Moral and Racial Arguments

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Moral and Racial Arguments

Although it is often said that American racism is an exceptional monster, the more accurate argument is that American chattel slavery was exceptional and contributes immensely to modern-day understandings of racial difference in the United States. In western Europe, racism was principally manifested through colonial domination of foreign nations and the result was a set of racial ideologies that intersected with competing nationalisms. In slave societies in Latin America and the Caribbean, a fluid, multi-tiered hierarchy of color, rather than a rigid racial system, organized social relations and made it impossible to exclude all individuals from African descent from economic opportunity or political power. By contrast, beginning in the late seventeenth century in the British territories, nearly every individual of African descent was born into bondage and could only achieve freedom by purchasing it themselves or being freed by their masters. In order to placate European indentured servants who demanded access to property rights, while maintaining the steady labor supply that fueled staple crop production, colonial elites manufactured a legal code that entrenched African slavery and demonstrated colonists willingness to completely rethink gender roles in order to preserve slave systems. Recognizing that the few landholding Africans in America were more likely to be men, African property and emancipatory rights were transferred from mother to child, rather than from father to child as was the case in all European societies at the time.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, racial identity and individual freedom were inextricably linked as there were dozens of judicial cases centered on proving or disproving an individual's African or European ancestry. The one drop rule, the notion that anyone with one drop of European blood had access to emancipation, became ensconced in American case law and was employed by African Americans seeking to link themselves to patriarchal inheritance of rights and freedom. Because there were few scientific understandings of racial difference, the rigid nature of race relations could, at times, serve African Americans who were able to deftly perform white culture to the courts satisfaction.

By the nineteenth century, popular notions of white American racial purity were so powerful they even propelled forward key aspects of the abolitionist movement. The more conservative, and not coincidentally more popular, wing of the abolitionist cause was represented by the American Colonization Society (ACS). Established in 1816 by Charles Fenton Mercer (1778–1858), a Federalist member of the Virginia state assembly, the ACS critiqued the existence of slavery because a large African American presence in the United States threatened the nation's racial purity. African American slavery, they argued, would inevitably lead to interracial sex and procreation. The ACS's impractical notion that Africans could be deported en masse back to the African continent or to Haiti indicates the important role racial ideology played in the minds of most Americans at the time.


Brown, Kathleen. Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Finkelman, Paul. "The Color of Law." Northwestern University Law Review 87, no. 3 (1993): 937-991.

Sharfstein, Daniel J. "The Secret History of Race in the United States." Yale Law Journal 112, no. 6 (2003): 1473-1509.

                                        Kwame A. Holmes

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Moral and Racial Arguments

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