Home > Democracy, Law, Security and Violence > Is slavery still relevant in the US?

Is slavery still relevant in the US?

White Americans, especially conservatives, love to talk about how slavery is simply not relevant anymore, and as such, black people need to “get over it” and “move on”. But is it no longer relevant? Or do they just want to feel good about the country they were born in? This incomplete guide to the enduring legacy of slavery might help high-school-history teachers answer the question.

The origins of racism

Racism originated with the Transatlantic slave trade. No, slavery was not the first time anyone had been racist. The point is, all modern racism in Europe, the Americas and to a lesser extent the rest of the world was “invented” to legitimize slavery. The rich Europeans who wanted slaves naturally had an interest in pretending blacks were inferior, or not even human, as they would therefore be unworthy of respect, freedom or justice. They needed soldiers, slave catchers, plantation hands and so on, to make sure the slaves remained in their place, so not only the elites were made to believe in slavery. The whole white population would be made to feel superior to others, thus making them willing to help with slavery or at least turn a blind eye to it, and deflecting criticism of the elite to other races. (Moreover, the “Indians” they found in the Americas, as well as the Arabs, Asians and whatever other groups they met on their adventures of conquest, could also be subjugated if judged inferior.)

The racism that began with the slave trade has not died. It continues to exist in many forms. It is easy and necessary to point to the large number of right-wing militias that exist largely for the sake of starting a race war. They are killing people and spreading lies about people of color. It is harder but also necessary to see the subtle racism of everyday life. When the media tell us about whites who break the law, we hear about their home lives, their hobbies, their friends. When the media tell us about blacks who break the law, we hear about the severity of their crimes, and even (as if it were relevant) about other laws they may have broken. Blacks don’t get picked for jobs or promotions as often as whites. They get harassed by the police more often. They are more likely to get arrested, jailed or killed by a supposedly blind justice system for the same crimes as whites. These are not accidents. They are the product of centuries of actions by a white-supremacist state.

The history of the US is not one of slavery but then happiness and freedom for black people. It is bad enough that slaves were not given the land they worked their whole lives. Slavery was followed by sharecropping, segregation, eugenics, lynching, bombings, police brutality, incarceration and, at every stage, blacks being mocked for their wretchedness. (The Nazis got many of their ideas from the US.) When they have tried to fight back, it was considered proof that blacks are inherently violent, untrustworthy and unworthy of freedom. The same is true today. Look at how the media and conservatives talk about Black Lives Matter or Colin Kaepernick. They never gave them a chance. They never listened. They mock them by saying “what about black-on-black crime?” and tell them to shut up by saying “all lives matter”. Some actually use the word “terrorism” to describe an attempt by marginalized people to make others believe they are equally worthy of respect. And the same white people who say “all lives matter”, who never listen to black protesters and who hate Colin Kaepernick would balk at the accusation that they are racist. They seem to think the time of denying black people equal rights based on their skin color died with MLK.

White Americans have always been unwilling to acknowledge real problems in the US. They seem to have no idea, for example, that they are not free. There are laws restricting their every behavior, and police or other security forces breathing down their necks at every turn, but “we are free” because we have been told we are free. Racism is another thing white Americans have trouble seeing. Most conservatives will actually deny there is much racism against people of color in the US, to the infuriating extent that they believe white people are the true victims. But that is what happens when you get your information from other racists and not from the actual victims. You might think because you saw a video of some black people angry at whites that means whites are all going to be killed. You might have seen countless stories of black people committing crimes and very few of white people. You may take it for granted that white police who kill black civilians were acting in self-defense. White conservatives rarely acknowledge any racism by white people but revel in pointing out “race baiters” like Barack Obama (where he has said anything anti-white I am not aware) and Al Sharpton, who they seem to think is the king of angry black people.

White skin, black self-hate

In the US and all around the world, people are taught that darker skin is uglier, dirtier, a dishonor, a sad genetic accident. Why? Because white people have spread the idea, and because people in power in places like East Asia have an interest in keeping that idea alive. Darker-skinned people, especially women, tend to get the short end of the stick. Black and brown people end up hating themselves for their hair. Their hair! What could be wrong with “black” hair? But that is what happens when white supremacy spreads around the world. People of color in the US find themselves in the same culture as whites, so it should not be surprising many of them hate themselves and hate other people of color, while believing in white politicians, bureaucrats, bosses and preachers.

