I was in grade school when the television show Roots, based on Alex Haley’s famous book, first aired. It was a big deal, at least among adults, and my parents insisted that my sister and I watch it. We dutifully sat down in the front the walnut-veneered TV cabinet as my father adjusted the rabbit ear antennas to get a good signal. For an eight-year-old, Roots was disorienting, often boring, and occasionally very disturbing. The images of LeVar Burton’s Kunta Kinte enduring the brutal Middle Passage and of the slavers throwing the sick Africans overboard are still with me today. Sitting in an air-conditioned living room in a California track house, I didn’t quite grasp what it had to do with me. This all happened a long time ago, I thought. It seemed like another one of the period costume dramas that my mother watched on PBS, but with many more examples of vicious behavior, a lot more black people, and much better production values. I identified with the black slaves as the protagonists of the story, but I felt little connection with any of the people depicted. The landscapes, accents, clothing, and architecture were all unfamiliar. Most of the white people were inexplicably cruel and heartless. The black people were as unlike me and my family as the slaves in Spartacus (and I kept waiting for what I naively assumed would be the inevitable slave uprising that would provide the story with its cathartic ending).
When I went to school, where I was one of three or four other black students, some of the kids started calling me Kunta Kinte. I was annoyed but brushed it off, until I was cornered by a group of older white kids. Kunta Kinte! Kunta Kinte! Go back to Africa where you belong! I ran away, cursing the bullies — and silently cursing Alex Haley for writing that damn book. When I told my father, he offered the advice that was typical of his generation: “They’ll never leave you alone if they think you’re scared of them.” He had taken me and my sister to karate lessons, seemingly in preparation for just such a problem. The next day, when the same kids cornered me, I picked the smallest of them and tried to do as much damage as I could. I still got the worst of it, of course, but the one unlucky kid I targeted left the scene with his face bloodied and his wrist sprained. In the principal’s office I said that I didn’t start the fight, and I promised to stay away from the other boys. But if they hassled me again, I added, I would make sure that at least one of them left bloody every single time and I didn’t care what happened to me in the process. They stopped calling me Kunta Kinte and started whispering behind my back. It would have to do.
Those grade school bullies showed me exactly what I had in common with the characters in Roots. A straight and unbroken line connected me to my despised and exploited ancestors who had made the brutal Middle Passage from Africa. Or at least that’s how it felt at the time.
Before Roots, the archetypical slavery story was probably Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington. Indeed, Roots was a late-twentieth-century century answer to Up from Slavery: more radical in its politics, more ambitious in its scope, more scholarly in its historical research, more dramatic and novelistic in style. For me, and I expect for many other Americans of a certain age, Roots is still the archetypical representation of slavery. Although there have been many others since, Haley’s account established the genre. Ever since, all decent slavery narratives have shared some common elements. Most obviously, a respectable slavery narrative must unflinchingly depict the horrors and cruelties of slavery: the unspeakably hellish passage across the ocean, the dehumanizing slave auctions, the grueling, thankless, and unremunerated toil, the capricious rule of the master, the separation of mothers from their children, the whippings, the rapes, the lynchings. It must also establish the experience of slavery as the foundation of the black experience. A slavery narrative cannot simply be the story of an individual; it must carry the symbolic weight of slavery for black people as a group. Either overtly or indirectly, it must depict slavery as a sort of pedigree, a shared ancestral experience that joins black people to each other.
Quentin Tarrantino’s film Django Unchained is not a respectable slavery narrative, but it is instructive because it successfully treats the slavery narrative as a stylized genre. It is a cross between a slavery narrative and a spaghetti Western. The film operates, as many Tarrantino films do, by quoting familiar elements of a well-established genre and slyly but convincingly tweaking or inverting them. Django Unchained, in what has become a signature Tarrantino flourish, offers a cathartic alternative to the classic archetype, wherein the downtrodden gets even with the oppressor in a highly stylized orgy of righteous violent retribution. It does for the slavery narrative what Inglorious Bastards (wherein a team of Jewish-American military officers outwit and fight Nazi soldiers in occupied France) does for the Holocaust narrative and what Kill Bill (in which a woman gets bloody revenge on a host of sexually predatory and exploitative men, the worst of whom had killed her bridegroom and her unborn child on her wedding day) does for the story of the sexually victimized woman. Django suffers all the classic injuries of enslavement: grueling toil, routine humiliation, regular beatings. His wife is raped by a sadistic plantation owner. Instead of staging an unsuccessful rebellion or making an unsatisfying escape as would be historically plausible, Django becomes an expert gunslinger and returns to slaughter every white person on the plantation before he rescues his wife and burns the plantation house to the ground, while the stereotypical “House Negro” looks on in horror.
