"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Whose History?

The current prevailing meme among black Americans is that slavery in America was far worse than its African equivalent---the black slaves of sub-Saharan Africa were often captives from other tribes but were often presented with the opportunity of freedom and full integration with the host society.

This in contradistinction to American "chattel" slavery, where the slave and his (more importantly her) descendants were property from cradle to grave, from generation to generation in perpetuity.

There's not much on the internet to dispute this view, but this month's Smithsonian Magazine reports, chapter and verse, on chattel slavery in Africa, today, in 2005. Perhaps Africa has been watching reruns of Roots, but it stands more to reason that chattel slavery was not exactly a New World invention.

I don't think there are many in this country who are interested in the truth about America's and humanity's history of slavery---it is repugnant, and to universalize it rings of excuse-making.

Still, if you google "chattel" and "America," you'll get a sense of how deep this perception runs, that the Black Experience in America was heinously unique.


Will go just a bit further with me? Google "Willie Lynch."


It's no small secret among black Americans that in 1712, a white slaveowner gave a speech to other slaveowners on how to control their slaves, the Black Man, and Lynch's principles are used even today to (and this is a key idiomatic term here) "divide and conquer."

The tragedy is that "Willie Lynch" is a hoax, and so is his "speech." But a majority, I think, of Black America really has no way of knowing that. His "words" ring true enough today that it really makes no difference.


I write this as an FYI for white Americans who are puzzled by the recent breakdown of American society in New Orleans. In that heart of the deepest South, unknown to most of us Weekly Standard, Fox News and NR readers, and even NYT and Daily Kos contributors, American society as we understand it has never existed.

I will add briefly that although I think all's fair in love, war and politics, the Democratic Party's demagoguery of the race issue has done far more damage to our republic than a bit of partisan fun and games. It is not good that our black citizens believe that half their nation, the Republican half and in today's case their president, wants them dead or at least wouldn't mind seeing their corpses floating out into the Gulf of Mexico.

And to my Republican friends, keep foremost in your minds that when the GOP accepted the Dixiecrats, Nixon's Southern Strategy, and all the white votes that came with them, we also took on Willie Lynch's karma, even if that sonofabitch never even existed.

As Mr. Homnick notes in verse below, a society needs its history. Black History is American History, but many of us who aren't black are unaware of how egregiously it's been hijacked. This is just a sampler.

24 comments:

Tlaloc said...

Personally I doubt race had anything to do with the lacadaisical response by FEMA. Class, now that's a different matter.

connie deady said...

Tom, I don't understand your point. Racism and slavery are bad. I imagine that slavery a 2000 years ago likely was more brutal than slavery in the American South.

But how are we Democrats engaging in demagoguery on this issue. Racism exists in America. Go to any local neighborhood bar and ask people how they would feel about their white daughter marrying a black man.

To my mind it's worse to pretend something doesn't exist than to overreact to something when it might not be there.

James Elliott said...

It is difficult for us non-African Americans to really understand how issues of racism permeate our society. Race is, after all, the most visual expression of "the other." It is even more difficult for us to see how institutional racism has aided even those who are not racist. Racism, after all, requires a power structure to even exist, and benefits that structure's members, whether they consciously will it or no.

In point of fact, slavery is as old as civilization, and records of it can be found in independently arising societies throughout the ages. Babylon, Egypt, Rome, the Aztecs... the list goes on and on. Chattel (slave market) slavery was often a "side business" or kept on the margins of legitimacy. It also remained secondary to "conquest slavery." New World slavery is unique because of its scale and institutionalization, because of its rise to what we would view as a true market system. It was a system that encompassed nations, businesses, and the Catholic Church (who kept priests in the slave ports to bless the slaves; better to save the soul than the flesh). Ironically, perhaps, the first principal capitalist backers of chattel slavery as we know it were Dutch Protestant entrepreneurs.

The conclusion that chattel slavery was not a New World creation, while correct, carries in your words the implication that just perhaps the African is responsible for his lot. Intentional or not, it is there. The question is whether or not current chattel slavers in Africa are acting upon the legacies of colonial chattel slavery or not. Did they learn a new, more capitalistic form of slavery? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Given that chattel slavery's rise among that continent's indigenous population is fairly recent, it argues for the former, though not conclusively.

Modern America is built upon the back of the slave trade (which encompassed New England at its financial heart if the South was its physical one) and it permeates our modern sociocultural landscape in ways that we are not even fully cognizant of.

I had the dubious privilege of watching David Horowitz try to explain his position that reparations for slavery are wrong. (Aside: I happen to agree with Horowitz's conclusion, though not his reasoning.) Since then, I have been party or observer to many such conversations. Most African Americans I have spoken with are much more concerned with racism as it stands now, or with the Constitutional "three-fifths" provision than Willie Lynch.

Frankly, Tom, American society as we understand has never been more than an ideal myth, be it in the South, North, or slantwise. The South has merely been where the hypocrisy is closest to the surface. That it is perhaps not good for African Americans to hear that the people who control the power structures in this country care nothing for them, it is no less than a validation of what they see day in and out (no matter who pulls the strings). The truth is a painful thing, and sometimes it isn't constructive, but it is no less important.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Of course, "three-fifths" is another misreading of American History of the same kind that has entered the urban canon. Actually, the rule was designed to limit the influence of the slaveholding states, not diminish the humanity of the Black Man. As previously noted, there is a fundamental disadvantage in trying to put bad things into perspective, as it reeks of excuse-making.

