There's this quote by Lerone Bennett Jr. where he said:

Back there [in the 1660s], before Jim Crow, before the invention of the Negro or the white man or the words and concepts to describe them, the Colonial population consisted largely of a great mass of white and black bondsmen, who occupied roughly the same economic category and were treated with equal contempt by the lords of the plantations and legislatures. Curiously unconcerned about their color, these people worked together and relaxed together.

With the state of things these days it's really hard to believe that race was something that people were "unconcerned" about. The quote is specifically talking about Colonial America but it would make sense that if things were like this there, then it wouldn't be too awfully dissimilar in other parts of the world.

Is there truth to what Lerone Bennett Jr. said, did race really used to be a non-consequential thing?

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    but it would make sense that if things were like this there, then it wouldn't be too awfully dissimilar in other parts of the world I think this is a faulty premise. Race and how it works as a social concept is not uniform across the world even in modern times. Commented May 17, 2018 at 7:59
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    Are you looking for an absence of racial issues, or rather an active agreement that race doesn't matter? For example, tribal cultures would often already be so busy discriminating between what tribe you belong to, that their stance on discriminating based on race is not necessarily clear, simply because they were already disciminating in more detail. Your quote touches on a similar thing: racial differences were mostly ignored because social classes were considered the main discriminator. That doesn't really prove the absence of racial friction on other levels.
    – Flater
    Commented May 17, 2018 at 10:48
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    I don't have time for a full answer, but the Colonial WIlliamsburg foundation has a podcast series that includes a good discussion of race relations in colonial America. Although I would agree that much of what we know about "race" is a construct of the pre-bellum south, it is difficult to ignore the difference between owner and owned.
    – MCW
    Commented May 17, 2018 at 12:05
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    Most of these answers are not actually addressing the quote in the question. The quote is referring to a very particular period of American history in which class mattered, but not particularly race. I believe this is generally true for at least some parts of the colony, and is referred to in the book "Albion's Seed" when discussing the "cavaliers". It's important to realize that the quote does NOT apply to England, Spain, or France... which the current answers are focused on.
    – jkerian
    Commented May 17, 2018 at 17:29
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    @jkerian - I would extend that a bit. Class and religion mattered. In earliest American colonial times, Non-Christians could be enslaved for life, but not Christians. Those born or converted to Christianity could only be servants for a time, not for life. That changed in the latter half of the 1600's (slavery by race), but a population of free blacks and mixed-race individuals had already come into existence by then. Commented May 17, 2018 at 17:55

7 Answers 7


(Disclaimer: definition of race varies. Wikipedia offers this: "a grouping of humans based on shared physical or social qualities into categories generally viewed as distinct by society" and that is the view taken in this answer. Some of you prefer to define race by skin colour, in which case feel free to ignore Aristotle.)

Racism is a very ancient concept. Aristotle famously argued that non-Greeks were inherently inferior races, naturally suited to being enslaved by Greeks.

Nature, then, has distinguished between female and slave . . . But non-Greeks assign to female and slave exactly the same status. This is because they have nothing which is by nature fitted to rule; their association consists of a male slave and a female slave. So, as the poets say, 'It is proper that Greeks should rule non-Greeks', the implication being that non-Greek and slave are by nature identical.

Likewise, racism was very much in existence in Early Modern England, at a time when English settlers were creating colonial America. Consider Shakespeare's Othello. Iago roused Brabantio with vivid imagery of a black man "tupping" his daughter, and threats of black grandchildren:

Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul.
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise,
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you.

This is not to say that Shakespeare's Venice was a racist society (debate on this continues), but evidently the characters are well aware of race, especially as an emotional factor. By implication, so were the intended English audience.

Moreover, visually, Othello's black skin is repeatedly associated with something bad. For example the Duke, in an effort to help, tells Brabantio:

If virtue no delighted beauty lack,
Your son-in-law is far more fair than black

Even Othello himself says:

Her name, that was as fresh
As Dian's visage, is now begrimed and black
As mine own face

Othello was written around 1600, only a few years before Shakespeare's audience began settling in America. It was also a work of its time - its racial stereotypes of jealous and intemperate Moors echoed other Renaissance texts.

Are we really to believe that the same mindset evident in prejudice against the exotic Moor in 1600, wouldn't have manifested in even more explicit racism against enslaved blacks in colonial plantations?

And in fact, evidence of racism in the colonies is trivial to find. In 1630, over three decades before the timeframe in question, the colony of Virginia ordered a white man severely punished for miscegenation. According to the official report,

Hugh Davis to be soundly whipt before an assembly of negroes and others for abusing himself to the dishonor of God and shame of Christians, by defiling his body in lying with a negro, which fault he is to acknowledge next Sabbath day.

