Racist exploitation and super-exploitation, oppression, and ideology is a constant and defining feature of U.S. historical development from nearly the moment of arrival of colonizing settlers to what would become North American shores in the 17th century. Indeed, it is fair to say that every aspect of the country’s historical process has been deeply and indelibly marked by racism, which is more than a prejudice toward people based on their skin color.
But while racism and racial inequality have been essential cornerstones to the country’s development as well as the guarantor of the hegemony of its white ruling elites, the racialized structures and institutions, legitimizing language and symbols, and the terrain and trajectory of racist and anti-racist struggle have changed over time. In this sense slavery is not as much the “original sin” of our country as the first racial (or racist) order, albeit the most searing, brutal, and hyper exploitive one that co-evolved with contemporaneos racial orders during its long duree.
Fundamental to slavery and its descendant racial orders was not only the denial of rights, but also the extraction of enormous amounts of coerced unpaid or underpaid labor, land dispossession, forced migration, and segregation and confinement of people of color to particular living spaces — the plantation, ghetto, barrio, reservation as well as particular zip codes, towns, and cities.
While slavery met its Waterloo in the course of a sanguinary Civil War, “the chains of slavery,” to use Frederick Douglass’s phrase, invaded and wrapped themselves around the social orders that followed up to the present day in countless ways at the ideological and practical level.
Efforts, therefore, to connect the present with the past is anything but an academic exercise. Its elucidation is necessary if we hope to fully understand contemporary racism and the righteous struggles that we are witnessing today against it.