Slavery and Race

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Slavery and Race







Slavery has been an important phenomenon throughout history. Different societies made use of slave labor, from ancient civilizations to Islamic societies, as well as in India, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Only during the modern era, however, did slavery become associated with Africans. After the establishment of European colonies in the New World, slavery was the mainstay of their economies, including that of Brazil, the Caribbean islands, and North America. Africa became intimately connected with the history of slavery, as the source of slaves and also as an important stage for the establishment of slave societies.


Slavery is a form of extreme exploitation. Slaves are defined as economic property. They are social outsiders who are alien by origin or who had been denied their heritage through judicial or other sanctions. With slaves, coercion could be used at will, and their labor power was at the complete disposal of the master. They did not have the right to their own sexuality and, by extension, to their own reproductive capacities. Slave status was inherited unless provision was made to ameliorate that status.

Slavery was fundamentally a means of denying individuals the rights and privileges of a particular society so that they could be exploited for economic, political, and/or social purposes. Usually these people were “outsiders” who were perceived as ethnically different. A person who spoke the same language as his master, without an accent, who shared the same culture, believed in the same religion, and understood the political relationships that determined how power was exercised was far more difficult to control than an outsider, although in some cases people who belonged to the same society could be reduced to the status of slave. When differences in culture or dialect were relatively unimportant, the level of exploitation and the social isolation of slaves were usually limited; such situations suggest that slave holdings were small and that political and economic stratification was minimal. Certainly, the most developed forms of slavery were those in which slaves were removed a considerable distance their birthplace, thereby emphasizing their alien origin. This uprooting was as dramatic as the transport of Africans across the Atlantic Ocean or the Sahara Desert or as dramatic as the seizure of people who lived only a hundred kilometers or less from the home of the enslavers. Both situations helped to define the slave as an outsider, at least in the first instance. Over time, cultural distinctions tended to blur, so that the extent to which alien origin was a factor varied.

When social structures and economics were more complex, then the identification of slaves as outsiders also became more pronounced, so that the acculturation that invariably occurred did not affect the ability of masters to exploit the labor and services of their slaves. For Muslims, religion was a means of categorizing slaves. Those recently acquired were usually not Muslims, or were nominally so. For Europeans in the era of overseas expansion, slaves were perceived as racially distinct and even more clearly defined as outsiders. This meant that European societies could severely limit their acquisition of rights. Other more subtle distinctions were made, including differences in dialect, the accent of people who had just learned a new language, facial and body markings, perceived physical characteristics, and, most common of all, collective memory.

Slavery was fundamentally tied to labor and not infrequently to social prestige. It was not the only form of dependent labor, but slaves could be made to perform any task in the economy. They often performed the most dangerous, menial, and laborious tasks of a given society. In the case of slaves, the concept of labor was not perceived as separate from the slave as a person. The slave was a speaking instrument of work, and coercion could be used to force compliance with particular orders. Slavery could and did exist alongside other types of labor, including serfdom, in which people were tied to the land rather than to the person of the landlord, and their obligations to the landlord were fixed by custom. Other forms of dependent labor arrangements included clientage (voluntary subordination without fixed remuneration for services), wage labor (in which compensation for work was paid), pawn-ship (in which labor was perceived as interest on a debt, with the pawn as collateral for the debt), and communal work (often based on kinship or age grades, in which work was perceived as reciprocal activity based on past and future exchanges). These forms of labor could involve coercion, too, but usually not to the point that they were indistinguishable from slavery.

A primary feature of slavery was the absolute lack of choice on the part of slaves. Their masters controlled their productive capacities, as well as their sexual and reproductive capacities. When slaves constituted a significant proportion of any population, then sexual access and reproduction involving free persons were strongly controlled. Women (and men too) could be treated as sexual objects; the ability to marry could be closely administered; and males could be castrated. The significance of sex is most strikingly revealed in the market price of slaves. In Muslim, Hindu, and ancient Chinese societies, eunuchs were often the most costly. Pretty women and girls cost more, their price depending upon their sexual attractiveness. These two opposites—castrated males and attractive females—demonstrate most clearly the master’s power over slaves’ sexual and reproductive functions. Slaves lacked the right to engage in sexual relationships without the consent of their masters. Their children, when slaves were given the opportunity to have children, were not legally their offspring but the property of the master of the mother. Biologically, they were the offspring of the slaves, but the right to raise the children could be denied. Instead, slave children could be taken away, and even when they were not sold, they could be redistributed as part of marriage arrangements, trained for the army or administration, or adopted by the master’s family. Slaves thus had no legal relatives—neither parents nor siblings nor children.

