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“My Family Didn’t Own Slaves”: Argument, or Copout?

I recently was having a complex and sophisticated interaction about race and racism at, of all places, YouTube. One of my interlocutors offered this argument: “none of my ancestors were slave owners (italian family)” . Another on a different site offered this observation: “My great-great grandparents came here from somewhere else, so kindly don’t count ME in with the people that may have oppressed YOUR great-great grandparents.”

Indeed, this seems to be the white national mantra: “I wasn’t alive for slavery.” “My family had no involvement in slavery”. “My ancestors were dirt poor farmers.” It is such an effective standard because of course everyone falls under it. Even direct descendants of slaveowners with access to intergenerational wealth can claim that they weren’t around for slavery. Since many of us (myself included) are descended from immigrants more recent than the end of slavery, and the slaveowners formed a tiny elite, it is a perfect apology.

But it is also a microcosm of everything wrong with the white national narrative about race. The amount of things wrong with this argument is so staggering that saying it should require an instant remedial US History and Government class.

The first mistake it makes is to imply that the only bad thing that has happened to the black community as a whole, institutionally, is slavery. As if blacks as a whole never suffered under Jim Crow, poll taxes, grandfather clauses, restrictions on where they could take a drink or go to the bathroom, lynchings and terror. As if black life trajectories and possibilities weren’t reduced by racial covenants, inability to access Federal Housing Assistance loans (an amount in the TRILLIONS of dollars, or as Tim Wise put it, “more than the outstanding mortgage debt, all the credit card debt, all the savings account assets, all the money in IRA’s and 401k retirement plans, all the annual profits for U.S. manufacturers, and our entire merchandise trade deficit combined.”), rampant employment discrimination, inability to acess GI Bill benefits, and so forth. Many of these injustices are in recent memory, such that there are those alive who remember them and were affected by them. Certainly their immediate descendants continue to feel the loss of these opportunities. So the very claim shows a complete contempt or ignorance for the suffering that blacks went through, as if segregation is not an injustice that deserves to be righted.

It also implies that we do not bear responsibility for what our government and communities are doing right now to virtually every black man and woman, a claim that inspires not only amusement but contempt. I hope I do not have to go into the extensive documentation on institutional racism, nor answer claims varying from “What about the Oprahs?” (yes, what about them? as if individual success stories invalidate an extensive backdrop of evidence) nor “What about the white poor?” (yes, social categories are complex, but to be black and poor is to be worse off on average than to be white and poor, even white poor have a benefit from being white and even the black rich have a disadvantage from being black). Instead, it should be sufficient to say that given the extensive racist treatment and barriers blacks endure in education, employment, treatment by police, selection for prosecution, prison sentences, loans, mortgages, housing, firing, and so on, this claim is a call for whites to ignore their responsibility to terminate currently existing injustice.

Third, it obscures the notion of intergenerational wealth and thus intergenerational responsibility. For while only those who owned the slaves directly injured those slaves, everyone from the Founding Fathers to the man on the street to the early capitalists benefitted from the slave’s picking of cotton, rice, sorghum, tobacco and other crops. They also bore both the benefit and the cost of the racial hierarchy enhanced (if not actually created) by those in power to turn poor blacks and poor whites against each other rather than against the rich masters. That wealth continues to this day. There are millions of families living on homes provided almost exclusively to whites under the Homestead Act. The Naturalization Act of 1790 and other laws enabled the very presence of our ancestors by naturalizing whites and giving them rights far beyond people of color. The wealth produced by the South was even instrumental in the Revolution, meaning that slaves are owed part of our very existence as a nation! So while those whose ancestors immigrated after slavery may not have been quite poor, they nonetheless benefitted from slavery and from the existence of other laws occurring under the rubric of the racial caste system.

In line with this, it also ignores institutional and social responsibility. After all, when Volkswagen and other German companies were forced to give reparation to some Jews they had victimized, while it is true that they did not pay to Jews writ large and only paid to living people, they nonetheless had changed as an organization, but the organization owed restitution. The American state owes the same to blacks. And even if it does not, in that sense, it would make sense for social policy to be designed to engineer social equality instead of inequality. In this sense, the “my family wasn’t responsible for slavery” is the racial equivalent of buckpassing on a national level.

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