How the Law Taught Racism in the United States

The United States of America was built to be a racist country by colonial-era capitalists, not by the common people. Racial conflict did not arise from “natural” differences between races, but because of the labor demands of profit and greed.

In some academic circles, there were debates about early race theory. But for the average working man—whether slave, indentured servant, or freeholder—the key divisions of classification were class, ethnicity, gender, and religion, not race.

Black slaves first arrived in Virginia, the first colony, in 1619. Some early legal cases show that blacks were given certain rights. In 1641, John Graweere was allowed to save money and purchase his son’s freedom. But as runaways and resistance to cruel working conditions increased, capitalist plantation owners wanted to prevent their slaves and indentured servants from organizing together. This tactic of dividing workers, who have a common interest in dignity and justice, is a constant tool of capitalists throughout history.

The cruel abuse of black slaves—not often inflicted on white servants—helped develop the customs and mentality of racism. But the law itself was the most important teacher:

In 1669, in Virginia, “An Act about the casual killings of slaves” was passed stating “if any slave resist his master… and by the extremity of the correction should chance to die, his death shall not be accounted [as a] Felony” (pg. 36).

In 1680 and 1682, the new slave codes would become models for racial laws throughout the South (pgs. 39-40).

In 1667, an act was passed assuring slave-owners that “baptism does not alter the conditions as to his bondage or freedom” (pg 36). The old logic of Christendom, that Christianity called for the liberation of slaves, was replaced with the racial idolatry of white supremacy. 

Back in 1645, a certain slave-owner (Mr. Vang) easily freed his slaves in his will; but by 1691, this was heavily penalized with fines. The elites worried that even a few free blacks could disrupt their racial hierarchy (pg. 43).

By 1662, the fine for interracial fornication was double the normal fine. The virtue of chastity was adulterated by the rising myth of racial purity (pg. 43).

Finally, “freedom dues” (corn, cash, and a gun) were paid to white indentured servants who served their terms, but never to freed slaves. These policies taught the concept of whiteness and broke down working-class solidarity: “The legal rights given to servants greatly altered the attitudes of master and white servants toward each other. The initial consequence was to increase the cost of a white indentured servant, which in turn rendered investment in slave labor the more economically rational choice. However, this increased cost was probably more than offset by the racial affinity between masters and servants engendered by the law… Racial identification between white masters and servants further precluded an alliance with black laborers. No one seeks an alliance with ‘nonpersons’” (pgs. 54-55).

All quotations are from the book In the Matter of Color: Race and the American Legal Process: The Colonial Period (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978) by A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr.