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From Slavery to Racism: Historical Background


In Capitalism and Slavery, Williams writes: “Slavery was not born out of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery” (7). The author proceeds to prove the thesis by analyzing the history of slavery and pointing out much more substantial reasons for its development: economic ones. In this paper, a similar attempt at illustrating the thesis is be made. Racism and the economic situation of the time are compared as potential causes of slavery; when the latter proves to be a more substantial reason, it is closely analyzed. Apart from that, several tendencies in the historical development of slavery are illustrated. It is concluded that racism could not create slavery, and while slavery did not exactly create racism, it has greatly contributed to the development of racist sociocultural norms in former slave-owning societies, and the results of its influence still condition the relationships between people of different races in these communities.

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Racism as a Ground for Slavery

Racism is not a suitable ground for slavery mostly because it cannot explain it, only attempt to justify it. First of all, It should be pointed out that slavery is not limited to the race-based kind of it: in fact, as stated in the Cambridge World History Of Slavery, it is a “ubiquitous” phenomenon that has been existing for centuries, including the present day. Various forms of slavery were based on different reasonings that incorporated religion, nationality, the status of the defeated party, and so on. Their similarities (including “the ownership of one human by another, and the ability to buy and sell the human chattel such ownership creates”) allow treating them as the variations of one phenomenon that appeared for economic reasons, not cultural clashes (Bradley et al. 4).

Racism, however, was treated as a decent pro-slavery argument that was used to provide the moral justification for the phenomenon.

Slavery Apologists

The racist arguments for slavery did exist. For example, human traffickers who shipped their slaves to the Caribbean colonies insisted that black people were used to working in the hot climate, which made them better suited for this kind of work. This claim was true in a way: Europeans died in the same working conditions at a ten times greater rate than in Europe (Hoffer 86). Therefore, slavers emphasized the economic advantages of acquiring a black slave, not the idea of their inferiority. In other words, even some of the racism-based arguments of slavers were eventually economically conditioned.

Even at the time, though, this argument did nothing to the moral justification of the dehumanization of black slaves. As a result, apologists came up with other reasons. They mentioned the fair trade (another economically-conditioned argument): what is paid for belongs to the one who had paid; therefore, freeing slaves is unfair with respect to the owners. The Genesis passage about “dark-skinned” Ham being cursed by Noah was also remembered (Hoffer 65). The fact that most slaves were captured in “just war” back in Africa was also regarded as a justification. Positive Christian influence was mentioned, even though conversion to Christianity was not viewed as a reason to free a slave, even though it could be considered a basis for a more humane treatment of black people certain countries (de la Fuente 156). Finally, a significant aspect of pro-slavery argumentation consisted of denying the immorality of slavery, insisting that slaves lived in better conditions than the ones that abolitionist tended to depict, and claiming that slaves were parts of families, loved their masters, and were happy with their lot (Schermerhorn 1015-1018).

Abolitionists: Criticism of Racism-Based Slavery

Naturally, it can be debated if the arguments were only a cover for the convenient economic system of slavery or sincere beliefs of the people of the time. It can be proven though that there were people at the time who did not consider racism to be a suitable pro-slavery argument. In fact, the witnesses of the phenomenon pointed out the injustice of slavery that had been based on racism quite often. For example, the “Germantown Friends’ Protest against Slavery, 1688” contains the comparison of racism-based slavery to the forced labor of criminals: “in Europe there are many oppressed for conscience sake; and here there are those oppressed who are of a black color” (par. 1). Similarly, the article “African Slave-Trade” published in the United States Chronicle in 1789 features the subscriptions of twenty men who, being “deeply impressed with the injustice, inhumanity and reproach of the Slave-Trade,” petitioned for its abolition (par. 9-10). In other words, slavery is not necessarily dependent on racism, and people have always realized the fact that skin color-based discrimination is not a valid ground for slavery if anything is (for example, crime).

The Search for the Reason

Among researchers (for example, Williams, Hoffer, and others), there exists an opinion that the few “moral” arguments were made up to justify the phenomenon that existed for economic reasons. According to Hoffer, the rise of black slavery was conditioned by the existence of all the components of a market strategy for the slave trade. These components included the demand (the New World), the supply that could be provided at a reasonable price (wars in Africa provided cheap slaves), and the people who were willing to engage in this kind of trade. While these people could attempt to justify human trafficking with the help of fair trade concept, the main reason behind their actions was that slave trade was profitable. If the supply had not been sufficient, the price had been too high, the shipping had been too difficult, the strategy would not have worked. In reality, all the components were present.

