In front of a sold-out crowd on the campus of Boston University Wednesday, Daily Wire Editor-in-Chief Ben Shapiro takes on one of the Left’s most prevalent claims: “America was built on slavery,” a claim promoted most notably in recent months by The New York Times’s 1619 Project, which seeks to reset the founding date of the country to the day when the first African slaves arrived in the colonies. “No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed,” the Times declares.
Shapiro, as the title of his speech makes clear, disagrees. “America wasn’t built on slavery, it was built on freedom,” Shapiro contends.
As The Daily Wire reported, leading up to the event, Shapiro’s speech was protested by multiple student activist groups on campus, including Black BU, who issued an open letter Tuesday condemning the school for allowing Shapiro to give a speech so titled. To assert that America was founded and defined by a pursuit of the ideal of freedom rather than built and indelibly defined by slavery, the student group alleged in the letter, was denying the past and continued impact of slavery. “To deny slavery, its economic role in the creation of the US as a nation is to deny the systematic degradation of Black bodies, the generational trauma, natal alienation, and social death that has marked and affected Black communities in the US since 1619, the birth of slavery on US soil as we know, and consequently, the birth of America,” the students wrote, echoing The New York Times “1619” claims.
In his speech at Boston University, Shapiro tackles this historically flawed and fatalistic view of America widely espoused by the Left head on. Watch Shapiro’s speech below (transcript below):
“The traditional view of American history goes something like this: America was built on eternally good and true principles, springing from both the Judeo-Christian ethic and English culture, rooted in natural law,” Shapiro explains in the introduction to his speech. “Those principles were denied in practice by many of the same people who promoted them in theory, but those theories were valid — and remain valid. The story of America, therefore, is a story of the broadening application of those principles — the perfection of our Union, the fulfillment of the promises of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.”
“This view certainly does not deny the evils and horrors of slavery and Jim Crow, or the savage brutality of the dispossession of Native Americans,” he underscores. “But this view does recognize a simple truth: the state of the world, historically, has been replete with such evil, horror, and brutality — and America, unlike other nations, has fought, over time, to wipe them away at home and abroad.”
“In this view, the story of America doesn’t begin in 1776, but 1776 represents the breaking point with the past — and the statement of our cherished principles. The story of America is the story of a nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” Shapiro states.
In the alternative view offered by the Left, Shapiro says, America looks far different. “This view suggests that America is not, in fact, a true nation,” he explains. “America is instead, an agglomeration of competing interests, forced together by circumstance and fate, damned to interminable struggle. America is the story of exploitation and greed, of patriarchy and abuse, of hierarchy and manipulation. America’s story is an unending litany of horrors, punctuated by brief respites, always sliding back into the damnable bacterial soup from which we sprang. Racism, as Barack Obama suggested, is in our DNA. In 2015, the president elected by 69.5 million Americans in 2008 explained, ‘The legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives. You know, that casts a long shadow and that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on. We’re not cured of it. Racism we are not cured of, clearly.'”
“So, which is it?” Shapiro asks. “Which values more represent America — the America to which we all belong — racism and slavery and Jim Crow, or the freedoms posited in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States? Obviously slavery is the darkest part of American history — it was unforgiveable, horrific, unthinkable. But is it the root of American history, or did it represent sinful straying from founding principles, rectified over time? Was America founded and built on freedom, or on slavery?”
To answer the question, Shapiro walks through America’s tumultuous but, more often than not, triumphant history as it struggles to fulfill the promises laid out in The Declaration of Independence.
Shapiro begins with the founding of the country and the beliefs and practices of the founding fathers regarding slavery, then examines the founding documents, The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, which both point toward the abolition of slavery. Next, Shapiro looks at the Civil War and Lincoln’s ultimately successful efforts to finally eradicate the evil institution, followed by the backward slide in the South with racist Jim Crow laws until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He then uses statistics to dismantle the oft-repeated claims from the Left attempted to tie various current trends and institutions to slavery.
