This is a very, very, very basic introduction to the question of race from a historical perspective. If you’ve studied any world history, human genetics, or even just had your eyes open in the past decade, there’s probably nothing here you don’t already know. Everything I have to say has been said before, so why say it again? I have two reasons.
First, there are some more obscure and complicated things I want to talk about concerning race and history and it would be useful to have some basic points covered for future reference.
Second, there are some people who don’t know the basics of race, even some very intelligent people (even some Supreme Court justices), so it can’t hurt to say these things again.
Race is like money.
No, really, hear me out on this.
The majority of the stuff that needs to get done in an agrarian society is basic manual labor: primarily farm work, but also things like construction, building and road maintenance, mining, carrying, housework, etc. Any functioning pre-industrial society needs lots of workers to do all that work, but there are many different kinds of workers, some of which are not so familiar to us today. Some of these kinds of workers had it much better than others.
Here’s a list of possibilities, by no means exhaustive, arranged roughly in order from worst to best conditions.
This is not the post I had intended for today. When I started working on this one, it was about some of the different ways of organizing basic labor that have existed in history, from slave gangs to independent peasant farmers. As I kept working on it, I found that I had more to say about slavery, especially in light of the public dialogue that has been happening in the United States lately surrounding symbols of the Confederacy. So I started working on a post specifically about slavery in historical context, but as I tried to write that post, it became clear to me that there is an even more fundamental issue in historical interpretation I needed to talk about, something that applies not just to slavery but to almost every historical phenomenon. It is so universal that we don’t really have a standard vocabulary for talking about it. You could call it variability, or you could call it norms and exceptions, but I prefer to think of it as solid centers and fuzzy edges.