Django Unchained makes sense as a film only because the slavery narrative is so familiar. We already know the story and how it has to end, which makes the unexpected, impossible denouement both shocking and exhilarating, as if cinema offers the chance to alter the past and redeem history itself. (Tarantino played the same benevolent counterfactual trick on the Manson killings in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.) The film left many black viewers uneasy, I suspect because it disrupted the line of subjugation and suffering that joins the history of slavery to the present day. Django seems to escape not only slavery but history itself. Like a spaghetti Western hero, he rides off into the sunset and into a depthless present: we do not ask whether his descendants will suffer as sharecroppers or live in segregated impoverished neighborhoods, endure Jim Crow policies, be incarcerated for petty offenses, or be killed by racist police. Django puts it all behind him. We cannot.
Not only can we not put slavery behind us; it has become the lens through which many people of all races see the black experience in America. Consider a few examples:
• As Americans reckon with the horrors of police violence and mass incarceration, many people have insisted that the racial inequities of the criminal justice system have their roots in slavery. Mass incarceration is “the new Jim Crow,” which was, of course, a continuation of the
racial economy of slavery in a new form. Extending the analogy, some argue that modern policing writ large is an outgrowth of patrols organized to track down runaway slaves.
• A black person who attempts to get ahead by distancing herself from other black people or ingratiating herself to whites is known as a “House Negro” — a reference to the distinctions between slaves on the plantation.
• A common criticism of romantic or intimate relationships between blacks and whites — especially those involving black women and white men — is that they mirror, and in some way recapitulate, the rape of black slaves by white masters.
• A recent controversy in high tech involves the use of the terms “master” and “slave” to describe the relationship between circuits and elements of programming. Some contend that this terminology is racially insensitive because it callously evokes the traumas of slavery.
This return to slavery grounds our conversations about race and racism in a discrete history. Virtually all educated people have rejected the myth of biological race, but without it race is an infamously slippery concept; it defies definition even as it defines a social hierarchy. Slavery, by contrast, provides a concrete historical referent: a black person is a person who could have been enslaved. The return to slavery also pays homage to our ancestors, connecting black people to a legacy of oppression and survival and spiritual resistance. Most black people cannot trace our lineage back to a specific place — instead, we find it in slavery and the struggle for freedom. The memory of slavery substitutes for the memory of an ancestral homeland, of the “old country” that other groups in America define as their origins — a connection that the historical practice of slavery ruthlessly cut off. Slavery, then, both explains our present circumstances and joins black people to today to black people in the past. If our suffering today is a legacy of and a reflection of slavery, then our suffering is continuous with and analogous to the suffering of slaves.
Like an ancestral homeland that one has never visited, however, or an ancient ethnic tradition that has been modified and idealized as it passes from one generation to the next, the legacy of slavery is not completely straightforward or identical to the historical practice. Slavery’s contemporary significance is both practical and symbolic; it is real but it is obscure, the lingering consequences of laws, customs and events, and the poetic and emotional force of past trauma.
The distinctive evil of slavery lay not only in the practice itself but also in the racism that justified it and eventually outlived it. The ideology of race has kept this country in the shadow of slavery, dooming us to reproduce racial injustice in new mutations: sharecropping, Jim Crow, the chain gang, the isolation of the ghetto, the confinement of the prison. In this way, racial ideology compounded the initial theft of labor, denying opportunities for gainful employment and remunerative investment to the descendants of slaves long after Emancipation. Employment discrimination kept most blacks in low wage jobs and blocked the advancement of even those who managed to pursue a skilled trade or profession. Housing segregation and discrimination ensured that black neighborhoods would be plagued by blight, crime, environmental hazards, and unstable property values.
