Many people know that the mapping of the human genome revealed that all humans have 99.9% identical DNA and that what we have long thought of as “race” is, in fact, a social construct, not a scientific reality. So how, then, did we get here, to this place where a myth is the source of perhaps our bitterest, bloodiest divisions? How did a misconception become so firmly embedded in our minds and culture? The biggest part of the explanation is fairly simple: “follow” — as they say — “the money.” Racism (and slavery) did not originate in the bigotry of individuals. Instead, they are rooted in commerce and sustained by legal and cultural institutions designed to perpetuate inequity.
While slavery has always existed, it was not until the Age of Exploration that it became coupled with ideas of “race.” Christian, European slave merchants working in the large scale of trade that era opened up knew that selling others was not Christ-like behavior. And so they and their apologists took to characterizing humans from other continents as wholly different from Europeans. Thus their consciences would not force them to choose between their Christianity and their profits. And these tricks of the trade were not only carried to the colonies of the New World but were enshrined in the developing legal structures there. A couple of examples illustrate how that played out in the Virginia Colony.
Indentured servitude for a set period of time was common practice in the 1600s, and indentured persons came from all “races.” In 1640 three indentured persons — a Scot, a Dutchman, and an African man — tried, unsuccessfully, to run away from their master. When they were caught and brought back, the two Europeans were punished with extended terms of servitude. The African man, whose name was John Punch, was punished with a life-sentence in servitude, with no hope of release — in other words, chattel slavery, the first time we see it explicitly codified in a legal ruling in this country.
English common law (the basis of American law) held for centuries that line of descent is patrilineal. Men owned, men inherited, men passed on their property, titles, and legal status to their children. But when Virginia planter Thomas Key passed his status and property down to his daughter, Elizabeth, the House of Burgesses upended those centuries of law and tradition with a statute declaring that people like Elizabeth could only claim the status of their mother.
Elizabeth’s mother was a black enslaved woman. From then on, children born to an enslaved woman would inherit life-long slavery.
So slavery and the horrors which have followed it did not grow out of racism. Rather racial bias developed to preserve slavery and other economic advantages and privileges.
What we may want to ask ourselves is how that knowledge will shape our work toward becoming the Beloved Community and freeing us from this toxic place where we have been for 600 years.
This article was originally written for the Everything Holy February packet.