Saturday, September 12, 2020

Relearning US History -- Slavery and Racism


On 11 September 2020, in the former slave state of Missouri, a man driving a truck in Springfield slowed by a house. The Black woman looked up, thinking he might want directions. Instead, he hurled that ugliest of racial epithets, "Hey nigger!" He drove off.

Racism continues to thrive like a deadly virus.

I think it impossible to really understand US slavery or racism from my location in 2020; however, I believe the quest is important for all who live in America and want to create a future that embraces the ideals of liberty and justice for all.

As many have said, slavery has been a part of human history for millennia. And it is noteworthy in a nation formed by so many Christian tribes that slavery was a part of Christian history.

The 1619 Education Project

When trying to set the context for US slavery, it is difficult to know where to set the boundaries of context. The 1619 project of The New York Times focuses attention on the arrival of more than 20 Africans sold to the Virginia colonists. The project has been the subject of criticism.

They make a claim:

No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed. On the 400th anniversary of this fateful moment, it is finally time to tell our story truthfully.


If you continue at the NYT link to Jake Silverstein’s article dated 20 December 2019, you find several points.

1. The beginning of slavery in 1619 was the nation’s “original sin.”

2. A bold claim:

...nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional its economic might, its industrial power, its electoral system, its diet and popular music, the inequities of its public health and education, its astonishing penchant for violence, its income inequality, the example it sets for the world as a land of freedom and equality, its slang, its legal system and the endemic racial fears and hatreds that continue to plague it to this day. The seeds of all that were planted long before our official birth date, in 1776, when the men known as our founders formally declared independence from Britain.

3. A challenge to reframe American history by considering 1619 as our nation’s birth year and that the center of the story should be the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans to American identity.

Hanna-Jones (2019)

Silverstein's introduction is followed by a list of 1619 project articles. The article by Nikole Hannah-Jones has been the subject of criticism. She begins with a personal story of discrimination. She retells the story of the Portuguese slave traders who sold the first Angolans to the Virginians. And reminds us that 400,000 slaves would be sold to the colonists before the trade ended.

She makes a point about American exceptionalism. American chattel slavery was different from other kinds of slavery because it was based on race, the black slaves were treated as property, and a combination of laws and customs supported slavery.

Now a bold opinion:

Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons some of the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.

She continues with the familiar story of the lack of equality for all people in the US Constitution and the end of slavery during the Civil War, the period of Reconstruction, and the sad story of antiblack racism that persists

Critiques of 1619

Leslie Harris (2020) gives an opinion in Politico that sharply criticizes the 1619 claim that the main reason for the American Revolution was slavery.

I vigorously disputed the claim. Although slavery was certainly an issue in the American Revolution, the protection of slavery was not one of the main reasons the 13 Colonies went to war.

Harris agrees that African slavery ought to be central to American History. However, she also opines that the 1772 ban on slavery in England and Wales was not a threat to the colonies. She sees the American Revolution as a “disrupter of slavery” and notes some slaves gained freedom from the combatants. Harris then analyzes a letter from five historians and closes with a more hopeful note. For example, a group of multiracial historians is working toward a more complete view of American slavery. She reminds us that slavery was present in all 13 colonies. Harris observes:

It is easy to correct facts; it is much harder to correct a worldview that consistently ignores and distorts the role of African Americans and race in our history in order to present white people as all powerful and solely in possession to the keys of equality, freedom and democracy.

A Broader Perspective than 1619 and the East Coast

I have been reading a lot of books and articles about racism in the past year. I have learned a lot. One important omission in many books and articles is the slave and racist history of the other 37 states. Their history of slavery is older than the 13 and must be understood to appreciate the widespread racism in America from coast to coast and Mexico to Canada.

I begin by referring to an AP US History Study Guide, which observes that African-American history begins before the British colonial era. Following is their opening paragraph.

Iberian Roots of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, 1440–1640

In its broadest sense, African American history predates the history of the United States, colonial or otherwise; by the time the English colony of Virginia was founded in 1607, Africans and people of African descent had already been present in the Americas for more than a century. Recent estimates suggest that by 1625, approximately 475,000 enslaved Africans had been involuntarily transported to the Spanish Americas and Brazil—more than the number of Africans who disembarked in British North America and the United States during the course of the entire transatlantic slave trade. Though most research on Africans’ involuntary migration to the Americas focuses on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the roots of the transatlantic slave trade are much deeper, stretching back to Iberia (Spain and Portugal), Atlantic Africa, and Latin America during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Read more about the origins of American slavery at AP Central.

Now consider the French and Spanish territories in 1800.

French Slavery in America. Understandably, US historians would focus on the British colonies and the revolution (aka colonial rebellion), they seem to omit the French colonies. If you look at an old map of the US, the French held more territory than did the British. Perhaps the lack of American bilingualism is an issue. Brett Rushforth (2016) writes about “Slavery in the French Atlantic World.” He notes that many of the analyses are written in French with little available in English. More than a million Africans were French slaves in the Americas, which included the islands near what would become the US. Recall that Louisiana was part of the Atlantic slave trade. Louisiana stretched from the current US state of Louisiana north into Canada and west to the Rocky Mountains (Read more about French slavery in Louisiana in Rodrigue). Arguably, the English colonies would not have won independence if it were not for the French who had much to lose if Britain retained control of their colonies. In fact, the old world slavers (French, Dutch, Spanish) joined the Americans to defeat the British.

