Having addressed Atlantic editor Ta-Nehisi Coates' wish for reparations for red-lining, we now turn to another of his claims: That descendents of U.S. slaves deserve cash payouts for their forebears' suffering.
There is the question of both a) the legitimacy and b) the practicality of such a scheme. We shall only discuss the former, because if it is truly worthwhile, the latter can always be worked out.
Poring through Coates' 17-page article, we have guessed that he objects to U.S. chattel slavery on the following grounds: 1) Its very existence was unconscionable, 2) It was unusually inhumane, 3) It destroyed the Afro family, and 4) It helped create the large black-white wealth gap we see today.
We shall address his points one by one.
I. The very existence of U.S. slavery was unconscionable
One main thrust of Coates' argument for slavery reparations is that the institution itself was somehow anomalous--'cruel and unusual,' to use our founders' words. Cruel it may have been in the hands of cruel masters, but unusual it assuredly was not. Looking back, it's harder to find societies that don't practice slavery than those that do. As soon as we rose above subsistence level, it seems we start coercing each other into labor.
1) Slavery, ingroup and outgroup, is near-universal
Roman slave collar, 4th-6th c. A.D. Inscription: 'I have run away; hold me.
When you shall have returned me to my master,
Zoninus, you will receive a gold coin.'
When you shall have returned me to my master,
Zoninus, you will receive a gold coin.'
Slavery was practiced in ancient Egypt, Babylonia, Greece, and Rome (later Byzance), by the great civilizations of China, India, and Southeast Asia, as well as the Ottoman Turks and Arabs and the tribes of North and South America and Polynesia. Europeans, we well know, enslaved each other for centuries.
Where not out-and-out bondage, coerced labor has been the rule rather than the exception, among others via serfdom, peonage, debt bondage, and indentured servitude. Arthur Young in the 18th century estimated 90% of the world's population at that time to be technically 'unfree.' As with territorial conquest or judicial torture, the question isn't 'why did we once do it?', but rather 'why did we stop?'
As slavery scholar Robert Fogel puts it,
For nearly three thousand years--from the time of King Solomon to the eve of the American Revolution--virtually every major statesman, philosopher, theologian, writer, and critic accepted the existence and legitimacy of slavery. ... they were not burdened by the view that slavery was wrong. Slavery was considered to be part of the natural scheme of things. "From the hour of their birth," said Aristotle, "some are marked out for subjection, others for rule." (1)
Slavery, while a condition into which no one hoped to fall, was considered through most of history a 'necessary evil':
This central contradiction was underscored in Roman law (the Code of Justinian), which ruled that slavery was the single institution contrary to the law of nature but sanctioned by law of nations. That is to say, slavery would not be permitted in an ideal world of perfect justice, but it was simply a fact of life that symbolized the compromises that must be made in the sinful world of reality. (2)
Launched by the English, modern abolition has swept the world
2) Chattel slavery of Africans was widely accepted
Japanese-Americans and Germany's Jewish victims are often cited as precedents for reparation schemes. In both cases, a group of assimilated foreigners was suddenly subject to unfavorable treatment. But the chattel enslavement of Africans, which had begun in the 9th century, was nowhere considered an anomaly. Arabs having set the precedent, Europeans got in the game in the 15th century, with the full approval of religious and civil authorities.
Catholic and Protestant authorities had always endorsed chattel slavery. In 1452 Pope Nicholas V issued a bull granting Spanish King Alfonso V the right to:
...invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, [...] and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery...
As late as 1866--after nearly all Protestants had renounced the practice-- the Holy Office in an instruction signed by Pope Pius IX declared :
Slavery itself, considered as such in its essential nature, is not at all contrary to the natural and divine law, and there can be several just titles of slavery, and these are referred to by approved theologians and commentators of the sacred canons … It is not contrary to the natural and divine law for a slave to be sold, bought, exchanged or given.
