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Sociology as Life, Practice, and Promise, rev. For more information click here. We begin with the long history of the British struggle to conquer Ireland and subjugate its people. This structural relation of dominance along with British frustration in the face of stubborn resistance, gave rise to a cultural belief that the Irish were an inferior and savage people, not merely in the organization of their societies, but in their very nature as human beings.
The British came to view the Irish as something like a separate species altogether, possessing inferior traits that were biologically passed from one generation to the next. In this, the British were inventing a concept of race that made it a path of least resistance to see other peoples as subhuman if not nonhuman, making it easier to objectify them and more difficult to feel empathy for them as members of their own kind, both integral to the exertion of control over others.
When the British came to North America, they brought with them both cultural views of race and the expectation of their own position of dominance as a structural feature of any society they might establish.
In the early stages of capitalism, for example, markets were the object of that control as capitalists bought goods in one place and took them to another where they were in scarce supply and could command a higher price than the one originally paid.
Later, as capitalists became involved in the production of goods, profit depended more on the ability to control workers and natural resources than on markets — the less the capitalist pays for labor and materials, the more is left over for the capitalist to keep. The ecology of North America lent itself to agriculture on a massive scale, and the capitalist demand for land and cheap labor far outstripped the available supply.
Most of the land that was to become the United States was gained through a system of military and political dominance that relied on deceit, broken treaties, and military conquest that included the use of forced migration and genocide, practices that today would be considered crimes against humanity.
Most of the labor was drawn from the population of indentured European servants, Native Americans, and Africans, none of whom were initially held in a state of perpetual slavery. The structure of the capitalist system, however, and the British cultural predisposition to see themselves as inherently superior as a distinct race of people, combined to lay down a path of least resistance leading in that direction.
Attempts to convert indentured white servants to permanent slavery failed because most were from England and had too strong a sense of their rights as individuals to allow it.
It proved equally impractical to enslave Native Americans because they could easily escape and disappear among native populations. This left black Africans, who were not among their own people in their own land and whose physical features stood out among the rest, leaving them with no place to hide should they manage to run away.
They alone were selected for the status of permanent slavery. Complicating the process, however, was the existence of the sacred cultural texts on which the fledgling U. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution with its Bill of Rights clearly contradict practices such as genocide, conquest, forced migration, slavery, the buying and selling of human beings, and the denial of basic rights to dignity, self-determination, and freedom.
Native Americans, whose societies Thomas Jefferson had regarded as equal to those of Europeans — and in some ways superior — were increasingly regarded as socially inferior and doomed either to be absorbed into an English way of life or to disappear altogether.
Unlike Native Americans, however, Africans were held in perpetual bondage extending to their biological descendants, and because of this, the concept of race was carried to an extreme by defining whites as a biologically superior species and blacks as innately inferior and therefore incapable of learning or advancing themselves.
This view, in turn, was used to justify holding blacks in a permanent status of subordination to whites on whom they supposedly were to depend for guidance and discipline. It was a common belief among whites that they were doing Africans a favor by bringing them to live their lives in service to whites as a kind of deliverance from an inferior and savage existence.
Notice, then, how cultural ideas can come into being as a way to justify structural arrangements, and how those same ideas can go on to play a role in shaping other systems in various ways, such as the subordination of Africans and Native Americans when English migrants came to North America to make new lives for themselves.
This kind of interaction among the various characteristics of social systems is basic to understanding how social life happens — everything is connected to and has the potential to affect everything else. Structural patterns of dominance also operate among whites, of course, and the concept of race has played a role in this as well.We have detected that you are using a touch device.
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