• Crag

Racism: The Root of All Evil? Part 1

Slavery, Reparations, ‘White Privilege’, Black Lives Matter, and the Monolith


The ultimate justification given for grievance, protest, and rioting, against alleged pervasive racism, for the concept of ‘white privilege’, and for policy changes in favour of ‘people of colour’ – especially reparations – is slavery. Slavery is a stain on history, and the transatlantic slave trade a stain on western history. The more difficult claim is that its legacy is so far reaching that it harms millions of people today, and that those wrongs need to be rectified today. Slavery and its legacy are even given as the ultimate reasons for why police officers allegedly treat black Americans unfairly. It is in this loose framework that I will discuss issues of race, history, socioeconomics, and politics, in the USA mostly and elsewhere to a lesser extent. The thread I follow to meet this end is to assess the broad case for reparations and ‘white privilege’, assuming this case has merit and discuss the supposed solutions, then test whether the case stands on its merits in the first place. Naturally, reparations are not preferable from the perspective of maximising freedom, because resources are forcibly taken from some people to give to others. What follows is an interrogation of whether there a case strong enough to rule against individual freedom in favour of rectifying historical and present-day racial discrimination.

As a short precursor, allow me to reaffirm the liberal, meritocratic, equal-opportunities tradition within the context of this debate. In my view, race is not a relevant characteristic to consider in virtually any circumstance. Someone’s race does nothing, and probably should do nothing, in determining the relationships I pursue, the associations I make, my life decisions, or anything else I can think of. I find this view to be common among people who share my general worldview. In fact, I only find myself discussing race in two circumstances: firstly, in celebrating cultures and their originating peoples, typically in free, interesting and open conversations with people interested in these things; secondly, in responding to political positions which insist on racializing everything from world history to exam grades.

This discussion requires defining groups racially, as monoliths, which I am not happy to do. It is one of many bones of contention I have with this line of argument, because the pitting of societal groups against one another is principally Marxist and flies in the face of a central principle of the United States: E Pluribus Unum, meaning “out of many, one”. Ironically, so-called ‘anti-racist’ positions require society to be observed through a racist prism, and so we who prefer Martin Luther King’s vision of a colour-blind society must sadly invoke the same language of ‘black people’ versus ‘white people’, as though people of different races are qualitatively different, to rebut the arguments on the same grounds that they are posed by identity-politics advocates. Identity-politics, ‘anti-racism’, and collectivism are all hallmarks of a brand of politics I will call leftism, advocated by leftists. Whether they know it or not, their ideas are grounded in Marxism. A reading of Marx and Engels would afford the reader a fuller background understanding of these ideas and their origins.

In addition to the collectivist, racist undertones created by racially delineated policies, the group terms utilised to such ends are often not clear. For example, ‘Hispanics’ – people of Spanish speaking nations – are grouped in common parlance and in data, and while that group may bring visions of a certain ‘Latino’ ethnicity to mind, it actually includes white, black, indigenous, and other ethnic elements (the Spanish and Portuguese colonisers of America had themselves been mixed with North Africans and Arabs for hundreds of years during the 500-year Islamic rule of Iberia). The term ‘Hispanic’ if taken literally would also, unhelpfully, exclude French and Portuguese speaking South Americans. In the US Census Bureau, and at institutes such Pew Research, the terms ‘Hispanic’ and ‘Latino’ are used interchangeably to describe someone of that broad ethnicity.[1] I will follow that sentiment for the purposes of this essay.

I also refrain from using the term ‘African American’, because it semantically excludes Caribbean Americans and native-born black Americans. Some native-born black Americans do object to being described as African or Caribbean at all, because they are naturalized American citizens who may well never have been anywhere in Africa or the Caribbean. This objection is factual and reasonable, and factually speaking applies to most black Americans. The same objection applies to the British use of the term ‘Afro-Caribbeans’. All group terminology is used in the same spirit as the sources referenced, and otherwise as accurately as possible.

The Prevailing View

Whom am I tackling by challenging the idea of making policy decisions based on race? It is of surprise to some that it is a popular idea at all. According to Gallup, the case for reparations is gaining popularity in the US. In 2002, 14 percent of the general population, 6 percent of the white population, and 55 percent of the black population was in favour of making cash payments to black Americans who are descendants of slaves.[2] By 2019, those figures had risen to 29 percent of the general population, 16 percent white, and 73 percent black. That a majority of the black population is in favour of reparations is noteworthy, and perhaps surprising – but it seems how the question is asked is more important to the person answering the question than the outcome of the suggested policy decision. In 2008, the question “should government programs that are designed to address economic inequality give special consideration to blacks because of past racial discrimination, or should these programs only take into account a person's economic situation?” was asked, by the same pollsters. When the explicit framing of slavery was taken out of the question and generalised to “past racial discrimination”, 78 percent of black people disregarded special considerations for race and said that only the economic situation should be considered. Considering the questions are the same, only the framing is different, and the outcome of either policy suggestion – reparations or economic redress for inequality along racial lines – is theoretically the same, the completely reversed answer is interesting.

Taking a wider view of race relations, 96 percent of black Americans approve of “marriage between blacks and whites” in 2013 – presumably, the black person would not insist upon receiving a reparations payment from their white spouse. Faced with the reality of a loving relationship with a person the other side of a socially constructed division, such as race, the illusion falls away for those unable to bear intense cognitive dissonance. The inconsistent answers in the above polls suggest the subject invites more emotion than reason. In addition to mixed or even contradictory views on reparations, there are mixed views on a person’s opinion as to whether their race has helped them to get ahead or held them back:


With such a mixed picture from various races, including two minorities with greater contingents who say their race has helped more than it has harmed them, and only a slim majority of black Americans saying their race has held them back, we can enter this political minefield with the fair acknowledgement that there is no unanimity from any corner on this subject. There is, perhaps, unsurety and confusion.

We will take the cases in reverse order. That is, tackling the case for reparations before the general case for ‘white privilege’, because the former flows from the latter. To disprove the existence of white privilege goes a long way in undermining the foundations of the argument for reparations. However, to capture as many positions in favour of these ideas as possible, to most rigorously interrogate the logic and relevant facts, and to anticipate as many arguments as possible, it is prudent to grant the popular notion of ‘white privilege’ to begin with. Beginning with deconstructing a stark logical conclusion for redress from ‘white privilege’, then working up to the more nuanced idea – the supposed phenomenon we call ‘white privilege’ – flows naturally. I did grapple with whether I should extend the term ‘white privilege’ the validation of even repeating it. As a made-up, vague, pseudo-academic term, sitting within ‘critical race theory’, a doctrine popularised by professor Derrick Bell, a man who said, “I live to harass white folks”.[3] Hardly the most scholarly of motivations. A student of his recounted how Bell himself acknowledged his lack of qualifications and expertise to be made a professor, and how “taking the low road” of being inflammatory was his way of achieving recognition. This theory has come out of a politically motivated academic caste within universities and is hardly worth a rebuttal. Not, at least, on its merits alone. It is, however, a powerful narrative, today, and must be addressed for this reason.

To begin with a foundational definition for what we are granting for the sake of argument: ‘white privilege’, put simply, is the notion that white people, by virtue of only the colour of their skin, are afforded special privileges which are not afforded to non-white people. The justification for this definition is grounded in the alleged existence of pervasive racism (both individual and systemic), the alleged effects of white supremacy, and the history of slavery. ‘Systemic racism’, and by extension ‘white privilege’, is supposed to be woven into the fabric of society; institutionalised; cultural; its causes shadowy; its effects concrete; it is the fault of no-one and the fault of everyone, for that is what makes it intangible and real. ‘Systemic racism’ is determinably indeterminable, and that is its genius as an intellectual construct: it is theoretically unassailable. Hence, factual data, in addition to philosophical critique, is required. The political motivations for the development of such an idea will be discussed later. First, the validity of the idea itself will be tested.

With our assumptions granted, we turn to the moral case for reparations.

The Moral Case

The argument for reparations is framed like this: “black people suffered slavery by white people, therefore white people should pay compensation to black people”. This simplistic statement does not elucidate the claim and its justification well enough, so let us parse it out in a more detailed fashion: “My ancestors suffered at the hands of some oppressive people, and that has caused me suffering today. As those oppressive people are your ancestors, and you have benefited from their oppressiveness, you ought to pay me back.”

In building up the argument to its best form, we are able to critique it properly. Let us first unequivocally state that the terrible suffering black people experienced under transatlantic slavery and subsequent events, like Jim Crow, is absolutely unquestionable. Let us also assume that the statement is otherwise factually accurate, and only interrogate the premises that must be accepted for the claim to hold. The obscenest moral axiom required for this claim to hold is that of collective guilt. That is to say: if someone associated with you committed a crime, you are to be held responsible for the crime. Take the example of a family unit: where one family member has committed a crime, we would not, in moral or a legal framework, blame someone innocent of the crime for the committing of the crime on the grounds that they share a bloodline with the perpetrator. It is possible that the other family members could have had some influence in preventing the perpetrator committing the crime – a potential obviously absent when considering long dead slaveholding ancestors – but this is still not enough for us to blame the family members for the crime itself. Even if the family stood to gain from the murder, as the descendants of slaves are supposed to have gained, we would not blame them for it unless they had a hand in the crime being committed. We would charge and prosecute the perpetrator, and anyone aiding or abetting the committing of the crime.

If it is naturally so unconscionable to us that innocent people should be blamed for the crimes of others, why does this change in the case for reparations? To extend the analogy above for another comparison: if, following a murder, the murderer’s entire family living 200 miles away incommunicado is imprisoned along with the murderer, we would consider it absurd. The family could expect large compensation for false imprisonment. Why do the rules suddenly change if the relatives are generationally spread apart, as in the case for reparations, rather than geographically spread apart, as in the murder case? Does the link of bloodline only become relevant once the perpetrator has died? An arbitrary nonsense, of course.

A person born today cannot choose their forebears, nor are they necessarily in any way connected to them. A child put up for adoption as a baby, for example, may have received nothing from, share nothing with, and know nothing of their biological parents and ancestors. If we accept that a person can rebuke their parents without quarrel from their peers or the state, why can a person not rebuke their more distant relatives? We would not look upon the infant son of a serial killer and agree: “when he grows up, we are going to make him pay compensation to all of his father’s victims”.

Parsing out the detail of this premise exposes it for the nonsense that it is. There is no logical reason that anyone should apologise for what their ancestors did, no more than a daughter should apologise for a crime her father committed. The person living today is not a continuation of their forebears, they are a different person. To blame a person for the wrongdoings of others is the definition of scapegoating, an act we generally find morally reprehensible. Scapegoating is a pure embodiment of injustice. Furthermore, to remove a person’s individuality by insisting that they are in some sense a continuation of their forebears rather than their own person is to diminish personhood itself.

