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A People's History of the United States

by Howard Zinn
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What is Zinn's main argument in Chapter 2 of A People's History of the United States?

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In chapter 2 of A People's History of the United States, entitled "Drawing the Color Line," Howard Zinn argues that the first black Americans, though technically considered servants, were likely treated like slaves from the time they were first brought to Virginia in 1619. Zinn also asserts that the...

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In chapter 2 of A People's History of the United States, entitled "Drawing the Color Line," Howard Zinn argues that the first black Americans, though technically considered servants, were likely treated like slaves from the time they were first brought to Virginia in 1619. Zinn also asserts that the circumstances in Jamestown agitated in the direction of the rapid institutionalization of racism and race-based slavery. Food was scarce, but the white settlers were not inclined to work and could not entirely enslave the local native population. They needed someone to farm corn for their subsistence and to grow tobacco, which they had begun to plant in 1617, for export. The black Africans had already been treated as slaves by the Spaniards and the Dutch for about one hundred years, so there was a precedent for enslaving blacks. Furthermore, the English settlers were in desperate straits and likely embarrassed at their inability to use their proclaimed "cultural superiority" to their material advantage in the colony, particularly when the surrounding natives were doing quite well. As the plantation economy grew, so too did the institution of race-based slavery and the racism and legislation to back it up. The racism was not natural or inevitable—rather, it was dictated by individual choices and historical circumstances.

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Zinn's main argument in this chapter is that slavery developed as a response to the economic need for labor in America. As a result, the "color line" and a severe form of racism developed in the United States. Zinn traces the development of racial slavery to the need for labor in the 1600s in Virginia.

Though racist ideology has deemed African culture inferior, Zinn shows that African culture was quite sophisticated. There was an African form of slavery, but it was similar to the European idea of "serfdom," according to Zinn. The disorienting effects of slavery made Africans easy targets and victims after they had been brutally transported to the New World. Over time, whites in the New World turned to the use of African slaves after they found Native Americans unfit for the tasks of slaves. Zinn asks whether the racism that developed around slavery in the New World was a result of the "'natural' antipathy" between the races. Zinn asserts that racism was not a result of an inborn antipathy but instead a result of the economic needs of whites and a result of the foundation of the institution of slavery.

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In "Chapter Two: Drawing the Color Line," Howard Zinn seeks to find answers to two questions: where did American racism originate and what--if anything--can end it. Zinn's main argument is that American racism originated in the political, economic, and social systems the colonial elites established in America and which still, to a great extent, remain today. He explains that colonial conditions were ripe for the enslavement of the African race:

We see now a complex web of historical threads to ensnare blacks for slavery in America: the desperation of starving settlers, the special helplessness of the displaced African, the powerful incentive of profit for slave trader and planter, the temptation of superior status for poor whites, the elaborate controls against escape and rebellion, the legal and social punishment of black and white collaboration.

The colonial elites exploited these factors to their own advantage and profit, and the elites have continued to exploit them throughout the history of the United States. Zinn proposes that if the nation truly hopes to mend race relations, it must:

eliminat[e]...that class exploitation which has made poor whites desperate for small gifts of status, and has prevented that unity of black and white necessary for joint rebellion and reconstruction.

In plain terms, poor whites must recognize that their true enemy is not African-Americans, it is the powerful and wealthy elites who have used racism to distract the white lower class from recognizing the elites as the true source of their problems.

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