Those born into slavery clearly had a different experience from those who had been enslaved later in life. For example, in the case of enslaved Africans in the Western Hemisphere, Africa-born slaves were termed bozales and those born in the New World were called creoles. Parents might tell their children of their enslavement, but this was not the children’s experience. Children could also learn about enslavement from new captives, and they were educated into a society in which such acts were well known. Legally, they could be separated from their parents and sold, although some slave laws such as the Spanish Siete partidas encouraged the preservation of intact slave families. The violence behind the original act of enslavement remained, although for the descendents of slaves it was transformed from a real act to a threat. As such, violence was still a crucial dimension of social control.

Slaves tended not to maintain their numbers naturally, and slave populations usually had to be replenished. One reason for this situation was the relatively short life span for many slaves. Death could result from particularly harsh work, and funeral sacrifices and unsuccessful castration operations also took their toll. Travel conditions for slaves destined for distant markets were also a factor; individuals were moved from one disease environment to another and rations were often inadequate.

Another reason for decline was the demographic imbalance between the sexes in slave populations, namely, fewer slave women than slave men. Moreover, when slave women were concentrated in the hands of powerful men who recognized their children as free, such as with concubines in Muslim societies, the proportion of slaves in society may well have had a tendency to decline without affecting the number of people. In some situations, when the status of concubines and slave wives changed to freed, often leading to assimilation or full emancipation, the size of the slave population decreased accordingly. In patrilineal societies the children of slave wives and concubines by free fathers were often granted a status that was completely or almost free. Under Islamic law, for example, this was most pronounced. Concubines could not be sold once they gave birth, and they became free on the death of their master. The children of such unions were free on birth. These features of gradual assimilation or complete emancipation contrasted with slavery as an inherited status, but still illustrate the master’s power to manipulate sexual and reproductive functions for his own purposes.


The best way to approach the overlapping topics of slavery and race is to disaggregate the two ideas. Slavery is best treated historically, that is, what happened over the long sweep of history in terms of the prevalence and location of major slavery concentrations. This approach illustrates the ubiquity of slavery. Race, as it connects to slavery, is peculiar to time and place, particularly to Europe and its colonies since the age of Enlightenment in the eighteenth century.

In ancient times, slavery had little to do with physical appearance. In ancient Greece, slavery was associated with foreigners, or those considered “barbarians.” Anyone from outside the Greek world was subjected to enslavement, including Africans, central Europeans, and Asians. The regions that regularly supplied the Greek market with slaves were Scythia and Illyria in Europe and Syria and Persia to the east. Slaves were brought from northeastern Africa as well. Slavery was also a product of warfare: Prisoners of war were enslaved by their captors and employed as manual laborers. In most cases slavery was also associated with ethnicity, religion, and cultural differences. The expansion of Islam in the seventh century extended and further codified existing forms of slavery that had dominated the Mediterranean region. Under Islam, religion was a key factor in defining slave status—Muslims being theoretically protected from enslavement—and populations who were not Muslim were subjected to assault, enslavement, the payment of special taxes, and other religiously sanctioned discrimination. In this case, slavery was not correlated to skin color. For Muslims, slavery was restricted to non-Muslims. Christians, Jews, and pagan populations could be enslaved.

Slavery was not a racial institution but rather an institution of conquest. Slaves were brought from subjugated territories. Muslim scholars developed theories about the good and bad qualities of different groups of people, including a taxonomy of slaves that categorized them according to both their origins and their educational backgrounds. Ibn Butlan (d. 1066 AD) argued that the determining factor in the differences in human character was geographical location. He accordingly viewed as opposites the characteristics of Easterners and Westerners, as well as Northerners and Southerners. He considered the Armenians the worst of the whites, while he considered the Zanj the worst of the blacks. “They are similar in the strength of their stature, their propensity to destruction, and their toughness” (Ibn Butlan 1393/h-1973, p. 378). There was, however, space to discredit some of the stereotypes associated with blacks. The Muslim theologian al-Jahiz (c. 776–868 or 869 AD), for instance, challenged these views in his epistle on the relative qualities of blacks and whites.