Gabbidon, Shaun L., and Helen Taylor Greene. Race and Crime. Sage Publications, 2012.

Davis was not being punished for merely fornicating, but specifically that he did it with a black woman. One readily sees that black people were regarded as distinctly inferior, to the point that sex with one is equated with "defiling".

Certainly the importance of race in a society may have been less in times when it was less ubiquitous (e.g., meeting an Indian was purely theoretical for most medieval European peasants), but it was never truly nonconsequential, and certainly not in the timeframe Lerone Bennet specified.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Semaphore
    Commented May 17, 2018 at 19:54
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    Warning: As per usual procedure, comments added after the move to chat message (above) are even more subject to summary deletion than normal comments.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented May 22, 2018 at 19:40

IANAH(*), so I can't (and won't) answer about the rest of the world, but in the XVI-XVIII centuries, colonial Spaniards took race pretty seriously, dividing them in castes.

Here you see a contemporary table for race categorization painted in the XVIII century, according to wikipedia.

Spanish caste system

The table is pretty thorough, detailing to which caste you belonged depending on the caste of your parents. And this is not pointless bureaucratic classification, this dictated their rights based on the race of their parents. Also, some of the very names are kinda insulting, like #15 "Noteentiendo" ("Idon'tunderstandyou").

This relates to Colonial (South and Meso) America, so I believe that a blanket statement like the one made by OP:

The quote is specifically talking about Colonial America but it would make sense that if things were like this there, then it wouldn't be too awfully dissimilar in other parts of the world.

...is not justified neither in premise (about Colonial America, unless OP meant North America, specifically) nor in conclusion (the rest of the world)

TLDR; I don't know about the rest of the world, but in the XVII-XVIII century, Spaniards were hardcore racists.

(*) IANAH: I am not a Historian

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    Thankfully, I can parse Latin dates, but I would imagine many can not. Any good reason you've used them?
    – CGCampbell
    Commented May 18, 2018 at 11:48
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    @CGCampbell Whenever you write about a century in french, you almost always use Latin dates. I assume it's the same in spanish. That's interesting, I didn't know it was different in english ! :)
    – Furlevent
    Commented May 18, 2018 at 12:42
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    @CGCampbell Wow! I've read quite a bit of history (both in english and spanish) and never noticed that english historians didn't use roman numbers for centuries. Feel free to suggest an edit with whatever format most people feel confortable with. Worst case scenario, you always have Rocky's algorithm! ;)
    – xDaizu
    Commented May 18, 2018 at 12:59
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    I'm not sure if "Noteentiendo" is an insult, or a joke. If I'm reading that chart correctly, it requires twelve generations of mixed Spanish, Moorish, African, and Native American ancestry, combined in a very specific way.
    – Mark
    Commented May 19, 2018 at 20:05
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    @Mark - If you're correct, it's both: a joke that also serves as an insult.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented May 20, 2018 at 17:34

In the early middle ages or ancient times that might have been the case. But certainly not by the 19th or early 20th century - scientific/darwinist racism was in full swing by then.

17th century France had its Code Noir, and slave codes weren't unique to colonial France, so the quote you cite seems to give an unrealistic picture of attitudes at best. A few centuries earlier, Wikipedia's Racism entry also offers this quote by Ibn Khaldun, a 14th century Tunisian scholar, that probably better captures attitudes then and later:

...beyond [known peoples of black West Africa] to the south there is no civilization in the proper sense. There are only humans who are closer to dumb animals than to rational beings. They live in thickets and caves, and eat herbs and unprepared grain. They frequently eat each other. They cannot be considered human beings. Therefore, the Negro nations are, as a rule, submissive to slavery, because (Negroes) have little that is (essentially) human and possess attributes that are quite similar to those of dumb animals, as we have stated.


Early Colonial America may not have been entirely race-blind, but it certainly wasn't the racially polarized place later America became. My own ancestor, Bazabeel Norman, was a free black soldier at the time of the American Revolutionary War. One of his grandparents was a white indentured servant, presumably in the late 1600s or early 1700s, so clearly racial mixing was not unheard of at the time. (At the end of the war, Norman was rewarded with land in Ohio, and his descendants remained free in a largely "colorblind" mixed-race community --in rural Ohio! --even during the years when American slavery was at its absolute worst.)

