Slavery’s Legacy: Why Race Matters in America

A protester at a Tea Party rally holds a sign demonstrating both the continued importance of slavery's legacy in U.S. political discourse, and the continued erosion of some white folks' self-awareness.

A protester at a Tea Party rally holds a sign demonstrating the continued importance of slavery’s legacy in U.S. political discourse. Notes: this is how NOT to have a “conversation about race.”

What does it take for that contradictory, opinionated, but not always informed, ethnically amorphous mass of sputtering, super-sized humanity known collectively as the American public to have an honest conversation about race? Heck, what does the phrase “conversation about race even mean?” Henry Louis Gates, esteemed Harvard professor of African-American history, thinks it’s utterly meaningless, and that talking about race means recognizing how race is interwined with U.S. History. In an interview for Salon, Gates emphatically states that “since slavery ended, all political movements have been about race.”

This is a statement that, on its face, seems provocative. Indeed, American conservatives have for years made hay out of the idea that since slavery ended a century and a half ago, Americans, especially American liberals, need to get over it, move on, and embrace what they see as a majestic, benign American exceptionalism. Meanwhile, liberals, a group admittedly known for their propensity towards excruciating self-analysis and hand-wringing neurosis, have, in recent years, attempted to justify the value of “white guilt.” White guilt constitutes the nagging feeling that modern enlightened white people need to somehow make amends, if only through the process of realization, for their ancestors’ racist treatment of African-Americans, Native-Americans, and other minorities. Whereas white conservatives often don’t worry about white guilt, given their tendency to intentionally simplify history to the point of obtuse neglect, white liberals seemingly need to qualify every discussion about race by apologizing for the sins of the past.

Contemporary Americans of all backgrounds still struggle with the issue of race — how to define it, how public policy should reflect it, etc. — because the country’s history has largely been a painful process of self-reflection and self-denial about how race affects all aspects of American life. In his Salon interview, Gates suggests that in order to meaningfully talk about race, honest reality needs to trump feel-good triumphalism:

I’m talking about the economic role of slavery in the creation of America. The fact that the richest cotton-growing soil happened to be inhabited by five civilized tribes, what they called themselves, and that had to be exterminated, removed and or exterminated for the greatest economic boom in American history to occur. The Trail of Tears, the cotton boom from 1820 to 1860. I’m not talking about politically correct history, I’m talking about correct history.

As Gates notes, the cotton boom, among the defining events that shaped 19th century American history, happened because of slavery. Cotton was valuable. Slaves were valuable. Cotton needed harvested. Slaves could harvest it. The southern cotton belt was inhabited by native tribes, so those tribes had to be expelled to make way for plantation slavery. Plantation slavery drove the demand for more slaves. The presence of these slaves caused the Civil War. These are neither sugar-coated apologetics for American exceptionalism, nor are they full-throated demonization of the American past. Rather, they are plain historical facts, and Americans have been trying to deal with them ever since.

Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates correctly thinks that talking about race means learning about America's often sordid racist past.

Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates understands that talking about race means learning about America’s often sordid racial past.

Gates gave the Salon interview in part to promote his new PBS series “Many Rivers to Cross,” which covers the 500 year-long black historical experience in America. Slavery, of course, played a tragic, but all-important role, in that experience, for both black and white Americans. When Gates says that “since slavery ended, all political movements have been about race,” he is not claiming that a literal debate over race and/or racism is the sole driving element of over a hundred years of American political debate. What Gates is suggesting, I think, is that slavery was such an integral institution in American life from the Constitutional convention to the Civil War, that it branded the burning legacy of racial tension and discord into the American body politic. The scar from this racial branding has yet to fully heal.

The central role of slavery in founding the American republic has been well-documented by historians. In his book Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson, noted constitutional historian Paul Finkelman documents the extensive role slavery played in shaping the constitutional convention and therefore, nearly all of U.S. history. Five provisions in the Constitution explicitly protected slavery. The famous three-fifths clause counted three-fifths of all slaves for the purpose of boosting southern representation in Congress. Other provisions upheld the legality of the slave trade until 1808, when the issue could be amended, ensured that slaves were taxed at three-fifths the rate of whites,  and prohibited the states from emancipating fugitive slaves.*

As Finkelman documents, the Constitution was, for all intents and purposes, a pro-slavery document. Southern delegates at the Constitutional Convention demanded protections for slavery in exchange for its ratification, and the resulting compromise between northern and southern delegates sanctioned slavery in the country’s founding document. This compromise over slavery, however, haunted the United States for decades. By the mid-19th century, the rise of abolitionism spurred a stringent southern pro-slavery defensiveness, and arguments over the federal government’s constitutional role with regards to limiting the spread of slavery erupted into Confederate secession and Civil War.

The would-be Confederate States of America was founded on slavery. Mississippi’s Declaration of the Immediate Clauses of Secession makes this abundantly clear:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth…a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.