The modern idea of race is a byproduct of modern chattel slavery. Chattel slavery differed from slavery in the ancient world, where the status was often temporary and typically was justified as a consequence of conquest. The conflict between the ideals of Enlightenment liberalism and the realities of the slave economy inspired a new and more pernicious justification of human bondage: a natural hierarchy of races. There were older ideas of race, but they were quite different. Europeans had an idea of distinctive human races before the slave trade, but it was vague and politically contingent. In Society Must be Defended, a book based on a series of lectures given at the College de France, Michel Foucault noted that the idea of race appears in early modern Europe, where it refers to geo-political conflict between groups distinguished by language, culture, and geographical origin (Normans, Angles and Saxons in England; Franks and Gauls in France.) In these instances, race organizes a historical account of political community, power, and legitimacy. The idea of the “race war” describes the conquest of one group by another, and is used as a counter-narrative to a story of unity under a legitimate sovereign. Race is a sort of rallying cry whereby one faction contests the legitimacy of political dynasty. The Norman monarch had the right to rule the Normans but not the Saxons, who must reclaim their proud independence as a distinct race and throw off the tyranny of alien dominion. This idea of race shares some features with modern racism, but it lacks the crucial notion of inherited hierarchical status.
The notion of race that appears in Shakespeare’s Othello is more familiar but still not quite the same as ours. The Moor of Venice is an outsider, marked by his skin color, which has already taken on some of the now-familiar symbolism assigned to it by atavistic white supremacy. Desdemona’s father Brabantio, objecting to the marriage, complains, “For if such actions have passage free, bond-slaves and pagans shall our statesmen be.” The Duke, in approving the marriage, suggests that Othello’s race does not signify low status — or at least that his other qualities make up for it: “if virtue no delighted beauty lack, your son in law is far more fair than black.” And, most infamously, Iago, in an effort to provoke Brabantio, taunts, “Even now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe.”
Yet Othello’s race is a subject of ambivalence in the play. There is no iron law against miscegenation, as there was in most of the American south until 1967. Othello is regularly described as honorable and noble. Those who would disparage his relationship with Desdemona accuse him of drugging or casting a spell on her — not of raping her, as they certainly would have in the United States for much of its history. Othello is obliquely compared to a “bond-slave” but also a “pagan,” suggesting that the slur refers as much to his exoticism and acculturation as to his status or color. Shakespeare’s Venetians use Othello’s color as a metaphor for status; Brabantio’s objections to his union with Desdemona reflect concerns about a loss or degradation of status, and — most tellingly — the Duke’s answer to those objections consists of an assurance that Othello’s color is not in fact a sign of his status.
All this is not yet the race and racism that came to dominate and to corrupt the United States. Slavery took these more fluid and contingent ideas of race and hardened them into an immutable biological condition that was used to justify intergenerational subjugation. This idea of race survived the demise of slavery itself and came to take on a life of its own. What we might call modern racism first developed as propaganda for slavery.
But modern racism is not a fixed ideology: it is an opportunistic discourse, changing to suit the times. Just as the race of Foucault’s “race war” was not the same race as that of Shakespeare’s Othello which in turn was not the same race as Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, today’s race is not identical to that of the eighteenth-century plantation. Racism changed as slavery matured into its most uncompromising form. As the tension between American democratic ideals and slavery became more and more conspicuous, racial ideology became more extreme and more shrill: in a sense, it was not racism that inspired and intensified slavery but slavery that inspired and intensified racism. Tragically, racist propaganda has flourished and spread well beyond its original function and has inspired new types of evil. We do not passively inherit the prejudices of our ancestors; each generation makes its own prejudices, building on but also modifying that of the past. Likewise, new racial injustices metastasize from old bad habits, while new institutions and practices offer new opportunities for selfish ambition, bigotry, exploitation, and callousness.
The history of racism’s mutations begs an important and delicate question. What can slavery explain about contemporary black life and what can it not explain? It cannot be the case that it explains nothing, but it also cannot be the case that it explains everything. Is collective memory enough to account for present experience? Did the same racism that tied black people to humid plantations south of the Mason-Dixon Line also provoke grade-school bullies to taunt and pummel me in the arid heat of California’s Big Valley over a century later?
