This reasoning suggests that African American voters make pragmatic political choices based on an understanding of the persistence of anti-black racism in our society, sometimes settling for a white candidate who they think will be least objectionable to white voters while causing African Americans the least harm.
To understand where we are today, we need to understand the deep roots of anti-black racism in the history of the Americas.
As a powerful ideology, racism did not remain static or set in stone but shape-shifted and transformed historically, through legal and religious discourses and institutions. This process itself guided and transformed politics, the economy, and ultimately the course of American history. Enshrined in law from our earliest days, it was, ironically, the establishment of a republic in the United States that gave race its ultimate political and legal significance because it directly tied citizenship to whiteness.
By the early 18th century, settlers in Spanish, French and British colonies in the New World had all codified racial distinctions into law. The first Africans arrived in Havana about 100 years before 1619, and in Louisiana a little more than 100 years after 1619. But in all three places, by the early 1700s, European colonists had committed themselves to legal regimes that aligned freedom with whiteness, blackness with enslavement. Yet enslaved people pushed back, claiming freedom in a variety of ways, creating openings for themselves in law and in politics.
A crucial turning point in the creation of race through law occurred in the late 18th century, known as the Age of Revolution for the war, revolutions and slave rebellions that roiled the Atlantic between 1763, at the close of the Seven Years’ War, and 1831, when Nat Turner’s Rebellion shook the U.S. South. Some believed it would result in slave emancipation across the Americas. And yet the Age of Revolution ultimately deepened the strength of anti-black racism in American law and politics in a way it did not elsewhere.
Not only did the Constitution protect slavery, but enslaved people’s claims to freedom were met with retrenchment and reform in the new United States, even in a state like Virginia, that briefly debated ending slavery in 1831-32, or Louisiana, with its large and established population of free people of color.
The era did breed a “contagion of liberty” — but also a reactionary response. Enslaved people in both North and South America took advantage of revolutionary ideologies and social unrest to make claims for freedom. During the American Revolution, thousands of slaves freed themselves by fleeing to British lines, and some Virginia slaves sent as substitutes to the rebel army also gained freedom. In the northern United States, every state enacted some form of gradual emancipation, although decades passed before all slaves became free.
In what historian Vincent Brown has called “the long war against slavery,” the rebellions and freedom claims of enslaved people themselves, expanded across the Americas in the Age of Revolution. Most seismic of all were events in Saint-Domingue.
On the eve of the slave rebellions that began in 1791 and culminated in Haitian independence in 1804, Saint-Domingue was the world’s major exporter of sugar and coffee, an economic system that depended on an enslaved population equal to the entire U.S. South. On Jan. 1, 1804, revolutionaries led by Toussaint L’Ouverture declared the independence of the nation of Haiti.
Haiti represented both the horrors and promises of the revolutionary Atlantic: a beacon of freedom and equality to some; the prime example of black barbarism and degeneracy to others. White ideologues in Cuba, fearing the specter of black men in charge of a nation, dismissed Haiti as a “stupid, insignificant, impotent government of orangutans.” To the groups of free black artisans and slaves participating in the antislavery movement led by Havanan José Antonio Aponte in 1812, Haiti was a source of inspiration.
Planters and colonial officials across the Americas feared that growing communities of free people of color, inspired by the revolutionary upheaval, might take up arms alongside slaves. This fear was warranted. To people of color across the Atlantic world, news of Haiti did indeed inspire rebellion.
The authorities of Virginia averted a wide-ranging conspiracy involving slaves, whites and some free people of color in 1800. In New Orleans, Charles Deslondes, an enslaved man most likely from Saint-Domingue, led a revolt in which several hundred followers marched on the city in military formation and under uniformed officers in 1811. One year later, authorities in Havana uncovered the Aponte rebellion, a wide-ranging antislavery movement that reached into the plantation areas with the cooperation of slaves and free people of color. Its leaders not only knew a great deal about their Haitian counterparts, but testified at trial about the aid they hoped to receive from Haitian allies.
Yet these demands for freedom were met with retrenchment on the part of planters. Although planters did institute some reforms that led to an expansion of freedom, they did so at the same time they widened their commitment to plantation slavery and further codified anti-black racism into law.
In Virginia, in particular, slaveholders’ anxieties about the growing free population of color became entangled with debates about general emancipation. Fears of free black men inciting enslaved rebels led to a crackdown on the possibility of even individual emancipation, and a growing association in law between freedom and racial identity, in which whiteness or Indian identity became the leading argument for freedom. Thus, the legacy of the Age of Revolution in Virginia was the growing association of freedom and citizenship with whiteness, and of blackness with slavery.
The restrictions on free people of color, limiting their mobility and their ability act as citizens have a powerful echoes today. Assumptions that people of color don’t have the capacities of full citizenship are behind efforts to suppress voting, restrict immigration and enforce criminal laws through practices like stop-and-frisk in communities of color. The establishment of race through law in the slavery era led to the development of race as an ideology, as a hierarchy, as an understanding that this is a group of people who are uniquely fit for this degraded status of enslavement. And that ideological basis has since justified other terrible forms of degradation and subordination, including the presumption of criminality based on race.
As we think about our political future, this history lives on. It is part of our present. Will the ideals of the Revolution, of freedom, equality and justice, be for all Americans? Can we break the link between whiteness and citizenship?