Catholics accounted for three-quarters of new world slave imports (1)
As for the Protestant hydra, all its heads did seem to agree on one thing: human bondage. From the Lutherans' namesake...
When Swabian serfs appealed for empancipation in 1525, holding that Christ had died to set men free, Martin Luther was as horrified as any orthodox Catholic. He reaffirmed St. Paul's dictum that "masters and slaves must accept their present stations, for the earthly kingdom could not survive unless some men were free and some were slaves." (3)
...to the Anglicans...
The [Anglican] Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts owned the Codrington Plantation, in Barbados, containing several hundred slaves; all slaves in the plantation were branded on their chests, using the traditional red hot iron, with the word Society, to signify their ownership by the Christian organisation.
...to the Baptists:
"…the right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example… Had the holding of slaves been a moral evil, it cannot be supposed that the inspired Apostles … would have tolerated it for a moment in the Christian Church. ... the Divine Law never sanctions immoral actions."--Minister Richard Furman at Baptist State Convention, South Carolina, 1822
Civil authorities sang the same tune. From Columbus up to the American Revolution, chattel out-group slavery was a universally accepted norm among the great Christian and Muslim civilizations. Even pagan Africans who had grown fat off it refused to accept its end, as seen in these quotes from Sub-Saharan monarchs on hearing of Britain's 1807 slave trade prohibition:
"We think this trade must go on. That is the verdict of our oracle and the priests. They say that your country, however great, can never stop a trade ordained by God himself." --King of Bonny (Niger delta)
"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…" --King Gezo of Dahomey (Benin)
3) The end of slavery was the work of the English
If Coates, then, were to be convinced of the ubiquity of slavery in general and African chattel type in particular, what might his next complaint be? That Euros did not end the practice sooner? He seems horrified that the English were not a race of saints who refused to indulge in the same chattel trade as the French, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabs, Turks, and Africans themselves.
Here again, he's misplaced his target. Slavery ended because the winds of morality suddenly changed, and the very men he vilifies were those who abolished it first --and on a worldwide scale. To quote Seymour Drescher:
In the mid-eighteenth century, when black slaves could be found in all regions from French Canada to Chile, there was nothing unprecedented about New World chattel slavery, .... What was unprecedented by the 1760s and early 1770s was the emergence of a widespread conviction that New World slavery symbolized all the forces that threatened the true destiny of the human race. (2)
This sudden change in thought had its roots in the Enlightenment:
It was Montesquieu, more than any other thinker, who put the subject of black slavery on the agenda of the European Enlightenment. ...By the 1760s, the anti-slavery arguments of Montesquieu and Francis Hutcheson were being repeated, developed, and propagated by the intellectuals of the enlightened world. (2)
[...] It was not until freedom became a central social value in western culture that slavery came under attack in any systematic way. (4)
Montesquieu pricked consciences when he said of slaves,
'We must suppose them not to be men, or suspicion would follow
that we ourselves are not Christians.' (1748)
The American Revolutionaries walked a sticky road:
Revolutionary rhetoric ... exposed American patriots to charges of hypocrisy--Samuel Johnson asked, "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?" ... Before the revolution, most Americans had regarded slavery as an unpleasant but unavoidable aspect of human experience; after it, many questioned its legitimacy. (2)
These men felt the hypocrisy charge keenly:
Almost all of the upper South founders expressed a desire to end slavery eventually even if they proved reluctant to take bold steps toward that goal. ... Virginia’s Richard Henry Lee, a former president of the Continental Congress, thought slavery a “moral blight.” ... Writing in 1786, George Washington ...told a fellow Virginian that it was “among his first wishes” to witness a plan “by which slavery in this country may be abolished by slow, sure and imperceptible degrees.” (5)
Some see the Revolution as a missed opportunity:
"In retrospect," [Winthrop] Jordan concludes, "the pity of antislavery's failure was that in the decade after the Revolution, success against slavery ... seemed almost within reach. If the Negro had been freed in the late eighteenth century ... he would have suffered far less degradation.... the whole nation [would have] stirred with pride." (6)