“American slavery was an evil institution,” Shapiro declares. “Jim Crow was an evil institution. Fully evil. Full stop. But [the left-wing protesters] are here because of freedom, not slavery. You are speaking today because of freedom, not slavery. You are American because of freedom, not slavery.” The letter from protesters, he argues, “is a reflection of the foundations laid in 1776, not the foundations laid in 1619. To fail to acknowledge that basic truth is to advocate for the destruction of the only America to which we all belong.”
Text of Shapiro’s speech below (based on his prepared remarks):
The reason for this speech is that we are in the midst of a great conflict about the very nature of the United States. That conflict surrounds a simple question: are we a nation, or are we not? On the one side lie many Americans — mostly conservatives — who argue that we are indubitably a nation: unified by history, by culture, by language. The most contentious part of this statement is the first part: that we are unified by our history.
The traditional view of American history goes something like this: America was built on eternally good and true principles, springing from both the Judeo-Christian ethic and English culture, rooted in natural law. Those principles were denied in practice by many of the same people who promoted them in theory, but those theories were valid — and remain valid. The story of America, therefore, is a story of the broadening application of those principles — the perfection of our Union, the fulfillment of the promises of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.
This view certainly does not deny the evils and horrors of slavery and Jim Crow, or the savage brutality of the dispossession of Native Americans. But this view does recognize a simple truth: the state of the world, historically, has been replete with such evil, horror, and brutality — and America, unlike other nations, has fought, over time, to wipe them away at home and abroad.
In this view, the story of America doesn’t begin in 1776, but 1776 represents the breaking point with the past — and the statement of our cherished principles. The story of America is the story of a nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Then there is an alternative view of American history. This view suggests that America is not, in fact, a true nation. America is instead, an agglomeration of competing interests, forced together by circumstance and fate, damned to interminable struggle. America is the story of exploitation and greed, of patriarchy and abuse, of hierarchy and manipulation. America’s story is an unending litany of horrors, punctuated by brief respites, always sliding back into the damnable bacterial soup from which we sprang. Racism, as Barack Obama suggested, is in our DNA. In 2015, the president elected by 69.5 million Americans in 2008 explained, “The legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives. You know, that casts a long shadow and that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on. We’re not cured of it. Racism we are not cured of, clearly.”
Obama’s mantle was picked up this year by the Democrats’ second-favorite fake minority, Beto O’Rourke — a man who has not been dinged for cultural appropriation over his name, but happens to be whiter than any person in America not named Elizabeth Warren. Beto, cribbing from The New York Times’ 1619 Project in his quixotic quest for relevance, suggested that America was founded on racism and slavery: “Racism in America is endemic. It is foundational. We can mark the creation of this country not at the fourth of July, 1776, but August 20, 1619, when the first kidnapped African was brought to this country against his will, and in bondage as a slave, and built the greatness and the success and the wealth that neither he nor his descendants would be able to fully participate in and enjoy.” Lest you think that Beto’s perspective on America is retrospective, Beto brought it up to date in late October: America, he said, “is still racist at its foundation, at its core, and throughout this system.”
By the way, Beto said all of this while calling for Americans to elect him, a white man, to the highest office in the land. White privilege, shaking my damn head.
So, which is it? Which values more represent America — the America to which we all belong — racism and slavery and Jim Crow, or the freedoms posited in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States? Obviously slavery is the darkest part of American history — it was unforgiveable, horrific, unthinkable. But is it the rootof American history, or did it represent sinful straying from founding principles, rectified over time?
Was America founded on freedom, or on slavery? To examine this question, we must start at the founding.
To support the notion that America was built on slavery, advocates of the revisionist school of historical thought point out that many of America’s founders were slaveholders; that the Declaration of Independence did not abolish slavery, and thus its high-handed declarations of natural rights were a mirage; that the Constitution expressly permitted slavery.
Let’s take each of these arguments in turn.
