Was American Slavery Uniquely Evil?

Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Back in January, Florida barred its schools from piloting an Advanced Placement course in African American studies. At the time, the state’s evaluators justified this decision with reference to the course’s coverage of hot-button contemporary concerns such as calls for reparations, the Black Lives Matter movement, and “queer theory.”

But this week, we learned that their actual objections were more fundamental. In internal documents obtained by the Miami Herald, Ron DeSantis’s bureaucrats routinely flagged basic facts about American slavery as problematic, on the grounds that they might encourage support for progressive policy goals. For example, the AP African American Studies curriculum asserts (correctly) that enslaved “African Americans had no wages to pass down to descendants, no legal right to accumulate property, and individual exceptions depended on their enslavers’ whims.” Florida’s reviewers flagged this passage as potentially violating state rules since it “supposes that no slaves or their descendants accumulated any wealth,” a notion that “may be promoting the critical race theory idea of reparations.”

This objection is bizarre. The statement in question patently does not “suppose” that no enslaved people or their descendants accumulated property. Rather, it explicitly notes that there were some individual exceptions to the general rule that the enslaved’s labor was uncompensated by monetary wages. And the passage does not even mention patterns of wealth accumulation among post-emancipation generations of African Americans. The historical fact that Black Americans were generally denied opportunities for wealth accumulation during slavery’s long reign might strengthen the case for reparations. But to strip it from pedagogy on that basis is not to depoliticize history but rather to promote a blinkered historical memory in service of political goals.

The evaluators’ will to whitewash the historical record is evident in some of their other objections. For instance, they suggest that the curriculum drop mentions of “enslavers” in favor of “owners,” a change that accomplishes little beyond euphemizing the practice of holding people in bondage.

All this said, one of the evaluators’ objections gestured at a less baseless conservative complaint with some progressive accounts of American slavery.

In a lesson on the origins of U.S. chattel slavery, the course materials noted that tens of thousands of enslaved Africans had been “removed from the continent to work on Portuguese-colonized Atlantic islands,” which served as a model for the slave-based economy in the Americas. In response to this passage, Florida officials raised the concern that the unit “may not address the internal slave trade/system within Africa.”

Given the broader context, it is reasonable to assume that this invocation of Africa’s indigenous slave traditions was intended as a form of apologetics for American slavery. And yet, viewed as a discrete proposition, the notion that American chattel slavery can be usefully contextualized with reference to the myriad slave systems that predated it is perfectly defensible.

There is a tendency in some strains of liberal discourse to portray U.S. chattel slavery as so exceptional in its brutality as to bear little relation to the systems of forced labor that preceded it. In her (quite powerful) essay for “The 1619 Project,” the New York Times’ Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote that America’s “brutal system of slavery” was “unlike anything that had existed in the world before.” She continued:

Chattel slavery was not conditional but racial. It was heritable and permanent, not temporary, meaning generations of black people were born into it and passed their enslaved status onto their children. Enslaved people were not recognized as human beings but as property that could be mortgaged, traded, bought, sold, used as collateral, given as a gift and disposed of violently. 

Conservative writers, such as Rich Lowry and Kay Hymowitz, have taken issue with this analysis, arguing that none of these characteristics of American chattel slavery were unique to it. In their account, there have been other slave systems that denied the enslaved opportunities for manumission, made the status of slave heritable, and treated the enslaved as objects to be worked, raped, and killed at will.

Conservatives are right about this. Where right-wing polemicists generally go wrong is in suggesting that the nonunique nature of U.S. slavery’s barbarities somehow relieves Americans of a responsibility to rectify its harms (or, for the matter, the harms of the white-supremacist order that survived abolition). The fact that slaves were treated as dehumanized property in 17th-century Cairo tells us nothing about what we owe descendants of American slavery who remain trapped in intergenerational poverty today. For this reason, liberals should not tie the strong case for reparative social programs to euphemistic accounts of non-western and premodern forms of slavery.

There was no singular evil in British, Spanish, or Portuguese culture that rendered those empires capable of treating ethnic others as mere objects. Rather, institutions of slavery arose across a kaleidoscopic array of disparate civilizations, as a response to the material pressures and incentives of agriculture. In hunter-gatherer communities, slaves have relatively little utility. Such groups tend to produce little to no surplus goods, and their production is less constrained by a scarcity of labor than a scarcity of favorable ecological conditions. In these circumstances, there is little point to feeding and watching over a stranger for the sake of exploiting their labor power.

The advent of farming changed matters. Agriculture enabled the accumulation of a surplus that could be hoarded, sold, or exported, while rendering labor the key constraint on production. This reality, combined with the hard and menial nature of agricultural work, gave agricultural communities a strong incentive to put conquered peoples into bondage. Ancient human civilizations did not have access to the racist pseudoscience that rationalized the dehumanization of African Americans in the United States. But the human mind has proven adept at generating justifications for brutalizing out-group members in a rich variety of social contexts.

