Right Wing Denial and the Legacy of Slavery

Slavery ended nearly 150 years ago. It’s over. Nothing left to see here. Except that it’s Black History Month, and those damnable minorities and their liberal allies keep bringing up the past, reminding everyone of that darkest blemish on American history. The only times you hear conservatives talking about it are to revise history as politicians like Ron Paul have been doing by mainstreaming the belief that the Civil War was not primarily fought over slavery. There is no acknowledgement from conservatives that slavery and its aftermath had any consequences that can be observed today. They continue to argue that everyone has an equal chance of success on an equal playing field. While a disproportionately high number of African Americans remain in deep poverty, conservatives bend over backwards to blame them for their circumstances.

With the way that generations overlap, there are living African Americans who have heard their great-grandparents tell stories of their relatives’ firsthand experiences surviving slavery. During the Great Depression, firsthand accounts by slaves were collected for those who are interested to hear them personally. What kinds of stories would be most relevant to the social circumstances of African Americans today? Certainly, there was the commonplace policy of purposely breaking up families for over 240 years. Ever since the Moynihan Report first identified the struggles of the black family, conservatives have been quick to pounce and attribute the high percentage of single parent families to their moral laxity. They are chronically unable to acknowledge that a systemic decimation of families perpetrated by white people plays a significant role in the instability of male-female relationships to this day.  We have no precedent for the recovery time required to overcome this type of assault on a fundamental societal institution.

Speaking of recovery time, it’s been approximately seven generations since formal slavery ended. But that’s not the whole story; this month on February 13th, PBS will be airing the documentary, Slavery by Another Name, based on the book by Douglas Blackmon of The Wall Street Journal. This documentary will focus on the period from 1865 to World War II when African Americans experienced neo-slavery, a time of legal discrimination, widespread and brutal violence, and rampant criminalization. For example, “black codes,” or laws that were written to arrest and confine African Americans for crimes such as “vagrancy,” resulted in forced labor camps with conditions indistinguishable from slavery. Of note, a black man could be arrested for vagrancy for not having a job in a community that refused to employ him. As Blackmon states,

“African Americans know this story in their hearts…and so people come up to me and say, ‘Gosh the story that my grandmother used to tell…I never believed it because she would describe that she was still a slave in Georgia after WWII or just before, and it never made sense to me, and now it does’…These are things that connect directly to the lives of people and the shape and pattern and structure of our society today.”

But surely, these Jim Crow practices were only the curse of the South. Things were better for African Americans in the North, right? For historical guidance on the realities of life up north, James Loewen’s book, Sundown Towns, named after the practice of warning African Americans to leave town before the sun went down or face certain violence, is telling. His portrayal of life in the North shows that opportunities for economic or social advancement were extremely limited there as well. (To see if your town used to be a Sundown Town, see his database).

With the addition of two more decades of violence, segregation, legalized discrimination, and disenfranchisement, the systemic oppression of African Americans continued right up to the Civil Rights Act of 1965. Remarkably, right wing politicians like Ron Paul, and his son Rand, have claimed that the legislation was unnecessary. It is only since the Civil Rights Act of 1965 that African Americans have made significant, even extraordinary progress, toward gaining the kinds of freedoms originally stripped from them: an entire race prevented from accumulating resources for centuries only to have mere decades to recover. Yet, it is customary for conservatives to dismiss this reality with a quick reference to how long ago slavery ended. For a group that claims to know the value of family, conservatives have a stunning blind spot when it comes to the value of family wealth and its passage between generations.

The notion that everyone has an equal chance of success assumes that individuals are born into equal circumstances, or failing that, that society has mechanisms to adjust for the inequities that arise from differences in social status. Conservatives assume that a child coming from an upper class background, private schools, and enriched summers of camps and vacations will have no upper-hand on the child from a lower class background receiving an education based on rote testing in public schools whose daily stressors have been shown to even cause brain damage.

It is a daily occurrence to see the media haranguing the poor for their circumstances. Recently, the Washington Post published James Q. Wilson’s essay about how the poor actually have better circumstances than they should, what with having telephones and a TV. He also writes about the high rate of single parenthood in the black community with the typical conservative lack of comprehension about how the issue began or how strained economics discourages marriage.  In the past week, David Brooks has dedicated his New York Times column to a new book by eugenics-loving Charles Murray (co-author of The Bell Curve), in which Murray argues that inequality is based on the bad behavior of the lower classes. Murray is careful to say he talking about class within whites, but given his track record it is not hard to interpret who he is targeting. In his adoration of Murray’s book, Brooks goes so far as to call the upper and lower classes, “tribes,” and extols the virtues of the well-behaved upper class while chiding the lower class for their marriage patterns, television viewing habits, and obesity.