Although the basic phenomenon of prejudice is both ancient and universal, that does not mean there have not been many times and places where race was not important, as well as times and places that placed importance on race, but conceptualized it very differently. For example, neither skin color nor gender seem to have been a big deal in ancient Egypt, which had female Pharaohs and businesspeople, and royals of every shade of skin. Similarly, ancient Rome (which at one point had an African emperor) was sensitive to racial differences, but they conceptualized themselves as a third race between white and black, rather than as the "whites" we tend to envision them as. To them, the "whites" were savage northern barbarians.

To return to the original quote, it doesn't state that the society as a whole was equitable. It says that socioeconomic status was more important than race at that time and in that place, and among members of that group. In other words, the conditions of indentured blacks and whites were similar, so race wasn't as much of a consideration among that particular subcommunity. The big gap --as has often been the case in history --was between the rich and the poor. The racial conflicts came later (stimulated as a divide-and-conquer technique to protect the continued economic interests of the wealthy).

  • wiki: Bazabeel Norman's mother was also a mulatto, so it took at least two generations before a mixed race descendant became free. This isn't as rosy as you presented. I was tempted to let you live with your illusions of a better past than actually transpired but ignorance damns progress. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bazabeel_Norman
    – Minativ7
    Commented May 18, 2018 at 19:12
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    @Minativ7 - Just because his mother was a mulatto, doesn't necessarily mean she or any of her ancestors were ever slaves. Commented May 18, 2018 at 21:15
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    @Minativ7 I'm not saying it was a rosy time, or that indentured servitude was any picnic, but it (generally) wasn't nearly as bad, as brutal, or as utterly without human rights as the slavery that it gradually evolved into. Commented May 18, 2018 at 21:26
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    I'm not sure where you get your information on ancient Egypt from. This source disagrees: theancientplanet.wordpress.com/2016/08/16/… Commented May 21, 2018 at 7:55

Yes, this quote is a reasonable interpretation of historical fact, if certain subtle but important distinctions are made.

Race is a modern ideology which emphasizes inherited, physical differences between populations. This was not a widespread ideology in ancient cultures. All pre-modern civilizations were ethnocentric to some degree, but that doesn't mean they had any notion resembling "race". The quote from Aristotle in @Semaphore's answer does not imply that Aristotle understood Greeks to be a "race" defined by inhereted physical charatersitcs as opposed to cultural ones like language, religion, etc.

Castes are not exactly the same as "races". @xDaizu rightly points out that early colonial Latin America already had a caste system before the 1600s. In a caste system, social position is inherited, directly as such, much like it was back in Europe under feudalism. Only a bit later did colonial slave-holders all universally come to accept that Indians and blacks were inherently inferior due to their inherited characteristics. The image shared by @xDaizu is fascinating, but it's arguable how it proves that skin color as such mattered to people's social position. It certainly shows that a lot of racial mixing happened, which is exactly what Jim Crow (fully racist in the modern sense) was later designed to prevent.

In early colonial societies of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries religion mattered more than race. Enslavement and brutality against natives and Africans was generally rationalized on the basis of these people being "heathens" or non-Christians until modern racism began to emerge. For example in 1515, Bartolomé de las Casas famously argued that Africans but not Indians should be enslaved because Indians were more easily converted to Christianity. From a modern perspective this may be racist, but clearly religion mattered much more to the Spanish in that period than skin color or other inhereted characteristics.

Finally getting back to the original quote in the question, why does Bennet single out the 1660s? I don't have the original context of the quote to refer to and I'm honestly not sure. But it is perhaps worth nothing that was the decade before Bacon's rebellion, which took place in Virginia in 1676. As the Wikipedia article on this event states, citing a book by historian William J. Cooper:

Indentured servants both black and white joined the frontier rebellion. Seeing them united in a cause alarmed the ruling class. Historians believe the rebellion hastened the hardening of racial lines associated with slavery, as a way for planters and the colony to control some of the poor.

I have not read Cooper's book but it may be a good resource for understanding the historical basis of the quote in the question.

