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RACE AND CITIZENSHIP IN THE COLONIAL ERA

blacks black slavery white

Although Africans were present at the very beginning of viable European settlement of North America, it was clear that they were in no means considered “citizens” of those colonies. A review of the history of black settlement in Jamestown, Virginia, and St. Augustine, Florida, reveals a two-tiered society where Africans were commonly denied the ordinary privileges of local white citizens, including the ability to litigate disputes, own property, and vote. Africans were not considered members of the newly established colonies. In fact, the early colonies permitted slavery and enforced brutal practices to keep slaves in check and enforce the authority of slave owners.

The colonial era came to define future notions of citizenship as well as delineate the proper roles between persons of different social origins. Crucial to the creation of citizenship for whites and denying the same to black people, particularly black women, were the development of anti-miscegenation legislation and the denial of inheritance through the paternal bloodlines, as had been an essential part of English common law tradition. Jack M. Balkin argues, “obviously, a system of subordination cannot be stable if it is too easy to exit from the criteria of subordination status. That is why biological traits can be such useful markers of cultural differentiation. The advantage of immutability lies in its guarantee of stability—it helps ensure that social hierarchy can be reproduced effectively” (1997, p. 2313). (See, for example, Act XII: Negro Women’s Children to Serve According to the Condition of The Mother, Virginia 1662; see also Franke 1999.)

Paul Finkelman provides a reminder that in early Virginia comparatively fewer white women settled, therefore white men engaging in sexual relationships often did so with enslaved blacks (1997). These contacts were by no means legally uncomplicated as they were often noncon-sensual, produced children, and yet the African women who bore these children were legally on par with animals. Despite tens of thousands of blacks being born to white fathers—who were often connected to plantations (owners, overseers, or their relatives)—they were cast as illegitimate and inherited (non)-citizenship according to their mothers’ enslaved status (Finkelman 1997).

In 1662 Virginia led the slave states in differentiating the citizenship of future sons and daughters of the United States. The Act provided (all sic):

Wheras some doubts have arrisen whether children got by any Englishman upon a negro women should be slave or ffree, Be it therfore enacted and declared by this present grand assembly, that all children borne in this country shalbe held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother, And that if any christian shall committ ffornication with a negro man or women, hee or shee soe offending shall pay double the ffines imposed by the former act. (Act XII, Negro Women’s Children to Serve According to the Condition of the Mother, Virginia, 1662).

Law scholar Cheryl Harris explains that this act and similar others were designed to “guarantee that the property in whiteness remained pure and inviolate,” but more importantly that the slaveholders would not suffer economic losses through their sexual misadventures with black slave women (quoted in Painter 1996, p. 333–335). Citizenship was naturally coveted as it conferred rights, privileges, and social legitimacy, which became critically important in the “new world.” Without citizenship even the black children of white fathers were relegated to what Derrick Bell refers to as the “bottom of the well” (1992).

The founding of American citizenship implicitly relied upon the denial of citizenship to those of African descent. This was most expediently achieved through the collective negative imaging of blacks. Historians comment that blacks were perceived as too immature, unsophisticated, and intellectually inferior to properly exercise the rights granted to citizens, including the right to vote, receive fair wages, contract, and express individual autonomy (Du Bois 1903, Bennett 1999, Painter 1996, Wade 1964).

William H. Harris, in his 1982 work The Harder We Run: Black Workers since the Civil War , comments on the economic rights associated with fair wages and labor. Harris observes that the need for black labor was apparent, but that blacks were pacified with diminutive wages, treating them not as respected, adult laborers. Harris also comments that when blacks were inclined to strike in protest of their punitive treatment, whites were known to respond with violence. They were considered an “inferior class of beings” who had to be “subjugated by the dominant race,” holding no rights except those the government might choose to give them (from majority decision of Dred Scott v. Sandford , 60 U.S. 393,1856).

Dred Scott v. Sanford (1856) is, by all measures, the defining antebellum case on citizenship status. In the Dred Scott case, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that persons of African descent were not and could not become citizens of the United States. The Court held that “it is too clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted” the Constitution.

Frederick Law Olmsted, an esteemed abolitionist, commented on the superficial, “childlike” relationship between blacks and whites, accepting this notion as a sad reality (1860). Essential to the sanctioning and political health of slavery and the protection of white propertied landowners’ interests were the denial of black citizenship and other exclusions (Fox 1999). Thus, although laboring and living in America, slaves were without placement and political identity in the United States. Blacks’ lack of political identity and recognition had both psychological as well as economic implications for both blacks and whites. For example, Nell Painter in Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol (1996) describes with incredibly rich detail the psychological characteristics of slavery and the affects of subordination and “its characteristics—a lack of self-confidence, personal autonomy, and independent thought …” (p. 17). Winthrop D. Jordon, in his 1974 work The White Man’s Burden: Historical Origins of Racism in The United States , provides an excellent exposition on the perceived economic necessities of slavery and the psychological ramifications of reliance on unpaid black labor (see also Johnson 1999, Randall 2001). The psychological dimensions of antebellum period imagery continue to haunt and complicate race relations in America.

The economic empowerment and growth of the United States depended upon unpaid labor of African slaves, and as slavery was “an essential part of the original constitution,” blacks were relegated to the status of chattel or property (see also Blassingame 1972). Slavery became the source for economic power and growth for the United States; as Charles Johnson and Patricia Smith observed, “in 1795, the first year of the cotton gin’s operation, American planters produced 8 million pounds of cotton. By 1800, production increased more than 400 percent, fueling the demand for additional [slave] labor” (1998, p. 267). David Brion Davis noted that slavery was a “far stronger institution in 1880 than in 1770—largely because of the invention of the cotton gin” (2001, p. 1); Yuval Taylor asserted that “the cotton the slaves produced had become not only the United States’ leading export but exceeded in value all other exports combined” (quoted in Robinson 2000). Not only through sales in cotton, tobacco, sugar, hemp (for rope making), and other agricultural crops in the south, slavery also had presence in the American North: “black bondage had long been legal in all 13 colonies when the American Revolution began” (Davis 2001, p. 1). Slaves were bought, sold, used for collateral, and listed as assets in bankruptcy petitions (Weisenburger 1998).

Slavery itself was more easily justifiable if blacks, in the popular cultural imagination and legal texts, possessed infantile and unsavory attributes. Thomas Jefferson referred to slaves in terms of chattel and animals, suggesting that they possessed dull imaginations, were tasteless, and foul in odor (1954). As slaves, lacking voting power, credit power, and access to education, blacks did not possess the legal or social means to move themselves beyond servitude (Harris 1996). By contrast, poor whites, experiencing certainly a compromised status in America, were nonetheless able to benefit economically—even if marginally—from the absolute subjugation of blacks (Bell 1990). Moreover, they were not considered chattel within the law or society. As suggested by W.E.B. Du Bois, this quagmire was not wholly unintentional, as the concept of racial superiority would psychologically compensate poor whites by providing “public and psychological wage,” thereby diametrically positioning black inferiority in counterbalance to collective white dominance and citizenship (1935, p. 700). Whiteness is a stock, which needs no investment from whites, but provides economic, political, and social returns for their particular group. Buttressed against that was the unshak-ably distorted image of blackness; if whiteness is property and citizenship, blackness was an “alien” status.

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