Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
The Democrats who have announced their candidacy for the presidential primary have all declared their support for paying reparations to the descendants of slaves, after they kissed the ring of notorious race-baiter, tax cheat, and liar Al Sharpton. None has a clue exactly how such a policy would be implemented, and it’s clear their support is nothing more than virtue-signaling and pandering to the racialist left. Nor is it likely such a policy will come to pass.
But this political stunt is still useful for exposing just how dishonest is the left’s use of slavery in our public discourse. Once a universal evil now existing only in the global shadows, slavery has been weaponized by the left and identity politics tribunes in order to attack the West, especially the United States, and caricature both as unique evils responsible for all the world’s ills.
First, this focus on the West ignores the fact that all peoples everywhere kept slaves. Slavery was as unexceptional as the domestication of animals. Nor were Europeans the biggest slave-owners and slave-traders. Eight centuries before the Europeans began importing slaves from Africa, the Islamic Middle East had been exporting or kidnapping slaves––an estimated 17 million Africans, over one-and-a-half times the estimated 10 million purchased by Europeans. Millions were forced-march across the Sahara to coastal ports. The males were brutally castrated––all the genitals, not just the testicles–– to provide eunuchs for harems and service to rulers. Thousands died along the way from their wounds, their bones littering the desert sands. And don’t forget the millions of white Europeans kidnapped and sold into slavery by privateers serving the Muslim Barbary states in North Africa, or the Balkan Christian boys, perhaps as many as one million, taken from their parents, forcibly converted, and made to serve the Ottoman regime as janissaries.
This obsession with the European and later American indulgence and practice of African slavery, while ignoring Muslim ecumenical slavery still being practiced today, are evidence that the condemnation of slavery is not based on universal principle. Rather, it reflects a combination of Marxist anticolonialism, which uses slavery as an indictment of capitalism’s innate evil; and race-based identity politics, which predicates black identity on being a victim of white racism institutionalized in this country by slavery. And this “racism” still persists in dubious ideas like “implicit bias” and “institutionalized racism,” even as the brutal manifestations of genuine racism like lynchings and racial pogroms have disappeared. No black man living in Jim Crow Alabama had to fake racist attacks as “hate crime” hoaxers like Jussie Smollett do today.
This ideological narrative that drives reparations, which exists of course to provide political leverage to one faction of American politics, leaves out the more significant and revolutionary dimension of slavery’s history: emancipation. Unlike slavery, which existed in every culture that had the power to enslave others, emancipation had its birth and growth in one culture: that of the West.
The roots of emancipation, in fact go back to ancient Athens. The historically unique habit of the Greeks of questioning critically their own culture and mores extended to human bondage. Slaves were depicted sympathetically on the comic and tragic stage, and in some comedies, like Aristophanes’ the Frogs or the later comedies of Menander, the slave is smarter than his master and often gets the better of him. More important, we can find in Greek culture a growing recognition that slavery is not, as Aristotle would have it, the just condition of the naturally inferior, but an accident of fate that is “against nature.” The Stoic idea of the “brotherhood of man,” based on a common human identity and nature, reinforced these beliefs. As the rhetorician Alcidamas said, “The god gave freedom to all men, and nature created no one a slave.”
The universalism of Christianity continued this trend. As Galatians 3:28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” In the 18th century, British Christians like William Wilberforce, Zachary Macaulay, Henry Brougham, James Stephens, and others organized and lobbied for an end to the slave trade and the abolition of slavery. In 1806 the former goal was partially achieved with the Foreign Slave Trade Bill, which forbade participation in the slave trade with French colonies, and in 1807 the Slave Trade Act proscribed trafficking in slaves throughout the British Empire. Emancipation came in 1833 with the Slavery Abolition Act. In the United States, of course, the abolitionist movement to end slavery was one of the predicates for the Civil War, a conflict that cost 700,000 lives.
This history needs to be told, for we seldom hear of it from progressives and leftists who brandish American slavery as a weapon for demonizing the West and the U.S. Slighted as well is the Civil Rights movement, also led in the main by black Christians who appealed to the “unalienable rights” granted all humans by their “Creator.” Desegregation of schools enforced by federal troops, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act swept away the legal barriers to full citizenship for blacks. And the Great Society Programs created in the Sixties transferred trillions of dollars in wealth to black Americans.
The problems and dysfunctions among some black communities that still remain have nothing to do with slavery or its alleged persistence in public institutions, or with occult racism, or black psychological trauma. The nearly 8,000 black men murdered in 2017, 90% by other blacks, died not because of the “legacy of slavery” but because of the degeneration of black families, character, and communities by the destructive cultural changes of the Sixties, and by bad government redistributionist policies and programs that halted the slow but steady improvement in black lives happening before the Civil Rights Act. Jason Riley’s summary of these trends in The Wal Street Journal is worth quoting again:
Between 1890 and 1940, for example, black marriage rates in the U.S. where higher than white marriage rates. In the 1940s and ’50s, black labor-participation rates exceeded those of whites; black incomes grew much faster than white incomes; and the black poverty rate fell by 40 percentage points. Between 1940 and 1970—that is, during Jim Crow and prior to the era of affirmative action—the number of blacks in middle-class professions quadrupled. In other words, racial gaps were narrowing. Steady progress was being made. Blacks today hear plenty about what they can’t achieve due to the legacy of slavery and not enough about what they did in fact achieve notwithstanding hundreds of years in bondage followed by decades of legal segregation.
In the post-’60s era, these positive trends would slow, stall, or in some cases even reverse course. The homicide rate for black men fell by 18% in the 1940s and by another 22% in the 1950s. But in the 1960s all of those gains would vanish as the homicide rate for black males rose by nearly 90%. Are today’s black violent-crime rates a legacy of slavery and Jim Crow or of something else? Unfortunately, that’s a question few people on the left will even entertain.
Giving money to the distant descendants of slaves will do nothing to change the reality blighting millions of black lives even as well-heeled black activists, politicians, athletes, entertainers, and government employees enjoy a level of material comfort superior to millions of whites supposedly endowed with “white privilege.”
Moreover, the complexity of implementing such a program is prohibitive. The criteria for sorting out who legitimately deserves such largess, for example, are unclear. Do black immigrants from Africa or the Caribbean qualify? Isn’t their beef with the African kings who sold their ancestors into slavery in the first place? Or with the French and British, who developed the slave economy in the Caribbean? And how does someone like Barack Obama, whose mother was white and father an African, qualify for such payments owed to the descendants of American slaves? Or Kamala Harris, whose black father is Jamaican and has admitted his ancestors owned slaves? Should even affluent blacks like Cory Booker, who grew up in a town 98% white and Asian, with a median family income of $132,000, and who graduated from Stanford University, be included in the dole?
Reparations, of course, is a political stunt. At this moment it is the password, like the preposterous Green New Deal, that Democrat presidential aspirants must whisper to the radical-base gate-keepers. Given that 70% of Americans disapprove of the scheme means it’s unlikely to gain traction with the voters, or to figure in the 2020 presidential election.
What it does do is illustrate once again the dysfunctional, mendacious racial discourse dominating our public and political culture. It is a part of the Orwellian progressive lexicon of smears like “racism” and “white privilege” that substitutes emotion and propaganda for fact and coherent argument.
Slavery was––and in some Muslim countries still is––a universal evil questioned only in the West, whose rejection of it discredited the practice in most of the world. Anyone indulging the cheap sophistry of weaponizing the evils and suffering of a slavery they never experienced should be countered with the reminder that it was the unique culture of the West and its “white man’s English jurisprudential culture,” as Joe Biden smeared it, that ended slavery.