It is worth noting that those kids didn’t think to hassle me until Roots was aired on network television. They were, of course, racists, but it took the publicity surrounding Roots to trigger their racism. Their aggression was not the smug assertion of dominance that one encounters from people secure in their position or convinced of their superiority — I would encounter this too, but only later and much more frequently at the elite universities that I attended and in the elite law firms and government offices in which I worked. This was different: it was a shrill and defensive aggression provoked by the shifting cultural landscape that allowed a radical retelling of the American story from the black perspective to air on prime-time television. Roots sullied the innocent, sunny version of the American story and replaced it with a grim and unvarnished account that placed slavery at its center. For black people, this story was familiar and seeing it in popular national media was a long overdue vindication. But for many whites, it must have felt like an accusation and the prelude to a loss in status.
The defensive reaction to Roots was a racism of ressentiment, a distinctive form of late twentieth-century racism. Of course, it finds it origins in the racism of slavery, but it is also an outgrowth of its own historical moment. It is a reinvented racism, a sour remake of a bitter American standard. Racism has been reinvented many times over its strange history. It became more strident and uncompromising as slavery came under more forceful attack in the nineteenth century. It acquired new justifications, such as the allegedly inherent rapaciousness and laziness of blacks after Emancipation. It adapted to the mass urbanization of blacks during the long Great Migration from the rural Jim Crow south to the cities of the north. It morphed again during the upheavals of the civil rights struggle, when black liberation was linked to the menace of communist sedition and countercultural radicalism. During my youth it took the form of the stereotypes of the urban thug, the welfare queen, and the affirmative action hire who gamed naïve liberals to snatch unearned advantages.
Each of these racism reboots is based on the original atavistic racism developed to justify slavery. But they are not the same. These reinterpretations now justify other practices and attitudes; they are spread by new political coalitions for new purposes. As racism mutates, it serves new purposes and acquires new themes, attenuating its connection to slavery. How much does today’s racism owe to slavery and how much to the years that came after slavery? Do we learn more about our current racial injustices by looking to the plantation economy of the eighteenth century or to the urban markets of the twentieth century?
It would be remiss to discuss the legacy of slavery and fail to mention the New York Times’ renowned and controversial 1619 Project. A common theme of many of the 1619 Project essays is that slavery was — and its legacy remains — central to almost every institution, custom, and practice in America. The racism born of slavery is, according to the project’s lead essayist Nikole Hannah-Jones, part of the “the very DNA of this country.” The 1619 Project asks, provocatively, what might be illuminated if we thought of slavery rather than liberty as America’s foundation. It is certainly useful to re-center racial justice in the American story, and thereby correct a certain Whiggish interpretation of the American racial narrative.
The 1619 Project reminds us that slavery was also a long-lived practice of central importance to national economies. It is well known that slavery was indispensable to the agricultural industries of the American South, the Caribbean, and Latin America. But it is less often acknowledged that slavery defined transatlantic trade for centuries. Slavery was an indispensable leg in the infamous triangular trades of the Age of Discovery: slaves brought from Africa to the Caribbean and North America, where they worked to harvest sugar and rum, which was brought to Europe and later the North American colonies and traded for manufactured goods, which were traded in Africa for slaves. It was a perpetual circuit. Without slavery, trans-Atlantic trade would have been much smaller and much less profitable. Slavery sustained empires and bankrolled entire cities in Europe. Monticello and Richmond in Virginia were built on the backs of African slaves; so were Liverpool and Manchester in England. Slavery was more than an evil practice with discrete injuries; it was an integral part of the modern world for centuries.
Now add to this the racial prejudice, the discrimination and exclusion that slavery left in its wake. Like a major technological innovation or scientific breakthrough, the economy of slavery inspired a mythology. An epic of Progress celebrated machine-age breakthroughs. A parable of racial hierarchy justified slavery. This mythology is one of slavery’s most durable legacies, and surely its most toxic. As a consequence, the design of cities, the location of housing, the administration of criminal justice — all have been shaped, distorted, and corrupted by slavery. In these respects, the 1619 Project helped to correct a distorted and incomplete popular understanding of history by emphasizing the significance of slavery during this formative period in America’s history.
