Wednesday, March 19, 2008

"My Family Didn't Own Slaves": Argument, or Copout?

I recently was having a complex and sophisticated interaction about race and racism at, of all places, YouTube. One of my interlocutors offered this argument: "none of my ancestors were slave owners (italian family)" . Another on a different site offered this observation: "My great-great grandparents came here from somewhere else, so kindly don't count ME in with the people that may have oppressed YOUR great-great grandparents."

Indeed, this seems to be the white national mantra: "I wasn't alive for slavery." "My family had no involvement in slavery". "My ancestors were dirt poor farmers." It is such an effective standard because of course everyone falls under it. Even direct descendants of slaveowners with access to intergenerational wealth can claim that they weren't around for slavery. Since many of us (myself included) are descended from immigrants more recent than the end of slavery, and the slaveowners formed a tiny elite, it is a perfect apology.

But it is also a microcosm of everything wrong with the white national narrative about race. The amount of things wrong with this argument is so staggering that saying it should require an instant remedial US History and Government class.

The first mistake it makes is to imply that the only bad thing that has happened to the black community as a whole, institutionally, is slavery. As if blacks as a whole never suffered under Jim Crow, poll taxes, grandfather clauses, restrictions on where they could take a drink or go to the bathroom, lynchings and terror. As if black life trajectories and possibilities weren't reduced by racial covenants, inability to access Federal Housing Assistance loans (an amount in the TRILLIONS of dollars, or as Tim Wise put it, "more than the outstanding mortgage debt, all the credit card debt, all the savings account assets, all the money in IRA's and 401k retirement plans, all the annual profits for U.S. manufacturers, and our entire merchandise trade deficit combined."), rampant employment discrimination, inability to acess GI Bill benefits, and so forth. Many of these injustices are in recent memory, such that there are those alive who remember them and were affected by them. Certainly their immediate descendants continue to feel the loss of these opportunities. So the very claim shows a complete contempt or ignorance for the suffering that blacks went through, as if segregation is not an injustice that deserves to be righted.

It also implies that we do not bear responsibility for what our government and communities are doing right now to virtually every black man and woman, a claim that inspires not only amusement but contempt. I hope I do not have to go into the extensive documentation on institutional racism, nor answer claims varying from "What about the Oprahs?" (yes, what about them? as if individual success stories invalidate an extensive backdrop of evidence) nor "What about the white poor?" (yes, social categories are complex, but to be black and poor is to be worse off on average than to be white and poor, even white poor have a benefit from being white and even the black rich have a disadvantage from being black). Instead, it should be sufficient to say that given the extensive racist treatment and barriers blacks endure in education, employment, treatment by police, selection for prosecution, prison sentences, loans, mortgages, housing, firing, and so on, this claim is a call for whites to ignore their responsibility to terminate currently existing injustice.

Third, it obscures the notion of intergenerational wealth and thus intergenerational responsibility. For while only those who owned the slaves directly injured those slaves, everyone from the Founding Fathers to the man on the street to the early capitalists benefitted from the slave's picking of cotton, rice, sorghum, tobacco and other crops. They also bore both the benefit and the cost of the racial hierarchy enhanced (if not actually created) by those in power to turn poor blacks and poor whites against each other rather than against the rich masters. That wealth continues to this day. There are millions of families living on homes provided almost exclusively to whites under the Homestead Act. The Naturalization Act of 1790 and other laws enabled the very presence of our ancestors by naturalizing whites and giving them rights far beyond people of color. The wealth produced by the South was even instrumental in the Revolution, meaning that slaves are owed part of our very existence as a nation! So while those whose ancestors immigrated after slavery may not have been quite poor, they nonetheless benefitted from slavery and from the existence of other laws occurring under the rubric of the racial caste system.

In line with this, it also ignores institutional and social responsibility. After all, when Volkswagen and other German companies were forced to give reparation to some Jews they had victimized, while it is true that they did not pay to Jews writ large and only paid to living people, they nonetheless had changed as an organization, but the organization owed restitution. The American state owes the same to blacks. And even if it does not, in that sense, it would make sense for social policy to be designed to engineer social equality instead of inequality. In this sense, the "my family wasn't responsible for slavery" is the racial equivalent of buckpassing on a national level.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


I enjoyed reading your post. Just one comment...please be aware that the Homestead Act was, in fact, open to African Americans. Thousands of former slaves and other African Americans did attempt to become landowners through the provisions of the Homestead Act. This was mainly after Reconstruction, when the racial atmosphere in the South became so toxic that many African Americans decided to leave and move elsehwere. Many went north to larger cities, but many also went to places like Kansas and Oklahoma and became homesteaders. In fact, there were several all-black towns in the West that were settled and populated by the Homestead Act.