But if the Confederate South fought to preserve slavery, the Union North was often ambivalent — if not outright hostile — to ameliorating the issue of racial subjugation that underpinned slavery. Plenty of Abolitionists saw no contradiction in simultaneously believing that slavery was immoral and that blacks were inherently inferior to whites. This fact only further highlights the tragedy of a four-year conflict that relegated half of the country to a husk of decimation, death, and rubble and claimed the lives of over 600,000 — while leaving the lingering issue of racial equality unresolved. The Civil War is the defining event that shaped modern American identity, and it is impossible to separate the issue of slavery, and by extension, race, from that event.

Slavery’s legacy runs so deep in the American psyche because it was a highly personal institution first; a major political and economic system second. The essence of American slavery was one of domination: that because of differences in skin color, whites had the inherent right to subjugate blacks, deny them human freedom and dignity, and, through violent coercion, use their laboring bodies as commodities unto themselves. This is why contemporary debates over just how “bad” slavery really was are so utterly loathsome and besides the point. At its core, it was a system that gave one group of humans total domination over another group. Slavery denied the very notion of individual autonomy, regardless of how many lashings slaves received. Given the role of social dominance psychology in human behavior, when one group of humans gains power over another, they don’t easily give up that power.

The loss of this system of economic and social domination in 1865 necessitated other methods of racial control in the minds of white supremacists. The rise of the Ku Klux Klan during the Reconstruction era sought to continue the practise of violent racial subjugation that had underpinned slavery. Likewise, the decades long wave of brutal lynchings that swept the South and parts of the North during the era of Jim Crow combined with laws relegating blacks to second class citizenship to assuage white Americans that even with slavery long gone, African-Americans should still “know their place.” During the Civil Right era, southern white supremacists carried on this crusade against “uppity blacks” via “massive resistance” to integration, while white northerners enacted de facto segregation through red lining and urban white flight. Despite these reactionary efforts, when blacks finally regained suffrage, it seemed that Americans might finally take steps to leave the ghost of slavery and race in the past.

Despite the real and positive social changes for the better that have occurred in the thirty plus years since the Civil Rights revolution, the smudge of race hasn’t been fully wiped from the American slate. Strong contemporary feelings over gun control, affirmative action, welfare, voting rights, and, as the picture at the top of this post shows, protests over tax policy, continue to invoke racially charged feelings, even as the U.S. has elected its first African-American president and its national demographics are becoming more racially mixed. Such contradictions exist because even well-meaning Americans have difficulty reconciling such idealistic concepts like “All men are created equal” with the system of American slavery and its legacy of racial conflict.

Many folks, understandably so, wonder how the U.S. can be an exceptionally good country while harboring such an ugly past with regards to race-relations, especially as embodied in the institution of slavery. The wonderment, for example, has inspired recent films that examine the memory of slavery from different standpoints.

Quentin Tarantino's ultra-bloody, Django Unchained (2012) is one way to remember slavery...

Quentin Tarantino’s ultra-bloody, Django Unchained (2012) is one way to remember slavery…

Quentin Tarantino’s unabashedly ahistorical Django Unchained takes an eye-for-an-eye, revenge fantasy approach to slavery. In Tarantino’s film, the titular slave Django (Jaime Foxx) rains down Dirty Harry style retribution against white slaveholders in a truly gratuitous cinematic bloodbath that led commenter Henrik Hertzberg to accuse Tarantino of using the memory of slavery as “an excuse for wallowing in sadism.” By contrast, Steve McQueen’s recent film 12 Years a Slave, based on the slave narrative of Solomon Northrop, shows slavery’s horrors as everyday realities, not the stuff of action set pieces. Policymic’s Elena Sheppard even declared McQueen’s movie to be the “perfect answer to Tarantino:” a film that “takes the incomprehensible violence of slavery and personalizes it,” in a way that is “gut-wrenching” and “palpable.”

These films embody two contrasting ways that many Americans try to reconcile the ugly history of American racism: it’s either something to be rejected forcefully, or its something that must be consistently examined and remembered in all of its injustice, violence, and degradation. Or, if you’re Rush Limbaugh, racism is something white people never engaged in. Nonetheless, the role of race in American society can’t be discussed in simple black and white terms (sorry, I couldn’t resist). Whether we like it or not, the legacy of slavery is central to American identity itself, even if its real effects remain controversial and painful to discuss.

How Americans of various political and social backgrounds remember and interpret their country’s history of slavery and racism should continue to be a major part of public discourse. This is why Henry Louis Gates sees education about the legacy of America’s racial past as essential to achieving a society where “you could wear your ancestry, your sexual preference, your gender orientation, your religion, your color…without penalty.” As a Harvard professor who was wrongfully arrested for trying to enter his own house while black, Gates knows better than most that such a society may be a pipe dream. But then again, that’s what some Americans used to say about an America without slavery. The best way to talk about race is to acknowledge its importance in shaping American history, learn from the mistakes of the past — and for Pete’s sake, try not to repeat those same damn mistakes.

* See Paul Finkelman, Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2001), 7.   

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