A group of prominent professional historians fairly criticized the 1619 Project for ignoring or downplaying the opposition to slavery during the nation’s founding. They argued that the tone and emphasis of the articles “suggest a displacement of historical understanding by ideology.” They pointed to exaggerations and errors of fact and interpretation — most notably, that the revolution was fought by 45 slaveowners so as to keep their slaves. But to many readers this seemed beside the point: the 1619 Project insists upon confronting the centrality of slavery to American wealth and influence and to ask whether the influence of slavery might be more profound than the influence of noble ideals too often honored in the breach, such as liberty and equality. Those are fair questions, whatever the answers.
Slavery’s influence has been so widespread, so lasting, and so profound that it seems reasonable for black people to attribute almost any disadvantage or misfortune to it. Fewer black people would be poor and more of them would be rich, if generations of wages had not been stolen from our ancestors; had our parents and grandparents not been denied equal employment opportunities and equal access to housing investments in desirable neighborhoods. We would have longer, happier, and healthier lives if we were free of the constant stigma of racial bigotry, the steady diet of insults, snubs and condescension, the episodic but still regular explosion of violent repression from racist thugs, mobs and police abusing the color of law.
Yet the causality is very imprecise and can be easily abused. The very pervasiveness of slavery’s influence is also why it is hard to identify its discrete consequences with precision. A cause of everything is also a cause of nothing in particular. Death affects every aspect of human psychology, every institution, custom, and ambition, which is precisely why no one tries to account historically for its influence. It is real and ubiquitous, but too tangled and diffuse to constitute a historical cause. For black people in America, the legacy of slavery is in this way like the anticipation of death: an unavoidable and looming monolith so overwhelming that it cannot be reckoned with even as it demands to be acknowledged. Perhaps that is why we are better at addressing slavery figuratively and narratively rather than analytically. In book and films, we can describe slavery’s gruesome horrors and relentless indignities, but we cannot account for them in the sense of tracing their consequences or measuring their costs. A monocausal emphasis on slavery would simplify history, and lead us to believe in phantom continuities, and falsely reduce the present to the past, and deny the many things that really have changed in America.
Given the impossibility of causal analysis, we resort to metaphor; and sometimes that leads to intellectual sloppiness as well. A biological metaphor in particular, the metaphor
of DNA, evoking an image of a body politic with an inescapable genetic legacy. Thus Matthew Desmond argues in his essay for the 1619 Project that “American slavery is necessarily imprinted on the DNA of American capitalism.” Desmond notes, for example, that depreciating mortgages and double-entry bookkeeping were developed to organize the slave economy. He clearly means to discredit modern capitalism by revealing its debt to the slave economy. But this alone does not discredit the institutions and practices by association, any more than it would discredit the field of mathematics if we were to discover that it was first developed to aid an avaricious dictator in calculating the tribute due from his vanquished subjects. Given its importance to global trade and the easy circulation of wealth and resources in a rapidly developing nation, it was inevitable that some of the practices that developed to support slavery might later be put to better uses. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find a modern institution or practice that was not influenced by slavery at least indirectly, either benefiting from the wealth it created or influenced by the pernicious ideas it propagated. But do we understand these things adequately if we dwell only, or mainly, on their link to slavery?
To discredit various practices, we would have to believe that they still effectively carry on the ugly work of slavery today in a different guise. Certainly, one could make the case that some parts of the wage economy resemble slavery — indeed someone did, hence the old idea of “wage slavery.” But it is important to insist that the institution of slavery was much more than very hard work in very hard conditions. It was a social system. Anyway, Desmond does not really argue for this; instead he lets the metaphor of DNA imply that these practices somehow carry the genetic code of slavery into today’s financial system, such that slavery explains the exploitations of modern capitalism in the same way the chronic depression of a parent might explain the crankiness of a child. This is more likely to convince capitalism’s critics than its admirers. And even the fiercest anti-capitalist might insist that today’s economy has its own distinctively contemporary evils. To say that slavery explains starvation wages and sweatshop working conditions today is post hoc ergo prompter hoc speculation. It is plausible that some of the habits of callousness formed during slavery have contributed to the particularly harsh character of American capitalism; but callousness is older even than slavery. It is much more likely that both slavery and sweatshops are independently explained by the universal phenomenon of human avarice.
