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America’s Original Sin

In the light of the recent upheaval over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis (which I wrote about here) and of the self-described “1619 Project” at The New York Times, (see, also, a summary of the controversy surrounding that project) I’ve been reflecting once more on race in general, on American racism in particular, and on how much slavery has (or has not) tainted everything about America.  This may, some day, be the start of an essay of its own but, for the moment, it is merely a statement of first principles and an acknowledgement of what we do and do not have to answer for:

5 December 2020

American slavery was a sin, but neither an original nor an idiosyncratic one.  Enslavement was an ancient and ubiquitous practice throughout most of human history and throughout most of the world, including both in Africa and in the aboriginal Americas long before the European conquest of either.  Slavery on an industrial scale was largely a European innovation, but it was so primarily because, and to the extent that, industrialization, itself, was largely a European innovation.  And the newly-declared United States of America, although birthed from the same radical and evolving Enlightenment reimagining of the nature of human liberty that led, ultimately, to the global demise of slavery, nonetheless and indeed inherited slavery from its European colonial progenitors, shared it for a time in common with the rest of the world, and shed it only slightly later – ignominiously but not shockingly so and, arguably, at greater cost – than most other civilized nations.

On the other hand, Jim Crow — and the racialist foundation upon which it was erected —  was America’s original sin: we invented it and allowed it to take root in spite of (or, arguably, as an excuse for disregarding) our founding creed of human liberty; we took far longer than we should have to rid ourselves of it – longer, indeed, than we did to rid ourselves of slavery, itself; and we yet suffer its furtive vestiges and endure its execrable repercussions more than sixty years after it was officially and formally consigned to the ash-heap.

The racial disparities and animosities we see now around us are the legacy not of slavery, per se, but of that home-grown racialism.  A newly-freed black slave was not inherently and significantly worse off than an equally landless, equally uneducated, and equally destitute white sharecropper or backwoodsman.  The 155 years – 7 or 8 generations – since that freedom was declared should have provided ample time and equivalent opportunity for the descendants of both to better their lots.

But the former slave’s condition, and that of his descendants, was petrified into permanence by a racially demarcated cultural isolation, social disdain, economic restraint, and political repression that was enforced and perpetuated over generations through coercive state power.  And, when we finally repudiated that power, we nonetheless failed to address its cultural, social, economic, and political legacies in ways that were effective, rather than merely aspirational, and that were galvanizing rather than condescending.

That is America’s sin and America’s shame.

© Copyright 2021, Augustus P. Lowell

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