The White Man’s Burden: Historical Origins of Racism in the United States, by Winthrop D. Jordan

The White Man's BurdenOne-line review: Self-evident truths are sometimes the hardest to uphold.

“Every revolution must suppress its successors”

Short review: This book is a condensed version of the author’s celebrated work on the history and origins of racism in the United States. That book is still considered the “definitive work on the history of race in America in the colonial era” , but its formidable length persuaded Winthrop Jordan to come out with a condensed version that would appeal more to the general public. This book should be on every Indian’s reading list for two reasons: first, it is a very accessible introduction to racial attitudes and societal discrimination in the United States, and in my opinion has value in the Indian context also. Second, the rationalizations for such discrimination, and in particular the arguments used there were to find an echo in early British colonialism in India, continued in the early twentieth century, and still find echo in several western and even Indian academic institutions. Lastly, this is also a very well-written book.

Long Review:

“Prejudices are inevitable, innate, and right”

Why should an Indian particularly care to read a book on slavery? It is, after all, a history of enslavement and discrimination half a world away, decades and centuries ago, and India has enough problems of her own to sort out without burdening itself with a history in a geography seven seas away.

To do so would however be to miss an opportunity.

For two simple reasons. To understand the mechanics and rationalizations of discrimination on the one hand, and how those same attitudes would vend their way from Europe to Africa, then to the Americas, and in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, to India.

Studying discrimination in a context removed from one’s own self can sometimes help bring perspective and understanding. It can also help see patterns that may not be visible otherwise.

What worked hundreds of years ago to dehumanize and subjugate an entire race of people half a world away would also be applied by the British to colonize an entire subcontinent.

“I remain convinced that white American attitudes toward blacks have done a great deal to shape and condition American responses to other racial minorities.”

In the words of the author, a study of history “impresses upon us those tendencies in human beings which have not changed and which accordingly are unlikely to, at least in the immediate future.” To that end, “The White Man’s Burden” does a tremendous service in lucidly documenting the evolution of slavery’s form and rationale. While the initial material on the roots of slavery is decidedly sketchy, the book is simply outstanding when taking the reader through the century and a half when slavery established roots, along with the accompanying prejudices. The book’s length should make this accessible to even casual readers.

While forming firm opinions on the basis of one book is risky, doing so on the basis of a well-researched and widely acclaimed book as this, from a scholar as well-respected as the late Winthrop Jordan is a relatively low-risk endeavour.

Therefore, when one comes across a work considered not only authoritative but also credited with spawning a line of scholarly inquiry into hitherto less investigated topics, the opportunity to use that book to get a quick-start on a topic should not be let go. One such book is White on Black (Flipkart), a 600 page scholarly tome on “American attitudes toward the Negro” written by the late Winthrop Jordan (WikipediaAmazon), that not only won awards when it was first published in 1968, but is still considered the “definitive work on the history of race in America in the colonial era.”

This book, “The White Man’s Burden” is based on “White on Black”, but has been abridged and edited down to a more manageable 250 pages, because, the author discovered, “not altogether to my astonishment, that many people do not find themselves entirely comfortable wading through six hundred and fifty pages on a single subject.”

To summarize, this book traces the arc formed by the cementing of slavery in the United States, the formation of opinions that reinforced the correctness and inevitability of slavery, the rising sentiment against the slave trade and slavery itself, and finally to the change in attitudes among whites as the prospect and eventual inevitability of emancipation became clearer. The book stops before the American Civil War, because attitudes towards Negroes and the reality of segregation that continued well into the twentieth century had been formed in these early decades of the nineteenth century itself.

One of the most striking aspects of the rationalizations of this racism was the almost manic and unremitting obsession with seeking sexual differentiation between the two races. For me, it was made that much more pertinent when I thought about the English’s furious diatribes against Indians, like the honorable Thomas Babington Macaulay who “found the little finger of the Company thicker than the loins” of the prince Siraj-ud-Daula. One could wonder what possible business a noble baron and educationist would have had in fantasizing about a prince’s loins, but let’s ignore this. Then there was Katherine Mayo – an American historian and researcher, if such words can be applied to a person whose “report” on India could be summed up, as Mahatma Gandhi  eloquently did, “”the report of a drain inspector … who then triumphantly concludes, “the drains are India””. Ms Mayo “singled out the “rampant” and fatally weakening sexuality of its males to be at the core of all problems.” And if we move on to more modern times, we have the redoubtable Wendy Doniger, who even the BBC introduced her writing as having  “revolved around the subject of sex in Sanskrit texts”, and has continued that inglorious tradition by seeing and seeking imaginary pedophilic escapades among Indian gods and perversions among its philosophers.This single-minded obsession of the racist is itself deserving of a whole field of study, and I look forward to the day when more light is shed on this topic.