First, the argument that America’s founding fathers were slaveholders. Begin with the fact that at the time of the founding, Britain had not outlawed slaveholding or the slave trade in its colonies, and would not do so until the British Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, and would not outlaw slavery among its charter companies until 1843. Slavery was legal in Great Britain until 1807. That means that slavery was widespread across the planet, and that the United States was no exception.
According to Henry Louis Gates, over the period 1525 to 1866, 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World in the transatlantic slave trade. They endured the unthinkably horrible Middle Passage; many died in transport of disease, starvation, or suicide. Of those 12.5 million, approximately 10.7 million arrived in the New World. A grand total of 388,000 landed directly in North America. This is not to excuse a single kidnapping, enslavement, or sale of a human being – each one was a crime against man and God. It is to point out that the United States was certainly not unique at the time of the founding in allowing slaveholding.
With that said, where did the founding fathers stand on slavery? Yes, some 41 of the 56 founding fathers who signed the Declaration of Independence held slaves. But the founding fathers — even many slaveholders — were well aware that slavery was a moral abomination.
John Adams stated, “My opinion against it has always been known…Never in my life did I own a slave”; he stated that “every measure of prudence, therefore, ought to be assumed for the eventual total extirpation of slavery from the United States.” Samuel Adams stated, “But to the eye of reason, what can be more clear than that all men have an equal right to happiness? Nature made no other distinction than that of higher or lower degrees of power of mind and body.”
Benjamin Franklin became the head of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, and stated, “That mankind are all formed by the same Almighty Being, alike objects of his care, and equally designed for the enjoyment of happiness, the Christian religion teaches us to believe, and the political creed of Americans fully coincides with the position. . . . [We] earnestly entreat your serious attention to the subject of slavery – that you will be pleased to countenance the restoration of liberty to those unhappy men who alone in this land of freedom are degraded into perpetual bondage and who . . . are groaning in servile subjection.”
John Jay, the first chief justice of the Supreme Court, stated, “That men should pray and fight for their own freedom and yet keep others in slavery is certainly acting a very inconsistent, as well as unjust and perhaps impious, part.” Jay and Alexander Hamilton were among the men who created the New York Manumussion Society in 1787. Gouverneur Morris said slavery was a “nefarious institution” and described “the curse of heaven on the States where it prevailed.”
Benjamin Rush wrote, “Domestic slavery is repugnant to the principles of Christianity. . . . It is rebellion against the authority of a common Father. It is a practical denial of the extent and efficacy of the death of a common Savior. It is an usurpation of the prerogative of the great Sovereign of the universe who has solemnly claimed an exclusive property in the souls of men.” George Washington stated, “I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it [slavery].”
It is no wonder that Pennsylvania and Massachusetts moved to abolish slavery in 1780; Connecticut and Rhode Island in 1784; Vermont in 1786; New Hampshire in 1792; New York in 1799; New Jersey in 1804.
Many of the founding fathers released their slaves, as well: George Washington, John Dickinson, Caesar Rodney, John Randolph and others.
Thomas Jefferson himself was a hypocrite on slavery. But he was well aware of it, as were many of the founders. Jefferson wrote that slavery destroyed the “morals of the people” as well as their industry. In fact, Jefferson suggested that slavery would bring disaster upon the nation: “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.” In 1778, Jefferson even introduced a bill to ban importation of slaves into Virginia, hoping for slavery’s “final eradication.”
The Declaration of Independence
This bifurcated mind on the evils of slavery was made evident in the Declaration of Independence. The original draft of the Declaration of Independence included this clause by Thomas Jefferson, struck at the insistence of southern delegates:
He [King George III] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. . . . Determined to keep open a market where men should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce [that is, he has opposed efforts to prohibit the slave trade].
The Declaration of Independence and its credo that “all men are created equal” was not meant to exclude slaves philosophically; it was meant to encompass everyone. That is why ex-slave and second founding father — yes, he should be on our currency — Frederick Douglass described the “great principles” contained by the Declaration of Independence. Douglass stated, “The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men too — great enough to give fame to a great age… They believed in order; but not in the order of tyranny. With them, nothing was ‘settled’ that was not right. With them, justice, liberty and humanity were ‘final’; not slavery and oppression.” Douglass’ great cry for freedom arose from his invocation of those founding principles: “Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?”
