Friday 19 June 2015

Why do white Americans still feel guilty about slavery?


Commenting on the murder on Thursday of nine black Americans in church in Charleston Mr. Obama said slavery

casts a long shadow and that's still part of our DNA that's passed on.
This eloquent article by Charles P. Pierce links the massacre to
the mother of all crimes
slavery. As William Faulkner, who came from Mississippi, said,
The past is never dead. It's not even past.
Ronald Stockton, Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan was exuberantly happy the day Mr Obama was elected president in 2008. In an essay he wrote he quoted an email he received from a distant relative who was a genealogist, who said
I have an estate distribution of my ancestor Valentine Barton, dated 1832, in Boone Co., Ky, bequeathing his slaves, by name, with values attached, to his heirs including my great great grandmother Alcey Barton. It is a chilling document, tough to take if it is your own lineage. It took us almost two centuries, to erase the stain, but tonight WE MADE IT!
Professor Stockton went on to ask, 

Why do we feel bad for a sin we did not commit? Is it because our ancestors let us down? Is it because the problem is still there as a constant reminder of an injustice in which our ancestors took part? She used the right word, stain. It was the word John McCain used in his concession speech. The former President of Germany once discussed how Germans felt about the Holocaust, which occurred before most of them were born. He said, “We do not believe in collective guilt, but we do believe in collective shame.” 

This is how many Americans felt, even those who voted for Mr. Obama's Republican opponent, Mr. McCain. It's how Mr. McCain himself felt. He mentioned the stain in his concession speech, though he somewhat gingerly consigned the stain to the past, saying
We both recognise that, though we have come a long way from the old injustices that once stained our nation's reputation and denied some Americans the full blessings of American citizenship, the memory of them still had the power to wound.
I think England, by which I mean the UK, is the greatest country in the world. We had slavery too, in our colonies. In fact, we brought it to our thirteen American colonies, which became the USA. Going back to the dark ages our own people were often slaves ('thralls'). Much worse, we burnt heretics or hanged, drew and quartered them, heroic Catholic saints and Protestants. We burnt witches too. This is desperately sad. Yet, I don't feel that any of this is exactly a stain on my country's honour. 

Why don't I or my countrymen feel guilty about these things or even think about them very much?

Because it was the spirit of the age. Other countries did the same things or worse, at the same time. 

Had we burnt only Welsh people, or had we enslaved the Cornish, would people feel differently? Possibly. Race/ethnicity is the collective neurosis of our age, not only in the USA. 'We' bought and transported African slaves, it's true, but in fact only a very small number of British people were slave traders and they were far from home.

Why do Americans, on the other hand, still feel guilty after 150 years about slavery and feel very much guiltier now than they did sixty years ago?

First, because 1865 is not so very long ago.

Secondly. clearly because it's about race, not slavery. Had the slaves been white no one would feel it was a stain on America's honour. Slavery brought a large black population to North America and they have not been part of the melting pot. Race has occasioned a collective nervous breakdown in the USA starting in the early 1960s, which they have exported worldwide. Nowadays slavery is still widespread - mostly in Muslim countries - but we hear very little indeed about this and instead very much about slaves owned by whites two hundred years ago.

Thirdly, though America is really based on an ethnic Anglo-Scots core and on English Protestant and puritan culture, Americans think that their country is based on ideals. Ideals they have to live up to. Americans, admirably, judge themselves by higher ideals that they expect from lesser countries (I almost wrote 'lesser breeds'), although they often try to impose their ideals on other countries too. Slavery uncomfortably suggests that they are as bad as or worse than countries which are not founded on high ideals.

Fourthly, because the American ideals, including egalitarianism, are really puritanism. Anti-racism is a form of puritanism, as is feminism and, going back further, prohibition. Puritanism and Calvinism morph in different times and places. In the American South they used to justify slavery, in the north they opposed it, in South Africa a moment ago, they supported apartheid, but in recent years, especially in their secular godless form, they strongly reject white supremacy.

Even the horror felt at the racist murders of the black churchgoers is not so much horror at the murder itself but at the racist motive. Since the massacre black killers have shot ten blacks in a mass shooting in Detroit, ten blacks were shot by blacks in Philadelphia and four in Detroit. 93% of black homicide victims in the USA in 2010 were killed by blacks and blacks, despite being 11% of the population, killed whites slightly more often than the other way around. In other words, blacks oppress blacks far more than whites do, and it could even be argued that blacks oppress whites more than vice versa, but this too, at least so think many high-minded people, may be because of slavery.

