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In Chapter 3 of A People's History of the United States, Zinn quotes Edmund Morgan on...

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dawn214 | Student, Grade 10 | Honors

Posted August 21, 2013 at 9:09 PM via web

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In Chapter 3 of A People's History of the United States, Zinn quotes Edmund Morgan on page 56, after he explains that racism wasn't natural and was in fact, a device of class control. Can someone tell me what that quote means?

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted August 21, 2013 at 9:29 PM (Answer #1)

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I assume that you are asking for the meaning of the quote that Zinn attributes to Morgan.  That quote is

If freemen with disappointed hopes should make common cause with slaves of desperate hope, the results might be worse than anything Bacon had done. The answer to the problem, obvious if unspoken and only gradually recognized, was racism, to separate dangerous free whites from dangerous black slaves by a screen of racial contempt.

What Zinn is saying there is that the elites of the colonies needed to promote racism so that poor whites and blacks would not join together to threaten the elites.

In this book, Zinn is writing from a Marxist perspective.  In this perspective, the only conflict that really matters is the conflict of class against class.  Other conflicts, such as the conflict over race, are (according to Marxists) made up by the elite class to separate the various parts of the lower class and bring them into conflict with one another.  This is a “divide and conquer” strategy.  With the parts of the lower class fighting each other, they cannot unite to fight the upper class.

This is basically what Morgan is saying in the quote.  He is saying that it is necessary to separate free whites who have been disappointed (the lower classes) from the slaves.  If the two are not separated, they could create a rebellion worse than Bacon’s Rebellion.  What the upper class needed to do, then, was to promote racism.  This would put the “screen of racial contempt” between blacks and poor whites, thus preventing them from joining forces to fight the upper classes.

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