Most people think ‘whiteness’ is innate. They’re wrong: It was created to keep black people from voting.

tags: slavery, racism, Black History, voting rights, Voting

Katharine Gerbner is assistant professor of history at the University of Minnesota and author of "Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World."

... How and why did slave-owning colonists create whiteness? The answer comes from law books and baptismal records.

Law books show that English colonists (and later, Americans) considered Christianity a prerequisite for political power in the 17th century. Slave-owning planters referred to themselves not as “white” people or “slave owners,” but simply as “Christian” men.

Baptismal records reveal why that practice became problematic. In the 17th century, English slave owners generally forbade enslaved people from becoming Christians. Being a Christian, they reasoned, was a privilege — a sign of freedom and superiority. Furthermore, if slavery was justifiable only for “heathens,” then conversion to Christianity would threaten their legal claim to the labor of enslaved Africans.

Yet enslaved and free Africans recognized that Christian status — along with property ownership — was one of the cornerstones of political authority. Despite intense resistance from most slave owners, dozens and then hundreds of enslaved blacks won baptism in English Protestant churches. Some of these enslaved people gained their freedom either before or after their baptism.

The growth of a free black Christian population was politically threatening to the slave-owning class: It meant that black men could claim their right to vote and hold government office, as any property owning male member of the Church of England could. By the 1690s, black Christian men had attained, or were in the process of attaining, all three of the prerequisites to join the ruling class.

As black men grew closer to political authority, English colonists changed the rules. When enslaved peoples were non-Christian, the colonists used religion to justify oppression. As enslaved and formerly enslaved people converted, the colonists changed the language in their law books to replace the word “Christian” with the word “white.” It was intentional and strategic. ...

Read entire article at The Washington Post

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