why we can't say that the 
first African Americans may have been treated in 
a racist manner too. That argument only 
establishes the possibility of early racism; it 
does not prove it. And I don't see how Andrew has 
proven the early existence of racism rather than 
the workings of religious intolerance and 
ethnocentrism and effects of international power 
politics on the fate of aliens.
Moreover, today's freedoms are the result of anti 
racist victories while those early freedoms and 
equalities resulted in part from the absence of 

At any rate,  see

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 

There is persuasive evidence dating from the 
1620s through the 1680s that there were those of 
European descent in the Chesapeake who were 
prepared to identify and cooperate with people of 
African descent. These affinities were forged in 
the world of plantation work. On many plantations 
Europeans and West Africans labored side by side 
in the tobacco fields, performing exactly the 
same types and amounts of work; they lived and 
ate together in shared housing; they socialized 
together; and sometimes they slept together.17
A white servants' ditty of the time said, "We and 
the Negroes both alike did fare/Of work and food 
we had equal share."

Bacon's Rebellion was a turning point. After it 
ended, the Tidewater planters moved in two 
directions: first, they offered concessions to 
the white freemen, lifting taxes and extending to 
them the vote; and second, they moved to 
full-scale racial slavery. Fifteen years earlier, 
the Burgesses had recognized the condition of 
slavery for life and placed Africans in a 
different category as white servants. But the law 
had practical effect. "Until slavery became 
systematic, there was no need for a systematic 
slave code. And slavery could not become 
systematic so long as an African slave for life 
cost twice as much as an English servant for a 
five-year term," wrote historian Barbara Jeanne 
Fields.21 Both of those circumstances changed in 
the immediate aftermath of Bacon's Rebellion. In 
the entire 17th century, the planters imported 
about 20,000 African slaves. The majority of them 
were brought to North American colonies in the 24 
years after Bacon's Rebellion.
In 1664, the Maryland legislature passed a law 
determining who would be considered slaves on the 
basis of the condition of their father-whether 
their father was slave or free. It soon became 
clear, however, that establishing paternity was 
difficult, but that establishing who was a 
person's mother was definite. So the planters 
changed the law to establish slave status on the 
basis of the mother's condition. Now white 
slaveholders who fathered children by slave women 
would be guaranteed their offspring as slaves. 
And the law included penalties for "free" women 
who slept with slaves. But what's most 
interesting about this law is that it doesn't 
really speak in racial terms. It attempts to 
preserve the property rights of slaveholders and 
establish barriers between slave and free which 
were to become hardened into racial divisions 
over the next few years.
Taking the Maryland law as an example, Fields made this important point:

Historians can actually observe colonial 
Americans in the act of preparing the ground for 
race without foreknowledge of what would later 
arise on the foundation they were laying. [T]he 
purpose of the experiment is clear: to prevent 
the erosion of slaveowners' property rights that 
would result if the offspring of free white women 
impregnated by slave men were entitled to 
freedom. The language of the preamble to the law 
makes clear that the point was not yet race.

Race does not explain the law. Rather, the law 
shows society in the act of inventing race.22


Hi Gregory,

I didn't make clear that the bottom half of my 
post was an excerpt from Slavery and the origins 
of racism by Lance Selfa International Socialist 
Review Issue 26, November-December 2002. There 
you'll find full referrences. Here you will find 
references to Fields and others.

  I accept Verlinden's and Blackburn's thesis that 
the New World plantations are best understood as 
continuations of the sugar colonies in the 
Eastern Mediterranean financed by Italian 
merchant capital, not of the colonization of the 
Irish (or of the Islamic slave trade) .

Was a proto racist doctrine and the white race 
invented in the course of the brutal colonization 
of the Irish? Yes my definitions don't allow me 
to see that in the historical record Allen has 
recovered with care and detail.

For that reason I can't see racism in classical antiquity either.

