Capitalism Hits Home: The Origins of Racism - An Untold History

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Our nation's racism was a deliberate policy developed in response to rebellions in the 1600s when white indentured servants, free black men and women and enslaved black people rose up together against their exploitation. In this episode of Capitalism Hits Home, Dr. Fraad shares the story of this hugely important, yet often untaught, historical moment and its implications today.

Transcript has been edited for clarity

Hello. This is Dr. Harriet Fraad with Capitalism Hits Home, a show about the intersections of our personal and social and economic lives. I want to thank everyone who is listening and watching and [who] wants to recommend this program and build our audience and get the word out. I want to especially thank our Patreon listeners who help support this program, and thank Democracy at Work, which supports this program, and Bryan Isom, who photographs and records this program and brings it to life.

Today I want to talk about something that has blown my mind recently. Because all through grade school I learned about the Pilgrims who came and settled the United States, and the other people who come here looking to avoid religious persecution … the same boring story over and over again. I also didn't learn what I'm learning now – I didn't learn in high school either or college – and that's that between a half and two-thirds of Americans who came here as settlers (the second settlers, because the Native Americans were the first settlers who came here) came here as an alternative to debtors prison, regular prison, workhouses, and other arrests. They came here because they were desperately poor, and they came within a whole system that's called indenture.

In indenture, the captain of the ship that brings you to America, the British colony – that captain takes you aboard, relieving the state of England of the people on it, and ships you to the United States where you are sold. Your labor is sold for any period between four and about ten years, where you are basically owned. But let's backtrack a little bit.

What's happening in England that this was such a phenomenon? Well, in the 1600s when this was,happening, aristocrats found it was much more lucrative to have vast lands devoted to raising sheep or raising wheat instead of these little farms, carved up through feudalism, with the feudal farmer and his first son and others working on their little bit of land. That wasn't profitable: to leave these people to make enough subsistence out of the land they farmed, that then they could give a whole lot to the lord of the manor, who would take it.

Instead, they could make a whole lot more. And they stopped the common forest land and the common pasture land with enclosures that were owned by the aristocrats, and kicked those people off the land. Well, that meant that in the towns that were developing, there were hundreds and hundreds of thousands of desperately poor people, and the prisons were getting full – and they were no picnic. The debtors' prisons, the regular prisons, the workhouses, where poor people were put to work under bruising conditions – they were all jammed with this population, overwhelmingly homeless and desperately poor, living in the towns of England. And so, at the same time, Britain wanted their colony, which was America, to be settled by white British people. They wanted to take the Native American land and give it to whites, usually white aristocrats, and get poor whites to farm it, and take it from the Native Americans, who were in many cases their enemies.

That was how they wanted to build their colonies, but not enough people were volunteering to make a long, sickening voyage to America, and then come there into a wild land
that didn't look exciting. However, what they did was they gave the desperate poor the alternative of going to prison or going to America. And because of the state of the prisons, most of them took going to America. In addition they rounded up poor children who lived on the streets of England, got them to go to America against their will. They also press-ganged and kidnapped people, and they facilitated getting people to leave by creating about 330 new offenses, that were offenses that could [get you] arrested, so you could go to jail or get shipped to the colony that was America. That would save you from prison, and save the British authorities from maintaining you – at least [they did] to some extent – in prison, and hiring the wardens and everyone else. And so, what happened was people, instead of arrest, were shipped to the United States.

The shipper made a huge profit off these people. He jammed them into ships like the slave conditions when the slaves were imported to the United States. He gave them inadequate food and inadequate water, and if anyone got sick they got thrown overboard. And then when these debtors and poor people landed in America, they were sold at markets for indenture, where you could buy a servant or a wife to serve you for four to seven years at hard labor,
with uncomfortable conditions – and these were white people who were sold. However, their whole person wasn't sold. Their labor was sold and they had to live with and be available
to the master for their period of indenture. If they ran away, they could be returned, whipped, and their indenture was extended. There's even a couple of lines in the Constitution that guarantee that masters, whose indentured servants ran away, had a right to reclaim them and punish them.

Now, unlike the slaves, the indentured servants were able to report crimes against them. However, they weren't allowed to sit on juries, so you can imagine to whom those rewards of those juries and those “justice” operations went. So it really didn't pay because it didn't go on the side of the servants. Women who were indentured as wives had to have sex with their husband and stay for as long as he wanted them, over the four to seven years that they were indentured servants.

So you had a massive group of impoverished whites, and when their indenture was over,
they were sometimes promised some tobacco to sell, or a few suits of clothes, or a little bit of money, but those promises were usually or most often not kept, because where would you go if they didn't give it to you? You had nothing. Remember, even when the American Revolution was fought, in 1776, only six percent of the population could vote, and those were people who had property, and were male, and were whites. That's six percent of the population at the time. These people were sometimes given a little bit of land abutting Indian lands, which were dangerous to cultivate, because the Native Americans didn't necessarily want their land stolen and therefore tried to take it back violently, since negotiations were hopeless.

And so you developed a mass of poor whites and that's where mostly those of us who are of English extraction – that's where we came from. Those of us who are of German or Irish
extraction, many more came in the 1800s as indentured servants whose labor was owned and whose person had to stay and serve the master. Then of course immigrants came, several million immigrants came with the promise of gold – and the actual experience of working for eighteen hours a day in a factory to enrich someone. However, our history is marked by indenture, by servitudes, by coming here, being sold, having the shipper make a lot of money since he saved a lot on your food and water and comfort on the ship, and that was quite a profitable trade, just like later the slave trade was profitable.