The Constitution of the United States
The founding fathers also believed they had placed slavery on the road to extinction in the Constitution of the United States. Actually, they believed they had placed slavery on the road to extinction long before the Constitution was ratified. The Northwest Ordinance, signed by George Washington in 1787, banned slavery in new territories, which would become the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Approximately 60,000 free black Americans lived in the United States around the time of the founding.
The Constitution of the United States banned importation of slaves beyond 1808. The infamous three-fifths clause, which counted slaves as three-fifths of a human being for purposes of Congressional apportionment, was actually designed to prevent increased power in slaveholding states — counting slaves fully would have boosted Southern representation in Congress without increasing the number of actual voting citizens. The Constitution of the United States made no overt reference to slavery, avoiding enshrining slavery in federal law; as Lincoln would later say, “Thus, the thing is hid away, in the Constitution, just as an afflicted man hides away a wen or a cancer, which he dares not cut out at once, lest he bleed to death; with the promise, nevertheless, that the cutting may begin at the end of a given time.”
James Madison, the father of the Constitution, agreed: he wrote that it would be wrong to place in the Constitution any admission “the idea that there could be property in men.”
Douglass was correct to call the Constitution a “GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT.” He thundered, “Read its preamble, consider its purposes. Is slavery among them? Is it at the gateway? or is it in the temple? It is neither.”
As Lincoln also noted in his 1860 Cooper Union speech, 22 of the 39 framers of the Constitution had voted on the Northwest Ordinance; 20 voted in favor of the legislation; another framer, George Washington, signed it.
In 1794, the founders prohibited export of slaves — the selling of American slaves abroad. In 1798, they prohibited importation of slaves into the Mississippi territory. In 1807, Congress effectuated the ban on importation of slaves codified in the Constitution, a year in advance of the date of the Constitutional timeline. In 1820, they declared the slave trade piracy.
Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War
This, obviously, did not end the evil cruelties of slavery.
Despite the best efforts of many of the founders, slavery continued to explode in numbers in the United States. That was largely due to the invention of the cotton gin, which made intensive agriculture far more profitable than the tobacco the south had previously grown. By the time of the Civil War, some 4 million slaves were held in the United States, held by just under 400,000 slaveholders. Southern advocates began to argue the morality of slavery — particularly John C. Calhoun, a vicious white supremacist — and insisted that the federal government enshrine slavery for all time, force free states to return escaped slaves, and allow for the expansion of slavery into new territories.
But the story of America isn’t a story of unending tolerance for slavery. Far from it. This intransigent backwardness by the slaveholding states led to the bloodiest war in the history of the United States, with over 600,000 killed. Hundreds of thousands of men marched into battle singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic:
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me;
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free!
The original lyrics were even more militant, and name-checked John Brown, the fiery abolitionist militant who led a bloody raid on Harper’s Ferry in an attempt to launch a slave uprising:
John Brown’s body lies a-moulderin’ in the grave, his soul is marching on!
Abraham Lincoln didn’t initially stand in favor of emancipation – his mandate was to effectuate union, not to free the slaves. But he had made his agenda clear in his famous “House Divided” speech in 1858: “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free….Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.”
As president, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and rammed through the Republican Congress the 13thAmendment. Weeks later, he was assassinated. In 1866, the House of Representatives passed the 14th Amendment. The 15th Amendment, guaranteeing black Americans the right to vote, passed Congress in 1869. Thus slavery ended in the United States, and due process and equal protection of the laws was guaranteed to those who had been held in cruel bondage. Freedom triumphed.