Early opinions about Africans were a curious mix of the expected and the outright bizarre. The most enduring thread of thought however that was to persist when slavery flowered in the United States would find expression half a world away, in India also. This was the conflation of color and race with sexual inadequacies or bestial excesses.

When Englishmen encountered the very different looking Africans, they sought refuge in their considerable intellectual skills and spirit of scientific inquiry to get to the root of these differences. When facile explanations failed, they turned to religion for answers, and the answers came gushing forth – darkness was a sign of the fallen man – the African; the African was a half-beast who may have fornicated with apes, and vice-versa; and that the shape of the African skulls was only redundant validation of that line of thinking.

“The slave was treated like a beast. Slavery was inseparable from the evil in men; it was God’s punishment upon Ham’s prurient disobedience. Enslavement was captivity, the loser’s lot in a contest of power. Slaves were infidels or heathens.

On every count, Negroes qualified.”

While the initial basis for classification and therefore discrimination was religion – Christians versus non-Christians, “(b)y the end of the seventeenth century dark complexion had become an independent rationale for enslavement”. An ambivalence to the conversion of the slaves, and by allowing them to “remain unconverted, masters were perpetuating the outward differences between the two peoples, and thus in an important sense opposition to conversion fed upon itself.”

“From the first, then, the concept embedded in the term Christian seems to have conveyed much of the idea and feeling of we as against they: to be Christian was to be civilized rather than barbarous, English rather than African, white rather than black.”

When colonizing America, Englishmen had to deal with the native Americans, who had to be conquered. Their conquest would lend a sort of noble justification to their conquest of America. What is revealing is the strategy adopted by the Englishmen to kill two birds with one stone during their colonization of America. To Indians it should come as no surprise, for such strategy and mechanics were very much the same as employed by the East India Company in eighteenth century India and by the British Empire later in the nineteenth century.

“Most of the Indians enslaved by the English had their own tribal enemies to thank. It became common practice to ship Indian slaves to the West Indies where they could be exchanged for slaves who had no compatriots lurking on the outskirts of English settlements. In contrast, Negroes presented much less of a threat-at first.”

Even the process of instituting laws governing slaves and their rights on the one hand and the cementing of attitudes to slaves on the other was gradual. While statute books moved into place first, attitudes towards slaves would closely track the emancipation of slavery – hardening with increasingly convoluted justifications as the prospect of freed slaves slowly moved into the sphere of reality.

“By about 1700 the slave ships began spilling forth their black cargoes in greater and greater numbers. By that time racial slavery and the necessary police powers had been written into law.”

The loss of liberty – little as it existed in the first place – for the Negroes was gradual in a way, and therefore, while they still were indentured for life and generation after generation, whatever modicum of rights they may have had were also gradually taken away. So, while the Massachusetts General Court in 1652 “ordered that Scotsmen, Indians, and Negroes should train with the English in the militia”, it excluded Negroes just four years later, followed by Connecticut in 1660. Virginia also denied blacks the “right and obligation to bear arms.”

“From about 1730 almost until the Revolution Negroes comprised at least one-third the total population within the line of English settlement from Maryland to South Carolina”

If slaves in such large lived alongside their owners, it stood to reason that eventually society would be faced with the prospect of inter-racial births – through plain, old sleeping around. This fear was predicated on the very important, and fundamental, assumption that the black man was human, but inferior. Had the slave been looked upon as somewhat between a man and animal, bestiality would have made sexual relations between the two races pretty much unacceptable.

To address this intolerable possibility, in 1662 Virginia passed a law doubling the fine for “fornication” with a “negro man or woman”, while in 1664 “Maryland regulated interracial marriages”, calling them a “disgrace of our Nation” and “shameful Matches”. I will be remiss if I do not mention the stark similarity I noticed in at least some societal attitudes even in India to inter-caste marriages. While incidents of violent opposition to such marriages are rare in India, and mostly confined, if one goes by news reports, to regions in the North, especially the state of Haryana, one can detect a common note of discomfort at marital unions between groups that are seen as very different in society – whether on the basis of race as in America, or social standing, as in India.

The contrast between the “sprightliness” of the “negro wenches” and the “dull frigid insipidity” of the white women was made that much starker by the fact that having slaves do all the work outside and within the house left the white women in the unenviable position of possessing only slightly better ornamental value than the furniture – to serve “principally an ornamentive function”. On the other hand, they were also seen as, “quite literally, the repositories of white civilization. White men tended to place them protectively upon a pedestal and then run off to gratify their passions elsewhere.”