The Christian justification of slavery hinged on racial categories, in which the Biblical reference to the curse of Noah was invoked to explain why Africans were slaves. According to legend, the curse on the “sons of Ham” explained the color of the skin of Africans, and the curse meant that black people were degraded and their punishment a “natural” slavery. Slavery, however, was not associated specifically with Africans or blacks.

During the Middle Ages most slaves serving in western Europe were of “Slavic” origins from central and eastern Europe. The term slav gave way to sclavus, the root of schiavo, esclavo, esclave, sclau, sklave, and slave in various European languages. In Germany during the tenth century, sclavus had become synonymous with slave. In Europe Italian merchants continued to buy large numbers of Slavic prisoners along the Dalmatian coast. During the thirteenth century, western Europeans began to intercept people from Caucasia to the eastern Balkans, under foreign rule, to force them into slavery. These captives were Armenians, Circassians, Georgians, Abkhazians, Mingrelians, Russians, Tartars, Albanians, and Bulgarians—a very multicultural group. These “slavs” were exported to Mediterranean markets, mainly Egypt, Syria, Cyprus, and Sicily, where local traders were willing to pay a good price for their services. Targeting “slavs”led to the transformation of the term into a synonym for chattel slavery. The term began to be applied to others as well, including Muslim captives seized in the Iberian Peninsula. The term, then, lost its original meaning, which was associated exclusively with people of Slavic descent and came to signify any captive. Nevertheless, slavery continued to be conceived as appropriate only for outsiders, pagans, and infidels, who shared the supposed characteristics of “slavs.” In Portugal, on the periphery of the Slavic slave trade but increasingly involved in religious warfare with Muslim North Africa, the word escravo was used alongside such terms as mouro, guineu, and nègro. Later on, the French nègre and the English black became virtually synonymous with slave.

Europeans were aware of African slavery long before they settled their colonies in the Americas. The trans-Saharan routes unifying North and sub-Saharan Africa had brought African slaves to the Mediterranean world. Slaves were traded through North Africa to supply markets in southern Europe and in the Arabian Peninsula. African slaves also became an important source of labor in both Spain and Portugal, working side by side captured Muslims. Slavery was still not seen in racial terms and was not limited to Africans and their descendents. Europeans, in this case, mainly Portuguese, bought and traded non-Christians, moving them from Europe and Africa to the Atlantic islands. Domestic slavery was also employed along the Iberian Peninsula, but again, bondage had nothing to do with physical attributes. For Iberians, slavery was associated with non-Christians, either pagans or Muslims. Slavery, however, was utterly transformed by the European expansion to the Americas.

Initially, European commercial expansion was motivated by the quest for gold and spices—the profits of trade. The Portuguese were more interested in reaching the sources of gold in sub-Saharan African than in buying slaves. The initial European maritime contacts with West Africa were forged to acquire gold and other commercial commodities that were already being traded across the Sahara to North Africa by Muslim traders. Portuguese intentions were to bypass these merchants. During their maritime explorations, however, the Portuguese settled a series of islands in the Atlantic from the Azores to São Tomé. Plantations were established on the islands to supply the nascent European demand for sugar. The Azores, Canary Islands, Cape Verde, and São Tomé were ideal locations for trading ventures along the African coast. Portugal’s small population limited these ventures. The Portuguese Crown was able to relocate only a few artisans and other workers, who aspired to escape manual labor and achieve access to land. Captives from the Canary Islands supplied the needed labor. They were employed in the construction of public works, including irrigation canals. From very early on, African slaves were brought to the various islands. The Atlantic islands were the prototype for the sugar plantation economies established in the Americas. From the beginning, sugar production was dependent on African slave labor.


