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Henry Louis Gates’ Excellent Anti-Revisionist Adventure

April 23, 2010

Noted Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates (Skip to his friends)* had an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times entitled ‘Ending the Slavery Blame Game’ which struck me as noteworthy for both its bravery and its value in illuminating an important element of the ongoing racial debate in our country.

The world – or at least the media – had a lot of fun with the unfortunate incident involving Skip and the Cambridge Police, and the much ballyhooed beer summit which ensued. As a disclaimer, I was among those who felt that he’d probably  created an “all bets are off” situation for himself by throwing down the race card a little too early in the altercation that day. Cops are famously thin-skinned on the topic, particularly in places like The People’s Republic of Cambridge, where it’s so often an effective trump card. But I also thought that he handled himself graciously in the aftermath, particularly given that the extent to which the issue became a political football…it’s not at all hard to imagine him having been leaned on pretty hard to press the matter by some people with whom he had close and long-standing relationships. Anger is a toxic yet addictive substance, and given how much of it he clearly felt, he seemed to have done a good job of cleansing his system.

So I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that he’s doubled down on that process in today’s piece. Maybe expatiation really is good for the soul. Or maybe that incident had nothing to do with the piece at all. N’importe quell.

To summarize the op-ed, Skip went on record as acknowledging what has been one of the bigger elephants in the room relative to America’s tragic history of racism, which is that rather than slavery having been an institution imposed on Africa by white traders, slaves were one of Africa’s more substantial cash crops for something approaching 300 years. That is, that capturing humans for sale to other humans was an extremely well-organized industry, comprised overwhelmingly of Africans hunting and Africans solely for sale to non-Africans.

I have long been chagrined by absence of this topic from the conversation about the genesis of slavery in North America. I’ve been equally struck by the ethnocentrism of the notion that Africa was so primitive that an enterprise in which somewhere between 9 million and 12 million people were captured could possibly have thrived were it not operated in conjunction with local powers (which is the necessary premise of the idea that it was solely a whites vs. blacks phenomenon). Colonialism was always a collaboration between colonizers and local elites, and in the strictly economic sense, the slave trade was no different the economic sense than any other colonial enterprise (albeit one with a much more horrible price in terms of human suffering).

To my eye, this suggests that the racial rationale for slavery was something akin to a marketing ploy – a way of evading the obvious fact that the institution flew in the face of all of the Judeo Christian principles on which the American Colonies were initially founded, and to which slavers’ customers held allegiance. The notion that it was justified – even blessed by God! – was nothing more than a tawdry ploy to justify the greed of participants in that particular marketplace.

This is not to say that cultural prejudices of a similar sort weren’t of necessity in play on the African continent. The genocides in Rwanda and the Sudan prove that they persist to this day, and of course the Africans would have needed their own way creating the essential “us vs. them” dichotomy upon which the business depended for its moral justification. Rather that it was considerably easier to sell slavery as an institution to credulous New Worlders under the notion that white men were chosen by God as masters of the earth than it would have been to sell it as a matter of one group of blacks selling another group just because they could. It’s been said that evil is banal; I’ve always taken this to mean that one of its chief measures is people’s tendency to commit grievous harm to others to achieve trivial parochial ends for themselves. What could be more evil – and more banal – than the instantiation of a racist meme just to solve a labor shortage. Of course, it happens all the time….

The lesson here is less that racism is evil & destructive (which it of course is), than that any form of discrimination can be pressed into the service of individual greed. The Holocaust in Europe had its roots in economics, and when you peel back the layers of the onion in almost any ethnic conflict you see a fight over resources and wealth at the core.

Because it demonstrates, once again, that greed knows no bounds of color, this narrative is a great deal more morally ambiguous than the traditional one of white vs. black. For that reason, Skip Gates is to be greatly admired for having shined a light on the issue. It turns out that, no matter the color of our skin, we all have the capacity to be equally ugly and rapacious. A painful, and no doubt difficult, truth.

Today’s piece by Professor Gates’ marks an important step in right-sizing the race card. As such, it is a brave act, and a gift to us all.

* I was fortunate enough to have a nice chat with him in at LAX a few years back while we were waiting for our bags, so I’ll indulge myself and call him that going forward.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 23, 2010 9:00 pm

    Great post!
    I read the piece by Professor Gates this morning and agree with you about its importance. I’ve been reading “Forever Free” by Eric Foner on slavery, the era of Reconstruction, and the aftermath which still affects us today in our views on race. A real eye-opener.

  2. Liz S-F permalink
    April 26, 2010 11:06 am

    Ironically, While many citizens saw “the obvious fact that the institution flew in the face of all of the Judeo Christian principles on which the American Colonies were initially founded” others used the Bible to defend slavery. This is eerily similar to how many people today use the 16 out of approximately 10,000 Bible passages to defend discrimination against Gay and Lesbians and unequal marriage laws.

  3. David Graves permalink
    April 28, 2010 10:59 am

    Hey Adam,

    Last summer when I was home, (and bumped into you) I saw an interview of him at U. Chicago, (I believe) on PBS. He was discussing these very same topics. I had to wonder how many people actually understood where he stands on race in the U.S. He claimed that we are all racists in one respect or another. It was truly an eye-opening presentation. Thanks for bringing his article to my attention.

    • April 29, 2010 4:23 pm

      Thanks, David — glad I could do it.

      I’ve gotten some interesting comments — both here and in RL — about this post. Racial politics are a bit of a third-rail, particularly for a white guy (though being Jewish does tend to give me a tiny shred of street cred…I can throw down WRT victim-status if needs be). Understandable, but sad.

      I think about the issues Gates raises in much the same way that I think about The Holocaust. It was a tragedy, and there are certainly some legitimate after-effects, but that it’s unhealthy to allow one’s identity to be completely shaped by either act of evil. Of course, relative to trying to escape the past and deal with contemporary social prejudices, it’s much harder to be black in America than it is to be Jewish…few people can conflate being Jewish with being part of an underclass (at least economically, which tends to be people care about the most in this country), and unless one wears it on one’s sleeve, it’s not the first thing most people notice and/or think about. Sadly, both those things are s all too easy for people to do when it’s a matter of skin color.

      And, of course, there’s no comparison between the discrimination — and it’s long-term impact — that Jews have experienced (at least in the US) and what people with dark skin have had to deal with. Not even close. So a certain amount of rage is understandable, and rage is a highly-addictive drug. Really hard to put down. But it’s so destructive to both the holder and the object…you just can’t have a meaningful conversation when it’s in the room.

      For anyone who chooses to hold it as sacred, this is an intractable problem. To my mind the trick — for both Jews in the US and Israel and for American descendants of slaves — is to find the grace to let it go and to focus rather on the blessings of our lives. If, by pointing out the shared culpability, Skip Gates’ reminder about history gives some people something to hang their hat on in their effort to let go, it’s to the good. And if my point about racism having served as a synthetic marketing function to the ignorant and greedy in this country also helps put things in perspective, then I’m happy.

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