In the early 17th century, Britain experienced a large population boom, drastically increasing the number of poor British in the country. Britain began sending many of these poor to the "New World' as indentured servants, allegedly providing them with an opportunity to make a better life in America (and providing an exorbitant amount of cheap labor to American landowners). During this time, poor British laborers, Native laborers, and African laborers all lived and worked together. They shared the same quarters and lived under the same circumstances, and there was no differentiation between the groups. Additionally, under the law all men (including men of African descent), if free of indenture or slavery, could: 1. Vote 2. Own slaves/servants 3. Marry anyone from any national decent.
This is mind, there were free men of African descent who owned slaves, had indentured servants, and married women of European descent, all of which was protected by law. This was so common, in fact, that in one county in Virginia, 1/2 of the men of African descent were married to European women.
Additionally, there existed what was called the "Law of Coverture." This law essentially stated that once a woman married a man, she essentially became a dependent, and had no separate legal existence from her husband. She could not own any property in her name and did not have control of her earnings. This meant, that if a European woman married a man of, say, African descent, that man would have legal possession of any land she owned or had inherited from that point forward.
In 1664, the landowning elite (White British men, primarily) challenged this with the "Law of 1664." This law forbade British men and women from marrying enslaved African men. The punishment for women included enslavement for the rest of the husband's life and enslavement of any children from the marriage into their 20s. For land owners, this equated to a property increase. Now keep in mind, this was not a British law, but a newly constructed North American law.
Then, in 1676, things changed. The population boom in England had dried up, so the land owners steady labor source was gone. This led to a large increase in the stealing of human beings from Africa. Additionally, tobacco prices decreased and taxes increased, putting a financial strain on landowners. These, and several other factors, prompted Bacon's Rebellion.
Bacon's Rebellion is a complicated historical occurrence, but here is the long and short. Nathaniel Bacon, for whom Bacon's Rebellion is named, prompted a 2 phase uprising. The first phase of the rebellion took place against the Native American tribes. Through this phase, Bacon garnered a tremendous amount of support against the standing government in Virginia. The second phase of the rebellion was waged, with the backing of his supporters (mostly laborers), against the land holding elite.
Now, the form of capitalism that was taking hold in the colonies was dependent upon free and/or cheap labor, and the idea of this kind of unified labor force was a threat to the sustainability of that system. Taking this into consideration, Virginia law makers proceeded to write letters to the English authority stating their intentions to use a "divide and conquer" strategy to prevent future rebellions.
And that is exactly what they did. It isn't until just after Bacon's Rebellion that we see the emergence of the idea of "white people."
In 1681, we see the first mention of the term "white" in Maryland's anti-miscegenation law. From there, colonies began adopting similar anti-miscegenation laws, and other laws, that denoted racial classifications. Some of these laws included:
- Free blacks* prohibited from holding public office
- Blacks and natives prohibited from marrying whites
- Whites required to be paid goods (including guns and gun powder) upon completion of their term of indenture
- Free blacks prohibited from possessing weapons
- Blacks prohibited from testifying against whites (a similar law appears later during the California Gold Rush prohibiting Chinese and Mexicans from testifying against whites)
Through this history, we understand that race categories are a function of human assertion of power, not a biological truth. Whiteness is an invention of capitalism, which is made real through the subsequent organization of society. America literally MADE UP race, and then built its entire infrastructure on the exploitation of these cockamamie classifications.
This becomes even more apparent as history goes on. It is also evidenced in our Immigration and Naturalization laws. Until 1952, in order to be considered for U.S. citizenship, you had to be considered "white." If a woman married a non-white man, she forfeited her citizenship. Original law makers never intended for non-white people to be considered Americans. This is why when you ask a white person what their nationality is, they say just plain old American, whereas other groups are considered "contingent Americans" (African-American, Chinese-American, Mexican-American).
What is critical for us to understand is that White Supremacy is fundamental to the U.S.A. as a matter of law and economics. While many of these original laws have been overturned, many new laws and common practices which support the same ideals have been adopted. We no longer live in a country where we can ban Black people from doing things outright, but do not for a second think that this country has fundamentally changed its ways (think, Voter ID laws). More on that next time.
*Although the term "Black" as it refers to African-Americans was not adopted until the 1960s, we substitute it here for non-white or person of African descent for sake of readability.