Race is a social construct, based on human physical characteristics, used to group people. Racism is personal or collective prejudice based on membership in a particular racial group.
The Virginia Company recorded people as well as livestock, houses, boats and supplies in the first census of the colony, called the General Muster of Virginia. It was probably undertaken to provide Company investors with a snapshot of their colony’s assets and to entice new investors. Its classification of the population reveals that the English considered non-white and non-European individuals as a distinct lower status. Besides the listing of 885 colonists, 32 Africans and 4 Indians were described as “Others not Christians in the service of the English.”
Skin color, cultural norms, and ethnicity—not religious identity or belief—enabled colonizers to determine someone's lower status. This unfounded correlation between skin color and status still persists today.
The statute that “All persons except Negroes are to be provided with firearms and ammunition” established a legal distinction between White and Black men. Colonial laws were encoded by the Virginia General Assembly, where representatives were free, white men who were members of the Church of England.
Following two years of coordinated attacks on English settlements, the Powhatan tribes faced defeat. Paramount chief Necotowance successfully negotiated a treaty with the English in 1646 that, while ending hostilities, relegated the once powerful Powhatan paramountcy to tributary status. The tribes were placed under control of the English king who promised protection for an annual tribute of 20 beaver skins. The articles of peace required tribal leaders be approved by the English. It required Powhatan warriors to relinquish firearms and return all hostages, including “negroes.” Much of the Powhatan’s traditional lands were ceded to the English and tributary tribes confined to territory north of the York River. The treaty marked the waning sovereignty of the Powhatan people.
Following the deadly 1622 Powhatan offensive, the Virginia Company’s Edward Waterhouse declared, “the Indians who before were used as friends may now most justly be compelled to servitude and drudgery.”
As time progressed, colonists traded for enslaved war captives that resulted from hostilities among Indigenous groups to the Southwest. Questions about the status of these individuals led the General Assembly to resolve in 1670 that unlike the Africans, Indigenous people should be considered servants rather than enslaved. Children were to serve until they were 30 and adults no longer than 12 years.
The 1670 law was repealed in 1682, making all non-Christians enslaved. In 1688, “Indian Moll” petitioned for her daughter’s freedom from servitude based on the earlier law, as her daughter was born in Virginia and not trafficked in from the Southwest. The court agreed to grant her daughter’s freedom upon the girl’s 30th birthday.
The 1705 several laws were created to ensure non-white individuals were treated differently and held a lower status. “Any negro, mulatto or Indian” was prohibited from holding any civil, religious or military office. They also could not testify in court, preventing free Black and Indigenous servants from collecting debts or suing for freedom. No non-white person was permitted to vote or bear arms and Indigenous people were protected only while on restricted tribal lands. One piece of the legislation gave slave status to all imported servants “who were not Christians in their own country.” In addition, “Negro, mulatto, and Indian slaves” were relegated to real estate under the law and could be passed through inheritance.
The Virginia Supreme Court granted freedom to enslaved woman Jackey Wright and her two children based upon her proof of Indigenous maternity. This decision hearkened back to the 1662 law under which children took the legal status of their mothers and the fact that the 1705 code took away civil rights, but did not necessarily enslave Indigenous peoples.
Under the influence of Walter Plecker, Bureau of Vital Statistics registrar, Virginians were legally defined as “white” or “colored.” Anyone with one Black ancestor was not “racially pure” and became identified as “colored.” This category included most Indigenous Virginians, depriving them of their cultural heritage, because Plecker believed all Indigenous people in the state were of mixed race.
The Act supported the belief of those in power that the white race was superior in “morals, mental powers and cultural fitness.” To enforce their views, interracial marriage was prohibited in Virginia and all other aspects of life segregated. The intermarriage section of the Act was overturned by Loving v. Virginia in 1967, and the Virginia Assembly repealed the remainder of the act in 1975.
The Constitution’s 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in 1865, was just the first legislative step in a long road to legalizing civil rights in America. Many states found ways to keep African Americans oppressed, despite the 14th Amendment, which granted citizenship to those who had been formerly enslaved, and the 15th Amendment, which gave all men, regardless of race, the right to vote.
Literacy tests, poll taxes, Jim Crow laws, and the Ku Klux Klan acted to marginalize and intimidate Black citizens. The Civil Rights Act, proposed by Martin Luther King, Jr. as the “Second Emancipation Proclamation,” was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. It ended segregation in public places and prohibited employment discrimination based on personal identifiers such as skin color.
Unlike the earlier civil rights movement that was organized around charismatic leaders like Martin Luther King, Black Lives Matter is a decentralized grassroots effort aided by modern technology. It was set in motion on social media following the 2012 acquittal of a vigilante in the shooting and death of Black teen Trayvon Martin.
The movement grew in strength with public access to footage from police body cameras and private cell phone videos of violence against other Black individuals. The 2020 murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis policeman was a major galvanizing moment leading to global protest marches, calls for police reform, and demands for significant social and political change that would value Black lives in all areas of American life.
Just as the past has woven threads into our present, we have the power to strengthen or pull apart our nation’s fabric with choices we make today. Marginalized communities struggle for equal access to healthcare, economic opportunities, quality education and voting rights. What will you do for social justice and racial equality to provide better lives for all citizens?