The U.S. government didn’t formally apologize for its support of the institution of slavery and Jim Crow until 2009, 144 years after slavery was abolished and 44 years after the Civil Rights Act. The apology offered no relief to the ancestral claims of injustice and robbery by those to whom the apology was aimed, thus it was an empty gesture, and though its language was honest and direct, a small consolation.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ famous essay “The Case for Reparations” offers a compact-suitcase rationale for why mere apologies aren’t sufficient and why tangible reparations are the only remedy to address the moral stain of slavery and Jim Crow. Edward Baptist’s exhaustive survey of slavery’s impact on the economic and social trajectory of America in The Half Has Never Been Told builds a cargo ship of data, harrowing stories and anecdotes that lead one to an inescapable conclusion: that America’s prosperity was materially built on the backs of millions of oppressed people (and at the cost of millions of Native American lives), and that the country wouldn’t have become a world power without those atrocities.
Baptist’s argument is a sturdy redoubt, that free land and free labor bent the economic growth curve up and to the right in unnatural ways in America, and it made many white Americans unnaturally rich for generations as a result. The causal chain Baptist puts forward is fairly simple:
– America’s singular differentiation from the powers in Europe, beyond its constitutional democracy and geographic isolation from their continental wars, was its commitment to slave labor as an engine of its agrarian and early industrial economy, while the other world powers adjusted their laws to abolish the practice within their borders and territories.
– Enslaved people were considered property and collateral, and their assumed value and the economic output of their work was the single largest asset in the country. Thus, generational wealth and credit for whites was generated directly or indirectly by warping the social status and labor of African Americans as property.
– Westward expansion was fueled and funded by the capital and political corruption of the planter class (of which 10 of our first 12 presidents were a part) and its desire to find new lands for slave holders to build additional labor camps and to extend the borders of slavery.
– America’s first industrial gains and its underlying capital structure were developed in a textile industry that leveraged cotton picked in labor camps, creating artificially efficient markets, and that those innovations seeded technological progress and infrastructure which aided in sparking the steel and fossil fuel extraction booms in the 19th century.
– The potential to generate multi-generational wealth through hard labor and investment was stolen from millions of African Americans and transferred to whites in full until 1865. It was then violently suppressed by institutionally supported racism from Reconstruction into the 1970s because of Jim Crow laws and policies like redlining.
These facts are unassailable, and Baptist reminds us that the history we’ve been taught about the story of the miraculous rise of the American continent cannot be a true telling if one fails to take into account the extent to which these evil means generated the conditions for the country to enjoy such overwhelming prosperity in post-war America.
Our country has a founding document that contains values and ideas which were beyond the moral reach of the men who wrote them. It exceeded the grasp of the authors of Manifest Destiny and the Dred Scott Decision, the Fugitive Slave Act, redlining, and the war on drugs that continue to fuel this era of mass incarceration as it destroys the potential of millions. We should admit as much, and realize that discounting these evils diminishes our credibility and strength as a nation.
Baptist’s work is also relevant to our current discussion around confederate monuments and the revisionist history that Gen. John Kelly embraced as our “heritage.” Those statues in Southern town squares are unmistakably symbols of the dark legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. They were constructed in large part as counter-weights to the momentum of the civil rights era, as territorial markers and reminders of who was truly in power. To continue honoring figures like Robert E. Lee, Roger Taney, and Stonewall Jackson publicly, as if they were something other than traitors and villains, is a sign that we’re not ready as a nation to own who we are and what we’ve been through.
Taking them down and putting them in cemeteries and in museums with placards that outline the disgraceful actions of these figures along with the broader context of their lives is an act of honesty. Keeping them where they are is an act of denial. And if we can’t agree on some form of reparations, taking them down will at least be an acknowledgment that we own every part of our story.