Slavery: The formula for profit is revenue minus cost

From ”The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone And How We Can Prosper Together” by Heather McGhee

In the seventeenth century, influential Europeans were starting to create taxonomies of human beings based on skin color, religion, culture, and geography, aiming not just to differentiate but to rank humanity in terms of inherent worth. This hierarchy – backed by pseudo-scientists, explorers, and even clergy – gave Europeans moral permission to exploit and enslave. So, from the United States’ colonial beginnings, progress for those considered white did come directly at the expense of people considered nonwhite. The U.S. economy depended on systems of exploitation – on literally taking land and labor from racialized others to enrich white colonizers and slaveholders. This made it easy for the powerful to sell the idea that the inverse was also true: that liberation or justice for people of color would necessarily require taking something away from white people

European invaders of the New World believed that war was the only sure way to separate Indigenous people from the land they coveted. Their version of settler colonialism set up a zero-sum competition for land that would shape the American economy to the present day, at an unforgivable cost. The death toll of South and North American Indigenous people in the century after first contact was so massive – an estimated 56 million lives, or 90 percent of all the lands’ original inhabitants, through either war or disease – that it changed the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. 

Such atrocities needed justification. The European invaders and their descendants used religious prejudices: the natives were incurable heathens and incompatible with the civilized peoples of Europe. Another stereotype that served the European profit motive was that Indigenous people wasted their land, so it would be better off if cultivated by productive settlers. Whatever form these rationales took, colonizers shaped their racist ideologies to fit the bill. The motive was greed; cultivated hatred followed. The result wa a near genocide that laid waste to rich native cultures in order to fill European treasuries, particularly in Portugal, Spain, and England – and this later fed the individual wealth of white Americans who received the ill-gotten land for free. 

Colonial slavery set up a zero-sum relationship between master and enslaved as well. The formula for profit is revenue minus cost, and American colonial slaveholders happened upon the world’s most winning version of the formula to date. Land was cheap to free in the colonies, and although the initial cost of buying a captured African person was high, the lifetime of labor, of course, was free. Under slavery’s formative capitalist logic, an enslaved man or woman was both a worker and an appreciating asset. Recounts economic historian Caitlin Rosenthal, “Thomas Jefferson described the appreciation of slaves as a ‘silent profit’ of between 5 and 10 percent annually, and he advised friends to invest accordingly.”