Right from the days of early corn and tobacco plantations in Jamestown, the labor force for working on these plantations were developed on color lines. The blacks and natives were recognized for their physical strength and dexterity to do farm work. Even between the two groups, blacks were preferred to the natives for reasons of pride. It is documented by early pioneers, how, despite their superior technology and civilization, European settlers could not compete on equal terms in taming the land and availing of its resources. Native Indians were masters at exploiting natural resources to their best advantage. The challenges of early settlers were largely to stave off starvation in light of lack of agricultural expertise. Hurt by pride to learn from the natives and adopt their savage way of life, the settlers wanted a captive labor force to create subsistence crops. African slaves provided the answer for this need. And ever since, the American population has remained divided across this ‘color line’. Hence Zinn’s references this term.
“This unequal treatment, this developing combination of contempt and oppression, feeling and action, which we call “racism”—was this the result of a “natural” antipathy of white against black? The question is important, not just as a matter of historical accuracy, but because any emphasis on “natural” racism lightens the responsibility of the social system.” (Chapter 2, page 80)
Chapter 3 is titled ‘Persons of Mean and Vile Condition’. The persons of such abomination were none other than disadvantaged white settlers. The title is instructive of how the ruling elite can arbitrarily assign negative labels to groups they find inferior or un-cooperative. Here, the persons of ‘mean and vile condition’ are disgruntled white settlers pushed to the corners of the Western frontier, near to the Appalachians. They were treated as second class citizens as they were not allowed ownership of land in the more fertile Eastern regions. This gave rise to a stead accumulation of feelings of resentment and disappointment, the culmination of which was the outright militant rebellion mastered by Nathaniel Bacon. Indeed, a whole century prior to the revered American Declaration of Independence, Bacon and his contingency had given their own manifesto titled Declaration of the People. (Chapter 3, page 106) In many ways this document has more democratic credentials than its famous successor. Yet that is not how the agents of the British Crown would like to paint this uprising. Instead the participants of this legitimate uprising, borne out of perceived injustice, were marked as ‘persons of mean and vile condition’. It must be noted though that Bacon and his supporters were as much victims as victimizers, for they took out their grievances against the Crown on the innocent Indians. This duplicity and flaw is alluded to by Zinn in the following passage:
“‘The Bacon’s “Declaration of the People’ of July 1676 shows a mixture of populist resentment against the rich and frontier hatred of the Indians. It indicted the Berkeley administration for unjust taxes, for putting favorites in high positions, for monopolizing the beaver trade, and for not protecting the western farmers from the Indians. Then Bacon went out to attack the friendly Pamunkey Indians, killing eight, taking others prisoner, plundering their possessions.” (Chapter 3, page 106)