Playing Down Slavery: Denying Systemic Racism

We are still getting various commentators today who like to play down the seriousness of slavery as part of our history. We are a nation based on about 246 years of slavery, more than half of our history.

The extreme oppressiveness of U.S. slavery is thus not taken seriously by many white Americans. Not surprisingly perhaps, brochures circulated by some southern state governments still provide a distorted view of U.S. history. One South Carolina brochure provided to visitors at the state’s travel centers has a two-page history of the state from the 1500s to the present, with not a single mention of slaves or slavery there.

Yet, slavery was central to the state’s economy for a very long period of time.

Similarly, a recent research study in North Carolina examined the way slavery has been portrayed at twenty slave plantations that are now tourist sites. Seven of the plantation websites do not even note the presence of slavery there, and only three devote serious efforts to present the experiences of those enslaved. The others sites accent such things as the furnishings, gardens, and the white families. Some play down the brutality of slavery and project images of “happy slaves.”

The lead researcher, Derek Alderman, accents the point that “plantations were not just about their white owners. As we come to terms with the legacy of racism in the United States, we have to recognize . . . that there was brutality that happened in the Old South.”


  1. Seattle in Texas

    Just a side note: I notice too often, for whatever reason, Texas seems somehow excluded from the Old South in many ways–including its historical brutality related to slavery in scholarly analysis. White Texas somehow too has romantic ideals. A co-worker mentioned an entire recently new subdivision whose street names are being names after people and things from the movie Gone With the Wind. Then their monuments of slave owners, (some of whom did wear sheets…)–and today, a co-worker mentioned a tourist place nearby that is former slave plantation. The home was described as being exquisite in an antique way with preserved southern charm, as well as the carefully preserved fields the enslaved worked in–that is now filled with bloomed seasonal flowers along the rows. Apparently it is a popular tourist attraction. The obviousness, yet invisibility similar to that described above in some ways in Texas, is striking to say the least. Yet, I don’t know of anybody who associates slavery with Texas–many, many other things, but not slavery. The white folks responsible for the most horrible damage to folks of color and at their cost (and many lives) down here, are nonetheless, put up on high pedestals, literally. White society, in general, also holds equal responsibility.

    Nothing pretty about it at all….

  2. jwbe

    The (white) American reaction would be interesting, if Germany started to celebrate her “proud history” with glorifying concentration camps.
    When I visited the US I found it very alienating how plantations and history in general are presented.

  3. Joe

    siss, what evidence do you have for your assertion? I provided some for mine. “Many” whites in this case of plantations as tourist sites do in fact play down and thus not take seriously or even acknowledge the extreme oppressiveness of US slavery. Loewen’s Lies Across America demonstrates this point as well. Most history textbooks I have seen, and I have seen many, do not even deal with its extreme brutality and oppressiveness…..

  4. siss

    There is no possible way to determine someones degree of seriousness on an issue. True, you can observe their behavior in relation to a topic (slavery) but that data doesn’t give you an accurate representation of their stance on the issue. As long as you specify which “whites” you’re referring to ei: tourist sites, textbooks, etc., then fine but for future reference please be specific. I do agree that some texts books “candy coat” historical facts in relation to slavery, but how do you suggest they write it in order to [“deal with its extreme brutality and oppressiveness”]?

  5. jwbe

    There is no possible way to determine someones degree of seriousness on an issue.

    yes you can, this isn’t a thing about how individual whites may think, but a national memory and how this nation commemorates its past.
    KZ’s in Germany are memorials where no sane German is proud of that history.
    The emphasis is on the victims and not the perpetrators.
    Also movies. There couldn’t be a German equivalent like “Gone with the wind”.
    A white America which would be serious with dealing honestly with it’s history would stop waving the confederate flag and honoring a “proud history”, Columbus Day would no longer be celebrated etc.
    This is a national question and not an individual one, and the nation let it happen that up to today the perpetrators are honored.

    but how do you suggest they write it in order to [“deal with its extreme brutality and oppressiveness”]?
    why being so sensitive? The victims had to endure white history and I think it is important that those benefiting from this history understand what that means. When I was at school my German Nazi history was told the way it was and I see no reason to do it otherwise.

