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A People's History of the United States

by Howard Zinn

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How, according to Howard Zinn in A People's History of the United States, did racism suit the wealthy's needs?

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There is not a country in world history in which racism has been more important, for so long a time, as the United States. And the problem of "the color line," as W. E. B. Du Bois put it, is still with us. So it is more than a purely historical question to ask: How does it start?—and an even more urgent question: How might it end? Or, to put it differently: Is it possible for whites and blacks to live together without hatred?

Howard Zinn does not believe that racism is a natural or hereditary condition but a social construct with a specific purpose. In "Chapter Two: Drawing the Color Line," Zinn establishes the construction of racism in the United States as a necessary evil for the maintenance of the early socio-economic structures in the American colonies. Zinn establishes the genesis of racism in the Virginia colony as colonists were faced with major labor shortages. The shortages and famine, caused by the deficit of labor, threatened to end the colony altogether. The answer to the shortage was the import of slaves from Africa.

The fact that slaves looked much different than the colonists was very convenient. There existed a particular social structure from the earliest years of the colonies. In this system, a very small elite class existed and subjugated the lower classes--both black and white. Zinn argues that the elite class was concerned that the white lower classes would ally themselves with the black slaves and rebel against them. This is where the institution of racism becomes important. If blacks can be portrayed as inferior and necessary targets of derision, the poorest of whites would not consider working with them to overthrow the system.

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