The standards for collective guilt outlined above are absent in any walk of life other than specific historical wrongs, and that demonstrates their fallaciousness. They are, generally, only ascribed to colonial wrongs, and only to colonial wrongs of particular countries. It would not even be accurate to say that western colonialism is the target of such standards, because Germans are not held to them. Bizarrely, the descendants of a country consumed by Nazism within living memory are exempt from the doctrine of collective guilt. Why? Because the guilt associated with 20th century German colonialism does not serve the political ends of those peddling the collective guilt narrative. Anglo-American colonialism within the range of the years 1600 to 1850, however, does serve that narrative. The selectivity with which a society-sweeping narrative acknowledges atrocities ought to make us suspicious.

If the justification for reparations relies in part on the suffering of the enslaved ancestor, another required premise is: it is appropriate to co-opt the suffering your ancestors experienced. If there is a heaven, and a former slave looks down upon the earth, upon the United States, to see his descendant, a black woman elected to Congress, the highest legislative body in the land, complaining that she is impeded in society due to racism, do we suppose he would be moved by the tragedy of her position? In the first place, this idea seems wholly distasteful: for the average person today, living in a time of freedom and the greatest personal wealth achieved in world history thus far, to appropriate – without consent – the suffering of another person abducted or captured in war, sold in bondage and pressed into hard labour. Only the most stubborn of people would, when pressed, maintain a position that insists on equating their plight with the plight of an enslaved person. It is palpably self-centred, and quite ridiculous. Most people concede this point, accepting that it is not the suffering of their ancestors which permits them special privileges today, but the socioeconomic effect of their ancestor having been a slave. Here, the focus shifts to the legacy of slavery. This is the idea that the after-effects of slavery are so far reaching that black people today are poorer and less successful as a result of it.

The justification of the after-effects of slavery – its legacy – is a trickier, more nuanced issue. In the previous premise, we analogised slavery to a modern-day crime, so we shall do the same here. If you are related to a murder victim, then you may be affected in many ways. The family trauma, emotional distress, mental injury, and financial loss (especially if the victim was the breadwinner) that may be caused by such an event are real and weighty issues. They are of enough importance that redress for a Wrongful Death is already dealt with by English Common Law countries (Survival Action in the US, Fatal Accidents in the UK etc.). If we consider it morally and legally sensible to seek damages or ‘reparations’ by a relative’s death caused by negligence or a deliberate act, then it may be reasonable for the principle to apply to our ancestors too. To be genuinely emotionally aggrieved in your day-to-day life by something that happened decades and centuries before you were born, to people you never knew, seems implausible to me; but, in any case, it is hardly quantifiable. What seems more plausible and possible to address practically is that descendants of slaves are less likely to have inherited human capital from their forebears because a generation or more were deprived of education, assets, and freedom. This seems to be the strongest case for reparations, logically.

The veracity of the economic claim is weak and will be shown to be when tested later; but, even discounting this, the ethical claim of trauma still stands. Perhaps we could extend the principle from wrongful death to wrongful treatment, as many a slave did not die as a result of their enslavement. So, here we have a good case for redress, analogised to legal commonplace. The descendant of the slave may claim emotional trauma and financial hardship, all the conditions may be the same as a modern wrongful death case, apart from the amount of time the victim has been dead, and one other crucial difference: the party responsible for the wrongful death of an ancestor is also dead. With no responsible persons alive to sue, we are reminded of the next claim for reparations: that people who share a skin colour with the perpetrators ought to be sued.

Let us assume that black people today are tangibly disadvantaged by their ancestors being enslaved, and white people tangibly advantaged by their ancestors being slaveholders or traders. Let us assume that the principle of compensation for the wrongful treatment of slaves is an appropriate form of redress for the descendants of slaves. Let us assume that collective guilt is an appropriate philosophy to apply to our society. If we proceed with these three assumptions, and if we are to hold the descendant of a slaveholder accountable and provide compensation to the descendants of slaves, it is imperative that we know the ancestry of the people concerned. A claim to compensation based on historical events pleads on historical accuracy and the atrocity that the transatlantic slave trade was, so let us be historically accurate in our assessment of the claim and its justifications.

The Historical Case

‘Read history as a perpetrator, rather than as a hero or a victim’

Jordan B. Peterson

The Transatlantic Slave Trade

If an honest reading of history shows us anything, it is that man is capable of great evil. Everyone is capable of great evil. The transatlantic slave trade was one of those many evils and featured many perpetrators of many stripes.

The transatlantic slave trade saw around 12.5 million slaves taken by European powers and the USA from Africa to various American and Caribbean destinations over a 366-year period, with 1.8 million dying in transit.[4] Portugal/Brazil took the greatest volume of slaves, 5.8 million, between 1501 and 1867.[5] Despite entering the trade late, and abandoning it suddenly on abolition, the British took the second largest amount (3.3 million), followed by the French (1.4 million), the Spanish/Uruguayans (1 million), the Dutch (555,300), the USA (305,800), and the Scandinavians, the Baltic states and some northern German towns (111,000 combined).[6] The Iberian powers (Spain and Portugal), pioneers in exploration, conducted their operations as early as 1346.[7] Through the colonisation of the Americas, the British, French, and Spanish claimed the largest proportions of North America. Less than 4 percent of all slaves taken were disembarked in what is now the United States.[8] 95 percent of slaves were taken to South America and the Caribbean.

European Contact with Africans Prior to Transatlantic Trade

The historical background to this period, and Euro-African relations prior, are important to consider when performing revisionist accountability exercises. Europeans had been in contact with Africans for centuries prior to the transatlantic slave trade. Indeed, black people have lived in Britain since the time of the Roman empire. Archaeological evidence found in York, England, shows that some black Romans were part of high society.[9] Quintus Lollius Urbicus, a Berber (a people native to North Africa) from modern-day Algeria, became the Roman governor of Britain in 139AD.[10] Another quite dramatic interaction between Europeans and Africans occurred in the 8th century with the Islamic invasions of what is now Spain, Portugal, and southwest France, from North Africa.[11] Christian forces pushed back over centuries, retaking south western Europe, culminating in the fall of Granada in 1492 which marked the end of Muslim rule in Spain.[12] Therefore, people of mixed races and religions were living together in southern Europe for at least 700 years because of Muslim conquest alone. The continued contact between Iberia and the Muslim world, the political jostling of Christian and Muslim powers in the Mediterranean, the advancement of naval technology, and European ambitions to discover and trade with Africa, led to connections between European and African countries on a scale never seen before. Reliable (non-accidental) voyages between Africa and the Americas were impracticable prior to the year 1400.[13] The required mixture of technological advancement and ambition set the stage for ‘triangular’ transatlantic trading.

The Situations and Interrelation of Europe and Africa

The modern observer often wrongly views history from the position of the world today, characterising Europe as developed and advanced, and Africa as backward and underdeveloped. Indeed, to view the Europeans as colonisers of Africa at the time of establishing the transatlantic slave trade is inaccurate. Even by 1880, the Europeans had made no significant inroads to Africa, only occupying some coastal regions related to their trading activities. The fact is that Europeans did not dominate Africans in the pre-industrial world, and to insist otherwise is to grossly underestimate African civilisation. The relatively equal standing between European and African powers from the year 1400 is observable by several measures, including their economies:

‘Perhaps one of the most interesting facts of the early Atlantic trade was that Europe offered nothing to Africa that Africa did not already produce… today domestic African industry produces none of the manufactured goods that they import from the developed world.’[14]

If Africans imported nothing they did not already have, it is safe to say that they were not economically dependent on Europeans. The truth of the matter goes further than that. Comparing the produce, imports and exports of African powers, compared with European powers, sheds more light on this intercontinental relationship. African people utilised techniques in metal working which produced higher quality steel in 600BC than the Europeans were producing in the early modern Europe circa 1500AD. Despite European iron being of a poorer quality, Africans imported it at their whim, if prices were low enough.[15] This clearly demonstrates African advancement in technology and manufacture, and a complete lack of reliance on European goods. The cloth exports of eastern Kongo matched those of Dutch textile hubs, like Leiden, demonstrating commercial success.[16] Europeans spoke highly of African textiles, comparing them with the best Italy had to offer.[17] Indeed, an English interest ordered that 1 million Senegambian mats be bought, “if they could be got”.[18] Africa was so self-sufficient in cloth production that European and Asian imports of cloth combined only accounted for less than 2 percent of the Gold Coast’s consumption.[19] This demonstrates effective internal markets and high production capacity. In fact, early Atlantic trade was not a necessity for Africans at all, but a welcome expansion of commerce and of greater choice in products. Indeed, Wilhelm Müller, a German Lutheran preacher on the gold coast of Africa in the 17th century, commented on how African consumerism was driven so heavily by fleeting fashion trends and the Europeans’ struggle to keep up with them.[20]

Does the above not just go to show the riches the Europeans stole, and the thriving business they interrupted? Not at all. The chronology would not work, in the first place – the above comparisons represent the position of Africa before and during the early Atlantic trade – and, secondly, we can observe how these trading interactions took place. Certainly, it is a commonly held belief that Europe broadly exploited, raided and plundered Africa for quick gains. This is probably, most commonly, an erroneous projection of ‘The Scramble for Africa’ – which happened in the 19th and 20th centuries – back through prior history. While the promise of long-term prosperity via trade did result in peaceful cooperation, it did not preclude aggression in the beginning. It is true that Europeans did abduct Africans in the early days of transatlantic trading,[7] but that quickly became the exception and not the rule. The tactic to ‘trade and raid’ was a time-old favourite of many European naval powers, famously including the Vikings, as it offered two means to gain resources and could trick the target population into a false sense of security (a raiding party may be mistaken for a trading party). However, African defences proved effective:

‘One of the first expeditions to the Senegal River, led by Lançarote de Lagos in 1444, brutally seized the residents of several off-shore islands… but it was not long before African naval forces were alerted to the new dangers… in 1446 a ship under Nuni Tristão attempting to land an armed force in the Senegambian region was attacked by African vessels, and the Africans succeeded in killing nearly all the raiders.’[21]

After successful defences made by African naval forces made raiding unviable, the Europeans mostly abandoned this tactic in favour of peaceful trade. Several of the European colonial powers had established ports where merchant ships would dock and purchase slaves from local and tribal African leaders.[22] Even where sporadic European raids had been successful, they were unhelpful in securing the more productive relationship of peaceful trading. If raiding had any significant outcome, it was that it hindered the establishment of good relations with Africans. There were cases of African coastal forces attacking peaceful European approaches because of the justified assumption that the European vessel in question was a raiding force.[23] As trade was increasingly seen as more productive than acts of aggression, previous transgressions against African people were not made a habit of – some even apologised for:

‘… such violence “spoiled” trade in an area, and most countries that had a long-term stake in trade took steps to prevent hostilities. Indeed, one of the earliest North American voyages, made from Boston in 1645, was involved in raiding, and the city officials actually returned the slaves seized by the ship with an apologetic note, probably to retain or regain good relations with their potential trade partners… peaceful trade became the rule all along the African coast…’[24]

With peaceful trade came slave trading, because long-standing, developed slave trades existed in Africa already. Slavery was so well established that on the arrival of Portuguese merchants in Senegal, 700 to 1,000 slaves were exported in the first year of trade.[25] There are many reasons for why slavery was so ubiquitous in Africa, but one of the most significant is found in African law: that slaves represented the only privately owned revenue producing property available. In European law, land represented such property, and so slavery represented a minor proportion of private property ownership in Europe. In Africa, land could not be privately owned – it was the property of the state.[26] This had far reaching implications, affecting everything from private enterprise to taxation. African governments raised revenue by taxing people – ‘heads’ – while European governments taxed land. African land could be accessed by anyone, cultivated, and the produce kept by the cultivator. In some places, royal permission had to be gained to cultivate land. As no income could be generated from developing land per se, because it could not be owned or sold, income relied on produce created in common spaces. That produce may be fleeting, and made in temporarily occupied spaces. Therefore, the ownership of labour which could reliably create produce in common land represented the kind of investment that land ownership represented in Europe.