Slavery destroyed the black family and the culture of every person who was enslaved. The psychological effect of having your home, your culture and family taken away with you is immeasurable. These things last beyond the initially enslaved and turn into generational problems. But black people, both while enslaved and since then, have created and maintained a vibrant new black American culture. Afro-American culture created jazz, blues, rock n roll and hip hop, something the world should be grateful for. And yet, it gets mocked, ignored, delegitimized.

Slavers used to have no compunction about taking slaves’ children away from them. They did not treat slaves as human; why would they care if their slaves got upset? I cannot comment on the lasting psychological effects I am sure that heartless cruelty had. I can, however, point out that descendants of people who owned slaves still do not care about separating brown people from their parents, as the policy continues to this day at the border. They turn a blind eye or use words to justify it to themselves. They do not care that children are being separated from their parents, that children are being kept in cages, or even that the people in government are getting rich from it, because it has all happened before. It was considered normal. The racism created then to make people feel nothing for slaves continues as people feel nothing for “illegals”.

Indeed, slavery itself is still alive and well in the US. The prison industry houses nearly 1% of the US population. This figure is much higher than any other country in the world. Prisoners tell of all forms of abuse from guards, along with rape among inmates. But they are also worked as slaves, making peanuts for themselves and making a few people rich. Some whites have become so cold they consider abuse and slavery part of the punishment (for whatever crime, however minor or victimless). How could they object so strongly to a black person selling weed or a brown person crossing a border as crimes but have nothing to say about ruining someone’s life and making them a slave for the profit of the elite? Racism would seem to be the only explanation.

When slavery ended, the era of mass incarceration began. Whites occasionally went to jail for terrorizing black people, but police have never gone to jail for selectively enforcing the law. Black people are disproportionately jailed, particularly in places where slavery existed most prominently–in other words, where fomenting racism against blacks was most important for the elite. Is it just an amazing coincidence?

From wars for slaves to wars for empire

The Civil War was not the only one fought over slavery. Nor is it the only war who causes have been virtually erased in history lessons. Many of the US’s wars that took place during slavery were demanded by slaveowners who wanted to expand the legal territory for owning and catching slaves. The British helped thousands of slaves escape during the War of 1812. Slavery was threatened in East Texas by Mexico, so the US started a war with Mexico to expand the number of slave states. Countless wars on native tribes meant expanding the US’s territory, and was often related to slavery, such as the Seminole Wars that ended up annexing Florida. Slavers wanted more territory, so the US went to war. Slavers wanted to catch runaway slaves, so the US went to war. Each time, it killed people of color and expanded its territory. It should be obvious that the effect of these wars has lasted into the present, as (like all countries) war and conquest has given the US the territory it has today.

But these wars are also still relevant because the US is still making war all over the world. People used to profit off war then, and they continue to do so today. Indeed, the profit of the rich was usually the reason for the US’s wars, just like today. Once the US had finished expanding across the continent, it went to East Asia and conquered territory overseas. It now reserves the right to make war anywhere in the world on whatever flimsy pretext (eg. invading Afghanistan and Iraq because of a terrorist attack), and kill as many brown people as it likes. A white-supremacist state is not necessarily a genocidal one. It is one that can make war on non-whites for the wealth and power of the elite and its white subjects could not care less about the wars (or even encourage them), because only brown people are dying.

With the prospect of indiscriminately killing and torturing brown people, is it any wonder so many outright white supremacists are soldiers, along with police and prison guards?

Conclusion

It is clear the legacy of slavery is still alive. Descendants of slaves are treated as criminals to be jailed and re-enslaved, and mocked whenever they try to shed light on their condition. The territory gained through wars for slavery remains part of the state. The contempt for non-whites is present in political discourse. And when confronted with evidence of racism, privileged white people dismiss it. “I’m not racist,” they will say, as if that is the end of the discussion. They need to acknowledge the past or else continue to live with it. It is not because you are white that you are the problem but because you have internalized the values of a white-supremacist state. You learned to think one way and you can unlearn.

The point of this post is not to blame white people. What would be the point? They should not feel guilty but angry. They should not feel they are helpless because of history but stirred into action by the present. They could start by educating themselves, which consists mostly of listening but sometimes calling out racism among friends and pointing out the history behind the oppressive institutions of today. People are still trying to divide us, including rich elites giving money to far-right racists. We should unite against the dividers.

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