Even so, the Revolution (with, some say, the Great Awakening) was the canary in the coal mine. U.S. slavery's death warrant was signed. With Quakers leading the way, Englishmen on both sides of the Atlantic were seized with an anti-slavery fervor the likes of which history had never seen:
In no previous generation did as many whites, for religious or secular reasons, have doubts about the morality of slavery; never before had there been such an outpouring of antislavery tracts. This moral concern was one reason among several why all the states soon closed the African slave trade.... (6)
This sudden change of heart led to a wave of manumissions:
Thus Philip Graham of Maryland made a deed in 1787 reciting his realization that the holding of his "fellow men in bondage and slavery is repugnant to the golden law of God and the unalienable right of mankind as well as to every principle of the late glorious revolution which has taken place in America..." (7)
While put on hold by the Revolutionary War, abolitionism came roaring back in the early 1800s. By mid-century it had reached fever pitch:
By the mid-1850s, thirty major [abolitionist] organizations were at work, with fifty more satellite groups giving support in New England, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, extending into Canada, the West, and California. The abolitionists and their British allies usually had presses and periodicals hungry for material. (2)
II. U.S. Slavery was especially inhumane
Having established, then, that out-group chattel slavery was commonly accepted up to the late 18th century, when Englishmen put a stop to it, can we agree with Coates that the U.S. version was especially inhumane?
1) U.S. slavery had its inhumanities
'Overseer Artayou Carrier whipped me. I was two months in bed sore from the whipping.
My master come after I was whipped; he discharged the overseer.'
Quote from 'Peter,' enslaved in New Orleans, 1863
My master come after I was whipped; he discharged the overseer.'
Quote from 'Peter,' enslaved in New Orleans, 1863
In the mid-1800s, a propaganda war raged between abolitionists and pro-slavers. The former saw a hellscape of daily brutality; the latter a sunny utopia filled with carefree Negroes. These two visions still do battle today.
Published ex-slave narratives show us that like any institution, slavery is as benign or as cruel as its practitioners. Having read hundreds of such narratives, in our opinion the cruelest part of U.S. slavery was separation of families by sale. In the annals of human suffering, there is little to compare with seeing your beloved child, parent, or spouse carried off before your eyes, perhaps never to be seen again. Although most plantation owners did try to keep families together, many are reported to have sold off individual slaves as young as four years old without a thought.
Secondly, physical violence or its threat was a daily reality. While a great many slaves recount never having been whipped nor seen anyone whipped, others report stomach-turning violence at the hands of overseers who can only be qualified as mentally disturbed.
Thirdly, sexual violence was a reality for many slave women. Most such aggression seems to have come from overseers, whom ex-slaves often describe as 'poor white trash.' Slightly less comes from masters, who as we know fathered numerous children with slaves--preferring markedly, the narratives show, mulatto women as concubines.
Do these inhumane elements render U.S. slavery exceptional in human history, or at its time period? Unfortunately, they do not. There was better: Some Africans allowed bondsmen to become part of the clan, or children born in captivity to be freed. Turkish military slaves could and did ascend to the summits of political power. But there was also much worse: Arabs castrated their African bondsmen, an operation many did not survive. Galley slaves and mining slaves (Roman, Greek, Turk, or other) were literally worked to death. In nearly every system known, women were routinely sold into sex slavery alone or as part of a harem.
Anywhere humans are given unbridled control over other humans, the most paternal benevolence and the most wretched sadism can come to the fore. As a class, though, U.S. slaves were considerably better off than most of their contemporaries, as we shall now see.
2) U.S. slavery was humane compared to most contemporary systems
Fogel and Engerman's Time on the Cross was the first 'cliometric'--entirely numbers-based--study of slavery. Published in 1974, it purported to show that U.S. slaves enjoyed a better quality of life than is generally thought. As many of its empirical claims have been disputed, we shall point out only those that seem to have stood the test of time.
