American capitalism requires American racism. We can trace this country’s race-based oppression to the political economy of the colonial era. More specifically, to colonial Virginia. By the end of the 1600s, the colonial elite in Virginia had united an unruly society by instituting a racial hierarchy. The combination of private property and anti-Blackness they created became the standard for many of the colonies.
The 1622 Massacre and the Invocation of Crisis
The Virginia Company quickly realized that the best way to accumulate wealth was to rely on tobacco. The new crop was lucrative, but it was also labor-intensive and expensive to harvest. In addition to the expensive cost of labor, the Company flooded the market with tobacco. The resulting overproduction lowered profits. In order to make more money, something had to change.
An opportunity to do just this came in March of 1622 when indigenous tribes from the Powhatan Confederacy decided to launch a combined counter-attack against the ever encroaching settlers. They killed colonists, burned corn crops, and raided settlements. Over ⅓ of the colony died the day of the attack.
The Virginia Company elite used the attack and resulting devastation to clamp down on the colonists. They barred anyone from growing corn or hunting, claiming that these activities left the colonists open to attack. They ordered survivors to abandon their plots of land and relocate to a central position. Living in a centralized location would help guarantee security, they said. The Colony Council then decided that in order to grow corn you had to first have a corn-trading license. They distributed these licenses to themselves and no one else. As a result of the 1622 massacre, a group of twelve Company men were able to seize land, consolidate power, and control the flow of food.
The value of corn skyrocketed due to scarcity. And the only way to buy it was to trade tobacco. Unfortunately the price of tobacco had fallen due to overproduction. Since the value of tobacco went down, the majority of tenants (and the planters they were working for) struggled to make enough to survive.
Colonial Labor and the Transition to Chattel-Bond Servitude
Tobacco was labor-intensive and expensive to grow. In order to remain profitable, the planter elite needed to increase their margins. Since the market had been flooded with tobacco, the only way to increase profits was to decrease costs. The traditional bond laborer needed to be more cost effective.
For the majority of the 1600s, the VA colony’s workforce was made up of primarily English workers. They were referred to as bond laborers because they signed contract agreements with the Virginia Company and its stockholders before they boarded ships to the colony. The typical bond laborer expected to work as a “tenant-at-half.” This meant they agreed to work for a Company planter on Company land for half of the profits. The Company was responsible for supplying bond laborers with clothing, food, shelter, and a plot of land upon work completion (typically 4-7 years).
To reduce labor costs, the VA elite decided to change the established English conditions of bond contracts. After the change, tenants arriving at the colony often found themselves assigned to private planters on private land. Furthermore, workers were now expected to pay for their own food, shelter, and clothing. Since the price of tobacco was so low, tenants were barely able to make enough money to survive.
Rebellion and Social Control
The situation was dire. Food was scarce. Land was privatized. A steady stream of European laborers fed the environment of discontent. No longer could laborers expect to hold public office or find workable and ownable land for themselves. Members of the colony’s workforce began expressing their anger in a variety of ways. Some ran away to indigenous tribes. Others linked up with African slaves and burned tobacco crops to protest over-production.
The various rebellions culminated in Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. Freemen, slaves, and bond laborers banded together to resist. The plantocracy was terrified. The threat of a united labor force pushing back against the plantation system was immediate. They needed to divide the laborers. They did this by creating a system that allowed one group (poor Europeans) to control the other (African slaves). But in order to make this a viable solution, the planters needed access to cheap labor. They needed someone for this new class of landless Europeans to manage.
In the 1680s, the English gained access to a steady supply of African slave labor by way of a treaty with the Dutch. The unfettered access to African labor was counterbalanced by a marked decrease in the availability of European labor. King Charles II made it harder for the Virginia Company to recruit poor European workers. Colonies in the Carolinas and Pennsylvania opened up, creating a place for poor Europeans to move to. The price of tobacco began to rise, improving the lives of planters and their mostly European tenants.
Prior to the early 1680s, most African slaves came to the Virginia Colony by way of Barbados. African slaves who labored in Barbados were often able to learn some English. This wasn’t an option for the new slaves abducted directly from the African coast. They struggled to acclimate and learn English. They were unable to communicate, plan, and find common cause with poor Europeans workers, leaving the new slaves alienated and alone.
In addition to these larger changes, a newly constituted Virginia Assembly instituted a series of legislative moves to place Africans in a state of permanent chattel servitude. Normally, under English common law, the status of a child drew from the status of the father. The Assembly flipped it so that a child’s status was now linked to the mother. This allowed European planters to increase their supply of hereditary chattel labor by raping their female slaves. Additionally, new antimiscegenation laws meant any European woman who married someone of African descent became property of her husband’s owner.
A Community of Privilege
The Virginia and Maryland colonial assemblies used the law to create a community of privilege bound up in skin color and status. Non-Europeans were unable to vote, own property, testify against Europeans in court, and buy/own anything resembling a weapon. On the other side, European slaves were given “freedom dues,” corn, weapons, and other living essentials. Poor whites were often placed in positions of authority over African slaves. This is because the community of privilege is contrapuntal in nature. Every European privilege is built upon the denial of freedom to Africans.
Those in power needed to create a new class that was so attractive that poor Europeans would see themselves as similar to the English elite. This is the origin of the white race, a legal category that begins showing up in official documents around the 1670s and 80s. The lack of historical precedent over a distinctly white race and the visibly distinct difference in pigment made whiteness a perfect way to maintain social control.
This is the origin of anti-Blackness, capitalism, and white privilege in the U.S.
Works consulted for this post:
Birth of a White Nation by Jacqueline Battalora
The Invention of the White Race v.1 and 2 by Theodore Allen
Settlers by J. Sakai
A Changing Labor Force and Race Relations in Virginia 1660-1710 by T. H. Breen
Colonists in Bondage, White Servitude and Convict Labor in America 1607-1776 by Abbot Emerson Smith
“The Plantation” by
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