Even the right of inheritances implied in the 
idea of noble blood lines seems not to me to have 
been a proto racist concept; what was passed on 
putatively in the blood, how it was passed it on, 
which parent passed on what, what effect it had 
on development were simply confounding questions 
(again I recommend Matthew Cobb's very exciting 
new book Generation). What was justified by 
bloodline was the rights of conquest, divine 
placement in an elevated place in the Great Chain 
of Being, lineage with of one of Noah's favored 
sons or with Abel, noble acculturation. All in my 
estimation not racist conceptions. Or if we 
consider them as such, then the modern genetic 
determinist point of view which racism is the 
historically most important example loses all 

I consider Anglo American racial hereditary 
bondage to have been in its twilight the 
birthplace of the first proto genetic 
preformationist ideology, though the end of 
slavery was most ironically the midwife of this 
racism! And this ideology has done, is doing and 
will be doing as much harm as any other. Not all 
of it racist.  So I don't think my focus in 
anachronistic. Needless to say, I am heavily 
indebted to Stephen Rose, Richard Lewontin and 
Jonathan Marks.

I know that my definition does not allow me 
accept  many of the newer definitions of racism, 
Balibar's for example. And I think we may be both 
interested in talking about that.

Thanks for the reply.


I'll try to summarize some points in this long discussion.

1. Far from there being essential racial 
differences between African and European labor in 
early decades of Chesapeake few distinctions were 
made between European indentured servants and 
African imported servants--you have simply 
refused to engage Allen's analysis!  Africans who 
achieved freedom had the same status as any other 
free persons; they owned lands and houses, 
married, had children, and exercised the same 
civic rights as others, including the right to 
vote and own other servants. Most servants 
suffered under harsh and inhumane conditions, and 
often did not outlive the four to seven years of 
their contracted labor. Toward the middle of the 
seventeenth century more bonded laborers were 
living longer and acquiring the status of freed 
men, but they found it increasingly difficult to 
obtain land and other resources. In 1670 freedmen 
who did not own property were even denied the 
right to vote. As Eric Williams long ago 
underlined, it was a brutal system of bond 
servitude imposed on poor Europeans that set the 
stage for later permanent slavery for Africans.

2. With prices collapsing, labor in shortage, and 
rebellion at hand, Africans were alone subjected 
to hereditary bondage not because of racism, 
racialization of the Curse of Ham or even their 
heathenism but simply because they had no 
international support, were not Englishmen under 
the common law, could not easily escape as did 
many enslaved Indians who were living on their 
own lands, became relatively very cheap with 
England's entry into the slave trade, and were 
relatively more healthy than other likely sources 
of labor.  Because they had powerful 
international support and the support of the 
common law Christians and Englishmen were not 
enslaved en masse; it's an anachronism to say 
that the white race was not enslaved because the 
white race did not yet exist. Neither was the 
black race enslaved. Such categories do not yet 
exist, as shown by Audrey Smedley on whom I draw 
here. And yes I agree with Barbara Fields on this 

3. You don't distinguish between racism, racial 
prejudice, religious prejudice, ethnocentrism.

4. Had medieval Arabs not racialized the Curse of 
Ham, racial slavery would likely have taken hold 
anyway. First, slavery was likely the only 
economic solution to labor shortages in the land 
rich New World, and the enslavement of the 
outside group of Africans was simply the best way 
to satisfy the lust for profit. They were 
culturally sophisticated, healthy, cheap and 
available in the required numbers given the 
ravenous demand for labor.

5. The racialization of the Curse of Ham is yet 
not racism as its implicit mechanism of heredity 
is divine sanction, not a naturalistic one. 
Racism is an articulated pseudo-naturalistic 
doctrine, not the expression of diffuse and 
inchoate prejudices or simple age old 
ethnocentrism. It's important not to inflate the 
term as you have. Racism is also more about the 
invisible than the visible--postulated germinal 
substance; since visible somatic difference is 
not necessary for racism (as I once thought) 
there can be simple class racism. A most 
important fillip to racism was in fact the 
rationalization of inequality within nineteenth 
century England.

6. Given your agreement with Davis' focus on 
medieval Arab thought, you certainly think that 
anti black racism is premodern.

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