African slaveholders captured most of their slaves in wars with other African countries, supplemented by raids of nearby territories and the abduction of other African peoples.[27] The control of the slave trade, from enslavement up to the point of sale at a port, was firmly in the hands of Africans. The balance of power was such that the trade was done on the terms of African rulers who would collect taxes, tariffs, and gifts from participants in the trade, negotiate trading terms, and start and stop the trade as they pleased.[28] The king of Benin, for example, decided to shut down the male slave market in the early 16th century, and eventually moved to eliminate trading slaves altogether.[29]

Interesting! So, What?

What is the point in reviewing the history when considering the topic of reparations? We have seen that the reality of transatlantic trading is far more complicated than romantic ideas of European villains and African noble savages. Europeans were not especially villainous, and Africans were not especially noble or savage. Europeans were not dramatically advanced conquerors of the world, and Africans were not a weak and abused people. This was a fractious world, of many great powers, not only European ones. To provide some context on just how different the world looked then, the continent of Asia accounted for 62.5 percent of the world’s GDP in the year 1600.[30]

The enslaved Africans were obviously abused, by a cooperation of African, European, and later American traders, slaveholders, and lawmakers. The slave trading relationship between Europeans and Africans, Americans and Africans, and Europeans and Americans, was not exploitative of either trading party involved – it was mutually voluntary. To be clear: the slave trade was a mutually voluntary trade of items of value for black Africans, whom both parties actively subjugated. While advocates of modern racist politics are intent on ascribing blame for past wrongs exclusively on people of one skin colour, they do so by perverting the historical record. History is infinitely more complex than arguments for reparations and ‘white privilege’ permit it to be. Europeans and white Americans are regularly cast as villains in modern discourse. A Nigerian journalist discussing slavery wrote:

‘Assessing the people of Africa’s past by today’s standards would compel us to cast the majority of our heroes as villains…’[31]

Once transatlantic slavery was underway, the only identifiable common feature of the transatlantic slave abroad, regardless of their country of origin or their destination, was their skin colour. Thus, the association of black skin with slave status was born, and the toxic marriage of slavery and racism developed.

Closer to the heart of this conversation, and contrary to popular belief, slavery was not founded on racism – clearly, as this slave trade, like most, originated with the enslavement of people by other people of the same race (Africans by Africans) – and that relationship is precisely the reverse. Racism was founded on slavery. The origins of slavery had everything to do with circumstance, convenience, and established business. It had little to do with the identity of its victims. It just so happened that the people with the maritime capability to transport millions of people across the Atlantic Ocean to work in agriculture was the Europeans, and they just so happen to be mostly white; and, it just so happened that the geographically accessible continent with a booming slave trade was Africa, and Africans just so happen to be black. There is no doubt that racism came out of slavery, but that distinction is important.

The line that ‘slavery was founded on racism’ is repeated so often that it is almost taken for granted, despite it being historically and logically wrong. Again, there is no doubt that people who looked obviously foreign will have been poorly received to native peoples in centuries gone by, but we must keep this perspective in mind: that pervasive, state-enforced racism was not common in the west prior to the transatlantic slave trade or even during its early years. In fact, 15th century Spain and Portugal considered alliance and intermarriage with the Ethiopian royals.[32] Interracial marriage would have been a truly disgusting idea to the more ardent supporter of the Jim Crow laws of the American South. That gives us some historical perspective on racism, and leads us onto slavery in the United States.

Slavery, Law, and Abolition in the USA

University of Texas at Austin. From the Cambridge Modern History Atlas, 1912


The first African slave in what would become the United States of America did not land in 1619 by an English privateer – he landed in 1528, in Florida, by a failed expedition. This slave, Estevanico, would go on to discover America – on foot – for eight years, before disappearing, ostensibly killed by the Zuni in western New Mexico.[33] Successful Spanish expeditions would continue to take slaves to the Spanish Americas throughout the 16th century. In 1565, the Spanish established the first European settlement in what is now the USA, in Augustine, Florida.[34]

The first people of any kind to be enslaved in America by Europeans were not Africans, but native American Indians. Not only did the natives suffer European colonial aggression, war, displacement, extermination, and epidemics of diseases they had not yet built any immunity to, but also slavery.[35] The Amerindians and their plight is acknowledged historically, but their existence today is not so regularly weaponised in politics as the black community is, and so pro-reparations arguments tend to exclude them.

Other Europeans followed the Iberians in claiming parts of the New World and taking slaves to work there, and by 1790 there were approximately 650,000 African slaves in the southern Democratic states of the US. That number grew to almost 4 million by 1860, despite the demise of the transatlantic slave trade over the same period, due to natural increase (higher birth rates and lower mortality rates).[36] Most slaves lived in small groups rather than on large plantations. Most southerners did not own slaves, less than one-quarter of white people in southern states did. Half of that quarter owned fewer than 5 slaves, and fewer than 1 percent owned more than one hundred.[37] A scholarly study further paints the picture of the American south in 1850:

‘… less than one-third of the southern white population had any material interest in the preservation of slavery. But even this does not represent the true situation… for many classed as slaveholders were only laborers who had accumulated money enough to buy one or two slaves and who still worked side by side with their chattels. The real slaveholding oligarchy numbered fewer than eight thousand.’[38]

The exceptional case of the aftermath of the transatlantic slave trade in the USA, and how that makes the history of the black Americans unique among black diasporas, should be outlined. Thomas Jefferson and his contemporaries wrote in the Declaration of Independence:

‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’[39]

To declare such noble foundations in the birth of a nation is a good thing, but to do so at a time when slavery was ongoing posed a problem to the slaveholding elite. The only way to square that circle was to assert that slaves were not ‘men’. The idea that slaves were property was not new, but to push the definition of a slave to one that rendered them subhuman, or not human, was peculiarly formalised in the US so that the Constitution and Bill of Rights did not apply to them. This bolstered the view among many a racist that black people were subhuman, and led directly to the laws which treated black people as a separate entity, state-enforced segregation, the Ku Klux Klan, state-complicit violence, and Jim Crow.[40]

Black Americans lived under fear, terror, discrimination, and sadistic lynchings for over one hundred years. W.E.B Du Bois, a social scientist and civil rights activist, wrote:

‘[in 1919] seventy-seven Negroes were lynched, of whom one was a woman and eleven were soldiers; of these, fourteen were publicly burned, eleven of them being burned alive. That year there were race riots large and small in twenty-six American cities including thirty-eight killed in a Chicago riot of August; from twenty-five to fifty in Phillips County, Arkansas; and six killed in Washington’[41]

For black Americans to fight against such an existence, tooth and nail, was a cause more noble than any. We need not lose sight of that while conducting a considerate, dispassionate analysis of race-relations today and whether reparations are a good idea or not. There is no question whether there was ever a fight to be fought, the question is whether there is a fight to be fought today and whether that includes demanding reparations.

‘Slave Codes’ and ‘Black Codes’ were the foundations for the continuing reality of racism in America. Whether US ‘Slave Codes’ recommended cruel punishment or regulated it, as they did both, the rules applied only to slaves. “Free colored” people existed from the beginning of slavery, and their numbers increased as time went by and more slaves were freed state by state. While they were free of the ‘Slave Codes’, they were still bound by ‘Black Codes’ and Jim Crow in many states for many years. Relationships between white and black people, some consenting, some the rape of slaves, and some in spite of their being forbidden by Jim Crow laws, produced people of mixed-race, termed “Mulattoes”.[42] Both the “Free Coloured”[43] and “Mulatto” populations attained higher socioeconomic positions, and some owned slaves themselves. John Stanly, for example, was a black slaveholder in the south, described as a “hard task-master”, working 163 slaves on 2,600 acres in 1830.[44] To provide some perspective on individual slave ownership, the largest American slaveholder Joshua John Ward, ‘king of the rice planters’, held 1,092 slaves in 1850.[45] Indentured Servitude – a form of slavery which is contractually limited in time, usually from one to ten years – was also common in the US, with most indentured servants coming from Europe. The American Civil War, fought along pro-slavery and pro-abolition lines from 1861 until 1865, concluded with a victory for the northern, Republican, pro-abolition states. In 1865, slavery was abolished with the 13th Amendment, under Abraham Lincoln.[46] Black people were free from slavery, but state-sanctioned racial discrimination continued until the landmark decision in Brown vs Board of Education.[47] Further protections were enshrined in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.[48]

The Mother Countries and Slave Codes

On the other side of the Atlantic, slaves were not taken back to Europe to work plantations, and few were sold for other purposes such as serving noble houses. Slaves in Britain were rare, and in the elite households in which they lived they would not typically perform onerous work, often housekeeping or working as butlers. Some were simply purchased as a status symbol.[49] Approximately 9,000 slaves were taken back to Europe between 1501 and 1867.[50] In contrast to the US, European slave codes were applicable in faraway colonies. The Barbados Slave Code marked the beginning of a number of localised British slave codes, while Le Code Noir (The Black Code) of France was centrally decreed and empire wide. Las Siete Partidas was the overarching legal basis for Spanish slavery, but in practice manifested itself as local laws in Spanish America and the Spanish Caribbean. I note that academics discard the idea of a racial-caste system existing in New Spain, based on analysis of historical documents and archival records. The idea of a caste system in Spanish America seems to be a myth born of a misinterpretation of the Spanish term ‘casta’, meaning ‘lineage’, and paintings depicting ‘Las castas’. This does not mean, of course, that slaves had any easier of a time in New Spain – they did not.