  6. Jenni

    siss – I’m reading some defensiveness in your posts, although I’m not entirely clear why. Nonetheless, perhaps your objections are concerns over “essentializing” whites (and I will disclose that I am a white woman), but when we are discussing social science matters, then patterns of behavior are critical, and it seems to me Joe is pointing out the very relevant patterns. There are always exceptions to the rule, but the patterns are where the meat of the matter lies. That said, here’s another relevant pattern: there is much research on white views of racial matters which points out the regularity with which whites state agreement with abstract racial ideals (e.g., equal opportunity), while not supporting or being downright hostile to concrete efforts to achieve racial equality (e.g., extreme hostility to affirmative action, equal educational funding initiatives, etc.). So my point in relation to this topic is that just evaluating whites’ “stance on the issue” is often going to lead us away from actual practice. If there were greater seriousness around the issue of slavery, would we not see planatations (and textbooks) that dealt with the matter with greater seriousness and appropriate gravity? (consumers do not just respond to “products” put out to them, but by their “consumption” dictate which “products” are created). As far as how they should write it, there are a multitude of options (including centralizing the accounts of the enslaved themselves). It seems to me one of the most critical issues, however, is to centralize it’s relevance to American history. Our country was founded on the basis of oppression, and it formed *the* central aspect of our economy. Nearly all industries at the time revolved around slavery – banking, insurance, food production, textile mills, distilleries, shipbuilding, iron forging . . . I could go on and on. Most white people at the time were either directly or indirectly related, and achieved their livelihoods from this relationship. However, most contemporary takes make slavery seem very isolated, as if it only impacted a minority of individuals, in a minority of areas. More could be said here, but my next interest would be to centralize how current racial inequalities (and racist imagery) are directly connected to slavery and the oppressive segregation which followed – history is not just history, it bores a direct line to contemporary matters, and so slavery should not simply be relegated to historical tales about the “bad days of ‘ol.” I could go on, but have probably said enough for now . . .

  7. Victor Ray

    I think a good way to asses whites seriousness on this issue and the lingering effects of slavery would be to see how much they support systematic efforts to destroy these effects. So, white public opinion on things such as reparations and affirmative action should serve as pretty good proxies for how serious they think the effects are. Fortunately, we have tons of data showing that whites get apopletic when asked to pay back their unearned benefits. For instance, Blinder (2008) found that 87% of white americans born after 1975 opposed affirmative action. This is exactly the opposite of what you would expect from people who take slavery and its systemic lingering effects seriously (not to mention jim crow and all manner of creative new forms of post-civil rights era discrimination). Further, Dawson and Popoff (2004) found that 70% of white americans do not feel the government should apologize for slavery (again, the opposite of what you would expect from whites who took this seriously). Dawson and Popoff also found that fully 96% of the white americans reject the idea of government compensation for the ancestors of slaves. Siss, does this sound like the results you would get from a group of people serious about the effects of slavery?

  8. siss

    Vic: you have some good points however with any statistics, the percentages are only an accurate reflection of the study participants, not all “white Americans”. With regards to reparations, it would be a near impossible task to undertake. The amount of money owed would bankrupt the country (if would could even put a price tag on human life or dignity) and the process of determining who gets what would take years if not decades to sort through. IMO that is not at the top of priorities considering we are in debt to our eyeballs and fighting wars that we had no business starting. And when you say “pay back their unearned benefits” do you mean through reparations, apologies, AA and the like?

  9. jwbe

    >The amount of money owed would bankrupt the country

    how should this happen, it would just be redistribution of wealth.
    America didn’t have a problem with spending billions of dollars to invade illegally a souvereign nation (Iraq). Where was the white whining then?

  10. Joe Author

    Yeah, no one writing seriously on reparations for African Americans ever talked about more than about $70 billion in reparations for African
    Americans, and many whites screamed about that. Yet, just one corrupt company led by white men, AIG, already has gotten $170 billion — and they will get more…. Odd , how white mostly male elites can find money to do crazy stuff they want to do, like invade Iraq or Grenada……but cannot find the small amounts necessary for reparations for African Americans, Native Americans, and others so long harmed by whites…..

