Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist

According to the Declaration of Independence, “all men are created equal”. Conceivably this would mean that all men are afforded the same rights, the same privileges, and most importantly, are treated the same. Although Thomas Jefferson wrote this in the late 1770’s, he was simply vocalizing an idea that had been around for ages. There have always been philosophers and thinkers that have believed in this statement, however, this statement has never been universally accepted as truth. Throughout time mankind has proven itself to discriminate based on racial and ethnic background. From the induction of European slavery in Africa to the class based existence in feudal Europe to the Monroe Doctrine, there has always been a sense that your destiny was determined by your ancestry, and more often then not the non-white (or poor) are discriminated against and suffer for something that is not in their sphere of control. This paper will demonstrate the racial and ethnic based existence of man and show that throughout history race and ethnicity have been used as a tool to determine who will triumph in the ongoing power struggle. Throughout history, race has been used as tools of the empowered to keep others down, to maintain power and to capitalize on those who cannot fight back.

The lords that were empowered by the feudal system used their power and money to employ the poor serfs and benefit from their work while treating them like property, an example of ethnic based discrimination. Serfs and lords were separated from each other by their ethnic backgrounds, serfs were born to serfs and lords were born to lords, indicating that there was no escape from this class system. Serfs were seen fully and completely as pieces of property, a means for lords to acquire revenue; a case study would reveal that compulsory marriage and other marriage laws existed at this time to guarantee future revenue for the lord’s “investment” in serfs. This is especially important in the discussion of ethnic discrimination as activity that would otherwise be thought of as private and personal is used by the empowered to gain revenue at the expense of the poor. Lords had begun imposing control over serf marriage since peasants had become serfs, essentially in the lord’s eyes, since the serfs began living on his land and by his decree they had become his property and could be regulated (Bushnell, 422). The most obvious example of this mentality deals with the rules and laws that governed marriage of a serf woman to a serf man on another estate. As serfs were seen as property, lords required a fee to be paid for the transfer of brides to other estates, “…when a serf woman married off the estate…compensation [was collected] for the loss of property since the woman would henceforth be subject to her husband’s proprietor” (Bushnell, 422). “Departure fees” were not necessarily made for the transfer of a bride to another estate, but rather were rooted in the idea of procreation, that owning a married couple meant owning their children as a means to guarantee future revenue generation, “…the departure fee was firmly associated with the noble’s property rights…” (Bushnell, 423). Aside from the requirement of a departure fee for women to marry off-estate, many estates simply forbade the practice in an effort to simplify the process. This shows the explicit nature of the relationship between serf and lord as one between property and owner, namely one which demonstrated extreme ethnic based discrimination, “serf women were property and their marriages were regulated to prevent any damage to the noble’s property interests” (Bushnell, 423). It was common for women who were the sole heirs in their household to be forbidden to leave the estate, as their departure meant a reduction in the number of dues paying and revenue earning households, affecting the lord’s wealth (Bushnell, 424). It is clear that the lord’s interest in the marriages of serfs was purely fiscal, and was seen as a means of acquiring more wealth. In this example it is obvious that the lords have used their social influence and power given by ethnic discrimination for their own personal benefit, sacrificing the well being of serfs in the process.

The issue of ethic/race based discrimination extends past seemingly “medieval” examples and is ever present in the “modern” European mindset, namely to corrupt the African ideal of “rights in persons” to serve the European’s own benefits. This corruption entailed the forced acquisition of slaves from the Gold Coast as well as a implementation of a European controlled slave trade in the same area. The concept of slavery as it existed in Africa prior to intrusion by Europeans developed from and depended on the concept of “rights in persons”, and was the basis for many relationships, including slavery. The term “rights in persons” is defined as “…the rights that one person…exercises over another…” (Miers, 101). These rights extend past slavery into every day relationships in Africa, including marriage and political offices (Miers, 101-103). Slavery does not simply stem from the basic idea that transfers of “rights in persons” are made in exchange for good and money, but rather is held to a different set of rules. Europeans were very confused by this relationship status. The main distinction that can be drawn between the exchange of “rights in persons” in Africa as a means for slavery and European style slavery is that in Africa, the ‘slave’ is “a human being with volition, and not an inert object…” while in Europe the African slaves are seen as sub-human, victims of race based discrimination (Miers, 116). The development of the Atlantic slave trade led to Africans taking on different ideals as the Europeans exploited them, disrupting social and moral development, another example of the empowered using those they can control for their own benefit, and had a long lasting impact on the African culture. It can be said plainly that the European concept of slavery led to Africans quickly organizing a system to export other Africans as slaves, a new kind of racism (Fage, 125). This ‘industrialization’ of slavery was so vast and so many Africans were removed from their homeland as slaves between 1650 and 1850 (12-15 million) that a destabilization of the economies of all of the Gold Coast countries came to fruition, as did a disruption of the social and moral constructs that previously existed. It was at this time that a strong correlation can be drawn between “economic development…and the growth of the institution of [European] slavery…” (Fage, 130). In effect, the African kingdoms/states that wanted to remain powerful were forced to adopt this new concept of slavery, selling “rights in persons” to Europeans in order to stay ahead of the curve, else they would be economically unviable. Essentially Europe was able to implement the new values of slavery into Africa and take advantage of the locals on every level, from controlling their now slave-centric economy to destabilizing the countries to a point where the kingdoms of Arica could do nothing to resist the European powers. Rulers of Africa now were presented with an economic choice: “whether it was more advantageous to them to keep their slave laborers at home…or to exchange them…for other forms of wealth…” (Fage, 130-131). As the European’s demand for slaves rose, so did the exports of slavery from the kingdoms of Africa. The practice of slavery in Africa also went through significant change. From the old “rights in persons” mentality where a slave was brought into a foreign community to work and eventually became completely assimilated, Africans now (especially in the aforementioned kingdoms/states) looked at slavery like Europeans looked at slavery, like “a commodity, to be bought and sold and inherited…possession of another person who uses him for private ends” (Miers, 98). It is clear that the Europeans passed on their racism to the Africans, causing even more problems within the African society. The entire system of slavery in Africa was turned on its head when the Europeans arrived. They caused the basic “rights in persons” relationship to crumble, instituting their own instance of skewed morality. Moreover, Europeans used economic means to discourage Africans who did not want to accept their idea of slavery, “West African rulers and merchants…used [European demand] to strengthen the streams of economic and political development…[of] West Africa” (Fage, 138). European demand was the driving force behind the change of slavery in Africa and implementing this social stratification, using race based discrimination to justify the practice of slavery.