In all places where slavery is institutionalised and accepted, the authority of the land – be it a government, or the leader of a nomadic people – is involved in legitimizing it.

The Larger Trade: The Southern Atlantic

Why, then, does Brazil, a very heterogenous society which received more African people forcibly taken there than any other country, abolished slavery last of anywhere in the Western Hemisphere, and had anti-black legislation persisting afterward, also not have perceived problems of racism comparable to the United States? The reasons, I believe, are threefold: firstly, that complaints so abstract as ‘white privilege’ and ‘systemic racism’ are reserved for people of luxury, who have little else in their lives left to solve. Brazil is a developing country, and its people must work together, across racial identities, to advance. In other words, they have more important things to worry about. Secondly, that the American obsession with ancestral origin stories is peculiar to them, and does not live within the Brazilian psyche so loudly. Thirdly, that Brazil’s history is its own: no such enshrinement of universal individual freedom was made in Brazil during slavery, and therefore no formalisation of the black Brazilian population as less-than-men was made, as it was when the US declared its independence. No civil war in which one half of the country fought for slavery, explicitly insisting upon their ‘right’ to hold slaves, occurred, as it did in the USA. Brazil felt growing pressure toward abolition by the trailblazing nations in Europe, and later the USA. Brazil abolished slavery in 1888. One year later, in 1889, Brazil declared in section two of its Bill of Rights that ‘everyone is equal before the law’.[51] Therefore, Brazilian emancipation coincided with the enshrinement of guaranteed freedoms, whereas the USA grappled with a contradiction of life and law: slavery persisting after the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights were passed. While the path out of slavery was slower in Brazil, its gradual movement to consensus appears to have had different long terms effects to the USA’s ‘ripping off of the band-aid’ by a civil war.

Abolition

Abolition of slavery, in general, goes back many centuries. The Council of London abolished the slave trade in 1102;[52] the Council of Armagh freed all English slaves on the island of Armagh in 1171.[53] Slavery has been an on-and-off phenomenon in law forever, and the timeline for the abolition of transatlantic slavery is also complex.

Black Caribbeans can, to the fullest extent possible, claim the trauma of transatlantic slavery. Caribbean societies under colonial rule were comprised almost entirely of slaves: enslaved in Africa, bought and kept in bondage under harsh conditions by Europeans to work plantations. They can also claim an early abolition of transatlantic slavery. Saint Domingue’s slave rebellion was an extraordinary event, in which the enslaved revolted for 13 years. By 1804, they had massacred their French oppressors (and Spanish and British belligerents), and formed the sovereign state of Haiti, thereby abolishing slavery. This achievement came fairly early in legal abolitions of slavery, so it can be said that Haiti was one of the earliest nation states to do so. Being an almost entirely black population, racism – at least in the sense of white supremacy – cannot be said to feature in society. There are, however, reports of discrimination against Haitians by Dominicans, no doubt in part because of historic tensions between the two nations on the island of Hispaniola.[54] I would not like to mischaracterise these peoples, however, and I must point out that young Dominicans and Haitians I have spoken with contest this characterisation today and claim both groups share their lives with one another peacefully.

The United States is often berated as a country which abolished slavery too late, relative to other slaveholding powers of the time. Perhaps it did, but as early as 1777, the state of Vermont abolished adult male slavery.[55] States went on to abolish independently, as they are – and were even more so in those times – mostly self-governing. Most northern states would move to abolition before any European power would. The United States abolished slavery as a republic in 1865.

Voices inside Britain, like William Wilberforce’s, led the abolition movement among the major European powers.[56] Britain is often touted as the European colonial power to have abolished slavery first, but this is not exactly true. Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, but only abolished slavery in 1833, thereby freeing all slaves in the empire – but not until 1838 did the British colonies abolish slavery. At midnight on 31st July 1838, all enslaved people in the British Caribbean were freed.[57] Not all British territories or protectorates were free from slavery at that time, for example in British Burma where the colonial administration enacted a law to abolish slavery in 1926. The delays in abolishing slavery in parts of the British empire was at least in part due to local and native people having practising slavery as part of their own culture.[58] Denmark, a minor European power of the time, abolished its slave trade in 1792.[59]

What is true of Britain is its spearheading the movement to end slavery in Europe’s colonies, and a long international effort to end slavery. Shortly after completely abolishing slavery, parliament had the British navy make anti-slavery patrols, which significantly reduced the number of slave voyages. In 1845, 36 ships were assigned to the West Africa Squadron (an anti-slavery squadron), making it one of the largest fleets in the world. The Royal Navy captured approximately 1,600 ships and freed 150,000 Africans who were aboard those vessels.[60] Ships under foreign flags could only be intercepted if Britain had agreed rights of reciprocal maritime search, and, as the United States refused such arrangements, many slave-traders sailed falsely flying the stars-and-stripes.[61] 1849, the Royal Navy destroyed the Spanish slave factory of Lomboko, in Sierra Leone.[62]

There were deep seated notions of freedom within Britain, developing hundreds of years prior. In 1567, it was reportedly declared in an English court that “England was too pure an air for slaves to breathe in”.[63] This was not to say that slaves were not permitted to Britain, quite the contrary – that no man in Britain may be a slave. In 1706, the Lord Chief Justice Sir John Holt of England ruled in a court case that “as soon as a Negro comes into England, he becomes free; one may be a villein in England, but not a slave.” [64] (Villeins were people legally tied to their lord of the manor, hierarchically somewhere between a slave and a free-peasant). The idea that England was ‘free soil’ meant that slavery only survived for as long as it did for its being remote, in the Americas and the Caribbean. Holt went further and said, because English law applies to all its colonies, he saw no reason a slave should not be free when they set foot in Jamaica or any other English plantation.[65] Sadly, although the germ of the idea of true freedom was present and explicit, these judicial decisions and opinions did not set precedent enough to change slavery in general. The Somerset vs Stewart court case of 1772 would be decided along the same lines – that a slave landing in England was free – and was an important moment in the growing abolition movement.[66]

I will come to the economic woes that betide the majority as a result of the transatlantic slave trade, but to add insult to injury, taxpayers, free people and emancipated slaves, would pay the cost of emancipation. In Britain, that was a real, financial cost, which Britons only finished paying in 2015.[67] It was one of the largest loans taken by government in history, and accounted for 5 percent of GDP, or 40 percent of the national budget: the equivalent of £110.8bn ($142.75bn) today (30th September 2020). The fact that the British public purchased Britain’s slaves out of slavery is something the nation can be proud of. Whether the guilt of a crime is your own or not – and it surely was not for the average citizen – what better response to a wrong can one make but to right it? To draw a line under slavery and complete abolishment civilly – as opposed to by civil war, like the Americans – the British government bought the slaves of the British empire out of slavery. In other words, the slaveholders were paid the value of their slaves to set them free.

Spain abolished the importation of slaves into its territories in 1817 by a treaty with Britain, commencing 1820, in return for a £400,000 payment from Britain (£36m, today).[68] However, Spain didn’t free its slaves in Puerto Rico until 1873.[69] Portugal banned slavery on the mainland and in Portuguese India in 1761,[70] in the northern section of the transatlantic slave trade in 1815 (in return for a £300,000 payment from Britain (£27m, today), which was settled in 1817),[71] the rest of the transatlantic slave trade in 1836, and slavery in its colonies in 1869. Brazil abolished slavery in 1888.[72] A series of bilateral agreements between European powers, mostly brokered by Britain, would abolish the transatlantic slave trade. Britain would go on to make treaties around the world for the next century, with African and Asian powers, to abolish slavery. France abolished slavery in 1794, only to have it reinstated again in 1802, then abolished again in 1848;[73] Denmark-Norway, in 1848;[74] the Netherlands, in 1863;[75] Peru, in 1854;[76] and the list goes on for many countries around the world.

This brief overview of abolition serves to show that the matter of abolishing slavery was as messy and graduated – in extent and in chronology – as slavery itself. Abolition movements had been stirring for centuries all over Europe, Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas. Many Christian voices, in particular, took exception to slavery. For example, Bartolomé de las Casas, a Dominican friar, campaigned against slavery for many years. He refused absolution (forgiveness) to slave owners, even on their death bed, unless they freed all their slaves.[77] It took a long time for abolition to become a political reality, impeded by powerful lobbyist groups and lumbering political institutions. It would be difficult to blame one people or nation for not being quick enough off the mark, or conversely to reward one people for being especially progressive. Pro- and anti-slavery elements existed in all societies. Britain can be said to be more progressive than most nations of the time, but it was also a more prolific slave-trading power than most nations for the time that it participated. In a world where virtually every power with the capacity to enslave and trade slaves does so, the remarkable moments are those which counteract that trend.

Borrowing Trauma ‘In Solidarity’

Transatlantic slavery is a trauma that Britain, Portugal, Spain, France et al put upon its colonies, not one that they can themselves claim, even if ancestral grievance is appropriate to claim (which I suggest it is not). Clearly, for non-black Europeans, there is no appetite to complain about their ancestors’ slavery or indentured servitude, but for black Europeans also, it is a stretch to do so. Europe’s black diaspora emigrated there, from African nations and the Caribbean, a mixture of colonised and uncolonised places, with and without transatlantic slave histories. Most of that migration has occurred since the first half of the 20th century. As mentioned earlier, the whole continent of Europe only received a total of approximately 9,000 slaves during the entire transatlantic slave trade (0.072 percent of all slaves transported from Africa). More than that number lived in Europe of course, because of natural increase in the black European population and voluntary migration by free and wealthy Africans; but the total number for that period is still low. The UK has taken more immigrants since 1991 than it had taken in a combined total of the prior 140 years (from 1851, when the census began to record people’s country of birth).[78] Of the top ten nationalities seeking asylum in the UK in recent years, two of them are African: Eritrea and Sudan – east African countries not participating in the transatlantic slave trade.[79] South Africa, Nigeria, and Ghana are significantly more developed than the aforementioned African nations, in part because of their historical commercial ties to the western world (including the slave trade), and they account for the vast majority of Africans emigrating to the UK generally, for work, family connections etc.[80] That said, black/African/Caribbean Britons only account for 3 percent of the UK population.[81]

The UK is not, in truth, an especially diverse place. The British population is by and large native, with 87 percent of it being White British.[82] If a smaller majority white population is a measure of how diverse these countries are, then the USA is at least 10 percent more diverse.[83] Of course, the USA is much more diverse than that – its white population is less native than Britain’s, and it features every race, ethnicity, creed and nationality in significant numbers. From a UK perspective, this is interesting, as the general trend for the UK to adopt US habits extends to this very subject. A product of cultural osmosis, historical ignorance, and media inculcation, the UK population has widely come to believe that the black British population is in some way equivalent to the black US population, and that their trauma is shared. However, that the black peoples of Britain chose to settle there, while the originating black peoples of the US were taken there forcibly, is a key difference. That members of the black population of Britain often claim kinship and shared trauma with the black population of America, despite having completely different stories of how their ancestors arrived in their respective countries, is a curious fact.