Is it so? I really don't know why blacks and whites do not live together happily in the USA. I do know that American statesmen before and during the Civil War took it for granted that they could not do so. Lincoln took time off from the directing the war to urge a delegation of free black men that the blacks should leave the USA, where they could never be the white man's equal, and colonise Central America. Madison, and many others, argued for blacks to be manumitted and deported to Africa. Jefferson said

Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people shall be free, nor is it less certain that the two races equally free, cannot live under the same government.

Only the first half of that sentence is inscribed on the Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C.


  1. "Why do most white Americans feel so guilty about slavery, which ended 150 years ago?"

    I can only respond to that question with two more: Do most white Americans feel guilty about slavery? And what exactly does the quallifer "so" mean here? I think that the evidence is limited for the first question, and I have no idea how to answer the second.

  2. "Is it because the problem is still there as a constant reminder of an injustice in which our ancestors took part?" Yes.

    Wrongly or rightly, some white Americans feel guilty because we see the aftermath of slavery every day. We have a segment of the population that is visibly poorer, less educated, and less healthy. Less happy too. A segment that does not trust us and whom we cannot reach. Attempts to help this segment have achieved uneven results at best.

    We treated them terribly and they and we both are living with that sad legacy. Rhetorically asking whether the treatment would be better if the shoe were on the other foot doesn't solve anything. It is what it is.

    1. Jefferson and Lincoln assumed that blacks and whites could not live together side by side. The fact that blacks are "visibly poorer, less educated, and less healthy" might not be the fault of whites. I wonder why people assume that it is. I also wonder if they are less happy. In my only visit to the USA - for 5 hours in 1980- the blacks looked happier than the whites and much more interesting. I imagined, perhaps fancifully, that unlike the whites the blacks had a living culture of their own.

    2. "Jefferson and Lincoln assumed that blacks and whites could not live together side by side." I don't know the origin of this belief and will look into it.

      I used to feel the way you do -- that blacks' predicament was their own fault. "Why can't they just get it together?" More reading the actual history (you are a well-read man and should do some deep, long-range reading on the subject, not just one-sided articles on the internet) and seeing where it happened changed my mind. Centuries of cruelty and prejudice leave scars and undercut achievement.

      There is no question that blacks have bigtime problems within their communities. Chewing over whose fault it was becomes useless. We too have a problem and we are stuck with it unless all of us something about it. Blacks have been here a long time. They are our fellow Americans and it is in our interest for them to be comfortable in our society and to do well.

    3. I did study this subject in my first term at the university. Whites who wanted emancipation also wanted former slaves to be deported - for example to Liberia. In the early 19th century educated blacks called themselves African Americans' until the idea of sending them to Africa was mooted. Then they preferred to call themselves 'colored'. Very few wanted to go. Those who did formed an elite, ruled the 95% of native Liberians and treated them as helots.

      In 1862, Lincoln invited a delegation of blacks to the White House to suggest that they should leave the USA for Central America.

      "You and we are different races. We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races. This physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both, as I think. ..

      If this is admitted, it affords a reason, at least, why we should be separated.. .

      Your race are suffering, in my judgment, the greatest wrong inflicted on any people. But even when you cease to be slaves, you are cut off from many of the advantages which the other race enjoys. The aspiration of man is to enjoy equality with the best when free; but on this broad continent not a single man of your race is made the equal of a single man of ours.

      Go where you are treated the best, and the ban is still upon you.

      I need not recount to you the effects upon white men, growing out of the institution of slavery. I believe in its general evil effects on the white race. See our present condition the country engaged in war; our white men cutting one another's throats, none knowing how far it will extend.. .

      But for your race among us there could not be war, although many men engaged on either side do not care for you one way or the other. .

      It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated There is an unwillingness on the part of our people, harsh as it may be, for you free coloured people to remain with us. “

    4. Your reference to President Lincoln being in favor of encouraging freed slaves to return to Africa or settle somewhere in Latin America are well taken. BUT, it is absolutely critical to keep in mind that President Lincoln's ideas and attitudes - like most human beings - were not static during his lifetime. Indeed, President Lincoln's attitudes towards slavery and race underwent a remarkable transformation during the years leading up to the war and, especially, during the war (again, as was the case with many other people in the U.S.). Between becoming friends with eloquent African-Americans such as Frederick Douglas and reading of the bravery and sacrifice of African-Americans in uniform on the battlefield, his attitudes towards Negros (the contemporary term) changed dramatically and notions of settling freed slaves outside of the U.S. were abandoned for ever in Lincoln's mind.

  3. Because it is a moral abomination that stands is such stark contradiction to our professed adoration of 'liberty, freedom, and equality. We are a nation founded on a great hypocrisy and that is an inconvenient truth that can only be reconciled with guilt....