Fogel and Engerman claim the daily diet of slaves was 'quite substantial.' Testimony from the latter seems to back this up--even ex-slaves who speak ill of their masters usually admit that they were well-fed. There was no great mystery here: After the abolition of the transatlantic trade in 1809, U.S. slaveowners had to rely on natural increase. One such, Robert Collins of Macon, GA, published an essay in the 1850s in which he admitted:
"In former years the writer tried many ways and expedients to economize in the provision of slaves by using more of the vegetable and cheap articles of diet, and less of the costly and substantial. But time and experience have fully proven the error of a stinted policy.... The allowance now given per week to each hand is five pounds of good clean bacon and one quart of molasses, with as much good bread as they require; ...." [Fruit and vegetables, while widely eaten, were not counted in the ration.] (7)
Slave housing and clothing, while rudimentary, were generally adequate. Many subsistence-farming Whites in the South lived similarly, as travelers to the region frequently recount. (9) Here again, masters took care to protect their 'investments': Overseers were given strict instructions on enforcing personal hygiene, and never forcing a slave to work who claimed to be sick (even if believed to be 'faking'). Not benevolence but pure economic calculation was of course in play.
Typical antebellum slave dwelling
Lest we forget, log cabins were not unusual for rural dwellers in the 19th century, as one of our early presidents' boyhood home shows:
Infant mortality rates per thousand were similar between slaves (183) and southern whites (177) in the antebellum era. Slave women's mortality rate in childbearing was reportedly less than that of white southern women. The suicide rate was also markedly lower among enslaved Afros than free Euros--only one third as high. (1) (This lines up with modern-day statistics as well.)
About population increase, Engerman has this to say:
Starting in the 18th c. and up to the end of slavery, the slave population grew at an unusually rapid rate, about as high as that for U.S. whites. For a slave society this was a most unexpected occurrence, since elsewhere, in the Americas and in the ancient world, slave populations were not able to reproduce themselves. (3)
This is in marked contrast to the Caribbean sugar plantations, whose relentless work pace and lack of solid family formation were credited with their abysmal fertility rates. (1)
One of the most-cited statistics for quality of life, average life expectancy, can be seen for slaves and for a variety of free white populations on the graph below:
As we have seen, then, chattel slavery in the U.S. had its inhumanities, but was not especially inhumane compared to the institution in general or to other chattel slaveries of its era.
III. Slavery 'destroyed' the black family
Even if Coates were convinced that chattel slavery was once universally accepted, and that its U.S. version wasn't especially inhumane, what about his argument that it 'destroyed' the black family?
1) Evidence for a black nuclear family is strong
'Evidence of long marriages is found in all slave settings in the decades preceding the Civil War' (8):
The nature of the Afro slave family has greatly divided historians. Herbert Gutman more or less put the question to rest in his exhaustive 800-page study, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925. He concluded that the nuclear family was the norm for this population, despite the many stresses to which it was subject. Most slave owners realized the good sense of this arrangement:
"Marriage is to be encouraged," wrote James H. Hammond to his overseer, "as it adds to the comfort, happiness and health of those entering upon it, besides insuring a greater increase." The economic inducements for marriage generally included a house, a private plot of land which the family could work on its own, and, frequently, a bounty either in cash or in household goods. (1)'Jumping the broom' is frequently referred to in the slave narratives as the typical plantation marriage ceremony. (Slave marriage, while officially not recognized, was everywhere the custom.)