A black Briton is significantly less likely to have enslaved ancestors than a black American, and is extraordinarily unlikely to have ancestors who were brought to UK shores against their will. There is also something to be said for the idea that a black Briton is much more likely to have an identifiable overseas origin, and a specific culture to go with that, than a black American. This is a feasible reason as to why black American culture appears, to some, a little more homogenised than black British culture. I do not find this particularly persuasive as a justification for grievance, though; firstly, because a strong culture can be confused with homogeneity. The US black community has a strong culture, aside from its Afro-Caribbean origins, containing unique fashion, music, comedy, and TV, which is exported across the world. Secondly, because most people, of any race, do not know their ancestral origins, in truth. Americans in general appear to place great importance on genealogy, and whatever heritage they find or believe they have, presumably because their country is peculiarly modern, mixed, and wealthy. As a Briton visiting the US, I have often had American people say things like, “oh, you’re British? I’m 1/8th British!” – statements I have heard nowhere else and from no person of any other nationality. Four of the largest and best-known genealogy services in the world are all American, by a search of their headquarters: Ancestry.com/AncestryDNA, 23andMe, Family Tree DNA, and AfricanAncestry.com. Outliers include MyHeritage, based in Israel and geared toward Jewish communities; and Living DNA, which is UK based and pays special attention to the English counties. The state of the market shows a disproportionate American interest in genealogy services. The accuracy of these services is contested, and the results quite vague, so even those who have gone to the trouble of using them may not be much more informed than those who have not.

The historical and cultural differences between the UK and the US is one reason the UK has not had problems with racism comparable to the US, but the importation of US racial grievances via media is creating parallel problems in the UK. Narratives around police brutality, ‘white privilege’, ‘cultural appropriation’, and ‘systemic racism’ have gained traction in recent years. The parallels of reaction despite the absence of parallel problems has become so stark that Britons have even taken to protesting in the streets when a black US citizen in Minnesota died in a police incident, for which the officer is facing a murder charge, on the presumption that there was racism at play.[84] It is somewhat ironic that, despite the undeniable fact that life for black Americans has been harder than for black Britons, black Americans have more freedoms and protections of those freedoms under US law than any Briton does under British law.[85]

The Legacy of Names

Some, in the US and the UK, cite English surnames as evidence of the extent of slavery: black people in both countries called Washington, Williams, Smith, Johnson, King, or Brown, for example. Clearly, the real historical numbers are a better metric, but still it is worth dispelling some of the faulty logic around this one. It seems strange to assume that a particularly brutal slaveholder would want to bestow their family name upon a person they deem, at best, a second- or third-class citizen and, at worst, subhuman. It is true that slaveholders would commonly brand their slaves on purchase or resale. Brutally painful as the practice was, it also served as punishment for supposed misdeeds, such as running away, usually with a one or a few letters – initial(s) of the owner,[86] or the letter R for runaway[87] – especially in areas where it was prescribed by law.[88] This punishment was imported directly from Europe, where it was commonplace.[89] However, the name of a person is different to the brand put upon them by an owner who considered them property.

Quite aside from punishment, English names were largely chosen by black people, some enslaved, some not, who thought them distinctive, or as a way to embrace the freedoms eventually gained by black Americans which they should have been afforded by the US’s founding principles and in British common law. Some found utility in that they fit in to a majority white population well. Therefore, these names only go to prove Anglo-colonial influence, not necessarily a genealogy of slavery. This is not to say that slaves were not given a name by their masters, or that a slave’s voluntary taking of their master’s name is indicative of their freedom – it is not. The point is that this is not a good metric by which to gauge the extent of the legacy of slavery. Some black slaveholders also had English names.[90] Of all people with the surname Washington in the US in the year 2000, 90 percent of them were black.[91] Clearly, the popularity of this name among black people cannot be explained away by coercion alone, nor is it proportional to the number of white slaveholders called Washington. George Washington himself had only a few of the 123 slaves sharing his surname, and even those may have been by the choice of the slaves. It appears unlikely to have been forced upon them, given the low number of his slaves with the name. George Washington is the head of the first ‘First Family’ of the United States, which, interestingly, has turned out to be biracial by his adopted son who fathered sons with several of Washington’s slaves. A symbolic testament to the ‘melting pot’ that is the United States.

The point is that the black community is inordinately more diverse and complex than a theme of enslavement. For the enslaved class, it was a tragic trial of a country’s development toward living the ideals it so nobly proclaimed from its inception: liberty and justice for all.

The Economic History of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Much is made of the profit accrued by slavery, which was undoubtedly enjoyed by slave traders. However, this point is often extended to entire peoples and nations. The acknowledgement of African participation in the slave trade is overlooked, as already established, but two facts in that vein must be considered: 1. If slaves were unendingly profitable to own, Africans would never have sold them. Clearly, slaves may or may not be perceived as profitable to hold depending on the business in which they are pressed into labour, and depending on the demand for labour in a given area. 2. That, where Africans profited, the same claims of profits ascribed to nations also apply to African nations.

“Britain was built on the profits of slavery”, it is claimed – and it is a point which often goes without challenge. If true, the western offshoots of Britain would also owe some of their wealth to slavery, by extension. It does seem intuitive: surely the acquisition of free labour to harvest valuable exports, like sugar, would produce huge profits. This is not the result, for several reasons.

Slavery thrives only when there is economic surplus and high demand for labour because it is expensive to sustain. Slaves cannot sustain themselves because they are paid no wages. For the slaveholding business owner, the cost of purchasing a slave, transporting them, and the ongoing costs of upkeep and maintenance, is high, and the cost of losing their ‘asset’ (the slave dying) even higher. The cost of transportation costs at a time when naval technology was barely good enough to negotiate international waters at all was very high. The soaring mortality rates of slaves in transportation across the Atlantic especially raised questions over the profitability of the enterprise. For a free, voluntary worker, on the other hand, all of the costs associated with their personal maintenance and their transportation to work are their own.

The old adage “one volunteer is worth ten pressed men” also applies here. People worked to utter exhaustion and injury with no reward do not prove to be the most productive of workers. There is no motivation for a slave to be more productive. Not even the hope that their next beating be less harsh on account of their hard work holds any potency. I do not imagine slaveholding plantation owners paid much attention to the output of individual slaves, dished out any such ‘rewards’ for hard work, or that slaves expected any leniency in their treatment for being more productive. The slaveholder expects their property to do what it is told, and no less.

The actual cost of labour, whether realised by a slaveholder in upkeeping slaves, or by paying workers to upkeep themselves, is high when employment is not desired by the worker. Free workers compete for jobs, which forces the price of labour down. A parallel in the slave worker obviously does not exist. Slaves do not compete to be enslaved, offering a more placid temperament and better work ethic than their ‘rival’ slaves. As such, there is no downward pressure on labour costs. Free workers offer to do more work for less pay than their competition in order to secure their employment.

The economic realities of the period too show that the total cost to sustain slave owned business was higher than it would have been to pay wages to employees in mutually voluntary exchanges in less far flung parts of the world. This ceases to sound controversial when one considers that slave societies have existed for thousands of years with no significant economic development, while the breakthrough of free market capitalism in the 19th century saw exponential growth of a kind unparalleled in history. The advancement in the lot of the average worker was the most remarkable element of that economic revolution. Put differently, slavery was a normal means to accrue profit not because it was especially efficient but because mankind had not worked out any better alternatives yet. Indeed, the distant location of the New World and its largely unpopulated state meant that enslaving foreign people was a quick and practical method for Europeans creating a labour force there. The expense of that method, some Europeans could afford.

The Caribbean colonies were so barely viable as a business enterprise that the British government levied tariffs on cheaper sugar produced by competing European powers, thereby forcing British citizens to purchase overpriced British Caribbean goods. Furthermore, many other costs associated with business in new territories, such as naval protection, were borne by the taxpayer – not the enslaving business owners. When considering a total “British” profit from this enterprise, much of the private profits are offset by the costs borne by the public. Considering the costs and subsidies, and the greater profits found in other trades and business, there is a strong case to be made that giving the colonies away or abandoning them would have been more profitable to Britain than maintaining them.

The numbers back up the basic economic logic: the Caribbean sugar sector accounted for less than 2.5 percent of British national income, meaning that more than 97.5 percent of income was generated by domestic and other foreign markets.[92] This is unsurprising given the scale of slavery as an enterprise in the context of British commerce in general. Slavery did not make up even close to a majority of what was traded between Europeans and the world: at its height, the slave trade accounted for less than 1.5 percent of British ships, and less than 3 percent of British shipping tonnage.

The only significant financial result of the slave trade for the offending European powers is that a small number of slaveholders accrued vast personal wealth at the expense of African lives and the average European’s personal wealth. Edward Colston, for example, profited at the expense of many others through the slave trade. It could be said that some small number of Britons benefited from his wealth, as it was used to build schools and housing for the poor in Bristol. While this fact might be a strong symbol for many familiar with Colston and the city of Bristol, it does not represent anything economically noteworthy.

Britain’s treasury did not reap much, if anything, from colonists claiming rent-free cultivation land in the New World;[93] nor did taxing the produce, as the British tried to do with various acts of parliament in the 18th century, prove easy.[94] Furthermore, income tax did not exist in England at this time, so the public purse did not gain at all by the means we might expect today (African governments profited more, relative to the amount of trade they oversaw, because of the taxes they could levy on traders operating on their shores, as discussed earlier). The United Kingdom, as a nation, saw no significant profits from the slave trade. As the authors of a scholarly study put it:

‘Historical interest in the slave trade rests on its obvious immorality, not its economic importance. The business formed a relatively small share of the Atlantic trade of any European power. Its direct contribution to the economic growth of any nation was trivial.’[95]

The French Caribbean produced 17 percent more sugar, 9 times more coffee, and 30 times more indigo than the British Caribbean.[96] Indeed, Adam Smith commented that the French planters managed their slaves better than the English.[97] However, it is not France today which outpaces Britain’s economy. It is Germany today which, after minimal colonial success and national decimation in two world wars, is the richest country in Europe.[98] This is due to the liberalisation of economic policy, and Germany can thank Ludwig Erhard for that.[99] The thing peculiar to Britain was not its slave trade – other European and non-European powers took more slaves than Britain and have thereafter not approached its per capita income – it was its development of free market economics and wage labour. The explosion of productivity in Britain and its Western Offshoots occurred after free market ideology became the prevailing view and the policy pursuit of choice. The philosophy of individual freedom underpinning that ideology led to and went hand-in-hand with the abolition of slavery. If slavery was the cause of industrialisation and Anglo-American wealth today, then Britain would be Portugal, and the United States would be Brazil.

