Does the burden of slavery still yoke the descendants of America’s African slaves?
With anti-police protests continuing to disrupt the peace in Ferguson, Missouri, and with similar protests lingering too vividly in memory from New York and elsewhere — and, more to the point, with the focus of these protests being how police forces interact with (and, it is said, tyrannize and murder) African-American populations — the specter of official racist suppression of American blacks can’t be dismissed out of hand. No matter how badly some protestors behave.
But I wonder. Is racism as such the real problem? It exists, of course, the world over, and not just against those of darker skin. But could history provide the clues to unearthing a perhaps deeper-than-skin factor?
I ask the question in part because, in our own country, as many descendants of slaves struggle and seem to be losing out, the existence of successful black individuals and families suggests other forces at work. This is especially startling when we consider that African-Americans who come from elsewhere — the Caribbean, or recently from Africa itself — outperform America’s long-term African-American populations by several magnitudes. They are richer, more upwardly mobile, and less prone to crime. If discrimination by whites against those of darkest skin color is the core problem, why do darker Africans outperform America’s own African-Americans, in contemporary American society?
And there are more reasons to wonder if racism isn’t the whole story.
Last week, on my This Is Common Sense website, I marked an awful event in our history: The official beginning of chattel slavery in Britain’s American colonies.
Well, an official beginning. Slavery evolved in America by steps. Most importantly, chattel slavery grew out of indentured servitude.
Indentured servitude was a condition where a person worked as the exclusive servant of a “master” for a designated period. When the period was over, then the servant was freed.
Sometimes folks indentured themselves. Other times they were indentured by criminal courts, for crimes they had committed — and the transportation of criminals out of Britain was a major factor in the early peopling of North America by whites, as it later became for Australia.
Debtors also found themselves indentured, as a means to pay off their debts.
This form of servitude was not like a modern wage contract. Indeed, it was not so much a contract between employer and employee as between a creditor or a government functionary and the employer. The servant was subject to the master. It was a very ancient sort of relationship, far more hierarchical than labor relations today, and bound up with ideas of radical inequality and blatant force.
So, way back in the 17th century, in Britain’s Virginia Colony, there erupted a dispute between two masters over one worker, John Casor, an African indentured servant.
At first Mr. Casor gained some control of his life. He charged his master, Anthony Johnson, a freed black, with having forced him to labor longer than the term of his indentureship. He won, was himself freed, and then turned around and indentured himself to one Robert Parker.
But Johnson sued. Back to the courts the case went, and, on March 8, 1655, Johnson won Casor back — as a slave for life.
The case established a civil ground for slavery. This was a landmark, an unsettling one indeed.
It also officially enforced slave-holding by free blacks. One should not make too much of this, but it is a historical fact: Even as late as the Civil War, the South harbored numerous families of obvious African descent who themselves owned African-Americans as slaves.
On the surface, then, and at its origins, American slavery wasn’t about race. But before Mr. Casor’s sad story, in the 1640 case of John Punch, sentenced to a life of slavery as criminal punishment for running away from the full term of his indenture, Punch’s fellow escapees — whites — merely got longer terms of forced labor.
Slavery was not about racism, but the racism was there, as an issue, and outright race hatred and racist ideology became increasingly important to “the peculiar institution” as time went on. Especially as the American colonies seceded and formed a new union, independent of Britain.
Economist and historian Thomas Sowell explains why. His reasoning runs something like this: If you exalt the notion that “all men are created equal,” how do you square that with your slave-holding?
By denigrating the humanity of blacks.
When the southern states seceded from the Union in 1860, in protest of the election of an abolitionist, Abraham Lincoln, to the presidency, this racist element had grown alarmingly strong in American culture. A swirling cauldron of pernicious ideas about what it means to be human had become commonplace. Blacks and whites were somehow inherently and importantly different, and whites were superior. That was the idea, and the fact that it was backed up by self-contradictory policies didn’t stop many from believing it. It was a convenient excuse to deny others their freedom, and live off their forced labor.
The self-contradiction is pretty easy to see. To argue that blacks were inferior to whites, especially in matters of learning, while simultaneously disallowing blacks from an education, suggests that the first belief was shakily grounded, since the policy prevented it from ever being tested. It’s like kicking a person when he’s down: easy, but proof of nothing more than that it’s easy to kick a person when he’s down.