The DNA metaphor suggests a mysterious and inscrutable causality. When my mother notices that I like cashews and says it must be because my father liked nuts before dinner, or when someone points out that heart disease runs in the family, they mean to say that there is no need to parse the relationship any further — that we have hit upon the one true explanation. It doesn’t really matter whether I like cashews because such a preference is in the DNA that I inherited from my father, or because I remember sharing them with him as a kid, or because the bar at the Duke’s Hotel in London, which he never visited but which I love for other reasons, serves them with their excellent martinis. On the other hand, it does matter if the supposedly genetically encoded trait is something I would like to change. The biological metaphor, the notion of inherited social or cultural imprinting, is a pessimistic, even fatalistic idea. If heart disease is in my DNA, I am in trouble no matter what I do: my ancestry is my destiny. If, on the other hand, it runs in the family because of lifestyle choices such as smoking cigarettes and a high-fat diet, it is up to me, my sister, and my cousins whether it continues to run in the family for another generation. We have agency, and therefore change, a different fate, is possible.
For slavery to define black racial identity, there must be some way it is transmitted inter-generationally to those born long after the institution itself was abolished. The idea that slavery is in the nation’s DNA echoes the idea that race is in the individual’s DNA. We have replaced the discredited idea of inherited race passed from generation to generation encoded in biological DNA with a different type of genetic inheritance: the experience of slavery, passed down from generation to generation. Not the memory; the experience.
The centrality of slavery in today’s racial consciousness is explained as much by its distinctiveness to the black American experience as by its causal significance. Capitalism, caste, punitiveness, and technocracy affect everyone and create a multi-racial group of victims; but the legacy of slavery makes the experience of black suffering unique. What happened to black people in America happened to no other Americans. About this there can be no doubt. But while it may be true that slavery accounts for the uniqueness of black subordination, it does not account for all or even most of the history of black subordination. There are too many intervening historical contingencies for that to be the case. Slavery, one might argue, is a cause of racially segregated urban poverty, but so is the pattern of industrialization and deindustrialization, American metropolitan development, and the construction of the interstate highway system. A slavery-centered narrative conflates the psychological meaning of an especially salient instance of oppression with the causal significance of those events for contemporary inequality. But we will not eliminate inequality unless we are empirical about its causes.
Moreover, since racism has mutated to serve new nefarious purposes over its long and strange career, practices may be racially unjust but largely discontinuous with the legacy of slavery. For example, today it is almost a commonplace that modern policing practices evolved from the tactics of patrols that sought to capture and return escaped slaves — a clear and unbroken line from slave patrols to today’s racial disparities in aggressive policing. This serves as an unequivocal indictment of both the motivations for policing and its effects. (It also, perhaps unintentionally, suggests an optimistic prognosis for reform: we can change or abolish policing at little social cost because its primary function is unambiguously abhorrent.) To say that a twenty-first century police officer who shoots an unarmed black person is perpetuating the legacy of slavery implies a continuous and consistent social practice: policing and incarceration is simply the plantation in a new guise.
This is bad history. Racism certainly played a role in the development of modern policing, but policing was largely a reaction to urbanization and industrialization. It took a similar form on the European continent at a time when slavery was either unlawful or quite rare, and in American cities in the north as well as the south. In America, as in Europe, the modern project of pervasive and systematic crime prevention was largely a reaction to the norms and habits of a rural peasant class entering industrialized urban environments in large numbers. Police were one of many organizations designed to socialize people used to village and rural life into the rhythms of the factory, the habits of the city, and the norms of bourgeois society. The American historian Hendrik Hartog describes this pattern in his classic essay “Pigs and Positivism,” where he details the efforts to prohibit pig farming in New York City; and the French historian Eugen Weber describes it in Peasants into Frenchmen, which recounts the largely, if often inadvertently, successful efforts to impose a Parisian French dialect, a Parisian French history, and a Parisian French national identity on the provinces.