Granted, the overwhelming majority of homesteaders were whites, either native-born Americans or (mainly European) immigrants. However, the Homestead Act did provide some African Americans with the opportunity to become landowners.


9:27 AM  
Blogger Frederic Christie said...

True, and some people did receive some benefit from Reconstruction, and the GI Bill did give occasional benefits to some black veterans (a tiny minority to be sure), and I imagine the FHA may have messed up once or twice in its mission and given a black family a loan or the benefit thereof. The point is what you admit: These acts all disproportionately benefited whites and included practical and legal limits that denied equal black access. That formed a tapestry of inequal wealth that continues to this day.

The history of blacks in the West is fascinating, of course, but bear in mind that those towns had their own unique historical struggles, primarily in the lack of federal or state assistance or subsidy.

4:13 PM  
Blogger William Wallace said...

Hello Frederic Christie, this post hints that you are African American, but after reading some of your other posts I would have estimated that you were a non-observant Jewish person.

Anyway, if whites are to be held accountable for benefits of slavery, regardless of whether or not their ancestors owned slaves, does the same go for the direct descendants of black slave owners?

Second, what about the ancestors of whites who fought, bleed, and sometimes died in a war to end slavery? Widows suffered. Do modern blacks owe anything to the descendants who were never quit able to get back on their feet again?

Third, I suppose you're for affirmative action. So, ah, in the future, do children of white protestant men get to whine about how their ancestors were robbed?

7:45 PM  
Blogger Frederic Christie said...

Your attempt to cast me into some kind of identity politics mold, William, is reprehensible and detracts from your argument. I am not black nor am I Jewish. Actually, as I mention many a time in my blog, I am Quebecois (Scottish-German on the other side, NO Jewish whatsoever) and Buddhist, so you got the race, ethnicity and religion wrong.

"Anyway, if whites are to be held accountable for benefits of slavery, regardless of whether or not their ancestors owned slaves, does the same go for the direct descendants of black slave owners?"

This argument is idiotic. The amount of black slave owners PALED in comparison to the overwhelmingly white institution of slavery. The historical evidence shows that this already tiny group of slaveholders owned almost no slaves and further tended to be slaveowners in name only: That is, they would tend to buy friends and family as slaves to protect them. And the legal status of these black slaveowners THEMSELVES was hardly safe, such that they were always in fear of being lynched or otherwise punished by the law or ignorant individuals. The mere ATTEMPT to make this tiny institution somehow congruent to the force that kept millions of people in bondage for centuries is on its face repugnant and shows the degree to which white folks (yes, of which group I am a member) will go to pass the buck.

"Second, what about the ancestors of whites who fought, bleed, and sometimes died in a war to end slavery? Widows suffered. Do modern blacks owe anything to the descendants who were never quit able to get back on their feet again?"

First of all, that war was not to end slavery, at least not in name. It was to protect the Union, and THAT was what the soldiers fought for. Even THIS goal many refused to fight for, sparking draft riots in New York with racial enmity and bloodshed.

Second, blacks also fought for their freedom, both as soldiers and in slave uprisings all over the South.

Third, this is really congruent to saying that since people like Schindler existed Germans owe Jews nothing, not even an apology.

Fourth, it's even arguable that the Union soldiers FREED the slaves. Reconstruction overwhelmingly threw blacks back into sharecropping arrangements and into Jim Crow. BLACKS earned their freedom through the civil rights movement. Only when white interests necessitated black advances did whites acquiesce to such advances.

The bottom line is that due to the unbroken racial history from colonial slavery to the modern racist drug war, blacks have 1% of the wealth instead of the .5% they had at the end of the Civil War. This is an inexcusable arrangement. And whites are to blame overwhelmingly.

"Third, I suppose you're for affirmative action. So, ah, in the future, do children of white protestant men get to whine about how their ancestors were robbed?"

Affirmative action, as all the evidence indicates (I can refer you to it if you'd like) doesn't put incompetent blacks into positions. Actually, blacks and women in affirmative action positions do as well as or better than their white male counterparts. Affirmative action is an attempt to address the ONGOING racial discrimination that leads the OFCCP to estimate that 75% of employers routinely violate the basic tenets of anti-discrimination codified in the Civil Rights Act.

If at some future point blacks own 26% or 39% of the wealth instead of 1% of it, then, yes, white folks can complain. But if they start owning 11-13%, no, no they can't. In any respect, this is all hypothetical, Will, since right now the problem that you so judiciously refuse to address is white privilege.

7:34 PM  
Blogger sean said...

this white text over a black background is fucking up my eyes! change that shit

3:02 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home