That you mention "the other" is significant. As Tom Sowell points out in his new book, "the other," be they Jewish, Korean, or black folk from the Caribbean, do quite well in America, despite prejudice and discrimination.

Such truths would indeed be constructive, but they seldom see the light of day in our polity. Instead, (Connie), we have the chairman of the Democratic Party preaching the contrary.

James Elliott said...

" Of course, "three-fifths" is another misreading of American History of the same kind that has entered the urban canon..."

Intent should not be used to mask result, as you do here. And actually, it was not used to LIMIT the power of slaveholding states, but to address their concerns of giving personhood to the slaves. It struck a balance between the South's desire to take advantage of its full population but not denote citizenship for slaves, and was allowed because the North needed the South to create the fledgling nation. The fact is that the Founders cast aside the difficult question of slavery in favor of shoring up a shakey national government. In so doing, they did future generations a disservice and set a very poor example.

"That you mention "the other" is significant. As Tom Sowell points out in his new book, "the other," be they Jewish, Korean, or black folk from the Caribbean, do quite well in America, despite prejudice and discrimination."

I'd be very interested in learning by what measure Sowell draws this conclusion, since sticking one's head out the window would appear to say otherwise. Here's a simple question: What's the demographic breakdown of your community? What is the average income of each ethnicity? What is the representation of ethnicities in local government? Odds are, it does not well-reflect the actual ethnic makeup. As Kathy pointed out earlier, non-whites experience much higher rates of poverty. But then, that also buys in to your meme of placing everything in an economic context. Look beyond economics, Tom. You'll see that such a conclusion is full of horse hockey.

James Elliott said...

Wait, wait. Isn't Sowell the man who said that so long as someone is alive, he's earning a "living wage?" The man's a freak, and I say that after spending the last 45 minutes reading back columns.

Pastorius said...

good post, my brother.

Matt Huisman said...

"Wait, wait. Isn't Sowell the man who said that so long as someone is alive, he's earning a "living wage?" The man's a freak, and I say that after spending the last 45 minutes reading back columns."

Surely you can find better evidence that Tom Sowell is a 'freak' than that he disparages the use of the term 'living wage' by pseudo-economists? (You did spend a whole 45 minutes reading back articles after all.)

James Elliott said...

Spoken like a man who has never had to try to live in an area with costs higher than wage-base.

The Classic Liberal Anonymous said...

"Spoken like a man who has never had to try to live in an area with costs higher than wage-base."


What does that mean? People are not getting paid enough to _____ ????

Kathy Hutchins said...

Isn't Sowell the man who said that so long as someone is alive, he's earning a "living wage?"

I don't know the origin of the specific comment (or indeed even if it's accurate) but let me try to offer some perspective about what I would assume to be Sowell's point. Unlike many popular econopundits, Thomas Sowell is actually a distinguished economic scholar. One of his specialities is the history of economic thought, and he is probably more knowledgable about the classical political economists -- Say, Ricardo, Malthus, Mill, etc -- than any man alive. The classicals proposed a theory called the "iron law of wages" which postulated that under free markets, wages would always be driven down to bare subsistence. This "iron law" is often cited today with the assumption that absent labor regulations, we would descend back to that point. What is lost is the mechanism the classicals posited for the iron law -- that workers would continue to have children, which would increase the amount of labor, which would drive down wages, until at the margin the additional worker would lower the wage below subsistence, and he would starve to death, decreasing the amount of labor, raising wages....and so on.

We obviously do not live in a social economy where this occurs -- both workers and employers have an expectation of a minimum standard of living that is far above literal subsistence, as do authors and recipients of our social welfare policy. I suspect Sowell's comment was meant to draw that out, in a way that would garner attention.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well done as usual, Miz H. The column format does not permit footnotes, and a Sowell can easily be lumped in with the Maureen Dowds who simply pop off. Still, let us credit Mr. Elliott with spending 44 more minutes on homework than is the custom before firing off a reply. He is a gentleman of good will.

You redelineate the important distinction between a "welfare state" and "welfare" as in "relief" or assistance to those who cannot provide for themselves, the latter of which no person of good will, conservatives included, begrudge anyone.

This distinction was lost in a previous discussion due to careless reading by the commenter, and was simply not worth the trouble of correcting at that time.

Oh, and cheers, Brother Pastorius. Always a pleasure.

Tlaloc said...

"Unlike many popular econopundits, Thomas Sowell is actually a distinguished economic scholar."


Frankly the term "distinguished economic scholar" is a rather backhanded compliment. All hail the king of those who don't even know what they don't know.

Tlaloc said...

"We obviously do not live in a social economy where this occurs -- both workers and employers have an expectation of a minimum standard of living that is far above literal subsistence"


well lets see...

"On average, Wal-Mart sales associates earn $8.23 an hour—a wage that, when annualized, falls below the federal poverty line for a family of three."