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Grounds of Slavery: Economic Reasons

Slavery could not rise from racism because it had other, more substantial reasons. One of the key points of Williams is that slavery is an economic phenomenon: it was the response to the need for the cheap labor for the vast plantations of the New World. Hoffer proves a similar point and mentions the elements of the economic reasons that conditioned slavery: the demand and the supply (65).

The Demand

The existence of demand for the slave trade is specifically pointed out by Williams. As the author writes, the origins of slavery “can be expressed in three words: in the Caribbean, Sugar; on the mainland, Tobacco and Cotton” (23). Hoffer adds silver mines and textile works to these reasons (85). Similarly, Monaghan states that slavery in the US “was overwhelmingly based on agriculture” and points out that slaves were employed in the production of other agricultural goods (like rice, hemp, wheat) as well (33). Indeed, urban slavery was noticeably less common: in 1861, the population of the largest cities contained no more than 10% of slaves, and in smaller towns their numbers were even scantier (Monaghan 35).

Ten percent might seem to be a noticeable figure, but, as Williams writes, plantations “had no room for poor whites” (24). In other words, a plantation would rarely have more than a family or two of white people (proprietor and sometimes a physician). At the same time, the majority of plantations had from 15 to 50 slaves, even though in extremely rare cases their number could amount to 200 (Monaghan 34). It is also noteworthy that slaves constituted twenty-five percent of the slave-owning states population by 1730 (Williams 26). Therefore, it can be concluded that the primary demand for slaves did come from plantations of various agricultural products. The specifics of plantation labor, therefore, shaped the supply.

The Supply

The Quality of Labor

Slave labor was only profitable at the time because of the specifics of plantation works. Williams mentions the arguments of Adam Smith that prove the superiority of free labor: slave labor is unskilled and reluctant, which results in its lower quality. However, as Williams points out, the economic situation ruled out free labor: it was not in sufficient supply (6). The large-scale production of the goods that were grown on plantations was more economically reasonable than a smaller one. Apart from that, plantation labor is repetitive and does not require rare skills. Naturally, intelligent scientific farming is preferable nowadays, but at the time, the new and fertile land of the New World seemed endless, which made the constant expansion was possible. Therefore, it was the extremely large scale of production of the goods which were extraordinarily popular that made the use of unskilled but numerous workers profitable.

This situation also had a side effect: the slavery-based plantations made it practically impossible for a farmer not to use slaves since he would not keep up with the competition (Williams 26). The specifics of plantation labor determined the demand for slavery and allowed it to flourish.

Race and Nationality

Another significant point of Williams is that the slavery of the New World was not limited to Negro slaves: actually, it was “brown, white, black, and yellow; Catholic, Protestant and pagan” (7). Historically, as Williams states, the White had first attempted to turn Indians into slaves, but the latter turned out to be ill-suited for the role, partly because of the hatred that the conquerors inspired in them. As a result, Native Americans were mostly drawn away or killed, and Indian slavery never reached the scale of the Negro one. The reasons for the enslavement of these people did not consist of racism: rather, they were “the spoils of the war,” the enemy, which is why they were killed, mistreated, and discriminated.

Apart from that, Williams is right in pointing out that white slaves did exist at the time, and the New World employed their labor as well. The demand for labor force was strong, and one of the ways to satisfy it was indentured servitude. Naturally, the question of whether or not it should be termed as slavery is controversial: at the very least, indentured servants had a contract. This contract usually stated that for shipment to the New World, accommodation, and sometimes education, the servants were going to work for their contractor for a reasonable number of years (Lund 640). Still, several arguments for the fact that it was not a normal labor contract can be mentioned. First of all, the servant was practically a piece of property, and the conditions, in which they were kept, were often beyond unsatisfactory (Lund 640). They were deprived of many rights, and their owners actually could prohibit them from marrying; they could be abused and raped (Friedman 46). Finally, they did not always legally agree to live like this: there were children indentured servants (sometimes sold by their families), kidnapped people, and indentured servitude was also a form of punishment for criminals (Friedman 44). In other words, indentured servitude was very similar to slavery, but as the latter developed and grew into the grand phenomenon, it substituted the former. The reason was purely economic: it was more profitable to use slaves. When compared to slavery, indentured servitude had a number of disadvantages, the main of which was its temporal nature (Lund 639-640). Slaves were cheaper, had less (technically no) rights, and were sold for life (although they could attempt to buy themselves out).