  11. jwbe

    And by redistribution of wealth you mean…?
    redistribution of wealth. Last time I checked, African Americans were American citizens, means, that monetary reparations would mostly remain within the US and would therefore also benefit the entire economy.
    The economic power now is white. Because of the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.

  12. Victor Ray

    Hey Siss,

    Actually, the data these authors used to calculate the statistics I cited come from nationally representative samples like the General Social Survey, which is extremely highly respected and data from it is used in top social science journals and newspapers all the time. Statistically, what a representative random sample means is that you can generate suggestions applicable to the entire White population (or any other population that they have sufficiently large numbers of in the sample) of the United States because of 1) randomization and 2) the law of large numbers. These two factors ensure (roughly) that any characteristics that could possibly bias your results (i.e. making it look like more or less of the population was for/against the thing you are asking them about) are controlled for because of their propensity to be relatively equally distributed throughout the entire population about which you hope to generalize.

    Granted, these estimates are subject to measurement error, specification issues, and a myriad other boring statistical technicalities. But, usually when you have proportions that are this large, and come from a sample whose validity and reliability have been vetted by social scientists and statisticians for over thirty years, it is safe to say they constitute a pattern, and draw the inference (paraphrasing Kanye West) that whites don’t care about black people.

  13. Hill Kemp

    The residuals of the multi-century enslavement are very much playing out in current society. But we current incumbents can’t get at them to deal with them easily.

    I have overhauled the AA 12-Step program (It’s only 9 steps!!) so it can address, for both whites and blacks, the residuals of enslavement on both races. It is designed to help small groups of either race or mixed racial groups actually get at the aspects of their daily lives that are expression of either privilege or enslavement. It is also designed to put specific changes in place to begin deal with and eventually move beyond this scar we all share. As with AA, step one reads in part “…our current situation is unmanageable.” Getting past that is tough. The one mixed group that tried couldn’t handle it.

    The moderator can contact me and I’ll send it to anyone who in interested.

  14. siss

    Thank you for the article, it was very informative. Beyond just stating the unequal land ownership, how should we implement its redistribution? Unfortunately, the government can’t act like Robin Hood and steal from the rich to feed the poor. It’s a shame that there wasn’t a redistribution of land after the slaves were freed, but since 100 + years have passed, I think its too late for direct redistribution. I’m assuming much of the land currently owned/operated was actually purchased not passed down. How can the government overstep its bounds and force people to sell their property (especially if it’s profitable)? That’s borderline socialist.

  15. @siss – The take the land and give it to it’s rightful owners. It wouldn’t be too hard to find a way to redistribute wealth – we just experienced one of the largest re-distributions of wealth in the past 8 years. You can re-write the tax code or just take the land. It’s not hard to find a way. And who cares about whether it’s socialist? This isn’t about a particular political system or way of organizing government, it’s about justice.

    People die. Land stands still. And money gains compound interest.

  16. Marc G

    Reading Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery By Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II will likely change that 246 years of slavery number.

  17. siss

    Kstate: There is NO practical way to “take the land and give it to its rightful owners”. The process (if not impossible) would be too long, too tedious, and too strenuous on our country’s already week race relations. You want to talk about racism? That single act alone would undo the 40+ years of progress this country has achieved. Not to mention, how silly does that statement sound? We aren’t in kindergarten telling a child to give back a toy.
    You apparently you have no tax knowledge because you can’t just “re-write the tax code”.
    Many people care if the government displays socialist tendencies, especially when you are talking of just “taking land [etc]” away from people. And yes it is about a political system. That’s they only way something of that magnitude could possibly be achieved (if ever), is by GOVERNMENT intervention. Get back to me when you come up with a better plan 🙂

  18. Jenni M.

    Well, the difference between “children giving back toys” and the very serious issue of reparations is that the centuries of unjust impoverishment of black Americans, Native Americans and other people of color and concomitant unjust enrichment of white people have left us with an extreme wealth gap between groups that can be directly traced to a multitude of unjust practices, hardly a “silly” issue or statement. For instance, the Homestead Act gave literally millions of acres of land to whites while systematically denying that land to black Americans. One scholar estimates that currently close to one quarter of the adult population of white Americans can trace their ancestry to a Homesteader. Wealth (and I’m not even talking about massive amounts of wealth – even modest wealth like owning ones own home), has a great impact on people’s life outcomes, because it can be used to access better educational opportunities, etc.

