By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
A decade before Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his hand-picked Florida Board of Education ignited the firestorm over the “beneficial aspects” of slavery flap, the BBC in 2014 posted on its website a lengthy checklist and summary of the reasons concocted through the centuries to justify slavery.
The most amazing thing about the list was not the absurdity of many of the reasons given but that they were conjured up in the first place.
This is the first of a two-part series on the great slavery debate. It’s an excerpt from Hutchinson’s newest book “Who Says Slavery Wasn’t Beneficial.”
Even more amazing was that the rationales for slavery had such widespread currency among so many people for long periods. However, the BBC was wrong when it claimed that “Virtually everyone agrees that slavery is inhumane and degrading and wrong.” That was a gross overstatement.
The BBC would have been accurate in stating that most people would not publicly defend the alleged benefit of slavery. DeSantis and more than a few Republican state legislators openly soft-pedaled, or worse, defended slavery, as anything but the monstrous, malicious stain on America that it was.
This was ample evidence that more than a few still saw something good in slavery. This was not 19th or even 20th-century America. This was now the 21st century America in which slavery apologists were popping up.
That shouldn’t have been a surprise. The rationales that the BBC ticked off in the defense of slavery for decades had germinated, taken root, and became firmly implanted in the belief system of many Americans.
Here’s the BBC’s checklist of slavery’s defenses:
• It’s natural that some people are slaves.
• Slaves are inferior beings.
• Slavery is good for slaves.
• Slavery would be too difficult to abolish.
• Slaves are essential to certain industries.
• Slavery is acceptable in this culture.
• Slavery is a useful form of punishment.
• Slavery is legal.
• Abolishing slavery would threaten the structure of society.
• Living in slavery is better than starving to death.
• Free men should be able to become slaves if they want to.
Historians and economists are in virtually unanimous agreement that slavery provided a dual benefit to America past and present. The first was the billions in unpaid slave labor that provided the economic and financial engine for America’s spectacular agricultural, industrial, banking, insurance, shipping and ultimately global expansion.
The economic self-interest of slaveholders certainly played a role in this expansion. Slaves represented a massive amount of wealth. At the time of the Civil War, some historians estimate that over 20% of private wealth in the U.S. was generated by slave labor.
The second benefit was to frame slavery in a positive, uplifting light. That required concocting a vast web of myths, lies, distortions and vile stereotypes to justify that slavery somehow benefited Blacks too. The centerpiece was that enslaved Blacks were content, faithful and well taken care of by their masters and gained valued skills.
DeSantis and the Florida Board of Education partially regurgitated that view in their contention that Blacks benefited from slavery by attaining skills. This allegedly propelled them upwardly on the economic ladder.
Slavery apologists in the 19th century deeply embedded in much of the public discourse on slavery another thread of thought that didn’t die with the formal end of slavery. They argued incessantly that slaves were far better off than the wretched, lowest-class white unskilled workers and landless peasants in Europe and some northern cities.
This served two purposes. It put a further veneer of decency, respectability, and even humanity on slavery. It also sowed confusion, doubt and dissension among many working-class whites who were tempted to believe that they were worse off than slaves.
It was a short step from this fraudulent contention to cast doubt that slavery was the abominable evil that anti-slavery proponents continually preached. Might it be then that slavery not only had some benefit for Blacks but maybe poor whites as well?
At the very least, the view that slavery was not such a bad thing became another propaganda weapon industrialists used to damp down the growing demand among workers for better wages, working conditions and even unions.
The most hideous but effective ploy that the slave masters employed to bolster slavery was racial ostracism of Blacks. South Carolina Sen. John C. Calhoun had free rein in pre-Civil War America to crudely, bluntly, and very publicly say this, “Never before has the Black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually. … It came to us in a low, degraded and savage condition, and in the course of a few generations it has grown up under the fostering care of our institutions.”
Most Southern slaveholders and intellectuals favored Calhoun’s ideas and continually insisted that the institution of slavery “benefited both master and servant.” Said one writer, “In that arrangement, the slaveholder acquired his labor and the slave was given a standard of living far beyond what he could ever hope to achieve on his own.”
The operative phrase here from a 19th-century apologist was “hope to achieve on his own.” This is not much different than purporting, as DeSantis and his Florida Board of Education did, of the supposed skills Blacks got during slavery.
Even more chilling, it was not much different than the flock of GOP and rightist opponents of “liberal indoctrination” on the ugliness of America’s racial past are sworn to oppose. DeSantis is the best modern-day example of that.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He also is the host of the weekly Earl Ofari Hutchinson Show at 9 a.m. Saturday on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.