History Untaught: Bacon’s Rebellion and understanding why Critical Race Theory matters


Photo by Natalie Mathis

Hannah Figueroa-Velazquez, Co-Editor-in-Chief

“Critical Race Theory.” Many of us have heard of it, either from its constant use as a talking point for those who believe race has no place in schools or maybe from misguided progressives defending it, saying that if we’re not teaching it in schools, we’re doing our kids a disservice. To both of these sides, I’d argue back two things: 

  1. Critical Race Theory (CRT) is not taught in K-12 schools. It’s a complex and theoretical revisioning of race studied in law school that a kindergartener, third-grader or even a senior in high school would not be able to fully understand. 
  2. Why are we so afraid of it? Could it be, maybe, that as much as these three words are thrown around in casual conversation at school board meetings, political races or loaded conversations about what should and should not be taught in schools, few people have taken the time to research what it truly is? 

Critical Race Theory is a lens for looking at race and racism with a modern day perspective. Scholars, civil rights activists and historians are now recognizing that the way we have for centuries interpreted race has been dictated by a certain demographic: white men. The reason Critical Race Theory is such an integral piece of moving forward in this era of enlightenment is that we have an obligation to people of color to tell history for what it was, not what we’d like it to be. This means challenging widely-accepted liberal ideologies of race and using interdisciplinary studies to better understand the truth behind racism in America. 

Though CRT has a few main principles, its driving theory states that race is not a biological fact, but rather a fabricated social construct. It’s been proven that you will find more genetic differences between two people from different regions in Africa than in any given Black and white person in the US. So, if we know this to be true, and we also can all agree that it’s rather nonsensical to claim one person could be superior to another based on the amount of melanin a person possesses, then what is it that drove America to this racial caste system as we know it to be today? More importantly, why do we care?

 Many Critical Race Theorists, including civil rights activist and lawyer Michelle Alexander, point to Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676 as one of the great motivators for the development of a racial caste system. In the early 1600s of colonial America, slavery was not the main source of labor. Instead, wealthy landowners relied on indentured servants who, in exchange for passage into the Americas from Europe or Africa, sold 15-20 years of their lives as workers. This system of indentured servitude, though harsh and oftentimes unfair to servants, was unique in that the treatment of immigrants from Africa and the treatment of  immigrants from Europe were strikingly similar. 

Historian Lerone Bennett, Jr. described this as “the big planter apparatus and a social system that legalized terror against black and white bondsmen.” 

Moreover, at this point in history, the desperate need for labor overrode much separation between servants, regardless of color. This didn’t mean that slavery or racism was non-existent, but until decades later, we didn’t have the full-fledged racial caste system of slavery as we know it to be today. 

This all changed in 1676 when property owner Nathaniel Bacon organized an uprising against the upper planter elites that included Black and white servants, a unity that would be unheard of later in the century. Not soon after, landowners felt an increasing worry that if resentment against the upper class continued, rebellions like this would become common, and eventually, they might lose their social standing. To counter this, a sudden divide was drawn clearly between Black and white servants. Slave codes were written declaring that any African, non-Christian person in Virginia would be made a slave in addition to any offspring they may have. In contrast, white workers were granted more liberties to enjoy, including promised land at the end of servitude, better working conditions and in general a higher level of respect. From this, whiteness became not just a skin color; it became property. 

As written by historian Edmund Morgan, “there was an obvious lesson in the rebellion. Resentment of an alien race might be more powerful than resentment of an upper class.” 

Now that poor Black and white people had been separated into a hierarchy, there was no risk of a lower class rebellion as poor whites feared any association with Black slaves. Perhaps white servants were not on the highest rung of the social ladder, but no longer were they on the bottom, either. 

 In the 1700s, the effects of this transition were drastic. The number of African slaves tripled, while white servants became less and less prominent in the market of cheap labor. 

As explained by historian Ira Berlin, “what is interesting about this is that we normally say that slavery and freedom are opposite things—that they are diametrically opposed. But what we see here in Virginia in the late 17th century, around Bacon’s Rebellion, is that freedom and slavery are created at the same moment.”

 So leading back to one of my first questions, why does this matter? It’s history — why dwell on our past when we should be looking into the future? Unfortunately, we cannot begin to understand the racism that we face today if we can’t pinpoint its origins. Racial caste is not gone because, as years go by, we allow it to keep transforming. We went from slavery to Jim Crow to now, an America with the prison industrial complex. How can we understand what we’re fighting against today if we don’t acknowledge its similarities to what people fought against so long ago? 

Critical Race Theory, though not taught in schools, is far from dangerous. It’s seeking truth. The sooner we realize that revisiting our history in a fresh light isn’t a bad thing, the sooner we can work to eradicate racial caste once and for all.