Black Americans fleeing the degradations and the exploitations of the Jim Crow system were the last of such a peasant class to enter American cities. The famous Great Migration of the early twentieth century in fact continued until the early 1970s. Peasant migrants to cities in the nineteenth century met with harsh conditions and vicious policing, but also with economic opportunity. They acculturated to bourgeois norms, to greater and lesser degrees, and eventually they began to blend into a less differentiated mass culture. This development, with its rough edges shaved away, was the basis for the sanitizing myth of the American melting pot. This was Weber’s story of how peasants became Frenchmen. It is also, to a large extent, the historian Noel Ignatiev’s American story of How the Irish Became White. It is tale of widespread ethnic prejudice, compulsory assimilation at its most objectionable, and a great deal of violence. It is, perhaps most of all, a story of the culturally homogenizing effects of liberal capitalism. In Weber’s account, for example, the harshest discipline could not convince the residents of villages in Languedoc or Provencal to abandon local dialects, customs, and identity for a generic French national culture as defined by the elites of Paris. What did convince them was economic opportunity, and the well-known liberties and seductions of the big city.
The black American urban migrants met with all of the hardships suffered by every other farming laborer who entered the city, plus the distinctive ones of racial animus. Worse, they did not come into a welcoming job market. Blacks were shunted into the most menial jobs. By the 1960s they entered a slowing urban economy where industrial jobs were leaving cities for suburban industrial parks. Unemployment was rising everywhere, but it was worse in cities where industry had fled, and it was chronic among black men, who faced discrimination as well as a weak labor market. Joblessness was as pressing an issue as civil rights — the famous March on Washington in 1963 was for Jobs and Freedom.
Some of the large number of jobless people of all races did what some jobless people everywhere have always done: they turned to crime, both serious and petty. In the late 1960s and 1970s, American cities faced one of the most significant crime waves in history. In an understandable zeal to condemn the criminal justice crackdown that followed, some ignore or even deny this. But people of all races at the time agreed that crime was a serious menace and many people of all races eventually supported aggressive policing as a response. An aggressive jobs creation policy on the order of the New Deal, combined with a generous and expanded social safety net as a backstop would have been both wiser and more humane. Federal officials saw this clearly at the time: Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society was the response. But that initiative withered under budgetary pressures and competing priorities, most notably the war in Vietnam. Intensified law enforcement, by contrast, was cheap — at least in the short run. Moreover, it was a local solution. Crime was a national problem, but every big city mayor had to deal with it, and in the absence of a federal response they used the tools that were available. Law enforcement is under local administration; social welfare is not. So, the nation as whole, city by city, police department by police department, district attorney by district attorney, got tough on crime.
Of course, the response was warped and intensified by racism. But rich and powerful political interests opposed social welfare programs and the redistribution they would require out of self-interest, while many others opposed them in principle as inconsistent with the work ethic. In any case, today’s punitive and violent law enforcement was not simply the continuation of racist practices such as Jim Crow or slavery. It was created and shaped by factors that have little or nothing to do with race or slavery, such as the structure of American government and the changing industrial economy.
Slavery is the defining trauma of black identity. It occupies the place that the Holocaust does for modern Jews; and that rape does for a certain type of radical feminist. If slavery seems like the archetype of all race relations, it is because the modern idea of race itself is a legacy of slavery. The black race as a race was born into slavery. To understand the black experience, then, we must begin with slavery. But must we end with it? Must we also return to it repeatedly, evoke it constantly, advance it as an explanation for all of the evils and the injustices that now fall under the capacious banner of “racial injustice”? Must we always keep our eyes focused on it? What will we fail to see if we do?
The horrors of slavery were real and objective facts. But the community defined by slavery, like all communities defined by maps, flags, anthems, museums, political institutions, and military might, is imagined. This does not mean it is insignificant or fantastical, only that it cannot be experienced directly as such — it must be imaginatively reconstructed from the fragments of smaller encounters, symbols, and stories, across significant differences and circumstances, across centuries. And imagination can be an unreliable narrator. An account of contemporary racial inequality relentlessly focused on slavery is incomplete and distorted. In such an account, which is really a mythology, slavery becomes a transhistorical force that reaches out, unmediated, too easily seeming to explain social patterns that have complex and multiple causes. If the legacy of slavery defines racial oppression today, what room is left for the more universal evils of exploitative capitalism, social caste-like hierarchy, punitive moralism, and the banal technocratic viciousness of modern civilization as explored by Hannah Arendt and the philosophers of the Frankfurt School in contexts far removed from the evils of slavery but steeped in other unspeakable evils?