    To say rectifying this is socialist is to suggest that white wealth was earned in a just system, which of course it wasn’t and hasn’t been. The socialism cry is a rhetorical strategy to make reparations or any other just programming look illegitimate. You are write that it poses an obstacle, but that’s no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    Other reparative strategies could include massive reinvestments in impoverished communities of color, massive educational investments to remedy to the vast disparities in education, policies that encourage a shift in whites’ racial logic, e.g., that change the “payoff” whites get for fleeing communities of color, etc., to a racial logic that would support integration, tax remedies that would compensate those black Americans who were denied GI benefits or Social Security benefits because of the ways those programs were racially administered in discriminatory ways. I mean, c’mon – we have some of the smartest minds in the world – we can create unbelieveable technology and we can’t figure out a way to acheive a just outcome? We can’t even muster the political will to convene a governmental collective to investigate the issue (and good luck to Obama who, as a black man, would bear the weight of the world should he try to call for such a committee – can you imagine the outrage) – of course the stopgap is that somehwere deep down most people KNOW that we would have to do something to repair the breach, and most whites and people in power just won’t muster the political will. But justice will not wait forever . . .

  19. siss

    Jenn: on your note about the Homestead act… If the government approached me and said that the land I paid for (and live on/create business from) will be given away without compensation, I’d say no way. Like I mentioned it is far too late for direct transfer of wealth (land, in this case). Compensation like this and others (GI, SSI) should have been directed to the person wronged, not others down the line. However, I do agree that [” massive reinvestments in impoverished communities of color, massive educational investments to remedy to the vast disparities in education”] need to occur. It sickens me to find that in our country, our education systems vary tremendously from location to location. I’m not quite sure what you elude to when you reference white flight; because even though it is real, it is also the luxury of choice that people have to move when/where ever they please.

  20. Nquest

    it is far too late for direct transfer of wealth

    Compensation like this and others (GI, SSI) should have been directed to the person wronged

    So that’s it? Since compensation for those wronged didn’t happen in some mythical time period when it “should” have happened, that’s it?

    Regarding Jenni’s statement, she did not mention direct transfer of land, No1Kstate did. Jenni referenced how the government was “socialist” when it came to directly giving land to Whites via the Homestead Act (some 160 acres in a lot of cases vs. the 40 acres often mentioned in reparations circles) AND the very recent/living history of the GI Bill and the creation of the suburbs. Regarding the latter, Jenni’s point is that the government found a way to not only make a massive investment into White communities but those investments often came at the expense, detriment or exclusion of people of color who are LIVING today — communities of color that are suffering today from those government decisions that were made in the recent/living past.

    So Jenni suggested duplicating those practices to the advantage vs. disadvantage of communities of color. There was no mention of taking “the land you paid for” and what you apparently fail to recognize is that your situation is not unique in terms of having paid for the land. The only exception is you have the luxury of having a society that honors your “no way” attitude… That was not the case for Native Americans, not the case for African Americans who were Torn From The Land or any of the communities of color that had interstate highway, etc. built in or around their communities…

  21. Jenni M.

    Opinion is great, but data is better – scholar Ira Katznelson (When Affirmative Action Was White) – well documents how because of the way the major social welfare policies of the 2oth century (New Deal, Fair Deal and GI Bill) were written and administered they almost exclusively benefitted whites and white communities, to the tune of some $100 million (probably a conservative estimate) – e.g., Social Security Act excluded categories of labor – farm workers and domestics – that were almost entirely African American, and these policies were required to be administered locally, meaning there was little federal oversight and could be and were administered with much discrimination at the local level. These two matters were concessions to the powerful Southern politicians who wanted to defend the near-slavery Jim Crow regime they had created and refused to sign onto the bills otherwise. As far as the GI Bill – let’s first take education – Black GIs could not attend “whites only” segregated educational institutions, and there was far more demand for educational benefits than the HBCUs could provide, so a vast majority of black vets missed out on this benefit. As far as housing, because the FHA institutionalized (yup, the federal government) the redlining appraisal system, black vets were rarely if ever able to purchase homes in the burgeoning suburbs (many were also discriminated against through restrictive covenants where neighboorhoods would agree not to sell property to black Americans). Redlining also ensured they would rarely if ever be able to qualify for mortgages in the communities that they were “allowed” to move into – black or minority communities were redlined as “dangerous investments” and thus few mortgages were extended to these areas – of the $120 billion in mortgages extended by the FHA between 1934 (when the FHA was created) and 1962 (when the Fair Housing Act was passed), 98% went to WHITE FAMILIES – another huge wealth transfer to white people, further exacerbatting the massive wealth gap between white and black families.