Spanish Slavery in America. Ciara Torres-Spelliscy (2019) points out another problem with the 1619 project. She calls attention to the Spanish colonies, which became Florida, Texas, and New Mexico where Spanish-speaking African slaves helped build America. Recall that Florida is a step away from the British colony of Georgia. African slaves helped build Florida in the 1500s. Black slaves helped build America’s oldest city, St Augustine, Florida. The first Black to set foot in America was Juan Garrido who was with Juan Ponce de León in 1513 (Waxman, 2019).

Dutch Slavery in America. Victor Enthoven (2016) offers a sketch of “Slavery in Dutch America and the West Indies”. He observes that there is no comprehensive history of slavery and the Dutch.

Christian Support for Slavery

Recently, some historians have reminded Americans of the failure of Christians in the US to denounce slavery, segregation, and racism throughout American history. Tisby tells part of the story in The Color of Compromise. I think this is a helpful work (book and video series); however, like many others, Tisby ignores America west of the 13 colonies where the French and Spanish established Catholic churches. Protestants and Catholics were part of the problem of slavery and racism in the US. I should not ignore the point that some Christians were opposed to slavery and helped slaves escape. And others participated in antislavery, antisegregation, and antiracist efforts.

Systems of  American slavery can be found from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Systems of oppression resulted in economic gain for the owners of human capital. The nation was built with labor from slaves, indentured servants, poorly paid immigrants, and those who ran afoul of laws, which were not always just laws or justly enforced.

Abolitionists Have a Story Too

Here and there people opposed to slavery spoke out, printed antislavery literature, and protested. This post is about slavery and racism and the wider context than that found in the history of the 13 colonies; however, it would be a mistake to assume that all people in Africa, Europe, or the Americas supported slavery or later, racism. Sadly those opposed to American slavery were not able to end the legal institution until the US Civil War. And, those favoring equality and opposed to segregation were not able to defeat the institution of segregation until the mid-1900s. Now racism remains in a more hidden form of insults, overpolicing, limited access to white-held institutions, mass incarceration, and pockets of injustice. This form of racism will be harder to overcome, but antiracists are trying.


I am not a historian or a political scientist so, my ideas may be readily attacked by scholars. However, I am a psychologist and some of the issues involve an understanding of neuropsychology, social psychology, and the psychology of religion. Some observations follow.

1. Mental Effort. Thinking about slavery and racism in a simplistic sense is natural because complex considerations require considerable mental energy. Our thinking relies on shortcuts and 1619 is one of those. The best book on thinking is by Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow.

2. Defenses. Humans defend themselves against personal attacks. White Americans and white immigrants in America must deal with the rising voices about American slavery in some way. I see denial, displacement, projection, rationalization, reaction formation, compartmentalization, and a lot of intellectualization. I suspect, explaining these concepts would be worthwhile but will need to be in another post.

3. Threat Management. Humans under threat become more patriotic and religious. This happens a lot and is explained by years of research on Terror Management Theory. You can see this process at work in the streets and political discourse in 2020 America.

4. Sunk Costs. I hypothesize that change will be more difficult for older Americans based on the principle of sunk costs. Simply by living longer with a set of beliefs about America functions as an investment in those beliefs. New ideas that challenge those beliefs can mean a disparagement of all that investment. The tendency is to continue “buying into” old investments—hoping they will return—rather than cutting losses and moving on with better ideas.

5. Neuropsychology / Memory. Historians will always be prisoners to the fallibility of human memory. Memory research documents the problems with witness testimony. Wherever we have records, they were produced by people who remembered events in a certain way. Although different perspectives on the same event can help scholars, those records are not always available, and one must consider the factor of shared memories.

6. Cognitive bias. We humans have a hard time overcoming cognitive biases. We tend to look for evidence that confirms what we want to believe about ourselves and our history. Most of us want to look good. There are many more biases to consider.

7. Identity theory. Our identities are bound up with our nation and our subgroups. Any attack on our concept of America, our religion, our racial or ethnic group can be seen as a personal attack on who we are. Redefining American history will be an ongoing process of reframing ourselves. That is a difficult task. 

A Personal Note

I should like to live the rest of my years as an antiracist. As a British immigrant, I absorbed my parent’s shocking reaction when we first visited the American South where the signs of segregation were vividly portrayed in Black and White. My parents constantly reminded me that I was English. Ironically, I was taking US history in High School when I became a US citizen. I recall my interviewer telling me that I probably knew more US history than he did. Well, I knew an old version of US history. On the one hand, I did not know much about slavery in either British or American history. On the other hand, my father provided an important example when he quit a job specifically because his employers wanted him to exploit Blacks by selling them a dodgy insurance product. I have written about other experiences elsewhere. It is hard to believe that I am still learning about both British and American history after 70 years. Now I know, this learning will never end. I see history as a dynamic process produced by fallible minds. The best minds will offer a humble stance open to revision when flawed analyses are exposed or new findings warrant a re-assessment.

It is odd that I am writing this from Springfield, Missouri. My location sort of makes my point about the large picture of slavery in the US. Missouri was part of the French territory known as Louisiana--a part of the French slave trade. After the French territory was sold to the new nation in 1803, Missouri applied to become a state. It was admitted as a slave state in 1820 as part of a deal called the Missouri Compromise. So, here in the heart of America (Kansas-Missouri) the matter of slavery continues to leave a horrid legacy of racism as seen in the first paragraph.

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