While the ideas behind the stratification of African culture, namely the new determination of the definition of slavery (and “rights in persons”), seem different from the feudal relationship of lords and serfs, these empowered/oppressed relationships are actually very similar as they both demonstrate the idea that ethnicity and race determine social status and clarify the understanding that people were looked at as objects and property. First off, the relationship between serfs and lords is not simple, especially relating to serf marriage. Lords saw the serfs as their property and their refusal to marry or desire to marry off-estate was seen as a way for lords to loose their property, reducing their wealth. Lords therefore intervened in order to preserve their wealth and estate by asserting their control over serf life. This idea is very dissimilar to that of “rights in persons” as lords saw themselves as having a kind of right to serfs. As compared to the “rights in persons” idea that stemmed from African culture, serfdom did not entail the community nature that Africans depended on to prohibit the abuse of “rights in persons” relationships, much different then the hierarchal system that existed on estates. In the same fashion, the Europeans abused the use of the term “rights in persons”, again as rights to Africans, in order to manipulate the culture for their own benefit, as they were the ones with power to do so. Europeans that dealt with African slaves used their race in order to legitimize their exploitation of the idea of “rights in persons” just as European lords arranged for a system where they had the rights to the serfs, this time however they used the excuse of class differences as opposed to racial ones, the same idea with a different name.

However apparent the blatant abuse of the oppressed has been in the past, it is not enough to cite these examples in order to classify the race and ethnic based discrimination as a historical trend; American use of this principle in modern times in terms of the Monroe Doctrine and American Imperialism solidifies this idea as time has shown the continuation of this bigotry. After the United States had expanded as far west as California and as far south as Florida and Texas, there was no more continental land to be held. However there was still more land in the surrounding area, held by the Hispanic population. American imperialism grew out of the idea of the American frontier, and came to fruition in 1898 when the Spanish American war began due to the implementation of the Monroe Doctrine. This doctrine was created 60 years before the war and stated that the United States would intervene with international matters if Europe made any kind of move against or towards the Western Hemisphere. This doctrine was targeted at preventing European influence in Central and South America. Eventually Spain was forced out of the new world and America was able to take control of the Philippines in the process. The Monroe Doctrine began to grow in scope and was translated into Teddy Roosevelt’s big stick policy. Although America’s actions here seem to be for the good of the people, this is instead a more modern showing of how ethnic and race based discrimination manifests itself. America saw the opportunity to take control of more land, and furthered this goal while subsequently creating a sphere of influence in the form of the entire western hemisphere, forcing the other world super powers away from United States and the surrounding area. This idea, furthered with Teddy Roosevelt’s Panama Canal, makes it clear that the United States wanted to take full advantage of the racial and ethnic differences that existed by virtue of using them as an excuse to claim that the United States had better plans for Panama and the self proclamation of the United States as the arbiter and protector of the Western Hemisphere. Although perhaps one could argue that this role taken on by the United States was welcomed by her Hispanic neighbors, the actions surrounding the Panama canal make it clear that the United States was interested most in terms of her own benefit. Teddy Roosevelt created Panama and used gunboat diplomacy in order to secure a footing for the United States in terms of the Panama Canal, and Roosevelt went as far as to stir up a revolution in Panama in order for the United States to get hold of the Canal area. It is clear that these actions were motivated by self-interest, and the United States, as recent as 1900, was working to take advantage of those separated by race and ethnicity.

While all men may have been created equal, many throughout history have chosen to ignore this fact, using racial and ethnic discrimination to determine and rationalize the control that the empowered have over the oppressed. From Europeans in Africa to lords and serfs in Europe to Americans in Central America, there has always appeared a juxtaposition of those in charge to those whom they are in charge of, and in all the scenarios the people in charge have abused their power and taken control of the “sub”-ethnicity/race; therefore the existence of man is essentially racially and ethnically based. Throughout history these traits have been used to determine the winner in an ongoing universal power struggle, and the winner always takes advantage of the loser.