Like most historians, I think that the idea that “history repeats itself” is a deeply flawed one, and leads people to fundamentally misunderstand how history works. It’s reductive and in almost every case fails to understand the nuance and complexity of history.
With that being said, there are sometimes parallels that can be drawn to the modern day that are illuminating, as in the case of the French colony of Saint-Domingue, better known as Haiti.
Pre-revolutionary Haiti was a volatile mix of class and racial tensions. There were four primary groups — the grands blancs, plantation owners and wealthy upper class, the gens de colour, the free blacks, the enslaved Africans, and the petits blancs.
Of the groups that would take part in the Haitian revolution, the petits blancs are undoubtedly the least important — with little in the way of power, numbers, or wealth, they were quickly subsumed by the chaos that was to come, but they’re of interest because of they way that they were mobilized to work against their interests by an increasingly racist society.
The petits blancs were poor craftsmen and laborers and, like the American colonists, had no representation in the Metropole, which had begun to create unrest in Saint-Domingue at the end of the 18th century. By the eve of the revolution, the petits blancs had even begun to take violent action against the grands blancs, fighting in a series of skirmishes around the city of Le Cap over a variety of slights.
Once the revolution came, however, the petits blancs were firmly on the side of the grands blancs, fighting with them against the black slave armies and gens de colour alike, even though this was in many ways against their interests.
This was in large part because of a reframing of the social strata by the ruling class — Saint-Domingue had not originally been a racist society. Free blacks had been able to own property, grow wealthy, and live more or less as equals with the whites of the colony. As class and racial tensions leading up to the French Revolution grew, however, white planters instituted a series of increasingly restrictive policies that were based on skin color rather than class, elevating even poor whites above gens de colour, some of whom were quite wealthy and resembled the grands blancs much more than their enslaved brethren. When the fighting began, there was no question of which side of the line the petits blancs would be on — indeed, they often took it upon themselves to instigate violence against slaves and free blacks on their own, seeing them as competition for wealth and status.
Surely by now you see where I’m going with this. Dividing the disenfranchised along racial lines is a well-worn tool of the ruling class, and it’s happening again here in America. The white working class, universally suffering because of rampant inequality, is busy attacking immigrants and racial minorities because, at this point, whiteness is one of the few remaining indicators of value they retain. This isn’t an inherent quality; it’s an anger that’s being deliberately stoked by demagogues and agitators on the right, no one is more guilty of this than Donald Trump.
We are more informed now than ever, and can learn from the lessons of history — let us hope that we can benefit from that knowledge before the guillotines come out.