    There are so many examples, including these in modern times, it’s hard to keep track. And while “white flight” represent the “luxury of choice that people have to move when/where ever they please,” it is these very racist policies that institutionalized the relationship between race and housing values/”bad” communities. So, even with the Fair Housing Act, etc., white people use a racial calculus that continues to recreate residential/educational segregation, and from which people of color continue to suffer unjust impoverishment (i.e. from reduced property values and thus reduced home equity and wealth, and thus reduced educational and other infrastructure and local tax bases affect all these, among other related consequences). We should not be so quick to wipe our hands of responsibility for these historical and continuing consequences, but as Nquest said, we live in a society structured around our white privilege that honors our “no way,” “can’t be done,” “I’m not to blame” attitude.

  22. @Mark G- Yes, it’s a great and important read.

    @Siss – you don’t want it with me. Period. Let’s try to remain civil, or at least not stoop to “kindergarten” name calling.

    @NQuest and Jenni – You make my point quite nicely and matter of factly. Facts and all. I thank you. –I will say that I’m not all that opposed to direct reperations. My only problem is that there is not the infrastructure in the black community to ensure the money goes its necessary rounds throughout a black economy before circulating out again. That’s my only opposition to direct reparations. And I like the idea of investing in urban communities for the benefit of the current dwellers.
    Whatever anyone’s personal feelings as regards taking away their land without compensation, the fact is redistributing wealth is fairly simple. And besides, let’s think our way through this. If descedents of slaves and those who suffered under the terror and real enslavement of neo-slavery (Huh, Mark? You like that?) were given just compensation, cause again, money gains compound interests, African Americans and Native Americans would be able to buy the land at cost.

    And if we are going to boil this down to the most simplistic terms – Say my great-grandfather stole your great-grandfather’s gold pocket watch, which he had inherited from his great-grandfather, in 1890. Just because the watch has been in my family for generations, does that make the watch any less yours?

    I’m sure you wouldn’t raise the issue of statute of limitations, but for the analogy, I could. However in reality, slavery, genocide, mass murder, etc and so one, are crimes against humanity and as such, have no legal statute of limitations. For example, people who had property, like art, stolen by the Nazis can get the goods back if they can prove it was theirs and was stolen by the Nazis.

    “Precisely,” you say, “You have to prove, x-y-z.” With more and more geneaological sites and geneaologists, proven who is and who isn’t descended from slaves wouldn’t be impossible. And if you wanna make it real easy, lets just count out all the African Americans with European surnames. And there are living survivors of neo-slavery.

    Really, Siss. If you wanna engage in a thoughtful exchange of ideas, I’m your woman. But if all you can do is challenge my ideas without bringing any to the table, you don’t want it with me.

  23. Chelsea L.

    I don’t think that it’s right for people to downplay slavery, especially because it has been such a big part of our history. That is a part of people’s past that has transferred from generations. Slavery also is still related to things today. For instance, men were usually the ones who were out in the plantation’s doing the intense labor work, while women yes did some of that but often were instructed to do “chores” or things in the households such as cooking and cleaning. If you look at the way society is today it has a lot of the same gender messages. Although I feel that race is slowly diminishing it is still out there. Everyone’s race is important in the aspect that that is “who they are,” but in reality shouldn’t we all learn from the past of slavery and not look at people from the outside but from the inside. Men and women should be allowed to take on the roles that they are good at and can benefit others not just take on the roles that they “should” be taking on or feel that they have to take on because of their families history, background, or race.


  1. Topics about Economy » Archive » Playing Down Slavery: Denying Systemic Racism

Leave a Reply