“One traveler from Philadelphia, described his unfavorable impressions in Charleston by first lamenting that the “superabundance of Negroes” had “destroyed the activity of whites,” who “stand with their hands in their pockets, overlooking their negroes.” … “Nothing has surprised me more than the cold, melancholy reserve of the females, of the best families, in South Carolina and Georgia. Old and young, single and married, all have that dull frigid insipidity, and reserve, which is attributed to solitary old maids. Even in their own houses they scarce titter anything to a stranger but yes or no, and one is perpetually puzzled to know whether it proceeds from awkwardness or dislike. Those who have been at some of their Balls [in Charleston] say that the ladies hardly even speak or smile, but dance with as much gravity, as if they were performing some ceremony of devotion. On the contrary, the negro wenches are all sprightliness and gayety””

Continue this line of reasoning a bit further – if the slave women were so full of passion, it left little to the white man’s imagination what powers of passion the black man would possess. The shoe on the other foot was distinctly uncomfortable.

“white men anxious over their own sexual inadequacy were touched by a racking fear and jealousy. Perhaps the Negro better performed his nocturnal offices than the white man. Perhaps, indeed, the white man’s woman really wanted the Negro more than she wanted him.”

The punishment for any such crime would have to be therefore exemplary. Castration was but the only resort. Such was the obvious brutality of this legal punishment that even “officials in England were shocked and outraged at the idea”.

“The Pennsylvania and New Jersey laws passed early in the eighteenth century (and quickly disallowed by authorities in England) prescribed castration of Negroes as punishment for one offense only, attempted rape of a white woman.”

“Although miscegenation was probably most common among the lower orders, white men of every social rank slept with black women.”

The power of the slave owner over slaves was as absolute as one can imagine, even more so in the southern colonies. “Masters were given immunity from legal prosecution should their slave die under “moderate” correction.”

Given such total and absolute dominion over slaves, a natural question arises – “why?”, and what did they fear from slaves? Yes, economics was certainly a factor – the hot and humid climes and the prevalence of disease exacted a heavy toll in the South, but the slave laws that existed, the brutal reprisals that followed any hint of a slave rebellion, and the constant rumours and fears of free slaves plotting pointed to something else.

“Every planter knew that the fundamental purpose of the slave laws was prevention and deterrence of slave insurrection.”

“Whenever slaves offered violent resistance to the authority of white persons, the reaction was likely to be swift and often vicious even by eighteenth-century standards. The bodies of offenders were sometimes hanged in chains, or the severed head impaled upon a pole in some public place as a gruesome reminder to all passers-by that black hands must never be raised against white.”

“Plainly the fear of free Negroes rested on something more than the realities of the situation.”

This fear of the Negroes extended even to those slaves granted freedom.

“The colonists’ claim was grounded on a revealing assumption: that free blacks were essentially more black than free”

The American Revolution was fought for freedom, and the Declaration of Independence set out, in no uncertain terms the “self-evident truth” that “all men are created equal”. The unstoppable force of this lofty goal of equality ran into the the equally immovable object that slaves were. They were the property of their owners, and to grant them freedom would mean to deprive slave owners of property – a conundrum resolved, though in a ridiculous manner – only by evaluating a slave as three-fifths a person.

“every revolution must suppress its successors.”

While the “first secular antislavery organization was founded in Philadelphia in 1775”, on January 1, 1808, there was a federal prohibition on “slave importation”, and it was generally clear that the tide of popular opinion had turned decisively against slavery, as evidenced by Thomas Scott of Pennsylvania, who “set forth the antislavery case in language which would have been almost inconceivable a generation earlier: “I look upon the slave trade to be one of the most abominable things on earth; and . . . I . . . oppose it upon the principles of humanity, and the law of nature.””, it should be noted that the South was almost equally insistent on the need for perpetual slavery, but also on the terrible injustices that would visit them were “racial intermixture, to which every man in the House, he hoped, had the utmost aversion” were to be allowed.

“Like so many southerners after him, Smith lectured the nation on the peculiar sociology of the South: “The truth is,” Smith declared, “that the best informed . . . citizens of the Northern States know that slavery is so ingrafted into the policy of the Southern States, that it cannot be eradicated without tearing up by the roots their happiness, tranquility, and prosperity.” Smith’s angry speech revealed the near impossibility of defending slavery without derogating the Negro: “It is well known that they are an indolent people, improvident, averse to labor: when emancipated, they will either starve or plunder.”

The tide against slavery ebbed and in some cases reversed starting in the last decade of the eighteenth century. This can arguably be traced to the 1791 slave revolt in the French colony of St Domingo.