Reconstruction and Jim Crow
But freedom did not fully triumph, of course. In the aftermath of the Civil War, so-called radical Republicans pressed for federal protection of black Americans. That effort quickly collapsed, as southern states reinstituted brutal racist laws. The Ku Klux Klan became a massive force in the south, enforcing its racist evil with the rope and the gun. Schemes of segregation and Jim Crow became the norm in the old Confederate states. Sharecropping replaced slavery. Legalized terrorism against black Americans was commonplace. And the federal government did nearly nothing.
Black Americans pressed on, heroically fighting for the freedoms they had been promised in the Declaration of Independence and then promised again by Lincoln and the radical Republicans. They fought for their freedom day in and day out — their right to live free of legally-mandated discrimination, their right to rise economically, their right to prosper in liberty.
They met tremendous resistance, from Woodrow Wilson, who showed The Birth of a Nation at the White House, to FDR, who signed into law the deeply-flawed GI Bill that would effectively deny benefits to black Americans, particularly in the South. Redlining was common practice; educational opportunities were barred to black Americans.
And yet black Americans rose. The black poverty rate fell from 87 percent in 1940 to 47 percent by 1960 — with Jim Crow in place. The black middle class grew.
And then came the Civil Rights movement: the most important victory for freedom over slavery since the end of the Civil War. Martin Luther King Jr. led the charge, citing the founding fathers and America’s original ideals. On August 12, 1963, King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and intoned these timeless words, words that still shock us with their truth and vision:
When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
With the Civil Rights Era came the end of legal discrimination in the United States. Freedom had once again triumphed over slavery.
The Post-Jim Crow Era
So, is the story of America slavery or freedom?
Let’s ask a slightly different question: If America was founded on slavery, why then is America, today, so free? Why is Black BU protesting outside this event, free to speak their minds, attending one of the best universities in the country, if slavery is the defining feature of the American experience?
To make the case that slavery defines America, those on the political Left make the case that slavery and Jim Crow have infected all of America’s institutions.
First, the Left makes the case that the American economy was “built on slavery” — and the attendant case that, therefore, all who live in America’s prosperous economy ought to pay the descendants of slaves reparations. Now, reparations at the time of slavery’s end would have been fully justified and desirable. But there is no moral way to make the case that the grandson of a Lithuanian immigrant ought to pay the great-great-great-great-granddaughter of a freed slave. So instead, the Left makes the claim that the American economy relied on slavery to its benefit, and that even those who didn’t benefit from slavery indirectly benefitted from slavery.
There’s only one massive problem with this claim: it’s nonsense. Slavery was indeed an important part of the American economy. It was also a backward part of the American economy. Free labor is simply more economically efficient than slave labor. It’s no wonder that Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, described the South as a society “gone to sleep.” In fact, the growth of the Southern economy remained slow throughout the Jim Crow period — black labor fled to the North. Only as Jim Crow waned did growth rates in the south suddenly spike — leading, not surprisingly, to a population movement back into those states.
If slavery had been an economic winner, the South wouldn’t have been roundly defeated by the industrialized north. The end of slavery meant a drop in agricultural capital in the United States, but a massive uptick in industrial and housing capital, as well as other domestic capital, according to far-Left economist Thomas Piketty. Our labor stock soared, and our capital stock soared in the aftermath of the Civil War.
This experience isn’t shocking. As Scott Sumner of the Library of Economics and Liberty points out, “Brazil didn’t abolish slavery until the 1880s, and did worse than America. It also did worse than countries to the south of Brazil.” Slavery still exists on the planet, by the way — predominantly in poor countries. Free alienation of labor drives prosperity, which is why free market countries are by far the most prosperous.
So no, the American economy wasn’t “based on slavery” any more than it was “based on the horse and buggy.” That doesn’t diminish the evil of slavery. But it is economically illiterate to suggest that America’s economy is rooted in slavery. We are a highly-industrialized economy and have been for more than a century. And even when we were an agricultural economy, slavery was an economic drain on everyone other than slaveholders themselves.