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It should also be pointed out that indentured servitude had been an option for black people as well, for example, in Chesapeake (Lund 640). In general, at the beginning of slavery, it was very similar to indentured servitude: the treatment depended on the owner, and it was possible to be freed for money or another reason (Monaghan 36).

Therefore, slavery was hardly based on racism. Instead, it was based on convenience: it was African political state (constant wars and general instability) that was capable of supplying slaves in the quantities that were required (Monaghan 14; Hoffer 63).


The quantities of slaves required by the New World plantations were enormous. A total of 9,986,402 black people had been forcefully shipped to become slaves. As can be seen from the tables of Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, 5,061,497 people were shipped to Carribean between 1501 and 1875. This is more than the half of all the slaves traded during this period: sugar plantations were obviously in need of cheap labor. Brazil plantations of sugar ended up consuming 3,542,893 slaves. Europe accounted for only 9,398 people shipped (“Summary Statistics”). This is another proof of the fact that plantations were the reason for slavery flourishment, but a different conclusion can also be made from this data. As rightfully pointed out by Hoffer, technically that meant that plantations were “graveyards for slaves” (85). Mistreated, abused, and killed, slaves needed replacement, which kept the demand for this kind of labor high and led to the enslavement of millions of people. Slavery became a grand phenomenon that had the opportunity to affect the mindset of whole nations, and this is exactly what it did.


The analysis of economic reasons for slavery demonstrates the fact that they were the driving force of the phenomenon. It can be concluded that although superstitions and religious beliefs have most certainly promoted racism and used it to provide moral justification for black people trade, they could not be responsible for the enormous rise of slavery that the world has witnessed. Racism did not spur slavery or encourage it; instead, it was used to justify a phenomenon that would exist nonetheless due the economic situation in the world at the time. Moreover, it can be concluded that the existence of racism was in many ways conditioned by the economic and political situation of the time that defined the skin color of the workforce supply. Then, the slavery of the black people had the chance to emphasize the differences between races and promote related superstitions that changed the mindset of several generations.

From Slavery to Racism: The Development of Racial Prejudice

The process of the development of slavery and racism has certain patterns. The “Summary Statistics” of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database states that since 1501 and until 1875 9,986,402 people had been shipped and forced into slavery. The trade was particularly active between 1726 and 1850 with more than 1,000,000 people sold every 25-year period. These figures can be explained by human psychology. As shown by Adams, the experience of witnessing slavery as a legal norm has a major impact on people who grow up in this environment (112-116). Their perception of right and wrong is distorted, and it is not surprising, therefore, that the peak of slave trade took place about four-five generations after its introduction. Those generations have grown up to slavery being a norm, and they accepted it as a part of the real world.


In the same way, the slavery in particular countries was gradually evolving throughout its history. For example, in the Southern States, the process became particularly visible in the middle of the seventeenth century. In the beginning, setting a slave free was easy and could be done for money or to the children of the owners. Freedmen could become plantation owners themselves, would own slaves and contract indentured servants (Lund 640). But as new laws were introduced, freeing was becoming more and more complicated (Monaghan 36). This gradual process served to create the stereotypes about people of color and cement the idea of their inferiority in the minds of several generations. As a result, in 1810, about 10% of the African American population was free, but by the time they were hardly treated as persons. The few rights they had were mostly formal; their status was somewhere between a citizen and slave, even though they were native to the land (Friedman 223). What is more, the freedmen accepted the inferior status that was associated with darker skin color. This fact was reflected in their tendency to avoid calling themselves “Negros” as well as “mulattoes” (a census word used in official documents). They preferred being called “Creoles,” while their neighbors might describe them as “people of color” or “coloreds” to avoid the word “Negro” (Monaghan 36). In such a way, the full-fledged racism was developed as the words denoting the black color of skin became tabooed for free people regardless of their race and social status.


Freedmen, naturally, coexisted with slaves in the slave-owning countries, and this aspect must have made the process of their status change more difficult. However, with the abolition of slavery, the situation did not change as drastically as one would expect. As pointed out by de la Fuente, even after the emancipation, the Negros of the US were regarded as slaves “by nature” and did not achieve the same status as white people (155, 158). This factor clearly demonstrates the fact that the idea of superiority of white race got embedded in human mind throughout the centuries, and it appears logical that the long period of slavery must have contributed to this phenomenon.

