"Trace the growth and development of ideas on 'race' from the slave trade era to the late 1970s. How were such ideas used and what purpose if any did they/do they serve?"

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Angie Kay

November 2003                                        SOCI 223 The Black Presence

“Trace the growth and development of ideas on ‘race’ from the slave trade era to the late 1970s. How were such ideas used and what purpose if any did they/do they serve?”

   Without examining the past, our views today would be shallow and misleading. In making comparisons it is important to look at aspects of history to provide a more in depth understanding of certain social phenomenon. As comparisons are made, ideas emerge which can raise our levels of such understanding. In this way, by examining the meaning of race two hundred years ago, we can discover that the concept of ‘race’ has evolved; it has changed over time and remains ever changing. Concepts like ‘race’ demand us to study broader social structures and their interaction with smaller social life; in order to do this, we must understand history.  

   Before beginning to discuss ideas on ‘race’ and how they have changed over time, it is important to acknowledge the problematic nature of the term ‘race’. Cox (1948) states that there is no universally accepted definition of race. However, in a sociological context, Cox defines race as “any group of people that is generally believed to be, and generally accepted as, a race in any given area of ethnic competition” (1948:319)

   Racial Ideology refers to a set of ideas which relate to ‘race’, in the way of actions and consequences, for example, distinguishing between more than one so called race to deem one superior. Ideas about race and racism assume particular condition i.e. they take into account the political and socio economic climate and historical era.

   When referring to race as a concept, it is also important to consider broader aspects such as race relations, racial difference and of course, racism. After all, ideas which have emerged on race can affect and will continue to affect all of the above. Above all, it is important for us to understand that race is no static concept. It is not the same within other countries even at the same time, and as a result of this, it must be put into some historical and comparative context.

   The earliest African soldier came to England in 210AD, over two thousand years ago. There is further evidence of Africans one thousand years ago, but after this, records seem to dry up. Five hundred years later, their presence was once again documented, as free men who came to trade with English merchants. By the 1560s the Slave Trade had begun. This was a highly integrated global system operating in Africa, Europe and the Americas, involving the forced transportation of millions of Africans to the Americas. There was also an increased African presence in Britain, which continued to grow into the 1570s, which was made up mainly of Africans working as household servants, prostitutes and court entertainers. At this time, the African population was still relatively small in Britain, but by 1650 the numbers had begun to steadily rise. The slaves were also used as labour on plantations which produced sugar, cotton and tobacco, which developed into huge commercial activities, of which most of the profit flowed back to Europe.

   Britain prospered and became more involved with slaves by the 1590s. The indentured white European labour that was also being used on the plantations became expensive compared to the African alternative. The effects of this was reflected in the changing dynamics of the population in Barbados as the white labour was gradually replaced with enslaved Africans; In 1655 it was made up of a 50:50 ratio of black and white people, but by 1680 it was 70% African. This perhaps marked the time when certain racial differences began to influence the way in which people were not only perceived, but also treated. Labour became demarcated along racial lines, leading to harsher conditions and harder work for Africans. From this point on, the treatment of Africans worsened. The transportation of the enslaved Africans from Europe to the Americas demonstrates only one aspect of this. The ships had no sanitation, slaves were chained up in very little space, and were given little food and drink. To say the least, one had to be extremely physically and emotionally strong in order to just survive the journey. Africans were treated as cattle, chained and branded. By the 1750s Britain dominated the Slave Trade which was responsible for the dehumanisation and brutalisation of millions.

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   It is no surprise that it soon became necessary to provide an explanation for such inhumane treatment. Cox (1948) states that, in order to justify such humanly degrading treatment, exploiters must argue that the workers are ‘innately degraded and degenerate’, and consequently, naturally merit such a condition. As a result, ideas relating to ‘race’ emerged, in the form of racist ideologies, which were used to justify the slave trade and its barbaric treatment of black Africans. It was believed that the black man was naturally inferior so therefore did not deserve the rights of an English man. This was ...

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