In 1498, just a few years after the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas, the Spanish Crown began importing African slaves to work on sugar plantations in its American colonies. The first recorded use of African slaves in Spanish America was in 1502. Aseriesoflawswere established in order to control the slave trade between Africa and the Spanish colonies in the Americas. These laws not only established a House of Commerce, which controlled the trade, they also favored the importation of Africans instead of the use of Amerindians as slaves. Between 1502 and 1650, most of the slaves imported into the Americas went to Spanish colonies. Differing from the Portuguese, British, and French, who increased their importation in the eighteenth century, the core of the African slaves imported into mainland Spanish America arrived in the early period of colonization. Africans were used on agricultural plantations, particularly sugar, but also in mining operations. By 1650, after the Spanish had discovered silver mines in the viceroyalties of New Spain and La Plata, it is estimated that there were 35,000 African slaves in modern Mexico and 100,000 in Peru.

In the sixteenth century, stimulated by the profits of sugar exports to Europe, the Portuguese Crown imported sugarcane from the islands of Madeira and São Tomé in order to establish sugar plantations along the Brazilian coast. Amerindian and African labor were used side by side in Brazil. However, the constant conflict between the Portuguese authorities and the indigenous population, and the condemnation of enslavement of Native Americans, stimulated the importation of African slaves. The Portuguese Crown, in an effort to drain Portuguese prisons, started to deport prisoners and outlaws to Brazil. Nevertheless, the belief that Europeans should not be enslaved was already strong by the mid-sixteenth century. By 1600, half of the slave population in Brazil was African born, and this number increased in the following decades. The slave trade was so profitable for the Portuguese Crown that by 1650 Portuguese America had superseded the Spanish territories as the major importer of African slaves.

The increasing wealth of the Portuguese monarchy, through the profits of the slave trade between Africa and the Americas, as well as sugar production, drew the attention of the British, Dutch, and French elites to the opportunities that the Americas offered. Still, slavery and servitude were not exclusive to Africans. Between 1654 and 1685, 10,000 indentured servants sailed from Bristol alone, chiefly for the West Indies and Virginia. Two-thirds of the immigrants to Pennsylvania during the eighteenth century were white servants; in four years, 25,000 came to Philadelphia alone. It has been estimated that more than 250,000 persons were of this class during the colonial period and that they probably constituted one-half of the all-English immigrants, the majority going to the middle colonies. Some of these white immigrants were indentured servants, so-called because before departure from their homeland, they had signed a contract, indented by law, binding them to service for a stipulated time in return for their passage. Still others, know as “redemptioners,” arranged with the captain of the ship to pay for their passage on arrival or within a specified time thereafter; if they did not, they were sold by the captain to the highest bidder. Others were convicts, sent out by the deliberate policy of the home government to serve for a specified period.

This white servitude is of cardinal importance for an understanding of the development of slavery in the New World and the idea of races. That whites were employed as indentured laborers contradicts the idea that whites could not stand the strain of manual labor in the climate of the New World and that, for this reason, the European powers had to turn to Africans. African slavery had nothing to do with climate; it was only a solution to the labor problem. Sugar meant labor—at times that labor has been slave, at other times nominally free; at times black, at other times white, brown, or yellow. Despite the early experiments with local Amerindian labor, by the end of the sixteenth century the link had been forged between African slave labor and sugar cultivation on plantations. Thereafter, Europeans and local-born planters consistently preferred Africans as laborers on sugar plantation. Later planters came to think that African slaves and their descendents were the only appropriate form of labor for work on plantations, whatever the crop.

In the seventeenth century more European states joined the slave trade. Despite Spanish and Portuguese control over the trade between Africa and the Americas, private and state representative merchants of other European monarchies enrolled in the lucrative trade. The Dutch were present in different regions of the Americas, from New Amsterdam to Guyana, passing through the island of Curaçao in the Caribbean. After the Dutch took control of Olinda and Recife, in northeastern Brazil, in 1630, they obtained control over sugar production in the Americas. However, they did not control the supply of slaves. The solution was to conquer, in 1637, the Portuguese-controlled Elmina fort along the Gold Coast—one of the most important slaving ports in West Africa. A few years later, in 1641, the Dutch also seized other Portuguese holdings in Africa such as the ports of Luanda and Benguela and the island of São Tomé. Dutch imperial pretensions were complete with the conquest of São Luis do Maranhão, in northeastern Brazil. For twenty years, the Dutch controlled the slave trade between Africa and the Americas. They occupied the space left by the Portuguese Crown, which was divided by internal political problems. Since its unification with the Spanish Crown, in 1580, the Portuguese

