The concept of white people is relatively recent - part two of a series on whiteness by Quinn Norton
America and the Caribbean Islands they found themselves rich in land but desperate for labor to work the land. The answer they struck upon was importation of bond labor, initially mostly Irish. The Irish had not been considered fully human under English law for centuries, and they ended up in plantations and working sugar under the Caribbean sun. The easy part of importing Irish (and Scottish) slave labor was that they were right next to England. The downside is there wasn’t enough of them for the amazing amounts of land laid before the eager English settlers, and thus the Atlantic slave trade with Africa was born. This is the story we hear in school, but the abridged version we get, intentionally or not, hides the scam of it. Initially the bond terms of convict, Scotch-Irish, and African labor was a set period of time, at the end of which they received bond money and their freedom in this new land. In fact, not that many bondsmen and women lived to be free, but some did, and established themselves as a mixed-race, free peasantry of the new world. If you’ve ever wondered where the free blacks of so many stories of early America came from, a large number were the families of freed African bond laborers.
As time went on, the labor needs of the land holders continued to grow, and desperate to cultivate the land, they were loathe to let go of their bond servants and the bondsmen and bondswomen’s children (whom they kept in bondage for a legally defined time as well). In the mean time, a growing American peasantry was proving as difficult to govern as the European peasantry back home, periodically rising up in riot and rebellion, light skinned and dark skinned together. The political leaders of the Virginia colony struck upon an answer to all these problems, an answer which plagues us to this day.
The Virginians legislated a new class of people into existence: the whites. They gave the whites certain rights, and took other rights from blacks. White, as a language of race, appears in Virginia around the 1680s, and seems to first appear in Virginia law in 1691. And thus whiteness, and to a degree as well blackness, was born in the mind of America.