Glasswing, a modern organization with a focus on healing racism, defines racism as power plus prejudice (Glasswing). A European heritage of constant religious clashes (prejudice) and burgeoning desires for independence and opportunity in the New World (power) instilled in early American colonists a strict intolerance and economic drive (which can be interpreted as racism as revealed through their actions) that would blend and shape the slave system and give further definition to racism.
Racism undoubtedly had its origins far earlier than 15th century Europe, but for the purposes of tracking racism in America, the focus is on its European roots. Cultural and religious diversity has been the cause of debate and war in Europe since the world’s earliest beginnings. In the late 1400’s, a newly united Spain finally cast out Muslim “moors” after years of religious warfare and tensions. Similarly, in England, the Protestant Reformation led to tensions in English-controlled Ireland, who desired to escape the rule of new Protestantism. England crushed the rebellion and instilled in its people contempt for the natives of Ireland, as well as for indigenous peoples of diverse religion it countries it would later come into contact with. Furthermore, early contact with West Africa, established by the Portuguese, introduced Europeans to slave trade. Africans had been trading slaves within the continent long before Europeans arrived, and the Europeans became involved since it was a main way of trading and dealing economically with the West Africans; the slave trade would later supply European sugar islands with large amounts of fairly cheap labor. All these factors thrust so heavily and quickly upon the Europeans overwhelmed them with emotions and preconceived notions that would lead to aspects of racism such as dehumanization and exploitation, mainly for economic purposes, which would come to characterize the slave system in America.
Enter the god, gold, and glory approach. First encounters with the natives by explorers since Columbus proved that Europeans had a race problem long before an established and lasting slave system began in the New World. Travelers burdened by the weight of ambitions for status, both socially and religiously, encouraged the maltreatment and exploitation of native peoples. Economic exploitation was undoubtedly the main motive behind racism and enslavement of the natives, rather than pure dislike for their race; to get to the treasures the New World had to offer, one first had to get through the natives. Unfortunately for them, the natives were overpowered fairly quickly and easily. Europeans were able to utilize them as cheap and often times free labor due to the natives’ loose societal organization and vulnerability. For example, Cortez took advantage of the Aztecs once he realized there was internal unrest. The rest is history. Rather than pure hatred for their kind, Europeans were mostly just greedy of the natives’ virgin treasures, ready to be unfurled for the plundering.
As one may see, two main motives drove the Europeans in their racism: religious zeal and intolerance, as well as economic ambition and exploitation. These intrinsic behaviors easily permeated through the colonial Americas and eventually found themselves looking at some 400,000 African slaves. Furthermore, through analysis of the early slave system in America, one can see the economic basis for the horrid treatment of Africans: it was cheaper and conceived to be more “efficient” to cram hundreds of Africans into cramped barges-why not, considering that they weren’t seen as humans, but cargo? And the dehumanization of Africans in the colonies through social deprivation and deadly physical conditions were merely since the Africans replaced the recently freed indentured servant class. The racism was there, and it had already touched the Native Americans, religious reformists (who often associated with the natives), and the indentured servant class-for although reformists and indentured servants were largely native to Europe, their appearance was undoubtedly distinct due to long histories of social class distinctions in Europe. So what came first, the fertile egg of racism in the nest of European mindset, or the fully grown chicken of the slave system? Based on evidence of historical prejudices and pre-colonial actions, one must necessarily realize that the egg came first.
Glasswing. (2012). Glasswing training manual. Albion, MI:Starr Commonwealth.