Juneteenth celebrates the announcement of emancipation in Texas on June 19, 1865.
Its 145th anniversary prompts reflection on how race and slavery got entangled early in American history. In those days, being black and being a slave did not necessarily go together. That association developed and then tightened over several generations.
The almost accidental entanglement of African origin and slavery has shaped our understanding of race ever since. And now the two are being disentangled, which raises tricky questions such as: What explains the disadvantages of African Americans?; Who should benefit from affirmative action?; and Is Barack Obama is really “black”?
Melding Race and Slavery
Slavery has existed since time immemorial around the world. All sorts of peoples were subject to slavery by one another – Africans, Native Americans, Asians, and Europeans. The English word, “slave,” descends from the Slavs who were often captured into slavery. Western Europeans, too, were subject to slavery. (Side note: Arabs viewed the European slaves among them as, by nature, dirty, alcoholic, and criminal.)
In the first several generations of American settlement, bondage and race had no necessary connection. Many Europeans arrived as indentured servants, subject to the men who paid for their cross-Atlantic trip (during which many of them died) until they had worked off their debts. There is an account from as late as 1786 of a master in Philadelphia so exasperated by his “impertinent . . . servant maid,” the Dutch woman Rosina, that he had her jailed and then sold her for ₤20. Some Early American settlers captured or bought slaves from the native peoples. And some also bought African slaves from Atlantic traders. The white, red, and black servant-slaves mixed in the early colonies and were not treated all that differently from one another. For instance, some Africans earned enough money in their spare moments to buy their freedom and settle down as freemen. (Edward Jones’s acclaimed The Known World is a novel about blacks who owned slaves.)
However, slavery evolved in particular ways in North America. (Important studies include those by Fredrickson – also here – and by Berlin.) Being a slave became increasingly a permanent condition; in other regions of the world, slaves could merge into the wider society (think of Joseph in Egypt). Being a slave in America became more degraded. In other systems – and earlier in the colonies – slaves were treated as members of the household. Being a slave became an inherited position; a child of a slave was a slave, which was often not the case elsewhere. And, being a slave in America became almost exclusively reserved for Africans.
African slaves were cheaper, more easily replaced, more controllable, and less likely to die from the rigors of southern plantation labor than were Indian slaves or white servants. In 1735 a visitor to Georgia wrote that “the Work is too laborious, the heat very intent, and the Whites can’t work in the wett of that Season of the year as Negrs do to weed the Rice.” For various reasons, slavery declined most places in America, but not in the South. As cotton production expanded, plantation slavery intensified, eventually coming to depend totally on the importation and then the domestic “breeding” of Africans.
With slavery retreating elsewhere in the western world, defenders of the South’s “peculiar institution” struggled to legitimate it. They developed a justification for slavery rooted in notions of race: Africans were – either by divine design, as descendants of Ham; or by evolutionary design, as yet under-evolved versions of humans – meant to be slaves. Indeed, Africans, these ideologists argued, could thrive best as slaves. The equation, black = slave, became fixed in American life and in the American mind.
The emancipation celebrated by Juneteenth did not bury this understanding. A caste system developed in the South that treated blacks as slave-like. Only in the last couple of generations can we say that the equation, black = slave-like, has started to fail. (We are not there yet. Racial discrimination, although much reduced, clearly persists. Its persistence is so easy to demonstrate that any high school student could show discrimination in action for a science fair project.) And the equation, black = descendant-of-slave, has seemed obvious to most Americans.
But recent developments challenge the cultural image that equates African origin and a family history of slavery; they are disentangling race and slavery in America.
Starting in the early 20th century, but especially since the 1960s reform of the immigration laws, the growing numbers of immigrants and second-generation citizens from the West Indies and from sub-Saharan Africa have brought new African-origin peoples to the attention of Americans. Between 1970 and 2007, the number of people in the U.S. born in the Caribbean grew five-fold to about 3.4 million; the number born in Africa grew from negligible to about 1.4 million.
Immigrants from the West Indies are descendants of slaves, but of much different slave societies than the U.S. The ones from Africa – such as Barak Obama’s father, a Kenyan in the United States to attend college and then graduate school – have an historical inheritance of colonialism, but not of slavery.
The newcomers bring distinctive accents, fashions, and foods; but their children are blending in. The second- and third-generation look like other black Americans. But are they the same as black Americans descended from American slaves? And should they be treated the same?
This has become a touchy issue. In 2004, African American faculty at Harvard complained that only a minority of the officially “black” undergraduates there were full descendants of American slaves. Who, some asked, was affirmative action meant for? Did it include children of professionals from Jamaica or businessmen from Ghana? Later, political opponents questioned whether Barak Obama was really black if he was not descended from slaves.
The social historical issue raised is whether and how we can separate out race and history. Blackness is, in net, a burden in the United States. As I noted above, discrimination persists. What, in addition, might be the burden of having a family line that goes back to the American slavery and post-slavery caste systems?
One easily-measured burden is the lack of assets. African Americans own far less in assets (including home equity) than American whites do and wealth makes a difference in their children’s prospects. How well people do depends a lot – self-bootstrapping cases notwithstanding – on whether their parents had assets… and their grandparents, and so forth. (See, e.g., here and here.) Not getting that “40 acres and a mule” after emancipation seems to have mattered a lot.
Another possible and harder-to-assess burden is psychological: Do the experiences, perspectives, and life lessons of ancestors who were slaves for many generations and then at the bottom of a caste system for a few more generations shape their descendants’ outlooks and habits today? That remains an open question heavily debated among scholars. One arena of debate is explaining why immigrants from the British West Indies do better economically than African Americans (see, e.g., here and here). Does their “foreign-ness” – accent and all – protect them from some discrimination? (Research shows that some employers explicitly prefer West Indians.) Do West Indians do well because immigrants in general out-do comparable Americans who are native-born? Or does the heavy lash of slavery carry on to today?
About 200-300 years ago, America conducted one kind of fateful experiment, racializing slavery. Today, we’re considering some of its consequences, while we conduct another experiment in disentangling the two.