All told, the legacy of slavery and discrimination has continued in various forms until today. The right wing’s inability to realistically grapple with this era of American history or its aftermath affects national rhetoric and our social policy on a daily basis. Whether it is opposition to affirmative action or Rick Santorum’s comments on how to make black peoples’ lives better, conservatives will deny that there is anything different in the lives of African Americans when compared to white people. Some will contradict what historians and other experts have repeatedly shown about the causes of the Civil War. All in all, despite being the shortest month of the year, conservatives seem to find Black History Month the longest and the hardest to understand.

22 Replies to “Right Wing Denial and the Legacy of Slavery”

  1. So, who are these well behaved upper class folks? Mitt Romney from last night, when he lied his way through a victory speech? Or is it New Gingrich who has cheated on two of his wives and left them when they were sick? Or is it Wall Street vultures who steal from others with nary a care? Or is it our elected representatives who live high on the hog on our dime, entitled to health insurance for their lifetime and pensions and high salaries?

    I could go on, of course.

  2. The only (small) disagreement I have about this is that slavery didn’t end nearly 150 years ago with the end of the Civil War. Native Americans were being openly sold into slavery in California up to after the start of the 20th century.


    I’ve heard of William Julius Wilson in regards to poverty – and among poverty researchers he is not at all respected. His “Culture of Poverty” thinking (actually blaming the poor) has done more damage than just about any other idea to those who are poor, and his (disproved) assertions are the basis for so many failed projects. I’m not familiar with James Q. Wilson… but he sounds like he’s following the same thinking and arguments. He needs to start reading from more authoritative sources and consider their research. I’d recommend that James Q. Wilson read Carol Stack, Susan Greenbaum, Vincent Lyon-Callo, and maybe O’Connor or Castaneda (and I know of several other valid and reputable researchers that disprove the “blame the poor” mentality, show the structural connections to poverty, and indeed show that the “culture of the poor” is positive and adaptive). His comments connected to race also show a bias that needs to be countered, and there are a great number of researchers that do so. He’s assigning moral values to cultural adaptations without beginning to explain why they exist or how they enable people to survive a hostile environment. He also is using those adaptations to explain why poverty exists, again without looking to the root cause – systemic inequalities and limitations. Very much the same sort of things I’ve read from William Julius Wilson.

    Isn’t it interesting how they think that declaring something to be over is sufficient, when history shows that laws are needed to change the direction? The Civil Rights legislation was necessary to really start the process of freedom for African Americans. The (federal) law granting us freedom of religion is what started the trail of freedom for my people in 1980. It takes government action, “Big Government”, to change the direction of a bigoted and discriminatory society. That is a big part of why the “small government” movement started.

    The bigots don’t want someone telling them they can’t discriminate against their favorite hates.

    My wife once said that as long as the individual histories of Native Americans aren’t told, the story of Native America isn’t told (just a thumbnail sketch of the big-name known tribes is insufficient!). I think that can be expanded to saying that until the history of the different groups in this country isn’t part of the regular history, and issues such as slavery and the aftermath aren’t discussed, then the history of America is missing.

  3. Columbus was the first to use Indians as slaves in the US. He wasted no time

    And before you hop on me about saying Indians, I believe if you are born here you are a Native American

  4. I can happily ignore this posting because just like talking about gays, here in Tennessee we are not to talk about anything to do with slavery and soon it will not taught in school.

    for many of us being a white it is unimaginable what life would be like today for blacks had the civil right act never been passed. For myself it’s absolutely unimaginable to think of how we have taken people, treated them worse than farm animals in many ways and totally destroyed the life spirit of so many thousands of people.

    In 1502 spain legalized slave trade to the US.
    in 1526 the first slave revolt happen in South Carolina
    In 1619 the first slave ship landed in Jamestown
    in 1655 the first slave auction was held.
    In 1620 the Mayflower lands

    all of this occurred before there were 250,000 whites in America.

    We all need to get past the fact that slavery is something that is relatively recent as in president Lincoln And LBJ. this country was founded on inequality and it’s truly apparent that the Constitution did not give equality to all men as tea thugs so bravely say it does.

    the bigotry displayed by the right wing nut jobs and the presidential candidates is simply more of people trying to kill the spirit of black people so that they want to vote. They are following in a long line of spirit killers. This is 2012, and this is pathetic beyond words

    stats from the Floyd M Orr book Paradigm Shift, Mr Orr posts here infrequently

  5. I am not professor or a doctor, just your average American. What people are forgetting is that when the slaves in Africa were sold to white people, they were sold by other black people. One tribe would go to another tribe and take some of their people and sell them. If they were not sold and taken to America, they would have gone somewhere else. Also slavery is still going on in many parts of the world and there are white people as slaves too. If people think that they have it so bad in this country, they can always go back to the country that their ancestors came from and so how they have it there. We have the richest poor people in the world here. Your average American has a vehicle, some kind of gaming system and a tv or 2 to watch it on.

