Race and U.S. Imperialism Research Paper

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Race and U.S. Imperialism

When analyzing European imperialism (particularly that which occurred within the United States) it is crucial to note the role that race played in it. There is evidence that indicates that at one point, race itself became more of a factor in the justification of imperialism and the institutions which facilitated it and engendered its success than even religion did. Race was principally used to account for a difference in the peoples that Europeans encountered during their imperialist forays into the so-called 'New World'. The crucial aspect about race, as was the case with religion, is that it was used to place a value judgment on those that Europeans encountered. Not only were the Africans (used as slaves) and the indigenous Native Americans encountered throughout North and South America lacking in technologically savvy, socially distinct in dress and tradition, and decidedly pagan when compared to the virtuous 'purity' of Christian religions, but they were also of a different complexion. There are a variety of sources that suggest that the difference in color became one of the leading forms of justification for categorizing these indigenous people as savages and as inherently beneath -- and thus privy to the sway of the machinations of -- Europeans. This conception was used to justify rape, murder, imperialism, larceny, genocide, and a host of other perverse, iniquitous practices, upon which Europeans based their insatiable imperialist appetites.

The idea of race is and of itself an artificial one. If one places newborn children (or those shortly thereafter being born) into a room together, they will interact and play with one another regardless of the hue of their skin, texture of their hair, or any other superficial physical feature. It is crucial to note that this lack of consideration for race even applied to European imperialists in their initial forays to the New World. There were no Europeans who simply landed in Africa, took out a gun and began shooting and enslaving Africans because they were of a different race or color. Instead, Europeans peacefully and respectfully approached those Africans in leadership positions and lawfully (at least as much as anything else that took place in such times) paid for the right to enslave them. Only after they had made this purchase did they propagate the notion that they had to enslave these peoples and make good Christians out of them because they were savages and biologically inferior. The subsequent quotation underscores this notion.

Sometime in the eighteenth century, race outpaced the older categories of Christian and pagan to become the primary justification for expropriating the land and labor of others. As a system for categorizing people, race fulfilled Europe's ideological needs by creating the illusion that human differences were biologically ordained 1.

There are several important facets of this quotation, not the least of which is the notion that race helped to propagate an "illusion" of differences -- because race itself is an artificial concept. Additionally, this passage indicates that racism emerged within the eighteenth century as a way to justify imperialism. Additionally, it is important to realize that race was considered substantially less important that religion -- until the form could be used to the advantage of the imperialists.

This same evolution of race as a determining factor for imperialism applied when Europeans encountered Native Americans in present day America, as well as Africans. The lengthy wars between colonialist and Native Americans 2 which would eventually decimate the latter were justified via race. However, the evolution of race as the chief determining factor for the subjugation of people had to wait for a decline of the concept of religion, which was initially the chief determinant. Christianity was the principle means of justifying such subjugation, since Native Americans were not Christians and had never heard of this religion until they had met with Europeans. Moreover, Europeans were not necessarily distinguishing themselves by race (or more accurately, by color) for the simple fact that in Europe ties were construed along religious and even national lines. When there is nothing but Caucasian people, there is no need for any of them to refer to themselves as white. Similarly, Africans in Africa did not refer to themselves as black. However, once it became profitable to expropriate the land from and murder, rape and enslave those who looked different from them, Europeans became to refer to and consider themselves less as Christians and more along color lines, which the following quotation proves. "The first English colony to develop a plantation economy dependent on slave labor, Barbados may also have been the first English colony to experience the transition in identity from "Christian" to "white" 3. Such a transition was largely supported by economic reasons, since, at that point in time, if slaves wanted to become Christian that would have disrupted the entire institution of slavery, since it was not morally acceptable for Christians to enslave other Christians 4. However, there were no such moral ambiguities about whites enslaving those who were not white, which is why much of the European imperialist population began to identify themselves along racial, as opposed to religious lines.

It is important to understand the relationship between imperialism and colonialism when understanding the role that race played in the displacing of American land from its natives to Europeans. Colonialism is largely the result of imperialism -- one must first desire to conquer different parts of the world via imperialism prior to settling up a colony in which such a goal can become actualized. It is pivotal to realize that the very terms of imperialism and colonialism are racially charged, and are indicative of Western dominance. The efforts of international conquest effected by non-westernized individuals are usually recorded in history as empires whereas "colonialism suggests processes that are global in scope, of relevance to human societies everywhere. By contrast empires, whatever their size and influence, are regional…"5. The racial repercussions of such terminology are substantial. As a result of imperialist tendencies, colonies affect all humans "everywhere," as opposed to the mere "regional" influence of colonies. Thus, even in merely analyzing the historical value of imperialism, Europeans are put at the echelon of humanity for the simple fact that they are Westernized -- which alludes to racial connotations. The attempts of Native Americans, such as the Cherokee, to form their own nations in the midst of land appropriated for European imperialism 6 were largely rebuffed. Imperialism affects the world; those affecting the world are Europeans and their designs are more important than non-Europeans in few other ways other than the fact of their race.

Intrinsically related to the notion of race which was used to facilitate European imperialism is the concept of capitalism. As previously alluded to, the goal of imperialism was not to conquer others of different races than Europeans. Imperialism was widely conceived of as a means of expanding the capitalism economic principles which Europe had embraced, and to bolster European monarchs 7. One of the crucial tenets of this form of economics is that it requires "endless expansion" into diversified markets which result in larger, and less monopolies 8. As such, capitalism was the initial impetus of imperialism. Moreover, one of the best means to further capitalism was to procure labor as cheaply as possible, which is why the institution of chattel slavery was practiced. After initially providing monetary compensation for African rulers who sold slaves, Europeans did not have to provide any other remuneration to these individuals, who were ruthlessly exploited for their labor. Capitalism was the principle reason for imperialism, and racism was widely effected to justify exploitative practices such as the institution of chattel slavery.

Still, it is important to note the fact that the issue of race is merely a contrivance, especially when it is utilized for the purposes of extending international capitalism. One of the principal thinkers regarding capitalism and its effects on the world, Karl Marx, readily concurs. The primary aim of slavery as a means of buttressing imperialism in the U.S. was to procure labor as cheaply as possible. If such labor could be justified to the general public and the slaveholding population through the means of racial differences, imperialists were won't to do so. But in its bare essence, capitalism has no distinctions related to race, which the subsequent quotation -- citing tenets of Marx -- readily shows. "Marxism's notorious color blindness is symptomatic of economic thinking as a whole, which simply lacks the categories to specify racial, ethnic or cultural differences" 9. This idea gains significant credence when one considers the fact that the institution of slavery did not begin with U.S. imperialism nor with the justification that is was morally acceptable because Africans and those of African descent were lower life forms than 'white' people. Romans would regularly murder and enslave virtually all of the people they conquered -- including substantial numbers of which were other Europeans, at the height of its empire's expansion. Therefore, although racism was used to reinforce slavery,…

Sources Used in Document:


Adas, Michael. 1998. "Imperialism and Colonialism in Comparative Perspective." The International History Review, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Jun., 1998), pp. 371-388.

Blackhawk, Ned. 2006. Violence over the land: Indians and empires in the early American West. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Rifkin, Mark. 2009. Manifesting America: the imperial construction of U.S. national space. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Silver, Peter Rhoads. 2008. Our savage neighbors: how Indian war transformed early America. New York: W.W. Norton.

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