Hrrrm. Maybe there's another mechanism to support the Iron law because it sure as hell seems to be operating in cases of non-unionized labor.

The Classic Liberal Anonymous said...

Would you rather have 10 workers get paid $8/hour or 8 workers get paid $10/hour?

With the precision of a swiss clock, as minimum wage goes up unemployment goes with it.

See, a business owner will rarely pay someone $10/hour for only $8/hour of work. Instead, he lets the unskilled worker go home and hires higher skilled labor.

Tlaloc said...

"Would you rather have 10 workers get paid $8/hour or 8 workers get paid $10/hour?"

I'd rather not go to bed knowing I pay a starvation wage. But hey, that's just me.



"With the precision of a swiss clock, as minimum wage goes up unemployment goes with it."

Strangely enough though in unionized jobs that no longer happens. Damn those worker protections!



"See, a business owner will rarely pay someone $10/hour for only $8/hour of work."

And by what measure do they determine that it is in fact only $8/hr work?

Hunter Baker said...

Ah, it's the genius of the marketplace. They pay $8 if they can get someone to work for that amount without having them hired away by some other person or activity. It's the market! Kind of like an auction, but with millions/billions of little decisions every day forming a degree of intelligence unmatchable by any committee of government specialists. Proven effective. Proven superior. Proven to piss off Tower of Babel builders everywhere.

The Classic Liberal Anonymous said...

... couldn't have said it better.

James Elliott said...

Actually, the theory that as wages go up employers hire less remains in the realm of theory. Actual polities with "living wage" requirements, from Baltimore to Detroit to San Jose to Los Angeles, do not experience precipitous declines in employment.

For example, Santa Clara county in California, where I live and work, has had "living wage" requirements for years and only recently experienced a spate of high unemployment due to the dot.com crash, not wage requirements.

In fact, research shows that living wage requirements not only do not affect employment, they have no adverse affect on small business and REDUCE government welfare expenditures for welfare programs, such as subsidized health care.

It's along the same line as polities with large, government-funded welfare programs also receiving higher levels of private charity: Reality doesn't reflect the "rules" as economists would have them.

The Liberal Anonymous said...

Ah, it's the genius of the marketplace. They pay $8 if they can get someone to work for that amount without having them hired away by some other person or activity. It's the market! Kind of like an auction, but with millions/billions of little decisions every day forming a degree of intelligence unmatchable by any committee of government specialists. Proven effective. Proven superior. Proven to piss off Tower of Babel builders everywhere.

Ah, the market is always right, therefore you are right. That's an extremely compelling argument. One would only have to ignore most of history in order to believe it.

The Classic Liberal Anonymous said...

Would someone please define for me the following:

starvation wage:

living wage:

Tom Van Dyke said...

I'll take a crack at it, CLA, per the current system:

If private sector Wal-Mart provides a significant portion of Poor Person X's income, rather than the government providing all of it, that's good, even if Wal-Mart employees (sometimes) use government services as a supplement to bring them up to an (arbitrary) minimal economic standard.

As Booker T. Washington noted, there is an enobling dignity in an honest day's work, no different really from the philosophy of FDR's Works Progress Administration.

If Wal-Mart also absorbs part of the bill, so much the better. In Germany or France, with double-digit unemployment, those folks would simply sit home, in self-shamed dependence.

What's a living wage? Work plus welfare? Add in the Earned Income Credit, a wonderful invention where low-income workers actually receive tax money instead of lose it to the government, and we stir them all into a stone soup where everybody eats.

I'm cool with that.

tim in sydney said...

Here in Australia it's a common observation that incompetence outguns conspiracy when trying to uncover why things happen.

The tragedy in New Orleans has more to do with bureaucratic incompetence than racism.

After the 1990 Loma Prieta California earthquake, Congressman Mineta concluded FEMA "could screw up a two-car parade." Following Hurrican Andrew FEMA took about 3 days to get into action, something that harmed George H W Bush's re-election prospects.

Still it's true that had the flood happened in Park Avenue or Washington DC rather than in Louisiana the response would have been better. Unfortunately that sort of thing is inevitable as we centralise more power and decision-making in the federal government.

As for the inability of non-African-Americans to understand the racial consiousness of African-Americans, I'd recommend readers work through the following thought experiment outlined by mathematician John Allen Paulos.

Imagine an island with 100 people, 87 are red and 13 are blue. Imagine that 10% of the population is racist against fellow islanders the other colour. Now calculate the odds of a red meeting a blue racist and a blue meeting a red racist.

The probability a red person will encounter a blue racist on any given encounter with another person is 1.3 percent (10 percent of 13 percent).

For a blue person, though, the likelihood of encountering a red racist on any given encounter is 8.7 percent.

If we assume the average islander interacts with 20 fellow islanders every day, the chance of a red person encountering a blue racist is 23 percent. For a blue person, though, the likelihood of encountering a red racist among his 20-a-day interactions is almost 84 percent.

The probability is the perception!

Tom Van Dyke said...

Wonderful stuff, pid, and a statistical lesson I shall take to heart.

Welcome to The Club.