  6. “the bigotry displayed by the right wing nut jobs and the presidential candidates is simply more of people trying to kill the spirit of black people so that they want to vote. They are following in a long line of spirit killers. This is 2012, and this is pathetic beyond words.”

    IMO, this is another thing many on the right are so wrong about. The type of behavior we see from the RW politicians and their supporters drive us to the polls to vote against them. We know what they’re up to, and if they think we don’t, it’s their loss. Their main problem with POC and the poor seems to be the fact that we don’t vote for their candidates en masse, and they’re too clueless to understand that it’s their policies we don’t agree with, and it’s their demeaning campaign tactics and words. Surely, neither Mitt nor Newt would expect me, a retired teacher who happens to have been born into the black middle class, to vote for them when they tell me my dad was a slacker and I had no role models until the movie ‘Red Tails’ came along. It’s stupid and ludicrous, and it shows that they know very little about the majority of blacks and POC in this country. Unrelentless, biased, lying attacks combined with hypocrisy is a surefire way to get our votes.* *sarcasm intended

  7. Correction:

    “kill the spirit of black people so that they want to vote.”
    needs to be
    “kill the spirit of black people so that they wont want to vote.

    Voice recognition software, you have to be smarter than the mic

    I agree. You can only think people are dumb so long before you find out they wernt dumb at all

  8. Where are all these Racist conservatives you speak of? I believe that if there is Affirmative Action for minorities, it is unfair until we give those benefits to the majorities too. I don’t like it that we call conservatives racist if all they want is equal treatment.

  9. He is saying the poorest American’s are some of the richest people that have ever lived. Period. Other country’s poor would be disgusted by the amount of wealth America’s poorest have.

  10. Hop! Hop! Hop! (GRIN!)

    (Everyone please excuse this short side conversation!)

    I use American Indian and Native American interchangeably. I know some people use Native American for anyone born here, and while it’s technically accurate, it does make some of us grit our teeth, because the other terms used for us (with one exception) are really inaccurate and inappropriate – and we’ve had people use the term as you do and then try to appropriate parts of our culture or deny us our rights. (I’m not saying that you do – I know different. It’s part of the reason why you might encounter hackles being slightly raised with some people.)

    What Would be most appropriate for my own tribe would be “Turtle Island Aborigine”, because we (as a whole) were the first and our name for this continent was “Turtle Island” (long cultural story, part of it private).

    Of course, it’s far more complicated than that… but that’s another discussion and one more connected with science. I’m really not sure what would be the most accurate and precise term for us… and many of us have talked about this subject at length. Quite a few of the elders and leaders that I’ve talked with about this have said that they accept “American Aborigine” as being a generic term, as it’s in some ways more accurate and precise – although we don’t recognize the claims of Amerigo Vespucci (from whence the name America came), much less Columbus.

  11. The beauty of America is that while it is absolutely correct to say the country was founded on inequality (I would add “and theft”), at the same time as the country evolved, its PROMISE is of equality. If only we could get from the inequality (and its proponents the Republicans) to the equality.

  12. Uh… not always accurate, but in some ways correct. Historically, white people were also taken captive and sold in Africa as slaves. I don’t remember now, but I used to remember the names of some English seaside villages that were raided and sold into slavery like that. That doesn’t make your argument correct, however.

    The situation in Africa was actually very complex at the time, but the white dealing in slavery exasperated the situation greatly, giving powerful people (the rich tribes/rulers) excuses for selling captives/poor people into slavery for goods or gold. The European nations flamed the conflicts on that continent and harvested the fallout.

    And by your argument, where would my people go? We’re among the poorest people in this country, and we were here before your ancestors invaded. Funny thing about that too… we treated the newcomers with kindness and curiosity, and were repaid with rape, murder, and theft of lands. Indeed, if you cannot let the African Americans/Blacks live here, then maybe you and yours should take a hike first!!!

    (Oh, and by the way, poverty is relative, and those things you mentioned as being evidence of being wealthy are comparatively cheap compared to housing. Plus, aren’t you punishing the poor? “Oh, they’re POOR, so they’ve got to be starving to death, naked on the sidewalk, and willing to sacrifice every shred of dignity or self-respect for a penny thrown on the sidewalk!” I could continue on shredding your argument, but these points I mentioned should be sufficient.)