Various Types of Slavery and Racism

It should be mentioned that slavery and the resulting racism varied in different countries. When comparing slavery in the Latin America and the US, it is typically suggested that the Latin form of slavery had been much more humane. As a result, Brazil, for example, was proclaimed to be a “racial democracy” in the first half of the twentieth century while the US was still regarded as an exceptionally racist society (de la Fuente 156). Still, as de la Fuente demonstrates, even in Brazil, the discrimination in the terms of job opportunities and income was pointed out by historians and sociologists many decades after the emancipation (159). In such a way, de la Fuente proves that the process of acquiring the moral status of citizen for black people started with emancipation but did not end with it in most (if not every) post-slavery societies, which demonstrates the link between slavery and racism (170). The author also insists that slavery did not exactly cause racism in the general meaning, but that it contributed to the creation racial conflicts through the sociocultural norms that had been produced during the period of slavery (170). It is a valid point, but it is obvious that the idea of de la Fuente specifies the thesis of Williams rather than criticizes it and emphasizes the role of slavery in the modern state of racial relationships.

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To sum up, the history of slavery genesis, development, and even abolition provides evidence to the thesis of Williams. Having originated from a specific economic situation, slavery contributed to the development of another harmful social phenomenon, racism, which outlived the former and is still an issue in the modern world (García and Sharif 27-30).


From the presented analysis, the following conclusions can be drawn.

Racism has never been regarded as a proper reason for slavery; rather, it had been used as an explanation and moral justification of the latter. Slavery has always been an economic phenomenon, and the reasons for its existence can be explained by the economic situation in which it arose. The primary reasons for black people trade consisted of a specific combination of the demand of the New World for extreme quantities of the labor force and the abundant supply of workforce provided by the political situation in Africa. The owners of the workforce were not interested in the skin color of the supply, and white people could be forced to live and work in unacceptable conditions as well as black slaves could be treated with dignity and given the opportunity to become free. However, the quantities and rate of the supply of black slaves were so enormous that black people trade turned into a phenomenon capable of changing the mindset of nations. As a result, the political and economic factors conditioned the choice of the discriminated party, that is, the people of black skin color.

It would not be logical to insist that slavery has outright created racism; it is evident that there are other reasons and motivations for the tensions and hostility between the representatives of different races. Still, the history of slavery, including its abolition, demonstrates that there is a distinct connection between the two phenomena. The presented analysis demonstrates that slavery has largely contributed to the development racism: it segregated the society, highlighted the differences and increased misunderstandings between races and, most importantly, gave them a reason to hate each other. As a result, the slavery to which black people had been subjected, the slavery that Williams describes in his book has led to the development of racial prejudice in the countries where it took place, and the traces and effects of this influence are still an issue nowadays.

Works Cited

Adams, Kenneth Alan. “Psychohistory and Slavery: Preliminary Issues.” The Journal of Psychohistory 43.2 (2015): 110-119. ProQuest. Web.

“African slave-trade.” Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice. Rhode Island Historical Society, 2006. Web.

Bradley, Keith et al. The Cambridge World History of Slavery. 2011. Print.

De la Fuente, Alejandro. “From Slaves to Citizens? Tannenbaum and the Debates on Slavery, Emancipation, and Race Relations in Latin America.” International Labor and Working Class History 77.1 (2010): 154-173. ProQuest. Web.

Friedman, Lawrence. A History of American Law. New York, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005. Print.

García, Jennifer Jee-Lyn, and Mienah Zulfacar Sharif. “Black Lives Matter: A Commentary on Racism and Public Health.” American Journal of Public Health105.8 (2015): 27-30. ProQuest. Web.

“Germantown Friends’ Protest against Slavery 1688.” American Memory. The Library of Congress, n.d. Web.

Hoffer, Peter Charles. The Brave New World. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006. Print.

Lund, John. “Indentured Servitude.” Encyclopedia of U.S. Labor and Working-Class History. Ed. Eric Arnesen. New York, New York: Routledge, 2007. 639-641. Print.

Monaghan, Tom. The Slave Trade. London, United Kingdom: Evans, 2008. Print.

Schermerhorn, Calvin. “Arguing Slavery’s Narrative: Southern Regionalists, Ex-Slave Autobiographers, and the Contested Literary Representations of the Peculiar Institution, 1824-1849.” Journal of American Studies 46.4 (2012): 1009-1033. ProQuest. Web.

“Summary Statistics.” The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. Emory University, 2013. Web.

Williams, Eric. Capitalism and Slavery. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014. Print.

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