In contrast to the Caribbean model of highly skewed male-female sex ratios and its attendant lack of marriage culture, the U.S. slave family looked more often than not like that of the free:
The census data show that on average there were 5.2 slaves per house on large plantations. The number of persons per free household in 1860 was 5.3. Thus, like free men, most slaves lived in single-family households. (1)
While many ex-slaves recount sexual aggression from white overseers, this behavior was considered illicit:
Instructions from slaveowners to their overseers frequently gave recognition to this conflict. They contain explicit caveats against "undue familiarity" which might undermine slave morale and discipline. "Having connection with any of my female servants," wrote a leading Lousiana planter, "will most certainly be visited with a dismissal from my employment, and no excuse can or will be taken." (1)
Similarly, tales of 'stud farms,' a kind of cow- or horse-breeding situation but with human beings, have not been substantiated, though isolated cases may have existed:
No set of instructions to overseers has been uncovered which explicitly or implicitly encouraged selective breeding or promiscuity. [...] And the many thousands of hours of research by professional historians into plantation records have failed to produce a single authenticated case of the "stud" plantations alleged in abolitionist literature. (1)
One gets a keen sense of the Afro slave family by reading their own narratives, and we encourage our readers to do so. Most ex-slaves speak fondly of mother, father, and siblings, and show immense sadness for those lost to the auction block. Runaway slave ads from the era often include remarks such as 'he may be headed for ______ to seek his wife / child / parents.' Post-Emancipation, huge numbers of freedmen traveled to search for lost family members. Though blanket laws were then passed in the South to 'normalize' slave couples living in common-law, thousands still went to courthouses to register their marriages themselves. Though it suffered many blows, the nuclear family was clearly both the ideal and the norm among the U.S. slave population.
2) The black family is considerably more 'destroyed' today than in the past
From 1865 to today, then, if Coates' argument holds water, the Afro-American has been slowly re-building his 'destroyed' family structure. What is the evidence?
Data from U.S. Census reports reveal that between 1880 and 1960, married households consisting of two-parent homes were the most widespread form of African American family structures.
A study of 1880 family structures in Philadelphia showed that three-fourths of black families were nuclear families, composed of two parents and children. In New York City in 1925, 85% of kin-related black households had two parents. ...
And here are the data on two-parent families:
Other data on the modern Afro family structure:
If slavery really did 'destroy' the Afro family, it seems to have done so with an astounding one hundred fifty-year delay. The statistics, in any case, show the black American family at its strongest during Jim Crow/segregation, while at its weakest (and ever weakening) since the 1960s Civil Rights Era. The mirror opposite, in fact, of what Coates claims.
IV. If not enslaved, Black Americans would have the same net worth as White Americans today
1) Counterfactual is unlikely
Reparationists argue that if Blacks hadn't been enslaved in America, their net worth today would be comparable to that of Whites. This argument is hard to defend.
The examples they cite, reparations for Japanese-Americans and Germany's Jewish victims, show us why. In a counter-factual 'alternate universe,' U.S. Japanese wouldn't have been forced from their homes during WWII, but would have stayed tranquilly living their lives. In this case they would have suffered no loss of wages or property, and no reparations would have been due them. Similarly, imagine no German political party is elected after WWI which harasses, expels, steals from, enslaves, and kills Jews. In such a case the old European Jewry would still be largely in place with its wealth intact, and no reparations would be due them.
But here the U.S. slave example falls apart. There is no realistic counter-factual where 40 million Afros find themselves today on U.S. soil, enjoying net worth comparable to Euro-Americans. If Coates' wish had come true--that white Americans had never enslaved black Africans--then the latter would simply never have been brought to North America at all.
2) Comparison with African standard of living
As pointed out by the Instapunk and Pseudoerasmus, if Afro-Americans' ancestors had never been enslaved by Euros, Coates and his coterie would be living not in the U.S. but in one of the west / central African lands from which their forefathers came.
Ta-Nehisi Coates' alternate universe: A journalist for the Accra Daily Mail?
Coates has proposed that reparation sums be equal to the difference between 2014 Euro- and Afro-Americans' average net worth; i.e. to bring Afro net worth to the level where it would be 'if slavery had never existed.' We can give him some idea of the difference, but it may not be in the direction he had hoped:
He may also be interested in his group's average life expectancy in this alternate reality:
Or their probable infant mortality:
We could go on with a variety of human development indicators, but the truth seems clear and brutal: In an alternate reality without slavery, where Coates' ancestors stayed in Africa, he and his co-ethnics are enjoying but a pale shadow of the wealth and comfort they know in this one.