  4. Hopefully the passing of this generation will finally elevate the nation to the promise of true multi-cultural, multi-racial toleration through a reconciliation process (as in South Africa for example), but more importantly the acknowledgment and assumption of collective responsibility for confronting our national amnesia and failure to grapple with the inconvenient truths of the legacy of American slavery, and its present day manifestations. Charleston is but a symptom of this cancer that pervades American life...tragically.

  5. I'm not sure. I think it's cultural. It also waxes and wanes depending on the political environment.


  6. Another excellent commentary

  7. You touched upon an aspect of the slavery issue that intrigues me, when you mentioned that Britain proliferated slavery yet you felt no guilt. On the topic of slavery there is plenty of guilt to be spread around, but those who are expected to feel it (read required ) are a rather select group, white Americans whose ancestors may or may not have been living in the United States prior to the Civil War and may or may not have fought and died to eradicate the institution. So why isn't guilt over slavery culturally inherited anywhere else?

    On the subject of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade President Obama's mentor, Henry Louis Gates Jr., brought up some interesting figures, "The most comprehensive analysis of shipping records over the course of the slave trade is the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, edited by professors David Eltis and David Richardson. (While the editors are careful to say that all of their figures are estimates, I believe that they are the best estimates that we have, the proverbial “gold standard” in the field of the study of the slave trade.) Between 1525 and 1866, in the entire history of the slave trade to the New World, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World. 10.7 million survived the dreaded Middle Passage, disembarking in North America, the Caribbean and South America. And how many of these 10.7 million Africans were shipped directly to North America? Only about 388,000. That's right: a tiny percentage." Plenty of guilt to be distributed about the Western Hemisphere.

    And then there is African complicity, which is totally ignored,"In the early 18th century, Kings of Dahomey (known today as Benin) became big players in the slave trade, waging a bitter war on their neighbours, resulting in the capture of 10,000, including another important slave trader, the King of Whydah. King Tegbesu made £250,000 a year selling people into slavery in 1750. King Gezo said in the 1840s he would do anything the British wanted him to do apart from giving up slave trade: "The slave trade is the ruling principle of my people. It is the source and the glory of their wealth... the mother lulls the child to sleep with notes of triumph over an enemy reduced to slavery." BBC

    And what about the enslavement and extirpation of the Native American tribes in the Caribbean and South America? It receives no attention and to my knowledge generates little sense of guilt among people of Spain or Portugal. I would venture that people in the Middle East don't feel the slightest twinge of remorse over the million plus Europeans who were captured and sold into slavery by the Barbary Pirates.

    So why has it become so engrained in American culture? Part of the answer is that the promotion of white guilt has become a fashion among American academics and a political tool for politicians and the Black community but there is something more. Perhaps the Puritan core you alluded to still lingers,creating a psychological need for the United States to have a basis in Original Sin?

  8. Hmmm. Every word is true. Gives me cause for pause...and I am not sure of what solution there may be. I can tell you, unequivocally, that hatred, bigotry and racism in America are alive and well, and not only in the white race; it dwells in both races.
    Emily English Medley

    1. When blacks have a father in the house, when they finish school, when they stop killing each other, when they become law abiding and when they get rid of their hate, racism will end. Slavery ended ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY YEARS AGO (150). I do not feel guilty and judge people by behavior as I believe most people do.

  9. Slavery has not been forgotten because we have not let them forget it. Their noses are rubbed in it at every opportunity, with monuments and flags, and everything else at the white Southerner's disposal. One hundred years after the end of the Civil War it was deemed necessary to guarantee their right to vote in statute, the enactment of which had the effect of entirely flipping the prevailing politics, which were mainly Democrat, to Republican. So, yes, as Faulkner so aptly said, "it is not even past."

    As for the difference between black on black violence, let me flip the question. Why were we so concerned about the terrorist attacks of 9/11 that we invaded another country, when so many more people than that are murdered in the U.S. every year and we do nothing? Because criminal and political murder are very different, and the attack in Charlestown was avowedly political, not a robbery or a drug deal gone wrong.

    1. The North wickedly trampled down the South in an unnecessary and unjust war. The South is still feeling the consequences. Gladstone the great British Liberal described the South accurately as 'a nation rightly struggling to be free'. American South was once a liberal cause as were the Boers in South African war - then at a certain moment liberals changed their opinion.

    2. Tim, the war was fought, of course, to keep the Union together, not to abolish slavery. Lincoln announced his intention of abolishing slavery in 1862 partly to prevent intervention by the Royal Navy. Nor would the abolition of slavery have justified the North going to war or a single soldier's life. The federal government would have clearly been ultra vires in abolishing slavery before the war began. In wartime it was considered that the President had the right to abolish slavery in rebel states. I don't know what the legal justification was - but the rebels were considered traitors.