  • Thanks for addressing your concerns with my answer. I agree with most of what you say. Castes are, almost always, not bound to race or physical attributes, (they weren't in, say, feudal Japan) but other times they are related (if not completely bound). People will always find a way to discriminate against their peers. The color of the skin and the perception of the indigenous culture being "inferior" just made it way easier in those colonial situations. It's a complex matter, anyways, that I'm not qualified to fully explain, my point was that sometimes race did matter.
    – xDaizu
    Commented May 21, 2018 at 8:33
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    @BrianZ Regarding the religion, I would strongly disagree. For example the Code Noir of 1685 mandated that every French-held slave would be in 8 days baptized as a catholic. The act used interchangeably the words "slave" and "black" in articles 2, 7, 40, 48, but never a "heathen", obviously. It is not explicit that slave equals black but implicitly assumes that a default state, the act establishes how can a slave become free.
    – kubanczyk
    Commented May 21, 2018 at 11:45
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    @kubanczyk That’s 1685, not the 1660s, which Bennett seems to imply was the key turning point after which slavery became racialized.
    – Brian Z
    Commented May 22, 2018 at 12:43

Back there [in the 1660s], before Jim Crow, before the invention of the Negro or the white man or the words and concepts to describe them, the Colonial population consisted largely of a great mass of white and black bondsmen, who occupied roughly the same economic category and were treated with equal contempt by the lords of the plantations and legislatures. Curiously unconcerned about their color, these people worked together and relaxed together.

Having researched the subject matter and time period described within the parameters of the original question, it is interesting to note the frequency with which persons still refer to "white men" and "white race" even when faced with the clear evidence that there were no "white men" nor any "white race" on this planet whatsoever prior to 1681. Perhaps @LangLangC can best convey what the answer attempts to summarize for viewers to understand, without any ambiguity

"In that quotation readers might be misled by the possibly anachronistic usage of "there were … white and black bondsman". So far that it might be read to contain at least one historical inaccuracy:

There were no "white" bondsmen or "race" in the 1660's." There were people of differing complexions but this did not influence their status and the whole concept of e.g. a "white bondsman" or "race" was not developed into later or our current understandings/definitions. As the quote itself tries to clarify: "before the 'white man'", only then to go on and present a wording that suggests a similar concept of "white bondsman".

The quotation contains at least one historical inaccuracy: There were no "white" bondsmen or "race" in the 1660's.

There is no historical record of any "race", "white men" nor "white race" in existence in the British colonies in the 1660's.

The term "White-woman" does not predate 1681.

Primary resource: Maryland State Archives.


Proceedings and Acts of the General Assembly January 1637/8-September 1664 (Volume 1, Page 533-534) Liber W H&L

An Act Concerning Negroes & other Slaues

Bee itt Enacted by the Right Honble the Lord Proprietary by the aduice and Consent of the upper and lower house of this

p. 29

present Generall Assembly That all Negroes or other slaues already within the Prouince And all Negroes and other slaues to bee hereafter imported into the Prouince shall serue Durante Vita And all Children born of any Negro or other slaue shall be Slaues as their ffathers were for the terme of their Hues And forasmuch as divers freeborne English women forgettfull of their free Condicon and to the disgrace of our Nation doe intermarry with Negro Slaues by which alsoe diuers suites may arise touching the Issue of such woemen and a great damage doth befall the Masters of such Negros for preuention whereof for deterring such freeborne women from such shamefull Matches Bee itt further Enacted by the Authority advice and Consent aforesaid That whatsoever free borne woman shall inter marry with any slaue from and after the Last day of this present Assembly shall Serue the master of such slaue dureing the life of her husband And that all the Issue of such freeborne woemen soe marryed shall be Slaues as their fathers were And Bee itt further Enacted that all the Issues of English or other freeborne woemen that haue already marryed Negroes shall serve the Masters of their Parents till they be Thirty yeares of age and noe longer.


Proceedings and Acts of the General Assembly, October 1678-November 1683 (Volume 7, Page 203-205) Liber W. H.

An Act concerning Negroes & Slaves—

Bee itt enacted by the Right Honourable the Lord Propry by & with the Advice & Consent of the vpper & Lower houses of this prsent Genll Assembly & the authority of the same, that all Negroes & other Slaues already Imported or heereafter to bee Imported into this Province shall serve (durante vita) & all the Children already borne or heereafter to bee borne of any Negroes or other Slaues within this Province shall bee Slaues to all intents & purposes as theire fathers were for the Terme of theire naturall Liues.

