In Chapter 2, of A People's History of the United States, Zinn argues that racism isn't natural; it's artificial. It is said that racism comes about because of historical forces and human...

In Chapter 2, of A People's History of the United States, Zinn argues that racism isn't natural; it's artificial. It is said that racism comes about because of historical forces and human decisions. Please give examples of these factors.

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pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In Chapter 2 of this book, Zinn offers a number of examples of the historical forces that can be said to have caused racism.  He does not really offer examples of human decisions.  Let us look first at some historical forces.

One historical force that led to racism was the fact that Europeans became more technologically advanced than Africans.  This helped cause the Europeans to think that they were superior to the Africans.  This feeling of superiority helped lead to racism.

Another historical force that led to racism was the conquest of the Americas and the attendant need for slave labor.  When the Europeans took the Americas, they could not find enough Europeans to work and they could not coerce the Native Americans.  This made it “necessary” to enslave Africans.  The fact that Africans were enslaved made it easier to look down on them.

Now let us look at how human decisions lead to racism.  It is hard to separate human decisions, however, from the historical forces that influence them.  Even so, it was human beings who decided to make the laws that Zinn cites that prohibited blacks and whites from fraternizing with or marrying one another.  Each racist act requires a person to willingly undertake that act.  We are not forced by our natures to act in racist ways.

Thus, we can see that both historical forces and human decisions led to racism.

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jameadows's profile pic

jameadows | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator

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Zinn writes that racism developed and intensified in the United States in part because of economic factors, including the need for labor in colonial America. After the settlers at Jamestown endured the "starving time" of 1609-1610, they were desperate for additional labor to grow crops. Native Americans refused to submit to forced labor, and Native American forces could massacre white settlers. In addition, there weren't enough white indentured servants. Settlers in Virginia turned to African labor instead, and slavery increased and became harsher in nature as people increasingly turned to the plantation system. 

In addition, Zinn points out that in Europe, the color black had long been associated with distastefulness, including dirt, death, and and disastrous. On the other hand, white had long been associated with beauty. There was also a biblical justification for slavery, as Africans were regarded as the sons of Ham, who were cursed by Noah. This biblical interpretation was long used to justify the horrors of slavery. These human decisions also brought about the harsh system of American slavery. 

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