      Scotland has no legal right to secede from the UK but If most Scots wanted to do so the UK would not fight a war to stop them and if we did the whole world would be outraged. It seems to me that the secession of the South is exactly comparable. The thirteen colonies in 1776 had no right to secede from the UK but did so and you approve of that. It’s true that had Ireland tried to leave the UK by force the British Government in the 19th century would have prevented them doing so even at the cost of a civil war. But why should the USA, founded on rebellion three generations earlier, fight to force states to remain in the Union? The USA was behaving exactly like King George III but with less legal and much less moral justification.

  10. "The North wickedly trampled down the South in an unnecessary and unjust war." Maybe the aftermath of the war is more revealing. The North defeated the South, then let the South continue on its merry, misguided way through Reconstruction and hard-core segregation -- about a hundred years, to be exact, until something had to crack. The South is still feeling the consequences because some of its leaders and people (not all) have refused to accept the loss. And of course for other complex reasons.

    When you lose that definitively it is more pragmatic and becoming to concede defeat, cope, and move on.

    1. I recall that the North treated the South abominably in the Reconstruction era.

  11. America is based on principle (what you call ideals) although I do not agree with you about what they are - or should be. As for slavery so many chances were missed - if George Whitefield had not won in court (overturning the instructions of the Founder of the Colony) slavery would not have come to Georgia and there would have been no geographical "Slave Power" block. Also the chance to end slavery (or at least set a date after which people would be born free) was lost at the Constitutional Convention. Even after 1865 there was no clean break - at the end of the 1870s the "Redshirts" and the KKK were allowed to take back power in most of the South, murdering anyone (black or white) who stood in their way. And they kept that power till modern times. That is why it is so difficult to get past this. For example the father of Condi Rice had to drive off a KKK attack on his home with a rifle - and the church Condi went to was blown up by a KKK bomb (killing some little girls). This was not in the 1860s - it was in the 1960s (so not long ago at all). There is hope - for example the tradition of the First and Second Congressional Districts of Tennessee (from the 1860s to the present), or people such as Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina (or the Governors of South Carolina or Louisiana). Principle can be, MUST be, more important than skin colour.


  12. Whilst the study of ethnic influences on culture are interesting (see Thomas Sowell "Ethnic America" 1980), they must not distract from the central fact that people of all races can (and must) agree to accept certain principles of just conduct.


  13. When I studied this subject in my first term at university I was surprised to find historians compare slavery to the Holocaust rather than see it as a feudal relic. Looking back 35 years later I think I was surprised because I was seeing slavery in the broad sweep of history where it had been part of all pre-modern societies. It may well be that in Old Testament times slavery had its uses like feudalism much later. Owners I suppose took care of slaves when they were old? Christians and Jews have to recognise that the Old Testament approves of slavery ('Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's slave') and Jesus did not condemn it.

    In fact even in 19th century I read that slavery was a much milder institution in Brazil than in the USA. In the capitalist USA though, slavery wasn't a relic of feudalism, nor were the Southern gentry aristocrats - and slavery was something very different in which human beings became objects.

  14. Violence in the U.S. (and the U.S. IS a very violent country) has roots that include the slave trade... in direct and lingering ways.

    Slavery was a system of constant brutality and violence, where the 'incentive" to work, or stay was imposed by the threat of violence. White people were trained to be hardened brutalizers -- even those who didn't own slaves often worked as overseers or paddyrollers. And the larger white population was generally armed and trained (in militia) in case of slave revolt. One of the reasons the Confederacy was able to field an army so quickly was because of this general militarization of the population.

    The history of Mississippi's Parchman Prison "Worse than Slavery" has a fascinating chapter on the impact of this structural violence on the population -- i.e. how often conflict (among whites, within white families) ended in extreme violence, the numbers of knifings and beatings that were normal, etc. in the Old South.

    Richard Wright (Black author of Native Son) describes in his memoirs how the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow also produced the intense domestic violence within Black families -- particularly the corporal beating of children. He describes how his own grandmother consciously tried to "break" him with beatings (brushes, switches, belts, later electrical cords, were normal) so that he would not be killed (later, as a man) "mouthing off" to the whites.

    The Southern areas of the old plantation area have had a long history of intense violence lurking "just below the surface" -- as a threat to Black people (both before and after slavery), but as a cultural twitch that exploded on anyone, often without warning.