p. 174

And for as much a diuerse ffreeborne Englishe or White- woman sometimes by the Instigacon Procuremt or Conievance of theire Masters Mistres or dames, & always to the Satis- faccon of theire Lascivious & Lustfull desires, & to the dis- grace not only of the English butt allso of many other Chris- tian Nations, doe Intermarry with Negroes & Slaues by which meanes diuerse Inconveniencys Controuersys & suites may arise Touching the Issue or Children of such ffreeborne women aforesaid, for the prvencon whereof for the future, Bee itt further enacted by the Authority aforesaid that if any Mar Mirs or dame haueing any ffreeborne Englishe or white woman Servt as aforesaid in theire possession or property, shall by any Instigacon procuremt knowledge permission or Contrive- ance whatsoeuer, suffer any such ffreeborne Englishe or Whitewoman Servt in theire possession & wherein they haue property as aforesaid to Intermarry or Contract in Matrimony with any Slaue from and after the Last day of this prsent Ses- sions of Assembly, That then the said Mr Mirs or dame of any such ffreeborne women as aforesaid, soe married as aforesaid, shall forfeite & Loose all theire Claime & Title to the service & servitude of any such ffreeborne woman & alsoe the said woman Servt soe married shall bee & is by this prsent Act absolutely discharged manymitted & made free Instantly vpon her Intermarriage as aforesaid, from the Services Imploymts vse Claime or demands of any such Mr Mirs or dame soe offending as afforesaid, And all Children borne of such ffree- borne women, soe manymitted & ffree as aforesaid shall bee ffree as the women soe married as aforesaid, as also the said Mar Mirs & dame shall forfeite the sume of Tenn Thousand pounds of Tobacco, one halfe thereof to the Lord Propry & the other halfe to him or them that shall Informe & sue for the

p. 175

same to bee Recouered in any Court of Record within this Province by Bill plaint or Informacon, wherein noe Essoyne proteccon or wager of Law to bee allowed. And any preist Minister Majestrate or other person whatsoeuer, within this Province that shall from & after the Publicacon heereof Joyne in Marriage any Negroe or other Slaue to any Englishe or other Slaue to any English or other whitewoman Servt ffree- borne as aforesaid shall forfeite & pay the sume of Tenn Thousand pound of Tobacco, one halfe to the Lord Propry & the other halfe to the Informer or the person greiued, to bee Recouered by action of debt bill plaint or Informacon in any Court of Record within this Province, wherein noe Essoyne Proteccon or wager of Law to bee allowed, And bee itt further enacted by the Authority aforesaid, that one Act entit- uled an Act Concerning Negroes and Slaues bee & is heereby vtterly Repealed & made void, Provided that all matters & thinges relateing in the said Act to the marriage of Negroes with ffreeborne women & theire Issue are firme & valid according to the true intent & purport of the said Act vntill this prsent time of the Repeale thereof, any thing in this Act to the Contrary Notwithstanding.

The term "race" does not appear in the Act of 1664 nor in the Act of 1681.

In the Act of 1664 the terms "freeborne English women", "such woemen", "such freeborne women", "whatsoever free borne woman", "such freeborne woemen soe marryed" and "English or other freeborne woemen" appear in the document.

In the Act of 1681, which repealed the Act of 1664, the terms "ffreeborne Englishe or White-woman", "ffreeborne Englishe or white woman", "Englishe or Whitewoman" and "English or other whitewoman" appear in the document; for the first time in known history.

Secondary sources: The Invention of the White Race, Volume 1 Racial Oppression and Social Control, The Invention of the White Race, Volume 2 The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America by Theodore W. Allen; Birth of a White Nation: The Invention of White People and Its Relevance Today by Jacqueline Battalora.

So-called "Jim Crow" laws came about much later, during what is called in U.S. history "Reconstruction".

Was race really unimportant in the 1660's?

"race" was unimportant in the 1660's in the British Colonies as "race" did not exist at that time in history.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – MCW
    Commented May 21, 2018 at 15:16

I would guess that race was relatively less nonconsequential in the past for two main reasons - one being the level of intelligent awareness of those from the past and the other being geographical and cultural proximity/density.

On the other hand, I see race being much more consequential in the past in terms of inner caste systems, as pointed out by xDaizu in a previous answer. Races long ago were likely more involved in segregating themselves within their own tribe, with things such as color tone of skin, hair type, or any other random, meaningless, sexual phenotype expression. These superficial characteristics have evolved to keep our sexual interests on their toes and to promote sexual diversity, which in turn further accelerates population growth and eventual beneficial evolutionary traits - none of which have ever been something as useless as skin tone or the like. Maybe unless we were iguanas with a unique shade of green that helped us avoid predators or something. But still today, we have all colors of skins, all sizes of breasts and penises, facial features, etc. Today, for the most part, we are past this primitive mindset of segregating based on meaningless factors, and there is much more seeming focus on cross-cultural racism.

In summary, ancient people's race was less consequential in a cross-race sense, but likely more consequential within their own race. Likely they had much less interaction in multi-cultural environments than most humans today, possibly living an entire life never seeing anyone outside their own tribe. Today this very rare, thus more time for racial tension to dribble its way into society.

  • Why does this have so many downvotes? Because there's no citations? Commented May 21, 2018 at 11:57

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