* * *
Debating the relative health or happiness of chattel slaves is of course, in a sense, missing the larger point. As Frederick Douglass put it:
"My feelings were not the result of any marked cruelty in the treatment I received; they sprung from the consideration of my being a slave at all... The feeding and clothing me well, could not atone for taking my liberty from me." (3)
The slave universally desires to be free, just as our homeless desire homes and our working poor a living wage. But just as we accept homelessness and the working poor as part of the atomized, industrial society in which we live, most people throughout history have accepted the existence of slavery. They did not accept undue cruelty, but the status of 'slave' itself they simply assumed part of the natural order. The first sniff of abhorrence for it came from the English themselves--and they became the original abolitionists who shamed the rest of the world into giving it up.
The thrust of Coates' argument seems to be not that slavery was unlawful--it was everywhere legal and accepted by both civil and clerical authorities--but that since we today think it immoral, our ancestors should have somehow anticipated our thoughts, and thus worked sooner to abolish it.
We find this argument unsolid.
Judicial torture: Once a commonplace, today a barbarity
Our descendents one and two centuries hence will surely judge us for 'going along' with all kinds of things they'll find unconscionably evil. Can we even imagine them, as Coates somehow wants our slave-trading ancestors to have done? Can we imagine a future where imprisonment has disappeared, thanks to surgery targeting areas of the brain that cause anti-social violence? And that our descendents will decry this 'barbaric' system of locking men up in cages like animals in a zoo?
Can we imagine a future where every mentally ill person or drug addict is cared for properly, instead of left to sleep in doorways and eat out of garbage cans? Will our great-grandchildren recoil in horror that we walked by these pitiful creatures every day with hardly a thought?
Men locked in cages, men sleeping in the streets: How will we be judged?
We'll go further: What if, instead of the impoverished future our current Cassandras see, we one day create such widespread automation that most people's work-week is considerably shortened? To, say, fifteen hours? And they look back at us, dragging ourselves out of bed to work 40 or 50 hours in a job we hate, no time to really pursue our pleasures...and pity us? Saying, 'How could people have lived that way?'
We don't know any better.
And neither did our forebears.
10,000 years of child labor
So while its exceptional cruelties can be (and always were) criticized, our forebears' acceptance of the institution of slavery cannot. History delivers us this verdict. Reparations cannot, in this case, be reasonably demanded.
Where Coates is on much firmer ground, in our view, is where he claims redress for the treatment Afro Southerners received after slavery. We shall address this question in a later post. Thank you for reading.
(1) Fogel, Robert William and Engerman, Stanley L. Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery. NY: Little and Brown, 1974.
(2) Drescher, Seymour and Engerman, Stanley L. ed. A Historical Guide to World Slavery. NY: Oxford U. Press, 1998.
(3) Engerman, Stanley L. Slavery, Emancipation, and Freedom, LSU Press, 2007.
(4) Degler, Carl N. et al., Perspectives and Irony in American Slavery: Essays. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1976.
(5) Ford, Lacy K. Deliver Us from Evil: The Slavery Question in the Old South. NY: Oxford University Press, 2009.
(6) Stampp, Kenneth M., 'Slavery—The Historian's Burden,' in Degler et. al. 1976 (op. cit.)
(7) Phillips, Ulrich B. American Negro Slavery: A Survey of the Supply, Employment and Control of Negro Labor as Determined by the Plantation Regime. NY: D. Appleton, 1918.
(8) Gutman, Herbert G., The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925. NY: Random House, 1976.
(9) Olmstead, Frederick L., A journey in the seaboard slave states : with remarks on their economy. London: Sampson Low, 1856.