    1. Interesting that in ante bellum times blacks were considered very passive - no doubt a survival mechanism - and now commit a disproportionate number of violent crimes. I wonder why this high crime rate exists and when it started. I was told it by a leftwing Georgian friend that it happened well before the 1960s.

    2. "Interesting that in ante bellum times blacks were considered very passive - no doubt a survival mechanism - and are now disproportionately violent."

      Let's not confuse the PORTRAYAL of enslaved Africans with the reality.

      Slaveowners and their apologists argued that African people (by their racial nature) were a "child race" and "needed to be led." Left to themselves (it was said) they were passive, lazy, unfocused and indolent. And so (the racist argument went) they NEEDED enslavement and it was their natural state.

      This is (I hope it doesn't need to be said) a false, vicious and self-justifying lie.

      However, it is true that if people live in a brutalized society of forced labor -- they literally have no reason to take initiative and work intensely. And they have zero reason to let their real feelings every show to their oppressors (better to adopt a grinning mask of artificial joviality and pretended stupidity). Many slaves were on a kind of permanent work slowdown. Tools had to be made heavy, because slaves often broke their tools.

      The fact is that, of course, African people were highly creative under slavery -- including with the circumvention of the system. They met in the woods, they visited loved ones secretly, they hid artistic creations and spiritual communities.

      Were slaves passive? Hardly. And, in fact, the whole structure of society was built around preventing them from revolting. Slave owners were (Iike feudal lords) professionally trained in violence, and lived constantly armed. They formed non-governmental armed groups of mutual support (militia, paddyrollers, emergency possees, etc.) to respond to runaways, mutinies, and larger rebellions. (It is often said that only a small percentage of Confederates were actual slaveowners but -- all of their leaders were, and more, many of the "poor whites" were trained to be slave catchers, informants, and collaborators of slavery in other ways.

  15. "When did the problems with black violent criminals start? I was told it by a leftwing Georgian friend that it was long before the 1960s."

    This is an example of a loaded and misleading posing of a question.

    Surely the criminal violence overwhelmingly went one-way through most of the history of the United States. Black people were kidnapped, brutalized, raped, mutilated, lynched, beaten at will, murdered at will, hunted and torn by dogs, and more.

    Few populations in history have been the targets of such a constant, immediate barrage of violence. And few populations have lived (for centuries) with a constant THREAT of violence seeping into every moment and thought.

    I question the very idea that there is some special "problems with black violent criminals." And that way of posing social issues is closely associated with the coded language of white racism in the U.S.

    To break that down in a way that our European colleagues will connect with: All through the history of European feudalism there has been a permanent war over "poaching." The peasants tilled the land, they "maintained the grounds," they turned over the grain and livestock -- and they were forbidden to "poach" on the "estates" of their betters.

    Was it a crime for a farmer to kill a rabbit to feed his kids? If so, then the "problem" of lower class crime "started" (in England or Germany) with medieval poaching. If you think it wasn't a crime (as the peasants believed), then the problem of defending feudal privilege was not a criminal one.

    For a hundred years, the plantation owners of the South (and their writers and apologists) created the myth of the oversexed, out-of-control Black male rapist. It was the justification of countless brutality, and continued long after slavery (where the lynching, torture and mutilation of Black men was justified, over and over and over, in the name of "protecting white Southern womanhood."

    In fact, there was not danger or phenomenon of "Black rapists" -- it was a blood libel. The equivalent is the ancient blood libel against Jewish people in medieval Europe -- where Jews were accused to capturing Christian children, and performing obscene rites with their drained blood. (I visited the Austrian church of "Judenstein" which is a shrine to the blood libel -- and saw how much that set of mythic lies maintains influence into the present.)

    So the language of "black violent criminals" is intimately connected to the ancient and central justification for the violent horrors of Jim Crow lynch law.

    Slaveowners portrayed their slaves as "a thieving lot" -- because, dressed in rags and fed gruel, slaves often supplimented their diet with game, or pork or a chicken. And they portrayed black men as ravenous, savage rapists -- to justify their own (rather savage) unleashing of a two-century long reign of terror.

    In short, in the main, there is no problem of Black violent criminals (the way it is presented and believed) -- it is a fabrication of a society that confined Black people in a caste-like way to the bottom, and won't take its foot off.

    The development of the modern drug trade created a structural need (among the underground entrepreneurs) to heavily arm and fight for turf. (It is how normal competitive impulses get expressed in an illegal economy). this has led to a great deal of intra-gang bloodletting.

    But again, this is not a matter (mainly) of some historic trend of "black violent criminals" -- it is a modern phenomenon (seen among Italian mobsters during the Prohibition, and now seen among largely Black, Latino gangs and white "motorcycle gangs" in the modern drug prohibition.)