Most people feel, at best, annoyed when the idea of slavery-reparations enters conversation.
The knee-jerk, defensive postures include the ‘no one in my family’…no one alive now or for generations either owned slaves or benefited from it.
The problem with that response is that it can be only half right, so before we rest too quickly in too-comfy and ahistorical assuaging conferred by generations of white-privilege, consider five arguments from Cornell’s Edward Baptist in The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic Books).
First, slavery was the key driver of the formation of American wealth and not simply a medieval moral and economic aberration that would have inevitably run out of time, given the success of Northern (and Southern) wage labor. Dr. Baptist argues that slavery was the very heart of American capitalist development. Economic data from the Southern slaveholder and Northern industrialist classes evidence, he shows, “…more than $600 million, or half the total economic activity in the United States in 1836, derived…from cotton produced by the million-odd slaves — just six percent of the total…population.” By 1850, slaves’ work-output was 20% of the nation’s wealth ($1.3 billion.
Second, slavery was more efficient than free labor, Dr. Baptist shows, upending a common understanding. Cotton-picking quotas increased regularly and were, largely, adhered to as a result of whippings. “A study of planter account books that record daily picking totals for individual enslaved people on labor camps across the South found an increase” from 1811 to 1860 [just before the Civil War] “of 361 percent”. Free wage laborers were much slower. “Many enslaved…pickers in the late 1850s had peaked at well over 200 pounds per day”, yet “in the 1930s, after a half-century of massive scientific experimentation…to make cotton more pickable, the great-grandchildren of the enslaved picked only 100 to 120 pounds per day.”
Perhaps we have underestimated whipping’s brutal efficiency.
Third, slavery didn’t just enrich the planter class. It drove the North’s industrial success. Cotton was a steady bloodstream into (and then out from) northern mills. By a year we tend to consider a relatively early one, 1832, Dr. Baptist shows that the mills at Lowell, Massachusetts alone gorged on “100,000 days of enslaved people’s labor every year”.
Fourth, slavery hadn’t shown signs of slowing economically by the time of the rebellion. In the ’50s cotton production doubled from two to four million bales “with no sign of either slowing down or quenching industrial nations’ thirst for raw materials.” The world’s consumption of cotton in that last slave decade grew from 1.5 to 2.5 billion pounds and by 1860, seven of our eight wealthiest states were cotton-producing slave states.
Fifth, secession and war served slavery’s expansionist requirement. I have pointed out in several pieces that planters’ defiance of the then well-known imperative of crop-rotation and letting well-used fields lie fallow for a season in order to be nutritionally replenished, fed their hunger for a western states-as-slave-states imperative. Dr. Baptist enhances this argument from primary source documents.
So, why revisit this? We live, now, with slavery’s legacies, with segregation of all kinds, including Jim Crow’s most modern iteration of enforced marginalization, voter-ID laws. And so I’ll ask us this question about monetary reparations for slavery’s descendants, that question so many just don’t asked, don’t want to hear:
If the greater part of our so-called wealth miracle was in fact had on the whipped backs of slaves, when will their children get their due?