It is absolutely true that many premodern forms of slavery were far less brutal, and more temporary, than America’s chattel system. For example, the ancient Near East featured many systems of debt slavery, in which individuals could earn their freedom after a delimited period of forced labor. In the traditional society of West Africa’s Hausa people, the enslaved could purchase their freedom, and a few even attained high military and civilian rank, along with the right to marry free persons.

But a simple dichotomy between a comparatively mild old-world slavery and a uniquely barbaric American variety is unsustainable. The ancient Greeks and Romans practiced chattel slavery, and the available evidence indicates that classical slave systems featured many of the same brutalities characteristic of America’s. As the ancient-studies scholar Chance Bonar writes:

Across the ancient Mediterranean, there is evidence of a variety of horrific practices: branding, whipping, bodily disfiguration, sexual assault, torture during legal trials, incarceration, crucifixion and more. In fact, a Latin inscription from Puteoli, an ancient city near Naples, Italy, recounts what enslavers could pay undertakers to whip or crucify enslaved people.

Further, non-chattel forms of pre-American slavery could be every bit as evil as the American kind. As the anthropologist Pierre van den Berghe wrote, surveying the many horrors of ancient and early modern slavery:

Male slaves were frequently castrated in Muslim so­cieties, sometimes under such brutal conditions that 80 to 90% died of the operation. The funeral of a king in Dahomey was accompanied by mass executions of slaves who were buried with him. War captives and slaves were systematically humiliated and often tortured to death in some North American Indian societies. Among some South American groups of the Amazon Rain Forest, slaves were well-fed, but only in preparation for a cannibalistic feast preceded by a mock battle in which the slave would be clubbed to death.

The American anthropologist Horace Miner offered this account of the old slaveholding system among the Tuareg in West Africa, in which those of the Bella stratum were enslaved:

Probably the most vicious aspect of the old system of slavery was the ruthlessness with which families were broken up. The Tuareg made a practice of separating children from their parents, which may account for the almost complete accul­turation of Bela to Tuareg ways of life. Some work, such as that in the salt pits at Taodeni, was literally killing. There men worked all day in terrific heat with their legs in salt water. The only drinking water was also salty.

None of this is to say that the forms of slavery that prevailed in the Americas during the 16th through 19th centuries wasn’t exceptional in any respect. But the key distinction was less one of brutality than sheer scale. The wealth and technological prowess of the European empires and their colonial offshoots enabled them to build slave systems of unparalleled size and complexity. Consequently, these systems produced a singular amount of human misery. By the end of the transatlantic slave trade, roughly 13 million Africans had crossed the ocean in bondage. But that institution’s total death toll is orders of magnitude larger. Between 10 and 20 percent of transported slaves perished in transit. Meanwhile, Europe’s gargantuan appetite for forced labor triggered countless bloody raids and wars between African nations. All told, the number of people who died as a result of the transatlantic slave trade has been estimated at between 50 million and 200 million. In van den Berghe’s judgment, “Even the lower estimates qualify the transatlantic slave trade as the greatest crime in human history.”

Liberals are, therefore, entirely correct to condemn U.S. chattel slavery as a world-historic atrocity. In my view, we on the left are also correct to say that our contemporary government owes more to the descendants of enslaved Black people than it has heretofore offered them. But we can and should do this without downplaying the evil of other slave systems.

To imagine the New World’s settlers as uniquely capable of treating out-groups as objects is to indulge in the mirror image of a white reactionary’s chauvinism. The European nations that colonized the Americas did not possess a singularly malevolent cultural essence, nor do other peoples possess an inherently benign one. All human beings share a capacity to dehumanize ethnic others for the sake of exploiting their labor (among other purposes). And a great diversity of human groups have acted on that capacity.

The fact that U.S. chattel slavery was singular in its scale — but not wholly exceptional in its evil — should be humbling. If brutal slave systems are less aberrations in human history than routine occurrences, then we must be ever vigilant in opposing the hateful modes of thought and avaricious forms of political economy that undergird such atrocities. Further, if the capacity for brutalizing ethnic others is universal, then we must never imagine that “people like us” are incapable of such brutality. (This point is perhaps of special resonance to me personally, as a Jewish critic of Israel’s subjugation of the Palestinians.)

There is nothing inherently wrong with contextualizing U.S. chattel slavery with reference to its antecedents, nor in insisting on the abominable character of many such precedents. But no one should mistake the evils of ancient slavery as rationalizations for America’s contemporary racial inequality. The right cannot rebut the case for reparations by detailing the horrors of premodern slavery, and the left does not advance that case by minimizing such horrors.

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