This means that authors at The New York Times’ 1619 project are forced into the unenviable position of blaming slavery for America’s prosperous system of free market capitalism. That requires a hell of a trick, since free market capitalism is the precise opposite of forced labor. Thus, we end up with the absurd spectacle of Matthew Desmond suggesting that the “brutality” of “American capitalism” is modeled in slavery. Desmond idiotically argues that “When an accountant depreciates an asset to save on taxes or when a midlevel manager spends an afternoon filling in rows and columns on an Excel spreadsheet, they are repeating business procedures whose roots twist back to slave-labor camps.” Because apparently accounting is racist.
Next, proponents of the view that slavery is the root of economic inequality between black Americans and white Americans. There is undoubtedly truth to the idea that economic history impacts economic present. Such history can mostly be seen in statistics like the wealth gap, which of course measures accrual of wealth over the course of decades — and so redlining in 1960 can have effects on inheritance in 1980, which can have effects on wealth ownership in 2019. But the continuation of income disparity among races in the United States is overwhelmingly not due to racism, Jim Crow, or slavery. And income mobility and disparity is the statistic that should worry us — because most people don’t get rich by inheriting some money from grandma.
Such disparities are due, in the main, to individual decision-making. That is why Asians now out-earn whites in America by a wide margin; it is why Hispanic Americans are moving up in the income distribution across generations, while black Americans are not, according to researchers from Stanford, Harvard, and the Census Bureau. The study actually found that “growing up in a high-income family provides no insulation from these disparities… Black children born to parents in the top income quintile are almost as likely to fall to the bottom quintile as they are to remain in the top quintile.” Furthermore, that same study found that the black-white income gap was driven “entirely” by differences in men’s, not women’s outcome. In other words, black women “earn slightly more than white women conditional on parent income.” The study found “little or no gap in wage rates or hours of work between black and white women.”
Also worth noting: income gaps between black and white Canadians and the United Kingdom largely mirror income gaps between black and white Americans.
So, what are the factors that lead to lower income mobility? The black male dropout rate in schools is 8 percent vs. 4.9 percent among whites; according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, while the rate of black male imprisonment has dropped dramatically over the past 15 years, 2,613 black males per 100,000 black males were in prison as of 2015, compared with 457 white males in prison per 100,000 white males. Despite the best attempts of those on the Left to suggest that police forces all over the country are wrongfully imprisoning black males at will, the data simply do not support that contention. Lack of fathers in the home also means less discipline and supervision; the single motherhood rate in the black community now stands at above 70 percent.
Which brings us to the accusation that slavery lies at the root of the criminal justice system. The criminal justice system was indeed biased against black Americans, with law enforcement agencies acting as agents of segregation and racism. But that doesn’t explain why black-on-black crime is so high today — or why the black murder rate doubled between 1960 and 1980, as civil rights were fully effectuated. Did slavery and Jim Crow have an impact on the development of black crime rates? Undoubtedly. But are Chicago teens killing one another at rapid rates today because of slavery, in the main, or because they are individuals killing one another? The answer is obviously the latter.
But The New York Times tells us that every problem with America can be laid at the feet of slavery, because America was based in slavery. Jamelle Bouie explains that opposition to direct democracy comes from slavery — an absurdly ahistorical contention. Linda Villarosa suggests that slavery lies at the root of maternal outcome differentials between black and white women — another evidence-free notion, given that such differentials are mirrored in Europe. Traffic in Atlanta, according to Kevin Kruse, can be blamed on slavery. He’s going to have to explain how traffic in Boston is all about slavery. Jeneen Interlandi blames slavery for lack of universal healthcare in America.
All of America’s problems are blamed on slavery. American freedom never enters the conversation.
Slavery as the Root of Inequality
Slavery has been a feature of societies across time and place. Freedom is the story of America. We are a country based on freedom, not slavery.
Now, obviously, history always carries forward.
History’s problems manifest in today’s problems. But those determined to see America’s story as a continuing story of oppression — those determined to paint America’s history as an eternal story of brutality and slavery rather than struggle toward freedom and equal rights — suggest that slavery remains the defining feature of American life. To do this, they must lie outright about the nature of America today.
