Racial Illiteracy and US Media Commentators

Michael Medved, syndicated talk radio host and conservative media figure , has decided now that he has the scholarly credentials to lecture Americans (and apparently Senator Obama for bringing the subject up in his famous speech on race) about how North American slavery’s impact is so often exaggerated. Slavery, it appears, is not a really major part of this country’s foundation, and has little real significance for Americans today. Medved begins a recent commentary with this panegyric on U.S. goodness:

Those who want to discredit the United States and to deny our role as history’s most powerful and pre-eminent force for freedom, goodness and human dignity invariably focus on America’s bloody past as a slave-holding nation. Along with the displacement and mistreatment of Native Americans, the enslavement of literally millions of Africans counts as one of our two founding crimes—and an obvious rebuttal to any claims that this Republic truly represents “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” According to America-bashers at home and abroad, open-minded students of our history ought to feel more guilt than pride, and strive for “reparations” or other restitution to overcome the nation’s uniquely cruel, racist and rapacious legacy. . . . . Unfortunately, the current mania for exaggerating America’s culpability for the horrors of slavery bears no more connection to reality than the old, discredited tendency to deny that the U.S. bore any blame at all.

Notice that Medved begins by playing down with tame language (“displacement and mistreatment”) the very long and often genocidal history of white government actors and citizens killing off a great many indigenous peoples and by various strategies stealing their lands—often in violation of official U.S. laws (“treaties”) usually with no remorse–and still with little in the way of reparations. The many millions of African Americans who died too young because of the slave trade or North American slavery are played down. This bloody past is not just “past,” but very much part of the American present, most especially for Native Americans and African Americans who are still suffering the longterm consequences of such violence (for full data and citations see chapters 6-7 in this recent book). The level of illiteracy about and cover-up of the U.S. racist past is very high, including from ill-informed media types. He soon makes this absurd statement (his capitals):

SLAVERY EXISTED ONLY BRIEFLY, AND IN LIMITED LOCALES, IN THE HISTORY OF THE REPUBLIC – INVOLVING ONLY A TINY PERCENTAGE OF THE ANCESTORS OF TODAY’S AMERICANS. . . .Given the fact that the majority of today’s non-black Americans descend from immigrants who arrived in this country after the War Between the States, only a tiny percentage of today’s white citizens – perhaps as few as 5% — bear any authentic sort of generational guilt for the exploitation of slave labor. Of course, a hundred years of Jim Crow laws, economic oppression and indefensible discrimination followed the theoretical emancipation of the slaves, but those harsh realities raise different issues from those connected to the long-ago history of bondage.

Actually he fudges his argument by dating the bloody economy of slavery from the Declaration of Independence and not from its actual beginning in 1619 at the hands of the early English colonists who started the American enslavement process at Jamestown. Dating it from its actual beginning to its end in the 13th Amendment (1865) means that the enslavement of African Americans (and some Native Americans in early decades) lasted more than half this country’s history. Counting the colonial period is usual in assessing this country’s history, except to play down its bloody origins as here. Deep structures of racial oppression that last 60 percent of a country’s history, and are then followed, as he admits, with nearly 100 years of legal segregation (more racial oppression and a type of near slavery for those targeted) mean this: that nearly 90 percent of this country’s 401-year history (1607-2008), indeed recently celebrated nationally, was characterized by the extreme oppression of slavery and segregation. A good social science analysis accents the fact that the impact of a societal foundation this lengthy and oppressive will still be felt heavily in a society’s contemporary reality–a point Senator Obama made in his recent speech on racial matters.

In addition, a great many white Americans, and far more than five percent, are the descendants of whites who benefitted in one way or another from slavery. During the 240 years of slavery, many non-slaveholding whites (for example, merchants, seamen, lawyers, teamsters, overseers, shipbuilders, bankers, skilled craftspeople, and so on) benefitted greatly from slavery, in the North and the South, a fact many conservative commentators wish to ignore. And the white immigrants exculpated here often benefited in similar ways from Jim Crow. (For much evidence and documentation of this, see chapters 6-7 in this book and early chapters in this book.) Later on he continues with other false assertions like this one:

IT’S NOT TRUE THAT THE U.S. BECAME A WEALTHY NATION THROUGH THE ABUSE OF SLAVE LABOR: THE MOST PROSPEROUS STATES IN THE COUNTRY WERE THOSE THAT FIRST FREED THEIR SLAVES. . . . The notion that America based its wealth and development on slave labor hardly comports with the obvious reality that for two hundred years since the founding of the Republic, by far the poorest and least developed section of the nation was precisely that region where slavery once prevailed.

Actually there is general agreement among social scientists that slavery-generated wealth was a major pillar of the wealth of this country. The large slave farms and the plantations and related slave-linked enterprises generated much of the surplus wealth for the colonies, and later the United States, for some decades. A majority of the famous founders (Jefferson, Madison, Washington) were wealthy mainly because they were slaveholders–and other founders, South and North (even Franklin), were slaveholders at some point in their prosperous lives. Americans benefited in many ways from the slavery economy of the Atlantic. Much of the oats, corn, flour, fish, lumber, soap, candles, and livestock exported by the continental colonies went to West Indies slave plantations. In 1770 no less than three-quarters of all New England exports of foodstuffs went to the West Indian plantations or to Africa. A substantial proportion of the wealth of the New England and Middle Atlantic colonies came from the trade with slave plantations in southern colonies and the Caribbean. From the early 1700s to the mid-1800s much surplus capital and wealth of North America came directly, or by means of economic multiplier effects, from the slave trade and slave plantations. With the growing demand for textiles, U.S. cotton production expanded greatly between the 1790s and the beginning of the Civil War. Cotton was shipped to British and New England textile mills, greatly spurring the wheels of British, U.S., and international commerce. By the mid-nineteenth century, New England cotton mills were the industrial leaders in value added in the United States. Without slave labor it seems likely that there would have been no successful textile industry, and without the cotton textile industry—the first major U.S. industry—it is unclear how or when the United States would have become a major industrial power. In the first half of the nineteenth century many northern merchants, bankers, and shipping companies became, as historian Douglass North has noted, “closely tied to cotton. New York became both the center of the import trade and the financial center for the cotton trade.” Slave-grown cotton became ever more central to the U.S. economy and accounted for about half of all exports, and thus for a large share of the profits generated by exports. In the North the profits from the cotton economy and sale of products to slave plantations stimulated the growth of investment in financial and insurance enterprises, other service industries, and various manufacturing concerns, as well as, by means of taxes, of investment in government infrastructure projects. Cotton-related activities were perhaps the most important source of economic expansion before the Civil War, and most of the cotton was grown by enslaved African Americans. Before the American revolution, trading in slaves was an “honorable” profession in northern ports, and after the revolution it was equally as honorable to trade in products made by slaves or in products traded to plantations. One biographer of leading merchant, T.H. Perkins, concluded there was not a New England:

“merchant of any prominence who was not then directly or indirectly involved in this trade.”

As the nineteenth century progressed, the sons and grandsons of the earlier traders in slaves and slave-related products often became the captains of the textile and other major industries in the North. The business profits made off enslavement were thereby transmitted across numerous generations. (For more data and references for the points, see Chapters 1-2 in this book .)

Slavery and the wealth it generated is indeed the foundation of this nation. One can even speculate as to whether the American revolution could have been fought without the wealth that slavery had generated for the white colonists–and thus whether there could have been a United States (at least when it happened) without the huge North American wealth generated by the massive slavery-economic complex sprawling across the Atlantic basin.