|Map of colonial New England. Source: http://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/detail.jsp?Entt=RDMDC-912-74J24&R=DC-912-74J24|
by Cameron Morkal-Williams
A common explanation of racism’s origins points to enslavement of Africans in the Americas. While this played a large role in building intertwined systems of race and social class, the picture is much wider and more complex. Racism existed before slavery and continued to exist and adapt long after, right up to the present day. The nineteenth-century Northern states, especially New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, are a vital site of study in this area.
From the beginning of British colonization, the New England and Mid-Atlantic colonies were vastly different from Barbados and the southern mainland colonies. While the latter developed plantation, cash crop-based economies, the former found success in trading, small farms, and eventually industry. Higher demand for labor and terrible labor conditions, along with prejudice against dark-skinned people, informed colonists’ decisions to enslave large numbers of Africans. In the northern mainland colonies, racism was definitely present and encouraged colonists’ enslavement of Africans, but the economic differences meant that enslaved Africans remained a small portion of the labor pool and general population (Soderlund, 2000). Their relatively small numbers translated to lower chance of successful rebellion, so white northern colonists did not enact such strict regulations as in Barbados and the South.
Less harsh slavery, however, did not result in a less racially stratified or violent society during or after gradual emancipation. The antebellum period in the North saw the rise of the abolitionist movement, respectability politics, and significant racial upheaval. As many free African-Americans and white abolitionists were emphasizing bootstraps-style “uplift” of self and community, white Northerners became irresponsibly insecure about race and turned violent. James Brewer Stewart describes the cultural context of the era and the violence, both physical and social, against African-Americans in the North (1998). Politicians passed laws and spread propaganda to limit Black rights, while common white people often formed mobs and attacked or lynched African-American individuals and communities.
A more visible form of cultural violence was blackface minstrelsy, in which performers--originally white, eventually of any race--depicted negative stereotypes about African-Americans for white audiences’ amusement. Minstrelsy reached its prime in the nineteenth century, but continued to be fairly popular until the middle of the twentieth and has had an effect reaching to the present day. Some media stereotypes about Black people can be seen in this video and a more detailed history of blackface minstrelsy is available here. Eric Lott asserted that white people’s inclination toward minstrelsy came from a combination of insecurity and preoccupation with Black (male) bodies (1992); I would add a sense of entitlement to the mix.
Legislative, cultural, and social violence all served to reinforce racial lines between white and Black after their main support--slavery--was removed. Clear racial distinctions were needed for white people to maintain a system of racism; if a society is going to discriminate against one group and privilege another, all involved must understand what distinguishes the groups from each other. We see today that these divisions were as effective as they were detrimental because we are still fighting them.
Lott, Eric (1992). Love and theft: the racial unconscious of blackface minstrelsy. Representations, 39, 23-50. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2928593.
Soderlund, Jean R. (2000). Creating a biracial society, 1619-1720. In William R. Scott & William G. Shade (Eds.), Upon these shores: themes in the African-American experience, 1600 to the present (pp. 63-82). New York and London: Routledge.
Stewart, James Brewer (1998). The emergence of racial modernity and the rise of the white north, 1790-1840. Journal of the Early Republic, 18 (2), 181-217. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3124888.