There is a sense in which ‘the US was built on the back of the slave trade’, in that many famous American buildings were built by or involved the use of slave labour. The White House, the US Capitol, and the Smithsonian Institution would all be included in such a list.[100] However, the American economic picture does not reflect this stark symbolism. While slavery was almost certainly profitable in the US, it is also true that slaveholding areas saw more profit through industry and agriculture after emancipation. The US, along with all of the western offshoots of Britain, saw no significant economic growth until abolition was well underway (no great increase year-on-year throughout the period of slavery, and nothing remotely comparable to the late 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries).[101] The greatest periods of economic growth occurred long after full emancipation had been achieved, therefore it does not follow that the modern US economy was ‘built on the back of slavery’. These trends are in line with standard economic expectations, as people create far more wealth when they are free – not in shackles. The US would have done better economically had it freed it slaves sooner. Indeed, Australia, at the other side of the world, nowhere near the Atlantic, saw an even greater exponential rise in GDP in the 19th century than the USA.[102]

The takeaway from the economic history is that the transatlantic slave trade was not only a calamitous moral failure, but an economic failure too. Why, then, was it pursued? Could the businessmen and governments of the time not see slave labour for the failure that it was? There are many reasons why economic failure is chosen over success, from ignorance and incompetence to malevolence. Adam Smith offered this suggestion:

‘The pride of man makes him love to domineer, and nothing mortifies him so much as to be obliged to condescend to persuade his inferiors. Wherever the law allows it, and the nature of the work can afford it, therefore, he will generally prefer the service of slaves to that of freemen. The planting of sugar and tobacco can afford the expense of slave-cultivation. The raising of corn, it seems, in the present times, cannot. In the English colonies, of which the principal produce is corn, the far greater part of the work is done by freemen… Both [sugar and tobacco] can afford the expense of slave cultivation but sugar can afford it still better than tobacco. The number of negroes, accordingly, is much greater, in proportion to that of whites, in our sugar than in our tobacco colonies.’[103]

That human nature and moral corruption may trump sound economics is something I find quite uncontroversial.

For all apart from European, African and American politicians and businesspeople siphoning wealth through bad business and bad legislation, the slave trade represented a loss. It was such an all-around failure of humanity that free people in free countries would do better to recognise that, and band together in opposing slavery where it still exists in the world rather than turning on one another in a game of retrospective class-struggle.

A World of Slavery

The transatlantic slave trade is not the only slave trade to have existed and was certainly not the longest running. The Arab-Muslim powers throughout history have most prolifically and consistently sustained slave trades, taking many millions of slaves across the ages. From east Africa alone, Muslims are estimated to have taken an estimated 17 million slaves.[104] Provision for slavery is made in the Qur’an[105] and Hadith.[106] The Ottoman Empire and its corsairs operating out of North Africa took over a million slaves from Europe between 1530 and 1780, including Spain, Portugal, Italy, England, France, the Netherlands, some from even as far as Iceland.[107] The enslavement and sale of Africans, too, is a major feature of Islamic history. The regularity of African slavery was such that the ratio of slaves to free people was extremely high in some areas, as written by an Iranian historian:

‘There is an abundance of female and male slaves in this port, so much so that each household has ten or twelve such boys and girls – so many that the language most commonly spoken there is Sudanese (“zaban-e Sudan: this could also simply mean “language of the Blacks”).’[108]

It is interesting to note that the plantation model of slavery – employing ‘gangs’ of male workers to work on large projects – was not even unique to the transatlantic slave trade. It featured in the Muslim trades, too:

‘…perhaps the most widely known account of such slavery are the descriptions of the mass enslavement of blacks, generally thought to be East Africans, or “zanj” in the marshlands of Iraq… during the early period of the Abbasid Caliphate, great numbers of Africans were transported to Iraq to work in the marshes under the harshest of conditions.’[109]

Further on the same subject, David Gazunki of the Paris Global Forum wrote:

‘…the Arab slave trade, a major component of African history, lasted more than 13 centuries. It began in the early seventh century and continued in one form or another until the 1960s. In Mauritania slavery was officially outlawed only in August 2007.’[110]

Although the practice has effectively died out in many Muslim communities, and been outlawed in places, there was no abolition movement in the Muslim world.[111] The religious provisions for slavery preclude concerted efforts by Muslim authorities, or even the wider Muslim population, to denounce it publicly or philosophically. Despite numerous attempts to outlaw slavery in Mauritania, for example, the practice is still normal to this day.[112] It should be noted that, while the Bible has fewer direct prescriptions for and rules around slavery than Islamic scripture, it is widely referenced and was clearly a completely normal practice in all middle eastern societies at the time of authoring and for almost all time since.

In Iberia (modern day Spain and Portugal) slavery persisted under the Greeks, the Phoenicians (a Semitic-speaking people from the Levant), the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Visigoths (a Germanic people), and the Muslim powers which ruled ‘Al-Andalus’. The Muslims of Spain enslaved many Europeans, in large part the Slavs of Eastern Europe. The Vikings also enslaved Slavs of eastern Europe, operating a successful slave trade for centuries, selling as far afield as Egypt, to the Islamic empires.[113] The Vikings enslaved people from the British Isles to such an extent that DNA mapping of the modern Icelandic people shows only a third of women to have originated in Norway, while two thirds originate from the British Isles.[114] Other Europeans powers, including the Romans, enslaved people all over the world for every century on record, many of whom, again, were Slavs. Indeed, the English word ‘slave’ is a cognate of ‘Slav’ – there are etymological links in numerous languages, as the Slavic people were held in slavery by Romans, Greeks (Byzantines), medieval Europeans, and Muslims, for so many centuries.[115] In 1086, 10 percent of England’s population were slaves.[116] The famous line “Britons never, never, never will be slaves!”, from Rule Britannia,[117] was never true, really. The Indian Ocean’s slave trade has a long history, predating any of the empires we associated with slavery, as historian Bernard K. Freamon explains:

‘The “globalized” Indian Ocean trade in fact has substantially earlier, even pre-Islamic, global roots. These roots extend back to at least 2500 BCE, suggesting that the so-called “globalization” of the Indian Ocean trading phenomena, including slave trading, was in reality a development that was built upon the activities of pre-Islamic Middle Eastern empires, which activities were in turn inherited, appropriated, and improved upon by the Muslim empires that followed them, and then, after that, they were again appropriated, exploited, and improved upon by Western European interveners.’[118]

The ancient Egyptians, Aztecs, Mayans, imperial Russia, and Soviet Russia, among countless others, took slaves from populations local to them and some from farther afield. Slavery in general has so long a history that archaeological evidence shows us slavery predates the ability to read or write and is traceable to the first civilisations in 3500BCE Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq).[119]

The point of elucidating mankind’s penchant for slavery in virtually every society that has had the conditions for it to arise (social stratification, military strength, economic surplus, demand for labour etc.) is not to engage in ‘whataboutery’, it is to put the idea of reparations into a historical context. Nobody wanted to be a slave, but virtually everybody wanted – and took – slaves. It is a persistent evil of mankind. Only in the 18th century, and only in Western civilization, did it become unacceptable to majority populations. In the purview of American history, slavery is often called ‘the peculiar institution’, because it is peculiar to Americanism and existed in spite of and in contradiction to foundational American principles. The condition of slavery, however, is not peculiar to anyone in any place. All the victims of the periods of enslavement briefly mentioned above, along with innumerable others in history, ought to be compensated according to the logic that leads us to consider reparations as a policy option. The history of slavery is as long and complex as the history of humanity itself, and therefore the social and mathematical calculations required to perform reparations along lines of whose ancestors oppressed whose are impossibly complicated.

One might expect that those concerned with racism and race relations would be pleased to learn that history proves reality to be less of a black-and-white caricature than many believe. Alas, those with politically based racial grievances deny fact and insist otherwise. Through the complexities of the atrocities and the diversity of both the perpetrators and the victims, up to the long march to abolition, we can take heart in the fact that the moral, legal, humanitarian, and economic failures of slavery are plain, demonstrable, and no longer pervading western societies.

The Nigerian journalist I quoted earlier, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, wrote of her slave-trading Nigerian great-grandfather, Nwaubani Ogogo:

‘It would be unfair to judge a 19th century man by 21st century principles.’[120]

I agree with her. For me, the conversation ends there. For many others, it does not – and so we apply the history to the policy idea of reparations.

Applying Truth in Policy

Let us briefly acknowledge that the money already paid by western countries to their former colonies in foreign aid might be viewed as paying reparations. In 2016, £2.86bn (51 percent) of British foreign aid was spent in Africa, and £2.34bn (48 percent) in Asia – the two continents in which British imperialism was most extensive. The argument one most often hears, though, is not made in favour of people who live in the former colonies, or for people who are actually poor – it is made in favour of people living in rich, western, capitalist societies, like the USA. Our focus is, therefore, individuals inside those societies.

For the case for reparations to hold, we would need to know with at least a satisfactory degree of certainty that a person was descended of slaves, and that another was descended of slaveholders, renters, or traders. Clearly, given the history outlined above, this is not an issue that can be split along black and white lines. Some white people were slaves, some were slaveholders. Some black people were slaves, some were slaveholders. Therefore, in the US, there are white descendants of slaves and slaveholders, and black descendants of slaves and slaveholders. People of both races arrived in the US before, during, and after the era of the transatlantic slave trade. This is before we have considered any other races or ethnicities. The argument for reparations does not, interestingly, consider any races other than black and white. This is suggestive of a constructed class struggle for political gain, à la Marxism. In a country with a population as diverse as the United States, the ‘nation of immigrants’, where the descendants of victims and oppressors of all stripes can be found, the problem of historical oppression is more complicated than black and white. For reparations to be applied fairly, whatever the target class to be recompensed, we would need to know the detailed ancestry of every single person, and apply a consistent mathematical formula to determine whether someone is to be a recipient or a contributor to a national reparations scheme and to what degree.

The broader the brush, the clumsier its application. One might consider it safe to say that white people on net have benefited from slavery in the US, especially as they constitute the majority ethnic population, and this point is often stated by pro-reparations voices. The first, most obvious fact, is the litany of historical complications: that most people were not slaveholders, not even most white people were slaveholders; slave holders were not exclusively white; the profits of the slave trade were reserved for the elite of both white and black people at the expense of most other white and black people; and that many white people in the US have ancestors who were indentured servants. Aside from the transatlantic trade specifically, it would be morally dubious to take reparations money from the descendants of white Europeans whose ancestors were enslaved by Vikings, Romans, Ottomans etc. and especially untrue for the eastern European diaspora who have a long and recent history of being enslaved. Indeed, the very word slave comes from Slav: the people of eastern Europe. The principalities of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus were founded as a by-product of the Scandinavian slave trade with the Islamic empires. Clearly, it is not appropriate to lump Slavic people, especially those hailing from the Balkans, in with people who are assumed to be oppressive for the majority of generational time.

