Slavery in the Nineteenth Century

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What is the connection between slavery and racism?

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While the relationship between racism and slavery is very close, almost symbiotic, it is possible for slavery to exist absent views among a dominant group that posit one race, that to which it belongs, is racially superior to that which it seeks to enslave. History seems to indicate, however, that the connection is too strong to ignore. In the United States during the antebellum period, racism among the descendants of Europeans was prevalent and that racism was regularly used to justify the continued practice of slavery. John C. Calhoun, an exceptionally prominent figure from South Carolina who held a series of high-level positions in government including senator and vice president, was a staunch proponent of slavery who used his widely-accepted view of Africans as physically and culturally inferior to justify their enslavement, evident in the following quote:

Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually.

On the eve of the start of the Civil War, the Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Hamilton Stephens of Georgia, declared that the Confederacy was inseparable from the institution of slavery and stated:

. . . its [slavery's] foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests upon the great truth, that the [N]egro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—submission to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

Suffice to say, the relationship between racism and slavery was prominent and pernicious among Southerners and even many Northerners.

Racist views among supporters of slavery were not unique to Europeans and Americans. In his paper “Arab Views of Black Africans and Slavery,” John Hunwick wrote that Arabian tribes believed in their racial superiority over others and that sentiment justified the practice of slavery as Arabs conquered increasingly broad swaths of Africa. (A link to Hunwick’s paper is provided below.) Arab and Persian scholars, explorers, traders, and clergy held widely to the belief that, while black Africans were noble and even admirable, they were, nevertheless, inferior. Famed Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta wrote respectfully of those he encountered during the course of his travels, but his writings were replete with references to non-Arab peoples that served to dehumanize those peoples, as in the following quote:

As regards southern countries, all their inhabitants are black on account of the heat of their climate... Most of them go naked... In all their lands and provinces, gold is found.... They are people distant from the standards of humanity.

Similarly, Ibn Khaldun, a fourteenth-century Tunisian historian, wrote,

Therefore, the Negro nation are, as a rule, submissive to slavery, because [Negroes] have little [that is essentially] human and have attributes that are quite similar to those of dumb animals, as we have stated.

The purpose of these select quotes is not to vilify Southerners or Arabs, but to illuminate the connection between racist views and slavery. Whether it was Roman enslavement of Jews, Africans, and others, British enslavement of Africans prior to the delegitimization of the practice by the Crown, Spanish enslavement of indigenous tribes in the Americas, or any other example to be found in history, the propensity to dehumanize another ethnicity or religion invariably has led to the use of violence and even enslavement against those perceived as inferior.

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First of all, it is important to realize that we cannot know for sure what the exact nature of this connection is.  There is no way to experiment and determine whether racism would exist if slavery had not existed.  There is no way to go back in time and determine what levels of racism existed before slavery existed.  Instead, we can only speculate.  Historians who have studied the issue speculate that the connection between slavery and racism is complex.  They argue that racism helped lead to slavery, but that slavery also helped cause racism.

It is believed that Europeans (or at least English people) had negative reactions to black Africans as soon as they met.  The color black was associated with bad and the color white with good and these perceptions affected the ways in which the English perceived the Africans.  The English were also put off by the differences between their cultures, religions, and other aspects of life.  They saw the Africans as in some way inferior.  Historians believe that this attitude helped allow the English to accept the idea that Africans could and should be enslaved for life and that their descendants should be enslaved as well.

However, it is also believed that, before slavery, racism was not as fully developed as it became.  Slavery led to the promotion of various attitudes about Africans.  It led to the idea that they were stupid and lazy, perhaps because slaves had no motivation to try to work hard and show initiative.  It led to various other negative views about blacks, partly because whites needed to tell themselves such things to continue to justify slavery.  In other words, the fact that blacks were enslaved for so long led to a deepening and hardening of racist attitudes about them.

In these ways, it is believed that racism helped bring slavery about and that slavery helped, in turn, to strengthen racism.

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