What slavery is to black people today, moreover, is not always the same as what it was to the slaves. Consider the reaction to Annette Gordon-Reed’s fine book, The Hemingses of Monticello, which documents the intimate relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave and paramour Sally Hemings. The book unsurprisingly upset conventional Jefferson historians, who with few exceptions jealously guarded a tradition of hagiography reserved for the “founding fathers.” Not only was Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings illegitimate and exploitative, it also violated taboos on interracial intimacy that, while anachronistic, doubtless still informed the sensibilities of some of the historians in question.
What is perhaps more surprising is that some black readers also objected to Gordon-Reed’s subtle analysis of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship. Some were incredulous at the implication (unavoidable given the historical record) that Sally Hemings had genuine affection for Jefferson and lived what was in many ways a privileged life, not only in comparison to other black slaves but also in comparison to most white people of her era. When Jefferson traveled to France with Hemings and her brother, the two could have sued for their freedom and refused to return to America with him. Apparently she considered doing so, but returned with him after getting Jefferson’s assurance that their children and her brother would be freed upon his death.
This paints a more complicated picture of slavery than its current symbolic position allows. Perhaps life as a destitute black woman in a patriarchal foreign country was worse than slavery, or the equal of it. Gordon-Reed reminds the reader that no women were truly free in Jefferson’s and Hemings’ era. Moreover, slavery itself was not a monolith: it was worse for some slaves than for others, and it got worse for all slaves over time as the absolutism of racial status hardened into place in the decades after Sally Hemings’ death. Gordon-Reed notes that the Hemingses enjoyed a favored status in the Jefferson household — they were exempt from manual labor, they 55 dressed in sumptuous aristocratic attire, and they ate as well as Jefferson himself. Chattel slavery was a unique moral abomination. But for some, the alternatives, in a society stratified by a rigid class hierarchy and defined by patriarchy, were no better.
Today such observations may seem like an apology for slavery, minimizing or denying its cruelties and horrors. But we cannot understand slavery’s historical legacy without taking into account not only how it was singular and unique, but also how it was continuous with many other contemporaneous injustices in American society. Slavery was, among other things, a monumental theft of human labor. But there were other customs and practices that also effectively stole human labor: for instance, many feminists credibly insist that marriage and the patriarchal limitations on the liberty of unmarried women constituted a theft of women’s labor, not to mention of their other property, which accrued to the husband after marriage. Such were the circumstances that Sally Hemings would have faced had she left Jefferson to stay in Paris. These other injustices have also cast long shadows and have also warped our society.
The symbolic weight of slavery for the black race can blind us to injustices that do not involve the racial legacy of slavery, even when they mirror it in important respects. To give one striking example: from the perspective of political economy, today’s undocumented workers are the most obvious descendants of the slaves — they have quite literally taken the place of slaves, doing the same type of work in domestic service and in an agricultural economy that remains organized to require a powerless and exploitable workforce. Yet they are not, for the most part, black, and this disrupts the familiar link between anti-black racism and slavery. As a consequence, most discussions of the legacy of slavery fail to mention them.
There is a risk in overstating or oversimplifying the importance of slavery to both the American experiment and to the African American experience — not only in overlooking or trivializing the real virtues that contributed to the national character, but also in ignoring a host of other evils and morally ambiguous features that account for this large, vibrant, chaotic society. A genuine confrontation with our history entails not only condemning evil but also embracing virtue, and grappling with moral ambiguity, complexity, and contradiction. I am a black American who believes that my true legacy is rich, nuanced, and layered — as is the legacy of any great people. It cannot be reduced to a simple linear story of oppression and resistance, the fundamentals of which were determined before the discovery of electricity. I reject the idea that nothing of fundamental significance has changed in race relations in four hundred years — that we are really just fighting the same fight against slavery in new forms, like some nightmare of eternal recurrence.
Slavery looms out of our past and it haunts our present in myriad indirect forms. And we can reinvent slavery in new forms if we choose to do so. Yet the legacy of slavery does not get passed down through the generations like detached earlobes. If we are cruel and exploitative today, it is because we are cruel and exploitative — not because someone in 1619 was. Thankfully, we can also reinvent liberty and equality in our time; and to the extent we do so, that will be to our credit — not that of the Founding Fathers or even Fredrick Douglass or Fannie Lou Hamer, much as their examples might inspire us. Slavery is our history, but it is not our roots.