Thoughts on economics and liberty

Slavery in the USA was NOT a racist institution. Worth repeating and understanding.

This is an absolutely crucial article by Thomas Sowell, particularly given the talk about “reparations” in the USA. (I’ve make similar comments regarding slavery in the manuscript: The Discovery of Freedom)


One of the many sad signs of our times is that people are not only playing the race card, they are playing the slavery card, which is supposedly the biggest trump of all. At the so-called “million man march” in Washington, poet Maya Angelou rang all the changes on slavery, at a rally billed as forwardlooking and as being about black independence rather than white guilt. Meanwhile, best-selling author Dinesh D’Souza was being denounced in the media for having said that slavery was not a racist institution.

First of all, anyone familiar with the history of slavery around the world knows that its origins go back thousands of years and that slaves and slaveowners were very often of the same race. Those who are ignorant of all this, or who think of slavery in the United States as if it were the only slavery, go ballistic when anyone tells them that this institution was not based on race.

Blacks were not enslaved because they were black, but because they were available at the time. Whites enslaved other whites in Europe for centuries before the first black slave was brought to the Western Hemisphere.

Only late in history were human beings even capable of crossing an ocean to get millions of other human beings of a different race. In the thousands of years before that, not only did Europeans enslave other Europeans, Asians enslaved other Asians, Africans enslaved other Africans, and the native peoples of the Western Hemisphere enslaved other native peoples of the Western Hemisphere.

D’Souza was right. Slavery was not about race. The fact that his critics are ignorant of history is their problem.

What was peculiar about the American situation was not just that slaves and slaveowners were of different races, but that slavery contradicted the whole philosophy of freedom on which the society was founded. If all men were created equal, as the Declaration of Independence said, then blacks had to be depicted as less than men.

While the antebellum South produced a huge volume of apologetic literature trying to justify slavery on racist grounds, no such justification was considered necessary in vast reaches of the world and over vast expanses of time. In most parts of the world, people saw nothing wrong with slavery.

Strange as that seems to us today, a hundred years ago only Western civilization saw anything wrong with slavery. And two hundred years ago, only a minority in the West thought it was wrong.

Africans, Arabs, Asians and others not only maintained slavery long after it was abolished throughout the Western Hemisphere, they resisted all attempts of the West to stamp out slavery in their lands during the age of imperialism. Only the fact that the West had greater firepower and more economic and political clout enabled them to impose the abolition of slavery, as they imposed other Western ideas, on the non-Western world.

Those who talk about slavery as if it were just the enslavement of blacks by whites ignore not only how widespread this institution was and how far back in history it went, they also ignore how recently slavery continued to exist outside of Western civilization.

While slavery was destroyed in the West during the nineteenth century, the struggle to end slavery elsewhere continued well into the twentieth century—and pockets of slavery still exist to this moment in Africa. But there is scarcely a peep about it from black “leaders” in America who thunder about slavery in the past.

If slavery were the real issue, then slavery among flesh-and-blood human beings alive today would arouse far more outcry than past slavery among people who are long dead. The difference is that past slavery can be cashed in for political benefits today, while slavery in North Africa only distracts from these political goals. Worse yet, talking about slavery in Africa would undermine the whole picture of unique white guilt requiring unending reparations.

While the Western world was just as guilty as other civilizations when it came to enslaving people for thousands of years, it was unique only in finally deciding that the whole institution was immoral and should be ended. But this conclusion was by no means universal even in the Western world, however obvious it may seem to us today.

Thousands of free blacks owned slaves in the antebellum South. And, years after the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States, whites as well as blacks were still being bought and sold as slaves in North Africa and the Middle East.

Anyone who wants reparations based on history will have to gerrymander history very carefully. Otherwise, practically everybody would owe reparations to practically everybody else.

Sanjeev Sabhlok

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One thought on “Slavery in the USA was NOT a racist institution. Worth repeating and understanding.
  1. Lin

    I agree with you 70%.

    The 30% I disagree is that slavery in US did involve racism. If bonded servitude is a form of slavery, then the early RC Irish bonded labours/servants in England and USA were slaves but the number were far smaller and the subsequent history was different. I’ll expound my discourse in several parts:
    1)Lots of ‘liberals’,’leftists’ love to call themselves ‘progressive’ as if they put crowns of morality on their heads. Simply, being ‘progressive’ means ‘move along’ with time and ‘morality’ is basically conduct code to make a society functional but unfortunately often religionalised. If one examines carefully why modern women have more rights and why slavery was abolished over time, the main driver has been technology, with geopolitical changes a distant second. Tribal wars happned more frequently in the past and it’s economical for the victors to enslave the vanquished to do heavy labours or fill up the brothels. Women were subjects to men because biologically men have more muscular strength and could heavy labours or handle edged weapons women usually couldn’t. But with the advent of steam engines, internal combustion engines..and lately of robotics, slavery had gradually lost its cost advantage and muscular strength of men over women is becoming increasingly meaningless.
    2)The followings are different:
    –How moderns look at the ancients;
    –How ancients looked at their ancient contemporaries
    –How moderns look at their modern contemporaries
    Fact is ancient people took relaxed view on slavery as if it’s natural. Jesus was a moral giant by any standard(not that he was faultless) but he didn’t condemn slavery and he asked the ‘servants’ to obey their masters(Ephesians 6.5).
    The Saudis didn’t abolish slavery until the 1960s and were considered abhorrent because it was totally unnecessary
    3)Abraham Lincoln is often portrayed as a saintly liberator of black slaves. I must say that’s the biggest farce in modern history.
    –Lincoln was as at least as racist as his Confederates counterparts. He didn’t fight the civil war to free the black slaves:
    ” ..My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it..”
    –After Lincoln won the civil war, he wanted to expel black slaves to the Caribbeans and Liberia. By that he was more evil than the Confederates.
    And obviously his confederate assassin made a very very BAD mistake. His assassination was definitely a ‘Black Swan’ event that changed the course of domestic american history.
    Obviously slavery even back then was seen sooner or later to be abolished but, but.. had the slave trade gone on for a few more decades before abolishment, the Blacks could have been in a stronger demographic situation to constitute at least 20% of US population.
    4)Is the LGBT movement a ‘progressive’ thing?
    Since time immemorial, a small % of human have been homos and ranged from ancient Greece(where 80s of males had homo encounters) to Aztecs who were very tolerant on homos but practised cannibalism, to muslim arabia which banned homosexuality(I suspect arabs have higher % in closets than other cultures because pre-marital hetero relationship is/was discouraged there) . The british decriminalised homosexuality in 1967 but the Ottomans which kept slaves until early 1900s had decriminalised homosexuality back in 1858 !!
    (Not the least, if you’re not uptight about it, you can draw the example of india where dalits are victims of discrinination while hijras number in the millions, haha..)
    Overall, there was no established positive correlation between LGBT acceptance and other more valid indicators like gender equality and abolishment of slavery.
    Homosexuality is NOT a moral or ‘progressive’ issue, rather its a health care issue and a demographic one to countries like Russia.
    Heterosexuality is like drinking water(which the human species needs to survive)
    Homosexuality is like drinking beer/wine, a life style choice with consequence
    Categorically it’s wrong to condemn people who drink wine and beer.
    Drinking too much water will give you diarrhoea.
    Drinking too much alcohol is ‘alcoholism’.


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