“My Family Never Owned Any Slaves”

I was reading a local Pennsylvania newspaper recently that had one of those all too common articles against the idea of reparations for African Americans and Native Americans that has come up in recent years. In the Wayne Independent Cal Teeple has an opinion article titled, “I Never Owned a Slave…,You?” Then out of curiosity I searched on a major search engine for just one typical white-generated phrase, “My family never owned any slaves.” Well, I got no less that 250,000 hits!
Teeple makes the usual argument:

I mean I never owned any slaves, and neither did you. My parents, grandparents, nor my great-grandparents owned slaves, neither did yours. And unless they come from a family line with Very Long-Lived ancestors, No One living today, nor their parents or grand-parents, were held as slaves!

He argues this takes whites off the hook for any kind of reparations for slavery. Basically the argument many whites make is that their families had no connection to the racial oppression of slavery. (Some whites also argue “my family never segregated any lunch counters,” which they too feel takes whites off the hook for the 350 years of racial oppression of this country.) The problem with all these arguments is that they only work because most whites do not know anything about the history of racial oppression in this country. They are signs of extreme ignorance.
Let me just trace out a little of this forgotten history. As every school child knows, the first task the European colonists undertook was to “settle the land.” This is the euphemistic phrase European Americans have long used for the theft of Native American land–which often required war, often genocidal war, because Native Americans did not comply. Once the land was stolen, the need for labor to work the land exceeded the supply of indentured and other white workers.
From the mid-17th century onward, enslaved Black laborers became ever more essential to the prosperity of the new white-dominated society, eventually becoming a major source of labor that generated significant prosperity for many whites. Black Americans were the only group of color that was internally central, as essential labor, to the prospering of the new North American colonies.
Huge numbers of whites worked in one way or another in the slavery economy. By the 18th century the slavery-centered North American economy and society involved not only economically successful slaveholders, in the South and the North (!), the owners of slave trading enterprises (mostly in the North), associated bankers, insurance brokers, and leading politicians supporting politically the plantations and the slave trade. Many of these white men were in northern cities. There was also a very large number of ordinary whites in all states, north and south, who worked in many occupations linked directly or indirectly to the slavery system. The latter whites included white-collar clerks and other white employees working for these various slave-related enterprises, the overseers on southern and northern plantations, the sailors on slave ships, the slave catchers who chased enslaved runaways, the small farmers who grew produce and other products for the plantations, lumber workers who cut timber for slave ships, ship builders, construction workers on roads for the trade in slaves and slave-produced products, fishers traded fish products to U.S. and Caribbean plantations, local and federal government workers policing enslaved runaways and processing slave-produced products for internal or external trade, and small farmers and urban entrepreneurs who rented groups of enslaved African Americans for temporary profit on their projects. And the list goes on and on.
In addition, all whites gained “racial capital,” either symbolic or material, from this oppressive system. A great many benefitted economically from the slavery-centered economic complex–which encompassed the slave trade, trade with and support of slave farms and plantations, the international trade in slave-produced products, and the great array of slavery-supporting occupations across the country and, indeed, across the Atlantic.
For two centuries slavery was the major foundation for this country, as an economy, a society, and a polity. If there had been no theft of Native American lands, there would be no United States. If there had been no African American enslavement, there probably would have been no huge North American wealth generation–and possibly no modern wealth-generating North America capitalism on the massive scale that developed over four centuries. Enslaved workers cultivating tobacco, rice, sugar, cotton, and other crops generated very large amounts of economic capital, much of which circulated through the European and North American economic systems generating much spin-off prosperity, including important industrial breakthroughs. Enslaved black Americans created much of the surplus capital (wealth) of this country for two centuries, half this country’s lifetime. Without slavery there is quite probably no United States and no U.S. Constitution–at least not when it happened in the 17th and 18th centuries–and thus no U.S. international empire later on.
In these early centuries the social relations of economic exploitation created much income and wealth for whites, which in turn provided much wealth for many later generations, to the present day. Thus, in North America white economic prosperity is racialized in its tap roots, although those tap roots are mostly left out of the national collective memory controlled by whites.