“In 1793 white refugees from Haiti came streaming into American ports, many bringing their slaves with them. That year saw growth of a peculiar uneasiness, especially in Virginia,”

It instilled not only a fear of the potential consequences of having a substantial enslaved population living with you (“From about 1730 almost until the Revolution Negroes comprised at least one-third the total population within the line of English settlement from Maryland to South Carolina (and to Georgia after its firm establishment in mid-century). Within this area there were significant variations from colony to colony: North Carolina had only about 25 per cent blacks, Maryland had over 30 per cent, Virginia about 40, and South Carolina probable 60 per cent”), but more than that it created a pervasive atmosphere of paranoia among plantation owners. When finally Virginia faced a slave revolt in 1800, it almost felt “strange” that it had not occurred earlier. In the following years, “several genuine conspiracies were unearthed” and “hangings that year ran to thirty two-three times the annual norm.”

The reprisals were expectedly brutal, in the extreme.

“In 1805, for instance, a slave plot was discovered in North Carolina with the following swift results: one woman was burned alive for poisoning her master, mistress, and two other white persons; three slaves were hanged, one transported, one “pilloried, whipped, nailed, and his ears cut off”; others were whipped or discharged.”

Draping this general fear of a slave revolt brewing in every plantation was a more visceral fear of Negroes “sexually assaulting white women”, even though, “during this entire period of slave unrest there is no evidence of Negroes sexually assaulting white women. Though this lack is hardly final proof of anything, at very least it suggests that the danger of sexual violence by Negroes was exaggerated by white men.”

What is most revealing is the author’s observation that once “absolute dominion” over the black man was threatened, “compensation” was sought “in despising what could no longer be absolutely controlled. Many Americans seemed unable to tolerate equality without separation.”

As the number of freed slaves started to rise, allegations – unfounded for the most part, and certainly without basis in fact – became commonplace that the freed slaves were cheats, thieves, and unreliable in general.

“Maryland particularly, with the largest free Negro population, claimed to be plagued by free Negroes operating as receivers for goods stolen by slaves.”

As private manumissions rose in number, general disquiet over freed slaves took two forms. The first manifested itself through a branding of the freed slaves as lazy, dishonest, and unreliable. The second was via legal dictat to have freed slaves leave the “commonwealth within twelve months” – in the case of the Virginia General Assembly. “Virginia’s neighboring states to the north and west, faced with an influx of freshly manumitted slaves, hastily prohibited immigration of free Negroes.”

This inability to accept slave emancipation – and therefore equality – without segregation would find a wider expression later through debates that centered on ideas on “removing” the black man, now free, from the vicinity of the white man.

“Some men thought Negro removal indispensable to the accomplishment of emancipation.”

“As time went on in the nineteenth century, white Virginians, realizing that colonization was utterly impractical, turned more and more to the self-solacing thought that “prejudices” were inevitable, innate, and right.”

The last piece of information on the prevailing attitudes to slavery in the decades following the Revolution would comes to us from one of the founding fathers of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, but which would cast a most unfavorable light on the great man’s intellect. This is made all the more mortifying on account of the source of this light – Jefferson’s own words. “Thomas Jefferson was scarcely a typical man, but his enormous breadth of interest and his lack of originality make him an effective sounding board for his culture.”

“While he recognized the condition of slaves as “miserable,” the weight of Jefferson’s concern was reserved for the evil effects of slavery upon masters. With slavery’s effect on black men he simply was not overly concerned.”

Marshaling his vast skills of writing, Jefferson could come to no other conclusion than a persistent suspicion, even firm belief, that the Negro possessed lesser intellect than the white man, was “much inferior” in intellect to the “whites”, “dull, tasteless, and anomalous” in “imaginations”, and certainly “scarcely … capable” of “comprehending the investigations of Euclid”.

“More than any other single person he framed the terms of the debate still carried on today.”

To summarize, slavery may have been seen as an economic imperative to begin with, as it grew entrenched in American society, justifications arose to explain the perpetuation of dominion over the slave, his condemnation as a sub-par human with neither the intellect nor the capacity to match the slave owner. A constant fear of slave insurrection led to imposition of repressive laws and brutal reprisals against the slightest of infractions. The looming prospect of freedom for the slaves resulted in the morphing of opinions against slaves as dishonest and lazy slackers, and a general feeling, especially in the South, that white society would not be able to live with free slaves, and that the only equitable solution lay in removing them from society – if Africa were too expensive, then the West.

The felicity with prose and commanding grasp over facts and reasons made this a book I could scarcely put down. If I were to read a second book on this topic, it would probably be “Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II“, by Douglas A. Blackmon, winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction.

Note: I am using terms as used in the book – like Negro, black, and so on – and while some of those terms are very much unacceptable, today, I believe myself quite unable to write a review of this book on slavery and racism in the United States without making use of these words.

Book information:
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
Year: 1974
ISBN: 9780195017434, 0195017439
Buying links: Amazon US UK CanadaKindle US UK CanadaFlipkart
Disclaimer: the views expressed are the personal opinion of the author.
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Abhinav Agarwal

Abhinav Agarwal

Son. Husband. Father. IIM-B gold medalist. Analytics product manager. Reading and photography hobbies.