Affirmative Action for Colonial White People

For my piece on tragedy and the Civil War (or rather lack thereof) I'm going back over Edmund S. Morgan's classic American Slavery, American Freedom. The book basically demonstrates how the slave society, and systemic white supremacy, was pioneered in Virginia.


Much of this pioneering work involved using the law to sever ties between white servants and black slaves who, in the early to mid 1600s, intermixed and intermaried. The new laws elevated the status of white servants, while lowering the status of black slaves. 

This particular bit from Morgan caught my eye:

In an act that created perhaps the most invidious distinction between them, the assembly protected the property of servants while confiscating what belonged to slaves. During the seventeenth century it had been common for masters to give a cow or a pig to a favored slave or to allow slave to acquire such property by extra efforts of their own.

But in 1705,in the same act that authorized the dismemberment of unruly slaves, the assembly provided that servants were to have the sole use, benefit and propriety of any property they owned or that came into their possession by gift or any other lawful means, but that "all horses, cattle and hogs, now belonging, or that hereafter shall belong to any slave, or of any slaves mark...shall be seized and sold by the church-wardens of the parish...and the profit therof applied to the use of the poor of the said parish."

Thus even the small property previously allowed to slaves who had the excess energy and industry to work for it was handed over to poor whites--a highly effective device for dissociating the two.

Unfortunately, the theft of black wealth for the betterment of whites became a persistent feature of the long war against black people, and indeed of American history, at large. The means varied from gun-point to government policy. Often it involved some mixture of the two. But the effect was the same and is, in our present time, obvious. One might be almost tempted to call it tragic.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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