Some of this vile racist ugliness remains. Witness last week’s video evidence of racial slurs (and worse) by frat boys at University of Oklahoma. But it doesn’t exactly explain why there are so many more American African-Americans in poverty than are recent African-American immigrants. Could white Americans hate (or somehow discriminate against) black descendants of slaves not primarily out of hatred of the whole race, but hatred (or revulsion) of blacks’ history as slaves — or perhaps whites’ shame of their own history, as slaveholders?
That could indeed be a factor. But other more plausible explanations come to mind.
When I think of my privileges, my advantages, I don’t think of my color. (Despite the concept of “white privilege” being all the rage on campuses these days.) I admit one huge advantage: I was raised by parents who supported me, nurtured me, corrected me, and, to put it in time-clock terms, gave me a fair amount of attention. Loving attention.
This is my huge advantage. With this grounding, this attachment to adult society at an early age, I learned to control most of my impulses, comport myself well in public, avoid the temptations of criminality as well as the worst vices. And I found myself navigating American society well enough.
Too many descendants of slaves suffer from problems arising primarily from their whopping high rates of broken homes, of fatherless children — or at least of children raised by mothers or aunts or grandparents while their fathers drift in and out of the family orbit like comets.
The evidence is overwhelming that such family life is inimical to stable development. Children from such homes tend to do much more poorly in school and exhibit deep-seated anti-social tendencies.
It wasn’t always like this. Even sixty years ago and more, under the deadening tyranny of Jim Crow, America’s inner-city blacks had far, far higher rates of births to intact families than they do now. And they had far, far higher levels of employment, too. That is, young black men worked back then, at jobs. In great number.
Nowadays, there are more young black men in prison than gainfully employed.
It is not plausible that today’s police are more racist than they were post-Reconstruction and under Progressive-Era Jim Crow.
So, what changed? What broke a culture — sending whole cohorts of American blacks spiraling into marginality, criminality, and poverty?
Something every bit as dangerous as racism: statism.
What is statism? It is the term for all the ideologies, left, right and center, that promote the worship and reliance upon government-as-savior of individual lives, of cultural life. Of big, intrusive government. Of theoretically unlimited government.
American statism hit America’s descendants of slaves hardest.
One particularly destructive arm of statist policy has been the War on Drugs, which has turned out to be used against politically powerless populations the most — for the very simple reason that when turned against drug users in white middle-class America, middle-class Americans start to object. By focusing on blacks and Latinos and others, modern-day drug warriors protect their jobs . . . and act as if they were vile racists.
But what they are is vile statists.
Another destructive statist factor was the rise of the minimum wage. From the beginning of discussions of minimum wage legislation in America, economists warned that the people who would be most hurt are those with the lowest levels of skill. Prohibiting low-wage work (which is all the minimum wage is, anyway, not a guarantee of anything) serves as an attack on low-skilled workers, who can only obtain low-wage positions, at least to start. Thomas Sowell has often remarked that the secular, decade-by-decade rise in black male youth unemployment provides strong empirical evidence for the standard, supply-and-demand view of labor, the commonsense view of wage rates.
Finally, there’s the sexual revolution. Not a form of statism itself, when combined with statism it has been a disaster. It has hit the whole of the first world, and we are still reeling from it. But it hit poor people hardest, because they have the least buffer, and suffer the most for mistakes of coupling: an unwanted pregnancy can change the path of all lives concerned. And with the government stepping in as the Big Daddy money source, the moral hazard has been more than a hazard to morality.
This isn’t racism, not directly. For historical reasons, statism, from left and right, hit blacks first and foremost. But fatherlessness is an equal opportunity destroyer, and as Charles Murray has recently argued in Coming Apart, whites in general are following the same path, just with a lag.
Not everybody’s hurting, of course. Those groups and segments that have the inside track on the modern state’s programs do quite well. Among these are those professional black families who sometimes benefit from affirmative action programs, even as those programs negatively affect inner-city black lives. (Through a process not dissimilar to how minimum wage laws hurt blacks.) There are advantaged blacks in America, just as there are advantaged whites. By policy. Some of these are unfairly, unjustly advantaged.
Just as there were once state-backed slave-owners. Of both races.
Last Sunday was also the 240th anniversary of Tom Paine’s first American call for slavery’s abolition. The next year he went on to write Common Sense.
I am convinced that common sense, today, must be focused directly at the main source of today’s greatest divisions and most intractable problems, including race relations, including police-citizen relations: the aggrandizement of the state at the expense of the rule of law and of the rights of individuals.