Racism against indigenous Americans, 1776 and settler colonialism

Rick Santorum, conservative political commentator and former US Republican senator, remarked in a speech that there was nothing on the American continent prior to European settlement. The latter, he opined, built civilisation from a blank slate. While he partially retracted his comments, his statements can occur only because of widespread and ongoing ignorance about the indigenous nations.

Nick Estes, assistant professor of American studies at the University of New Mexico, wrote that it is racist ignorance which allows Santorum to claim that white Europeans ‘birthed from nothing’ the nation that became the United States. This issue is more important than the rantings of individual conservative commentators. Estes makes the crucial point that while the US government recognises genocides in other nations – the Armenian genocide being the latest case – there is stubborn resistance to the recognition of indigenous genocide.

Writing in the Washington Post, Glenn Morris and Simon Maghakyan state that the denial of indigenous genocide runs deep:

Denial of the genocide against indigenous peoples by the United States is rampant. The massacre of Native peoples — from Mystic River, Gnadenhütten and Sacramento River to Bear River, Sand Creek, Camp Grant and Wounded Knee (and the fact that most readers have probably never heard of these) — is evidence of American amnesia about its homegrown genocide.

Indeed, the United States as it exists today took shape and reached its extent because of two related yet distinct processes – indigenous oppression and transatlantic African slavery. We tend to think of both these processes as historical and terminated, relics of a long-gone obsolete past. This limits our understanding of American capitalism and its conjoined twin, white nationalism, today.

While competing European colonial powers acquired colonies in the New World at the expense of the indigenous peoples, they were united by two necessities; the subjugation of the indigenous, and the importation of African slaves to economically build their colonial possessions. We like to think of slavery as an institution separate from capitalism – the slave owning Southern states versus the mercantile and capitalist North. This is superficially true, but a deeper examination leads to a different conclusion; slavery was instrumental in the development of American capitalism.

The crucial importance of slavery for the development of capitalism was understood by Karl Marx, who wrote that:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement, and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of the continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of black skins are all things that characterize the dawn of the era of capitalist production.

Settler colonialism began to take shape. It is true that rival colonial powers threatened their opponents with the prospect of arming fleeing slaves. France and Spain had separate armed detachments of freed African slaves on the condition that they convert to Christianity, and fight rival colonial powers, namely Britain. The mainland settlers, already apprehensive about the possibility of a slave uprising, viewed the machinations of the European colonial states with increased anxiety.

Arming former slaves – at least the threat of such action – was a mechanism for slave owning states to compete on the American mainland for colonies. In fact, inter-European rivalry took a lethal turn with the eruption of the Seven Years War, with England the eventual winner. The American mainlanders, having witnessed the slave uprisings in Jamaica, Barbados and the Caribbean, were worried about the growing numbers of African slaves in their midst. In many ways, the 1776 American war of independence was not just an anti-British uprising, but a pro-slavery measure as well.

What solidified the European push to conquer indigenous lands, and hold down the African slaves? The invention of whiteness as a distinct racial category. The notion did not spring fully formed from the brain of one individual, but took on a life of its own during the westward expansion of New England, and the victory of the American patriots against the English crown. Inter-European divisions, while not resolved, were put on hold. Protestant versus Catholic, England vs France vs Spain vs Portugal vs the Netherlands were subsumed within the greater project of imperial expansion.

In fact, the racialisation of whiteness is the most successful application of identity politics in history. Born of the slave trade and indigenous subjugation, whiteness was a new category which consolidated the emerging American ruling class. The ultimate victims of this project were the so-called ‘red Indians’, the indigenous nations. The slave owners were defeated in the American Civil War, and this opened up the possibility of westward conquest for the mainland settlers.

Settler colonialism requires systematic violence to achieve economic and political dominance. It is more urgent than ever to recognise that the settler colonial state of the United States committed genocide against the indigenous peoples. That would constitute a minimal and necessary step on the road to justice for the dispossessed nations.

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