There is an intriguing shift in racial thought. It happened over the early modern era, but I’d argue that the earliest racial ideology is still relevant in explaining the world we find ourselves in. Discussing François Bernier (1620-1628), Justin E. H. Smith wrote that (Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference, p. 22),
“This French physician and traveler is often credited with being the key innovator of the modern race concept. While some rigorous scholarship has recently appeared questioning Bernier’s significance, his racial theory is seldom placed in his context as a Gassendian natural philosopher who was, in particular, intent to bring his own brand of modern, materialistic philosophy to bear in his experiences in the Moghul Empire in Persia and northern India. It will be argued that Bernier’s principal innovation was to effectively decouple the concept of race from considerations of lineage, and instead to conceptualize it in biogeographical terms in which the precise origins or causes of the original differences of human physical appearance from region to region remain underdetermined.”
This new conception of race was introduced in the 17th century. But it would take a couple of centuries of imperial conquering, colonialism, and slavery to fully take hold.
The earliest conception of race was scientific, in explaining the diversity of species in nature. It technically meant a sub-species (and technically still does, despite non-scientific racial thought having since diverged far from this strict definition). Initially, this idea of scientific races was entirely kept separate from humanity. It was the common assumption, based on traditional views such as monotheistic theology, that all humans had a shared inheritance and that superficial differences of appearance didn’t indicate essentialist differences in human nature. Typical early explanations of human diversity pointed to other causes, from culture to climate. For example, the belief that dark-skinned people got that physical feature from living in hot and sunny environments, with the assumption that if the environment conditions changed so would the physical feature. As such, the dark skin of an African wasn’t any more inherited than the blue-pigmented skin of a Celt.
This millennia old view of human differences was slow to change. Slavery had been around since the ancient world, but it never had anything to do with race or usually even with ethnicity. Mostly, it was about one population being conquered by another and something had to be done with conquered people, if they weren’t to be genocidally slaughtered. The wars involved nearby people. Ancient Greeks more often fought other Greeks than anyone else and so it is unsurprising that most Greek slaves were ethnically Greek. Sure, there were some non-Greeks mixed into their slave population, but it was largely irrelevant. If anything, a foreign slave was valued more simply for the rarity. This began to change during the colonial era. With the rise of the British Empire, it was becoming standard for Christians to only enslave non-Christians. This was made possible as the last Pagan nation in Europe ended in the 14th century and the non-Christian populations in Europe dwindled over the centuries. But a complicating factor is that Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa included a mix of Christians and non-Christians. Some of the early Church Fathers were not ethnically European (e.g., Augustine was African). As explained in a PBS article, From Indentured Servitude to Racial Slavery:
“Historically, the English only enslaved non-Christians, and not, in particular, Africans. And the status of slave (Europeans had African slaves prior to the colonization of the Americas) was not one that was life-long. A slave could become free by converting to Christianity. The first Virginia colonists did not even think of themselves as “white” or use that word to describe themselves. They saw themselves as Christians or Englishmen, or in terms of their social class. They were nobility, gentry, artisans, or servants.”
What initially allowed West Africans to be enslaved wasn’t that they were black but that they weren’t Christian, many of them having been Islamic. It wasn’t an issue of perceived racial inferiority (nor necessarily cultural and class inferiority). Enslaved Africans primarily came from the most developed parts of Africa — with centralized governments, road infrastructures, official monetary systems, and even universities. West Africa was heavily influenced by Islamic civilization and was an area of major kingdoms, the latter not being unlike much of Europe at the time. It wasn’t unusual for well educated and professionally trained people to end up in slavery. Early slaveholders were willing to pay good money for enslaved Africans that were highly skilled (metalworkers, translators, etc), as plantation owners often lacked the requisite skills for running a plantation. It was only after the plantation slave system was fully established that large numbers of unskilled workers were needed, but even many of these were farmers who knew advanced agricultural techniques, such as with rice growing (native to West Africa, as it was to China) which was a difficult crop requiring social organization.
We’ve largely forgotten the earlier views of race and slavery. Even with Europe having become Christianized, they didn’t see themselves as a single race, whether defined as European, Caucasian, or white. The English didn’t see the Irish as being the same race, instead portraying the Irish as primitive and ape-like or comparing them to Africans and Native Americans. This attitude continued into the early 20th century with WWI propaganda when the English portrayed the Germans as ape-like, justifying that they were racially ‘other’ and not fully human. There is an even more interesting aspect. Early racial thought was based on the idea of a common lineage, such that kin-based clan or tribe could be categorized as a separate race. But this was also used to justify the caste-based order that had been established by feudalism. English aristocrats perceived their own inherited position as being the result of good breeding, to such an extent that it was considered that the English aristocracy was a separate race from the English peasantry. As Americans, it’s hard for us to look at the rich and poor in England as two distinct races. Yet this strain of thought isn’t foreign to American culture.
Before slavery, there was indentured servitude in the British colonies. And it continued into the early period of the United States. Indentured servitude created the model for later adoption practices, such as seen with the Orphan Trains. Indentured servitude wasn’t race-based. Most of the indentured servants in the British colonies were poor and often Irish. My own ancestor, David Peebles, came to Virginia in 1649 to start a plantation and those who came with him were probably those who indentured themselves to him in payment for transportation to the New World see: Scottish Emigrants, Indentured Servants, and Slaves). There was much slavery in the Peebles family over the generations, but the only clear evidence of a slave owned by David Peebles was a Native American given to him as a reward for his having been an Indian Fighter. That Native American was made a slave not because of a clearly defined and ideologically-determined racial order but because he was captured in battle and not a Christian.
More important was who held the power, which in the colonial world meant the aristocrats and plutocrats, slave owners and other business interests. In that world as in ours, power was strongly tied to wealth. To have either indentured servants or slaves required money. Before it was a racial order, it was a class-based society built on a feudal caste system. Most people remained in the class they were born into, with primogeniture originally maintaining the concentration of wealth. Poor whites were a separate population, having been in continuous poverty for longer than anyone could remember and to this day in many cases having remained in continuous poverty.
A thought that came to mind is how, even when submerged, old ideas maintain their power. We still live in a class-based society that is built on a legacy from the caste system of slavery and feudalism. Racial segregation has always gone hand in hand with a class segregation that cuts across racial divides. Poor whites in many parts of the country interact with poor non-whites on a daily basis while likely never meeting a rich white at any point in their life. At the same time paternalistic upper class whites were suggesting ways of improving poor whites (forced assimilation, public education, English only laws, Prohibition, War on Poverty, etc), many of these privileged WASPs were also promoting eugenics directed at poor whites (encouraging abortions, forced sterilizations, removal of children to be adopted out, etc).
Even today, there are those like Charles Murray who suggest that the class divide among whites is a genetic divide. He actually blames poverty, across racial lines, on inferior genetics. This is why he doesn’t see there being any hope to change these populations. And this is why, out of paternalism, he supports a basic income to take care of these inferior people. He doesn’t use the earliest racial language, but that is essentially the way he is describing the social order. Those like Murray portray poor whites as if they were a separate race (i.e., a separate genetic sub-species) from upper class whites. This is a form of racism we’ve forgotten about. It’s always been with us, even as post-war prosperity softened its edges. Now it is being brought back out into the open.