  13. (BTW… You and Yours… I’m speaking to the individual and anyone who decides to practice intolerance towards another group because of “race” or other characteristics.)

  14. Talk about STUPID. Affirmative action means trying to level the playing field, NOT giving money or benefits to people. Without Affirmative Action, some of my people would not have gotten ANY education, much less a college degree. Without Affirmative Action, a lot of us wouldn’t have had jobs. Even now, the racist bigots who want Affirmative Action permanently removed from the scene do not want to do so because of fairness – they want the so-called “right” to not hire minorities and to treat them like dirt.

    But you know that, don’t you. I’ve heard it all before and I know the script.

    I used to be in business – and heard all of the anti-Affirmative-Action screeds imaginable. Invariably, because the owners thought I was a “good ole white boy”, I heard the real reason they hated it – because it meant that they had to treat “N-words” and “Injuns” and other hated minority groups like human beings. When they learned I was one of those hated minorities (American Indian by birth – something I didn’t know myself until middle age), just over 60% of my customers dropped me as a service provider in the space of one month. Some accused me of misleading them about my identity! (A few never paid their bills.)

    They, of course, were also STUPID, because I was one of the few ones who could often repair complicated machinery (industrial robotics) without schematics, but that didn’t matter to them – they didn’t want a “dirty heathen” in their shop or getting paid by them. I struggled on for a couple of years, until my health (the major reason I started my business) got too bad to continue doing that sort of work.

    Their hatred for African Americans/Blacks was just as visceral, if not more so. Except that they wanted those people “put in their place” rather than just gone.

  15. Wrong.

    Poverty can be measured in several different ways. One of the most telling is the amount of freedom of time/action an individual has. Using that standard (being able to take a day off without suffering, for instance), American poor rate extremely low and the middle class not that much higher. Even many poor countries rate higher than this nation on that scale (the research article I’m thinking about compared the freedom of the poor in Mexico vs the middle class in the US).

    You are going by the fatally flawed old idea of poverty, which comes from misunderstanding of the Bible. Poverty is relative to the culture and in some ways culturally defined. I’ve heard stupid arguments like this before, for example, against the homeless who have cell phones. Well, guess what: Cell phones are relatively cheap, they provide a means for potential employers to contact the homeless individual, and in some instances have applications that are helpful to the individual (for instance, we use the alarm clock application in our {by modern standards} dinosaurs of cell phones to wake us in the morning. Cell phones, especially the cheap ones, are easily affordable to the homeless, unlike housing which is almost impossible (read the Out of Reach Report by the Low Income Housing Coalition if you want your eyes opened – for instance, in the county next to ours a person has to work at minimum wage 83 hours a week just to afford a ONE BEDROOM apartment).

    Americans have lots of “stuff”, but so do poor people in other countries. I’ve been in northeastern Sicily, which has the highest unemployment rate for all of Europe (unofficial rate as of the year I was there – approximately 70-75%). Many of the people had TVs and Cell Phones, most were at least somewhat computer literate, and they weren’t walking in rags and begging on the streets (they might have in this country, as poor as that area was!).

    I don’t have time to get into the causes of poverty or the proved connections between it and exploitation and stratification, but I will say this – it’s arguments like yours that help to make the situation far worse than it could be.

  16. At least Minority men are considered full citizens, however reluctantly.

    This country is still arguing about who owns a woman’s body. (Hint: Women are not winning the fight.)

  17. What he’s saying is what Fox News propagates as some kind of economic advantage that america’s “the other” has as some kind of distinct advantage over “the other” in other cultures…James Brown (I doubt it) is bottom-feeding Fox News memes…if Mr. Brown were well traveled, he’d see cell phones in every African village, televisions everywhere in India, and Nike shoes worn by millions of 3rd world people in poverty, just like here in America.

    See, “Merika don’t have no “poverty” here…just like we don’t have cults, or, meth labs, or, millions of children who go to be hungry, or chop shops…we ain’t go no poverty like them “others”…

  18. Sarah: I don’t say this without reservations,simply because of another sarah. The other sarah, leaves a bad bad taste But, I love the way you think and write, agree with you on almost all of your stands. Keep up the good work,which at times must feel,like it’s getting no where.

  19. A big part of that denial results in people being called “racists” whenever we bring up these realities. That’s an attempt to shut down any honest discussion of race or just how this shameful aspect of America’s past influences the present. It’s every bit as intellectually dishonest as Willard Romney’s attempts to shut down discussions about the stark class inequalities that exist in this country. Any solution of problems of this magnitude has to begin with honest discussions. But the denial is also a tool of folks who want to go back to the “good old days” when those of us who are not male, wealthy, and white “knew our places” as defined by those who don’t have our interests at heart.

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