Origins of Racism

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By Dedrick Muhammad
Senior Director of Economic Programs, NAACP

Most people assume that racism is as old as humanity itself. Yet racism as we understand it today is a relatively modern ideology that first took shape in the 17th and 18th century as a moral justification for European conquest, particularly the enslavement of African people, which had become a significant source of wealth for Western imperialist nations.

Though slavery had existed for thousands of years in antiquity, American slavery differed in many ways. Roman slaves had the opportunity to earn their way to freedom while American slaves did not. Roman slavery was also not based on race — they commonly fell into slavery as prisoners of war, kidnapped sailors or as slaves bought outside Roman territory.
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But what may shock many people is this: before the rise of the plantation economy in the mid-1600s, Blacks in America enjoyed many of the same rights as whites, the two races socializing and working together. Anthony Johnson originally worked as an indentured servant in 1620, but later bought his freedom, going on to acquire 250 acres of land and five indentured servants.

In his own lifetime, however, racial castes had already begun to harden, and by the time of his death, his lands were confiscated on the grounds that he (along with African-Americans as a whole) was an “alien.”

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