A punishment of white people in general would be a scapegoating exercise right from the beginning. It would also be unfair on a practical level to all of those white people in poverty who are poorer than the average person of any race. This kind of complexity exists for the ancestry of most people. It would be equally morally backward to award money to black people descended of slaveholders. People with bloodlines that are pure, unadulterated threads through a lineage of privilege, power and oppression are virtually non-existent. Perhaps the only national identities which were slavers (highly successful, international slavers), and were never themselves enslaved by foreign powers, are those of Scandinavia.

Would Jewish people ‘count’ as white? Surely if any people can be described as the most oppressed in history, it is the Jewish people – yet they would end up paying reparations to other people if judged by their skin colour. Or should Jewish people also receive payments from the descendants of every people who ever subjugated them? That list would be quite long. Interestingly, the very first article French slave code, Le Code Noir, mandated the eviction of all Jews from French colonies.[121] One might consider it strange for ‘The Black Code’ to make Jews, not black people, its first order of business – but it demonstrates the insidiousness of antisemitism in Europe throughout the ages.

Would white Americans with Hungarian ancestry expect reparations by virtue of living alongside white Americans with Russian ancestry, considering the Gulags?[122] Would descendants of the 1 million Armenians who died in a genocide at the hands of the Turks receive payment?[123] Would American Muslims be forced into paying reparations on the basis that Islamic empires enslaved Europeans, Asians and Africans for centuries?[124] Do the French, who operated a slave system regarded as one of the harshest in the Americas and are almost never mentioned outside the context of colonial Africa, have anything to answer for?[125] Would white people be held mostly responsible for reparations because white people controlled most of the US plantations? Or, would Latino people be held more responsible for reparations to black people than white Angles because Portugal and Spain transported to the Americas and Caribbean more than twice as many slaves the British Empire did?[126] This would not fit the narrative of white people versus black people, or the wider class struggle narrative which is now accepted in the guise of ‘white privilege’: white people vs non-white people (or, ‘people of colour’).

Would black people who had benefitted by circumstances around their ancestors’ enslavement, or, closer to the time of slavery itself, by the circumstances of their own enslavement, be eligible for reparations? This notion may sound preposterous, but clearly some Africans found themselves in circumstances preferable to alternatives, perhaps even preferable to the ones they left behind in Africa. The offspring of slaves also sometimes found themselves in better conditions than could have been expected in their parents’ homeland. Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was born to an unorthodox couple: a wealthy white Frenchman and his wife’s African slave. Le Code Noir states that a child born from a free man and a slave woman is a slave child, but Joseph’s father did not treat him as such. With the support of his father, he went on to become a champion fencer, a colonel, a renowned classical composer, a virtuoso violinist, and the conductor of the leading symphony orchestra in Paris.[127] This is a real example, not to minimize the significance of a time when slaves were beaten, tortured and killed, but to acknowledge the historical complexity and the true range of the slave experience from horror to great success.

So, the initial claim of this exercise – that reparations are a rectification for historical wrongs – is forfeit. History is too complicated to accommodate such a simplistic notion. History is not exclusive to the white British and white American involvement in the transatlantic slave trade.

Some try to wriggle out of observing world history accurately by declaring that the only oppression relevant to the United States is oppression that happened on US soil. To discard an entire theory for certain groups of people based on inserting some kind of Oppression Olympics equivalent of the ‘birther’ principle to the scenario is at best arbitrary and at worst cynical. To insist that oppression must be born in the US to be relevant to a nation of immigrants is nothing short of silly. Furthermore, by this logic, the purchase and transportation of slaves by European colonial powers was fair game – it is only the short-lived American trade and the exploitation of the slaves inside the US which are eligible for complaint. Bizarre, but even here the problems of white and black slaveholders, and that a minority of the total population were slaveholders, remain. To choose to be ignorant to the rest of the world is a variant of American exceptionalism that people regularly object to and ought to be objected to here. If historical oppression between peoples is relevant, then it is relevant; if it is not, then it is not. Rigging the game with arbitrary measures to favour the proponents of reparations and white privilege only goes to show how weak the original position is.

As is now clear, a historical assessment of ancestral grievances is an absolute farce to implement at a policy level; but, even if we did have every person’s ancestral record accurate and accessible at no logistical cost, how would it be used? At the most basic level: if a black American has one white parent, and one black parent who is known to have been descended of slaves, are they only entitled to 50 percent of the reparations payment? If one of their grandparents is east Asian, do they get even less? Would we multiply their 50 percent value from their parents with a 75 percent value from their grandparents, getting 37.5 percent? If one of their ancestors was a slave trader, do they get a negative value applied, or is their scorecard for victimhood completely wiped clear? Do we take money from person A, adjudicated to be descended of the oppressor, and give it to person B, adjudicated to be descended of the oppressed, and repeat this throughout the population? Or do we apply the broadest of brushes and use that vague, bottomless pit of money, the public purse, to fund such a project? This is how I imagine most people conceive the idea, as it seems intuitive that because “the USA” was in the wrong, it was the government in the wrong.

Naturally, the US government was in the wrong for allowing slavery, and for its racist legislation, and for renting slaves on building projects and military installations. Had racism not been state-enforced, it would have been much shorter lived. However, it was private individuals who were the slaveholders. Whatever the rationale, if the government is charged with the duty of spending public money on reparations, it is necessary to point out that the government’s money is the people’s money. Spending from the communal pot might do away with the need to decide who the oppressors are, because everyone pays, but to determine the oppressed is still a requirement. The identity of the recipient matters, for it to be a reparations payment at all. To take taxpayer dollars from the descendants of slaves and give it to the descendants of slaveholders would be quite perverse. As the descendants of slaves do pay taxes, it seems strange that reparations should be paid from this source, for then the descendants of slaves would be in some proportion paying for their own remuneration. That may not sound like a real problem, because it is essentially the same as a tax refund for select people, but different people contribute different amounts in taxes. As this is a symbolic solution to a symbolic problem, it would no doubt cause discontent among recipients of reparations payments in California that somebody from Delaware received the same cash payment. Delaware has a much lower tax burden than California, so a cash payment of a set amount would represent a much better “tax refund” for those people. In other words, high tax burden states would be contributing more to this program than others, if it was done at the federal level. Given this reality, reparations would have to be administered at the state level. That, however, invites its own problems: firstly, because states are not consistent in their approach to the same problems; secondly, because some states do not take income tax, they would not likely afford such a program without federal funds. For people advancing the idea of reparations, these are the issues which must be seriously considered. I suspect, however, that since identity politics is based on emotional, concocted narratives, with Marxist foundations of collectivism, defining people by group, and inter-group warfare, that the facts are merely an inconvenience to a ‘greater’ political cause. Put differently, the outcomes are secondary to the sentiment.

The history means we would be hard pressed to define guilty groups, we have no reliable way of determining who belongs to what group, and we would be morally failing to try. With the problems stacking up, we turn to a another: the current-day justifications for reparations and its underlying narrative.

The Socioeconomic Case and ‘White Privilege’

So that we could interrogate the historical case for reparations in response to slavery, we made a number of assumptions. One of them was that slavery has tangibly disadvantaged black people of today and has been tangibly advantageous for white people of today. Putting aside that this simple dichotomy of white people versus black people does not make any sense in light of modern diasporas (neither group is a monolith, members of both groups experienced gain and loss by slavery, both groups have intermingled for generations, and race is not a good way to group people) and the other problems elucidated thus far, let us assess the claim that black people are unduly disadvantaged and that white people are unduly successful. This idea is encapsulated by the term ‘white privilege’.

If it is true that white people (let us take white Britons and white Americans, since this is what we in the English speaking world really mean when we consider ‘white privilege’ and white people paying reparations) are unduly successful because of the transatlantic slave trade, then we should find them outperforming all other races on various socioeconomic indicators. If it is true that black people have been unduly hindered in socioeconomic progression by the transatlantic slave trade, then we should find them performing worse than all other races on various socioeconomic indicators. Put differently: if we think that this era of slavery is more potent in its effects upon the groups which share an identity with the benefactors and the victims respectively more than any other era or event affecting any other racial group in history, then that is exactly what we should find. Otherwise, its impact would not be evident, and the original justification for reparations without merit. For the sake of simplicity, let us lump in white supremacy with the idea of ‘white privilege’, because while the former involves nefarious motivation and the latter does not necessarily, they should both be contributory to and visible in socioeconomic indicators.

Income and Race

Earlier, reference was made to the idea that black people of today suffer economically because of the financial destitution of their enslaved ancestors. To quantify this in terms of people who are actually descendants of slaves is impossible, because we have the same lack of genealogical omniscience as the proponents of the argument. We can, however, assess the broad presumption that racism is to blame for modern poverty in the black American population. Before doing so, let us acknowledge that this complaint is precisely not that black Americans are poorly-off. The claim is that black Americans are not quite as well-off as other very well-off American groups.

To invoke an international example which made headlines: black conservative talk show host Larry Elder claimed that, if ‘black America’ were a nation, it would be the 15th wealthiest nation in the world. His statistical analysis was criticised by The Atlantic in an article,[128] but even if his methodology wasn’t perfect, his point was not off-base. The Atlantic went on to produce a litany of infographics which presented ‘black America’ as quite impoverished. Their methodology, too, is questionable. Neither side of that tussle really gets to the truth of matter, but let us get a third and fourth opinion on the detail. Politifact’s analysis, using different methodology again, puts ‘black America’ as 44th in a world ranking. This means that, by Politifact’s estimations, the average black American is better-off than the average Portuguese person. Especially in the context of this essay, this comparison is interesting, because it shows that – according to the group identity hypothesis invoked by the white privilege and reparations brigade – the descendants of black slaves in the US have economically surpassed the descendants of slaveholders in Portugal: the largest of all transatlantic slave trading nations. For those who like a symbol, that is a hugely significant one.

Rather than trust Elder, the journalists at the Atlantic, or the faceless ‘fact-checkers’ who cite unpublished email exchanges with ‘experts’ to bolster their own calculations, I would prefer to leave the analysis of economic data to economists. Professor of economics at George Mason University, Dr Walter E Williams, calculated the GDP of black Americans in 2008 as rank 18th when compared to nations of the world – richer than Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, Indonesia, and Poland, to name but a few.[129] No matter which you prefer, each of these measures represents a truth about the position of black Americans in a world of around 200 countries: that they are rich. Indeed, Williams goes on further, to show just how rich poor Americans of any race are:

‘Generally, people whom the census bureau defines as poor have almost the same level of consumption of protein, vitamins and other nutrients as upper middle-income people. In 1971, only about 32 percent of all Americans enjoyed air conditioning in their homes; by 2001, 76 percent of poor people enjoyed that comforting amenity… Forty-six percent of poor households now own their homes, and only about 6 percent of them are overcrowded. Indeed, the average poor American has more living space than the average nonpoor individual living in Paris, London, Vienna, Athens, and other European cities.’[130]

It is in that context – that any American, including the black American, is among the richest people in the world – that the conversation must proceed.

