Divide or Unite? Racism and Power

How those in power use racial conflict as a means of control

Shefali O'Hara


Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Note: I provide links to all of my sources. They are underlined and in boldface. I want my readers to be able to check out all sources for themselves.

There are two ways to lead people — either you divide-and-conquer, or you unite and build up. This has been true since Roman times.

Julius Cesar notoriously used this strategy to conquer Gaul twenty two centuries ago. The Latin phrase for it was Divide et impera.

It is a moral strategy?

According to Nicolo Machiavelli, “politics have no relations to morals”. He also said, “one who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived.”

Origins of black skin being associated with slavery in America

In the United States, divide-and-conquer was used by the Southern planter class originally to drive a wall between white and black workers. The consequent association of black skin with slavery was one of the sins of early American history and we continue to pay a price for this injustice today.

In the early colonial period, both blacks and whites were kept as indentured servants. Many of the white workers came from the English working class. Black and white women and men worked side by side and those who broke their contract were equally punished.

An example of a free black man who owned property in early Virginia was Anthony Johnson. He was listed in the 1625 Virginia census as a servant, not a slave. He married another black servant. Once they served out their indenture, he went on to went on to buy land, cattle, and to acquire indentured servants of his own. His servants could have been black or white. By 1650, he was one of only 400 people of African origin in the colony of 19,000.

This changed in 1705, when the Virginia General Assembly declared that any servants brought into the country who were not Christian in their native land would henceforth be slaves. That meant all people of African origin. “Mulattos and Indians” were also “held to be real estate”.



Shefali O'Hara

Cancer survivor, writer, engineer. BSEE from MIT, MSEE, and MA in history. Love nature, animals, books, art, and interesting discussions.