Here is the truth: America is not only the least racist it has ever been, it is the one of the least racist multiracial countries on the planet. According to The Washington Post, a new Swedish survey found that people from “the UK and its Anglo former colonies were most likely to embrace a racially diverse neighbor.” That means the UK, America, Canada, and Australia. Other European countries aren’t nearly as tolerant. And none of those countries has ever elected a black man — twice — with over 65 million votes each time, to serve as the leader of those countries.
Here is the truth: America is not only the most prosperous country on the planet, its black citizens are the most prosperous black citizens on the planet. It is not a denial of any of the myriad and inconceivable evils black Americans have historically experienced to acknowledge this simple fact.
Here is the truth: America is not only the freest country in the world, that freedom has expanded over time — and those who suggest that America is based on slavery and cruelty seek to curb those freedoms.
Which brings us back to Black BU. According to Black BU, the very presence of this lecture at BU’s campus “reminds us that we are not one BU, that BU is not designed for us, and this BU does not belong to us just as our bodies and our minds do not and have not belonged to us since our rights as human beings were stripped away in the wake of slavery.”
This is a lie. BU is indeed designed for you. That’s why you’re here. Your rights as human beings are fully intact. Those of your ancestors were not. Stop conflating the past with the present, or the tremendous, unforgivable evil done to your great-great-great-great-great-grandparents with your experiences today in America. They are not the same. Yes, history matters. And history has lasting impacts. But to suggest that your “bodies and minds do not belong to you” is fantastical and absurd nonsense of the highest order. They do. That’s why you’re here. And thank God — and America’s highest ideals — for that.
Black BU suggests that my speech denies slavery. Nonsense. Black BU suggests that my speech denies the “systematic degradation of black bodies, the generational trauma, natal alienation, and social death that has marked and affected Black communities in the US since 1619, the birth of slavery on US soil as we know, and consequentially, the birth of America.”
Again, nonsense. I simply deny that such evils have not been vitiated over time, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives — yes, of course, the lives of black Americans, but blood of white Americans, too. The story of America is the story of a nation cleansing itself of evil in vindication of the “better angels of our nature.”
Black BU concludes, “America was, in fact, built on slavery, on the backs of Black people, plagued with pain, sorrow, and disregard, so this brings us to ask those who condone this event and title: whose Freedom?”
Your freedom. Yours. American slavery was an evil institution. Jim Crow was an evil institution. Fully evil. Full stop. But you are here because of freedom, not slavery. You are speaking today because of freedom, not slavery. You are American because of freedom, not slavery. Your letter is a reflection of the foundations laid in 1776, not the foundations laid in 1619. To fail to acknowledge that basic truth is to advocate for the destruction of the only America to which we all belong.
A few months ago, I had the opportunity to interview on my show a man named Harry Stewart. Stewart is one of the last living Red Tails — the Tuskegee Airmen, the black American heroes who flew during World War II. He told a story.
On April 1, 1945, Stewart flew a mission over Austria. As flak burst around him, he looked down and saw the fighter planes of three of his fellow pilots on fire. One, smoking heavily, limped back toward Allied lines. A second crashed in a burst of flame. A third crashed — but the pilot ejected.
Later, Stewart found out that the pilot, Walter Manning, was lynched by a crowd of Austrians, egged on by SS troops.
Stewart is now 95. I asked him why he would fight for a country in the midst of segregation and Jim Crow. What made America worth fighting for? Stewart told me, “I guess the Constitution of the United States. You read that, and it’s an absolutely beautiful document, but it wasn’t being followed to the full extent. Since World War II, we have gotten closer to the ideal principles of that document.”
That is what America is based on. Men like Stewart. Men like George Washington and Frederick Douglass, like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. All of them fighting for the freedom the founders set forth at the very beginning. The same principles Harry Stewart fought for — the principles of freedom — belong to all of us — black and white, everything in between.