The History of Slavery Remains With Us Today

tags: slavery, racism, African American history, Haiti, Virginia

Ariela Gross is the John B. and Alice R. Sharp professor of law and history at the University of Southern California and author, with Alejandro de la Fuente, of "Becoming Free, Becoming Black: Race, Freedom, and Law in Cuba, Louisiana, and Virginia."

Alejandro de la Fuente is founding director of the Afro-Latin American Research Institute, Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, Harvard University, and author, with Ariela Gross, of "Becoming Free, Becoming Black: Race, Freedom, and Law in Cuba, Louisiana, and Virginia."

Now that the Democratic primary race has narrowed to two older white male candidates, political analysts have begun to focus on the allegiances of African American voters, who are the core of the Democratic Party base. Some have suggested that African American support of Joe Biden rests less on their trust in him, than on their distrust of white voters’ willingness to vote for a woman, a person of color or a progressive.

This reasoning suggests that African American voters make pragmatic political choices based on an understanding of the persistence of anti-black racism in our society, sometimes settling for a white candidate who they think will be least objectionable to white voters while causing African Americans the least harm.

To understand where we are today, we need to understand the deep roots of anti-black racism in the history of the Americas.

As a powerful ideology, racism did not remain static or set in stone but shape-shifted and transformed historically, through legal and religious discourses and institutions. This process itself guided and transformed politics, the economy, and ultimately the course of American history. Enshrined in law from our earliest days, it was, ironically, the establishment of a republic in the United States that gave race its ultimate political and legal significance because it directly tied citizenship to whiteness.

By the early 18th century, settlers in Spanish, French and British colonies in the New World had all codified racial distinctions into law. The first Africans arrived in Havana about 100 years before 1619, and in Louisiana a little more than 100 years after 1619. But in all three places, by the early 1700s, European colonists had committed themselves to legal regimes that aligned freedom with whiteness, blackness with enslavement. Yet enslaved people pushed back, claiming freedom in a variety of ways, creating openings for themselves in law and in politics.


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