Well, what happened to that system? One of the things that happened which gave birth to American racism – a long tradition here – is that in 1666 and 1667, there was something called Bacon's Rebellion, where some lesser aristocrats (Lord Bacon for one) were dissatisfied that they got the poorer lands from the Native American lands captured. They wanted more and they weren't given it. They joined and paid for the arms of the indentured servants who were angry, of the freed blacks who were angry and wanted a different kind of government, and for the slaves who rose up in revolt. It was a united revolt of whites and backs against a class system of ownership and dispossession. So the dispossessed rose up together and around that time there were there were eight hundred rebellions as well as six slave revolts. And those rebellions were united blacks, free and slave, and indentured servants. They brought in thousands of soldiers from England, those rebellions were violently put down, and England had a problem on their hands. They didn't want this anymore and so they instituted racism. They gave whites particular privileges over blacks, which would prevent them from uniting with blacks. They were of higher stature. They got more privileges. When they were freed, they could even own a slave if they could afford one.

And so the balance shifted. And Jim Crow, according to Adolph Reed, whose book about the South just came out this year, in 2022 – his last chapter talks about how even the Jim Crow laws were much more beneficial for the ruling class than the ordinary people who got the distinction of being white, but very little else, and whose labor was cheapened, and who through that petty bribe prevented from uniting with black workers and winning.

And so that's a class lesson for all of us. It's also a history lesson, which is a very important lesson for us to learn. It shows us that our history has been doctored. It's not only, as the book 1619 and its followers talk about, the horror of slavery and Jim Crow which has been repressed and continues [to be repressed] that marks our history, and has been unspoken, it's also the mass of white Americans’ history as bondspeople, even though between half and two-thirds of us who originally came here were not the noble pioneers escaping religious persecution, but bondspeople escaping to have a chance, escaping the trumped-up charges that would allow them to be imprisoned and then deported as bondspeople, as indentured servants.

I wanted to share that with you because it also affords for us a very, very important lesson, which is: we can win, if we're black and white together, and if all ethnicities, and religions, and sexualities fight together. We have a chance to change the class system that denies about 80 percent of Americans. But we have to be together and we can't let them divide us through racism, sexism, or anything else. And so it's an important history lesson.

It's a lesson I became interested in because there's a story by Howard Fast called “Rachel” in a collection called Patrick Henry and the Frigate’s Keel, and it's about a bondswoman. I was really curious about that and it was incredibly hard to find information. It's not in our history books. It's even hard to find on the great sage Google, which can tell you about anything. Where I found the most information was in Howard Zinn’s A People's History of the United States, and in Rosalyn Baxandall and Linda Gordon's book of documents of working women, [America’s Working Women], because they talk about indenture. Zinn talks about it most, and that's really important for us to know our own history and to us to know that it's the white working class that was sold here. Their labor was sold; their whole person wasn't. They were not property except for the duration of their servitude. We came as indentured servants, sold and owned for the period of our indenture. And we belong together with all those other people that came against their will or that came out of desperation, and we can together change America. The reason they put Bacon's Rebellion down so forcefully was because they were really threatened.

Thank you for listening and watching, if you did, and thank you for sharing this bit of history which I found amazing and which I hope you found interesting as well. Thank you to Democracy at Work and our Patreon subscribers. Goodbye.

Transcript by one of Cindy Mitlo.
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- A People’s History of The United States by Howard Zinn: https://bookshop.org/books

- America’s Working Women: A Documentary History, 1600 to the Present by Rosalyn Baxandall and Linda Gordon: https://history.wisc.edu/publications

- The South: Jim Crow and Its Afterlives by Adolph L. Reed Jr: https://bookshop.org/books

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LEARN MORE: Capitalism Hits Home with Dr. Harriet Fraad

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Showing 5 comments

  • Maria Carnemolla-Mania
    commented 2022-03-29 14:41:31 -0400
    Dr Harriet’s response:
    Thank you, Thomas Johnson! Thomas Johnson is correct in pointing out the racist Papal Decree of 1452. That was the Catholic Church’s encouragement to all explorer/ conquerers to conquer as well as rape and pillage foreign lands that could be claimed for their imperialist conquerer/exploiters whether it was in what is now the US, or anywhere in South America, Africa, Asia, etc. The point was to extend the realm of the Catholic Church, and its European sponsors by any and all means possible. It’s just as Bob Dylan said in his song entitled “You Don’t Count the Dead When You Have God On Your Side.”
    The Pope in 1452 supplied God to the imperialist explorer/conquerers. The point was not specifically racist, but those conquered were people of color who the Pope served up as victims for Catholic Church and Imperialist expansion. Racism was used as an excuse for economic exploitation with a religious blessing.
  • Pasqual DiGesu
    commented 2022-03-24 11:00:01 -0400
    Very interesting history and not surprising at all. Uncontrolled instinctive forces of Capitalism have always been the drivers of most our class divisions, abusive use of resources, and poverty throughout history.
  • Thomas Johnson
    commented 2022-03-23 19:43:59 -0400
    To correct a typo in my previous comment: The Supreme Court’s decision in Johnson vs McIntosh was in 1823, not 1923. My apologies.
  • Thomas Johnson
    commented 2022-03-23 19:40:55 -0400
    The roots of America’s racism go farther back than the 1600’s. They go back as far as 1452 and a papal decree called “The Doctrine of Discovery” which is the historical pretext for Slavery in America, the near extermination of America’s indigenous people and its adoption into our legal system by the U.S. Supreme Court in Johnson vs McIntosh, 1923. http://ili.nativeweb.org/sdrm_art.html?fbclid=IwAR3f0NZs6w7kx4GcL-laCipVUVuStWcF4Er8x4JBkcG3KwWAPIC9f9D4kU0
  • Jim Tracey
    commented 2022-03-23 13:21:42 -0400
    Very interesting and, if true, eye-opening take of “the Land of the [eventually] free”.
    This is information that should be widely made known, and discussed.

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