monarchy had been in decline. It recovered only after the two crowns were once again divided in 1640. Soon after that, in 1648, Portuguese and Luso-Brazilian troops conquered Luanda, and by 1654 the Portuguese again controlled northeastern Brazil. In the last years of the seventeenth century gold was found in Minas Gerais, in Brazil. This led to an increase in the volume of African slaves imported in order to work in mines. After a few decades away from the slave trade business, Portuguese and Brazilian brokers were back on the African coast. The importation of slaves increased in order to supply the nascent mining industry in the interior and the expanding sugar cane production along the coast.

The English and the French were not far behind. The English were drawn to West Africa by the Portuguese and Spanish successes. Their initial efforts were mainly privateering raids, but by the early seventeenth century the English began to trade seriously in the region, thanks in part to the acquisition of colonies in the Americas. In the 1630s sugar production was introduced into the British colony of Barbados, as an adventure of private merchants looking for quick profits. Even without state support, a group of settlers found economic support among British merchants interested in the importation of agricultural goods, especially tobacco from Virginia and sugar from Barbados. The main problem was the labor supply in the colonies. At first, free labor, especially of immigrants escaping religious persecution, was used in North American territories. Soon, however, the profits of the slave trade were found to be very attractive, and the British plantation owners proceeded to organize and finance expeditions to the African coast. The English slave trade was organized initially through state-backed monopoly companies. From the beginning, however, interlopers sought to penetrate these trading restrictions. Like others before, the English found that the key to the expansion of their slave trading was to be found in the Americas. The settlement of West Indies islands, notably Barbados and Jamaica, and the development of the Chesapeake colonies, laid the foundations for British colonial demand for imported labor. After experiments with different kinds of labor, local settlers in all these places turned to African slaves. In the Caribbean the importation of African slaves started in the 1640s, but in Virginia and Maryland African slave labor became predominant only by the end of the seventeenth century. Noticing the potential profits in the slave trade business, the British Crown in 1672 created the Royal African Company, which held a monopoly over the slave trade. By 1689, however, independent traders were able to break the monopoly and bring more slaves to the British colonies than the Royal African Company could supply. In the last two decades of the seventeenth century the trade in African slaves increased sharply. It is estimated that 20,000 slaves disembarked in the North American colonies in this period. As in the other American colonies, male slaves were preferred over females and children. From the slave owners’ perspective, females and children were not as profitable as male slaves.


In most societies, slaves did not differ radically in physical shape and color from the freeborn population, and yet over time slavery and race became closely linked, especially in reference to Africans. Rome enslaved people from elsewhere in the Mediterranean and then later from north of the Alps. In the Arab world, slaves could be blonde-haired people from the Slavic world or black people from south of the Sahara. And there were many slaves in the medieval period who came from eastern Europe. Both Christianity and Islam banned the sale of coreligionists, although this rule was not always enforced. They enslaved each other and felt free to enslave peoples seen as pagans or barbaric, that is, people who were different from themselves. By the fifteenth century, Portuguese and other southern Europeans began receiving increasing number of slaves from West Africa, and from that time on, slavery began to be associated with Africans.

In the sixteenth century, European conquest and exploitation of the resources of the Americas had a devastating impact on the indigenous population, with the result that there was a severe decline in population as a consequence of new diseases and harsh policies. Hispanic America Catholic missionaries, such as Bartolomé de Las Casas (1474–1566), were horrified by the treatment of native peoples and persuaded the Spanish Crown to ban their enslavement, although Amerindians continued to be enslaved well into the eighteenth century. Slaves were still thought to be necessary. Because Europeans were not willing to enslave each other and lacked the military capacity to enslave Muslims in large numbers, the Portuguese and then other Europeans turned to Africa for the labor they needed to open up commercial agriculture on the islands off the African coast, in Brazil, and in the Caribbean and to conduct mining operations in Hispanic America and Brazil.

The association between Africans and slavery resulted in a high level of prejudice against blacks during and after slavery. It became a common misconception that the enslavement of Africans must have arisen as the result of racial differences. In his 1944 book Capitalism and Slavery, the historian Eric Williams forcefully argued that this was not the case. Slavery caused racism, but economic motives, not racial impulses, caused slavery. The rise of plantation slavery was tied to the development of capitalism; the decision to import large numbers of Africans and to hold them in hereditary bondage was based on the fact that enslaved Africans were cheaper than any other form of labor then available.