Income is often a measure used to determine the socioeconomic standing of persons and groups. This is an appropriate measure for the purposes of this essay. Some people try to side-line the discussion of income in favour of inheritance and wealth, probably because the wholesale numbers are more fantastical and appealing to the sensationalist, and because it is harder to measure and therefore harder to refute. Ambiguity is an ally of falsehood. In anticipating the appeal to wealth and inheritance, I cite two scholarly studies which show that inheritance decreases wealth inequality,[131] and that differences in income are indeed the primary cause of wealth inequality.[132] Therefore, income is the appropriate metric to put under scrutiny here. The technical reasons and data supporting these scientific conclusions are interesting, but beyond the scope of this conversation. I also note that you can find a litany of articles, written by people who are pro-redistributionist, which cite that same fact regarding the primary cause of wealth inequality, with the same source. The fact is not in dispute, but the redistributionist spins it to portray income inequality as even worse than they already perceive it to be. ‘How can it not be, if it is the contributor to the large wealth disparity we were complaining about before?’ This observation is a fallacy, of course. Whatever the income inequality statistics are, they are what they are. They cannot be presumed to be worse than what they truly are, or more worthy of rectification, just because the redistributionist would like to make up for the loss of their wealth inequality argument. That lost wealth inequality argument is the one which characterises richer people like dragons: sitting atop a hoard of wealth, mysteriously acquired, and apparently constantly growing. This caricature is laughable to anyone with a knowledge of basic economics but is also apparently impervious to the presence of that knowledge in many spaces.

It is often assumed, and sometimes denoted in statistics, that black people are the lowest income ethnic group in American society. Household income is often used to make this point, probably in part because such statistics are easy to find, and in part because they support the narrative that black people are worse off than everybody else. These two reasons may also be linked: household income statistics may be easier to find because they support this narrative and are therefore repeated often. On these statistics, it is true to say that real median household incomes are lowest among black Americans.[133] However, this does not speak to the income of individual black Americans.

The statistician would note that it is conceivable for household incomes to be vastly different to individual incomes, due to factors such as marriage rates and family sizes. Introducing these variables masks the earnings of people of a particular race, instead informing us which cultures and family structures earn more. Furthermore, when discussing discrimination, the pertinent information is what individuals earn, because it is individuals who face discrimination. Indeed, analysing individual incomes shows household income statistics to be misleading in this context. Median earnings of individual full-time wage and salary workers show that Hispanic people earn the least of all ethnic groups. Asian people earn the highest amount, followed by white people, followed by black or African American people, followed lastly by Hispanic people.[134] Here, as with so many other examples used, the reality is different from the reality presented by mistake, poor understanding of statistics, or nefarious spin tactics. It must be noted that all disparities between higher and lower incomes are exaggerated, firstly because they are recorded before tax and higher income people pay far more in tax, and secondly because in-kind benefits and welfare which are received by lower income people are not included in income statistics.

If it is the case that racism and the legacy of slavery are responsible for the plight of black Americans, why do they earn more than Hispanic Americans? Why are Latin Americans, a group with a relatively high rate of descendancy from slaveholders, not reaping the benefits of that ‘intergenerational wealth’ accrued by their oppressive ancestors? Why is a group represented by many people with white skin, not experiencing the benefits of ‘white privilege’? I would suggest one’s distant ancestors or race have little bearing on their socioeconomic position in a free society with high social mobility. Why do Hispanic Americans, who individually earn less than black Americans, keep more working people per household in order to raise their household income? The reasons are no doubt numerous, complex, and in some cases unquantifiable (cultural differences, for example). Whatever the reasons, it is clear income statistics do little to advance the notion that racism or slavery determine socioeconomic status. That is not to say that the history of slavery has no impact – this would be virtually impossible to prove in either direction for any subject – but the evidence does not show that it is significant or determining.

The people who share an ethnic identity with the victims of transatlantic slavery are not at the bottom of the income distribution, and an ethnic minority group sits at the top of the distribution. Ironically, the three ethnic groups all with antecedents associated with the guilt of transatlantic slave trading and ownership sit at the bottom of the distribution, while the only ethnic group which has no associations with it is at the top. Even the word distribution is misleading, because it implies that some force is dishing out discrete amounts of wealth from a big pot, which is of course a nonsense. Income is not distributed at all – it is earned by individuals. It should also be noted that, in the originating years of the United States, a tiny minority of immigrants to the nation had any significant wealth. No average citizen in the world had any significant personal wealth. Most New World settlers were not slaveholders, had nothing granted by their forebears, and nothing to pass onto their children – that was yet to be worked for.

The Problem of Successful Minorities

Successful minorities are a problem for leftists, because they disprove the notion that an oppressive white majority is keeping minorities down. Such minorities are usually ignored by those advancing the victimhood narrative, but some people do attempt to explain them away. I have received claims in response that say: ‘Asians do not have a history of oppression’. This is simply to be ignorant of history. Many of the negative, inhibiting past experiences of black Americans were also experienced by Asian Americans, as demographer William Peterson points out:

‘Like Negroes, Orientals got few loans from regular banks; but unlike Negroes, they used traditional institutions to amass the capital needed to establish small businesses. One system has worked more or less like a building-and-loan association: subscribers paid in regularly, received interest for their deposits, and were eligible for interest-bearing loans when they needed them…’[135]

Furthermore, Asian Americans are descended of people who were subject to the imperialism of Britain, Russia, Portugal, Spain, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Japan, the Mongols, a long list of Muslim empires, and various dynasties, emperorships and monarchies. China alone has experienced some of the longest periods of oppression and tyranny in history, it still is, and its people under Communism have seen more death in a single century than any other country in the world.[136] The Chinese people’s tragic history, recent or long-ago, appears to have failed to impede their ability to succeed in free countries.

Perhaps even more remarkably, the Jewish people, which faced an extermination so nearly complete that a high proportion of them have ancestors who were either enslaved in concentration camps or killed in death camps, are to a disproportionate level some of the most successful people on the planet.[137] No-one can accuse these people of having inherited a head start. If historical abuse and asset-stripping is the cause of modern descendants’ lack of capital, surely the group whose ancestors experienced it more recently and most severely would be most affected by it. According to this hypothesis, Jews should have nothing. The Chinese whose parents were starved to death in city sieges by communist revolutionaries in the so-called ‘liberation’ of the late 1940s should have nothing.[138] Clearly, something other than antecedent abuse is to blame for the lagging of black and Hispanic American economic advancement.


[1] Mark Hugo Lopez, Jens Manuel Krogstad, and Jeffrey S. Passel, Pew Research Center, Who is Hispanic?, 15th September 2020, accessed 5th October 2020 https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/09/15/who-is-hispanic/ [2] Gallup, Race Relations, accessed 5th September 2020 https://news.gallup.com/poll/1687/race-relations.aspx [3] Derrick Bell’s words in a segment featuring his former student, Thomas Sowell: https://youtu.be/KDeL-UK1p24?t=122 [4] David Eltis and David Richardson, Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, Yale University Press, p. 2. [5] Ibid., p. 23. [6] Ibid., pp. 23, 35. [7] John Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800, Second Edition, 1998, Cambridge University Press, p. 28. [8] David Eltis and David Richardson, Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, Yale University Press, p. 17. [9] Yorkshire Museum, Ivory Bangle Lady, accessed 8th October 2020 https://www.yorkshiremuseum.org.uk/collections/collections-highlights/ivory-bangle-lady/ [10] Sky History, The History of Black Britain: Roman Africans, accessed 18th September 2020 https://www.history.co.uk/article/the-history-of-black-britain-roman-africans [11] Tom Holland, In the Shadow of the Sword, Abacus, 2013, pp. 432-433. [12] Sky History, Reconquest of Spain, accessed 24th September 2020 https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/reconquest-of-spain [13] John Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800, Second Edition, 1998, Cambridge University Press, p. 21. [14] Ibid., p. 44. [15] Ibid., p. 47. [16] Ibid., p. 49.

[17] Ibid., p. 49: a Portuguese explorer is reported to have said “In the Kingdom of Congo they make some cloths of palms, with a surface like velvet, and those with fancy work like velvetized satin, so beautiful that there is no better work done in Italy”. [18] Ibid., p. 53. [19] Ibid., p. 50. [20] John Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800, Second Edition, 1998, Cambridge University Press, pp. 52-53. [21] Ibid., p. 37. [22] Klein, Herbert S.; Klein, Jacob, The Atlantic Slave Trade, Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp. 103–139. [23] Thornton, John Kelly, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800, Second Edition, 1998, Cambridge University Press, p. 38. [24] Ibid., p. 39. [25] Ibid., p. 95. [26] John Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800, Second Edition, 1998, Cambridge University Press. The fact of African Law and its ramifications in slavery are explored from pp. 74-90. [27] Ibid., p. 99. [28] Ibid., p. 56: see the experience of van der Broecke, pp. 66-71: African states and commerce. [29] Ibid., p. 69. [30] Angus Maddison, The World Economy, Volume 2: Historical Statistics, OECD Publishing, 2006, p. 641. [31] Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, BBC News, ‘My Nigerian great-grandfather sold slaves’, 18th July 2020, accessed 27th September 2020 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-53444752 [32] Ibid., p. 25. [33] Norris, Lola Orellano, Review of Esteban: The African Slave Who Explored America, by Dennis Herrick. Southwestern Historical Quarterly, vol. 123 no. 1, 2019, p. 116-117. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/swh.2019.0057. Accessed 29th September 2020. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/728737 [34] US government, America’s Library, Colonial America, A Spanish Expedition Established St. Augustine in Florida, September 8, 1565, accessed 29th September 2020 http://www.americaslibrary.gov/jb/colonial/jb_colonial_augustin_2.html [35] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, Native Americans and colonization: the 16th and 17th centuries, accessed 30th September 2020 https://www.britannica.com/topic/Native-American/Native-Americans-and-colonization-the-16th-and-17th-centuries [36] Jenny Bourne, Carleton College, Economic History Association, Slavery in the United States, accessed 4th October 2020 https://eh.net/encyclopedia/slavery-in-the-united-states/ [37] Ibid. [38] David Y. Thomas, Southern Non-Slaveholders in the Election of 1860, Political Science Quarterly, vol. 26, no. 2, 1911, pp. 222–237, www.jstor.org/stable/2141030, accessed 4th October 2020. 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Cover image from Britannica Encyclopaedia: African captives being transferred to ships along the Slave Coast for the transatlantic slave trade, c. 1880., Photos.com/Getty Images

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