Many scholars maintain that the concept of “race” is a modern invention, the result of European imperial expansion from the sixteenth century onward, and especially gaining currency in the eighteenth century. Hence, the practice of racial classification began only a few hundred years ago, and the concept became fully developed only during the Enlightenment, when European intellectuals and political leaders became increasingly confident that experience and reason enabled them to explain all natural phenomena. Europeans were struck by physical differences between themselves and Africans and believed that these differences demanded explanation. This focus on somatic differences was in sharp contrast with the casualness of ancient Greeks about their physical differences from Nubians. In ancient times, it seems, people apparently were less concerned about such differences.

According to modern science, physical differences among people are superficial, especially skin color. Not only is it impossible to classify people in neatly divided groups, but the mixing of peoples that has taken place in all parts of the world means that all people are more closely related to each other than they are different. There is also no evidence to link visible physical characteristics with moral, temperamental, or intellectual differences. Nevertheless, once developed, racist ideologies have provided justifications for discrimination, segregation, and colonial rule.


Most nineteenth-century Westerners came to believe, based on the widespread concept of scientific races, that there were three basic racial groups—Caucasoids, Negroids, and Mongoloids. Western scientists, however, did not agree on the total number of races that could exist on Earth, although they all shared the assumption that distinct racial groups existed. The most notable and eminent scientists of the nineteenth century supported the idea of human beings divided by races, including the French diplomat and writer Arthur Gobineau, the Americans Josiah Clark Nott and George Robins Gliddon, and the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Their work is usually called “scientific racism.”

Differences among people, including differences among communities within a single society, are fundamental to the way people are classified. Since the end of the eighteenth century, race and nationalism became important factors in such classifications. Instead of situational features, slavery became associated with race, which had acquired a biological meaning. Slavery preceded racism against blacks, but during the nineteenth century racist ideas were generated to justify the enslavement of Africans. The European expansion and occupation of new lands produced a new world divided along color lines. A new worldview was in place, corroborated by Western scientists. According to this new worldview, whites were superior to any other group of people. Subjugated people were portrayed as inferior. Africans became associated with slavery, savagery, paganism, immorality, primitiveness, and wretchedness.

In the context of African history, the interrelationship of internal forms of slavery and servility with the export trade in slaves is an important consideration and topic of debate among scholars. The transatlantic and trans-Saharan slave trades removed millions of enslaved Africans from their homelands. The relative impact of the external trade in slaves to internal developments within Africa is also a subject of debate. Most estimates of the number of enslaved Africans who were shipped to the Americas center on twelve million; the number of people sent as slaves across the Sahara Desert, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean have been more difficult to establish, but the scale of this trade was historically very large.

The political developments of the several centuries before the institution of formal European rule resulted in the massive enslavement of people in Africa. The emergence of new states along the Atlantic coast of Africa and in its immediate hinterland was closely associated with the development of the transatlantic slave trade. Dahomey (later Benin), for example, emerged as a state whose structure required the enslavement of people. Slaves were killed in public ceremonies associated with the political power of the Dahomean monarchy; were sold to Europeans to raise essential revenue for the state; or, after the ending of the transatlantic trade in slaves, were settled on plantations in Dahomey to produce palm oil and harvest palm kernels. A series of Muslim holy wars, which began in the Senegambia region in the late seventeenth century and spread across the savanna as far as the Red Sea by the end of the nineteenth century, also accounted for great numbers of slaves.

Even though forms of slavery existed in Africa before the maritime arrival of Europeans and long before the emergence of the American slave systems, the European demand for African slaves had a transforming impact on African societies. The imposition of a racially defined slavery system changed the understanding of slavery. In the Americas, for the first time, slavery targeted a single group, and it was based on physical attributes, rather than being situational and tied to capture in war.

SEE ALSO African Enslavement, PreColonial; Language; Nott, Josiah; Plantations; Skin Color.


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Paul E. Lovejoy
Mariana P. Candido
Yacine Daddi Addoun

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Slavery and Race