Democrat Senator Tim Kaine proved that millennials aren’t the only ones who’ve never read a history book when he stood on the floor of the Senate this week to denounce America’s invention of slavery.
Kain said, “The United States didn’t inherit slavery from anybody; we created it,” tracing our alleged creation of slavery back to 1619, over 150 years before the United States was founded.
The most generous possible interpretation of this seemingly incoherent remark is that the United States “created” slavery in the United States. This would be true, of course, but by the same logic we might say that the United States created the wheel, irrigation, agriculture, and Chinese food, in that none of these things existed in the United States until the United States existed. In other words, the United States’ version of all of these things was created by the United States. An accurate statement, but also weirdly redundant and unnecessary.
The more obvious and direct interpretation is that Tim Kaine believes, or at least wants us to believe, that the institution of slavery itself was designed and implemented by Americans. Indeed many in this country, especially college students, seem to be under this impression. In fact, a university professor has polled students on their historical knowledge and found that a vast majority hold this very belief: that slavery is unique to our country, and we carry almost all of the blame for it.
This is the message sent loud and clear by the mobs tearing down statues, and the BLM activists demanding that white people kneel and apologize, and the leftists who degrade western civilization and its achievements. White westerners, it is said, have a unique reason to apologize. They are the descendants of history’s greatest villains. Any discussion of historical atrocities should begin and end with them.
This is all nonsense, of course. For one thing, nobody is responsible for the actions of their ancestors, and one man cannot and should not apologize to another man for events that occurred before either were born. To apologize for something is to take responsibility for it, but you obviously cannot take responsibility for things that were done at a time when you did not actually exist. We can discuss the legacy of these events, and how they still affect people today, but nobody involved in the conversation has any reason for guilt or remorse. Empathy and understanding are one thing, and a good thing, but there is nothing good about falling to your knees and begging forgiveness for actions you never took and decisions you never made. This, at best, is performative self-flagellation. At worst, it is a show of sincere and delusional self-loathing. In either case, it is not healthy.
For another thing, the United States in fact did not invent slavery or racism. White Europeans did not invent it, either. If the guilt of slavery can be inherited from one generation to another, then we have all inherited it, we are all stained by it. The institution goes back 10,000 years or more to the Neolithic Revolution. As long as human society has had agriculture, it has had slaves to do the work. The soil on every continent on Earth, save Antarctica, has been tilled by slaves. Slavery was a common and almost unquestioned practice everywhere, all over the world, among nearly all people, for many thousands of years.
If Europeans did not invent slavery, can they at least be blamed for the formation of the slave trade? No. Slaves were traded as commodities as far back as Ancient Egypt. For centuries before the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Arab traders would conduct their own raids in Africa, capturing African villagers and shipping them back to the Arabian peninsula for sale.
Was slavery in the United States or the colonies more brutal and inhumane than other iterations of the practice? Again, no. It was brutal and inhumane, but it would be hard to argue that it was worse, morally, than the forms of slavery common across the globe. For example, in the Sub-Saharan slave trade, established about 1,000 years before the United States came into being, young boys were routinely castrated and then sold into forced labor in Asia, the Middle East, or within Africa. It’s worth noting that slavery was not fully abolished in Africa until 1981.
Can we at least blame Americans or Europeans for bringing slavery to North America? Once again, no. Slavery was commonplace in the Americas well before European settlers showed up. Native American tribes enslaved each other, often by conquest and capture. Those who wish to make the slavery practiced by Europeans seem appreciably worse than other forms will often claim that Native American slavery was more humane and less permanent. This may have been true in some cases, but certainly not all. In Mesoamerica, a slave would often have his period of servitude ended when he was ritualistically butchered as a human sacrifice, which was a widespread practice in the region for hundreds of years.
The Chimu in modern day Peru carried out the worst mass sacrifice of children ever to occur on Earth, as far as we know. Over 140 children were slaughtered, probably by having their hearts cut out of their chests while they were still alive. In another particularly grisly episode, the Aztecs killed and dismembered 84,000 human sacrifices in the span of just four days to consecrate a new temple. This is easily one of the worst cases of mass slaughter carried out anywhere, at any time in history, and the Aztecs pulled it off without modern weaponry. Granted, not all of these sacrifices would have been slaves, but the point is that this was not a civilization unfamiliar with brutality and inhumanity.
In fact, Native Americans took part in African slavery as well. By the time of the Civil War, 15% of the Cherokee population was comprised of black slaves. Indian tribes could be quite brutal to their black slaves, too. In one case, a black slave named Lucy was accused of murder and then burned alive by an angry group of Choctaws.
I am not arguing that the slavery practiced by white Americans was “less bad” just because everyone else was doing it. Slavery in America was a horrid abomination, which is why we celebrate its abolition — an abolition that came only 90 years after the formation of the country. The United States, as a nation, had legal slavery for less than a century. For comparison sake, China had slavery for 3,000 years and only officially abolished it in the 20th century, though unofficially it still exists today. This, again, does not lessen the brutality of American slavery or mitigate the evil of the institution. But it does go to show that the exclusive focus on slavery in America, and the insistence that white Americans have inherited unique guilt because of it, is simply wrong.
If there ever comes a time when we are ready to have a mature, nuanced discussion of slavery, racism, and their legacies in the modern day, I will be eager to participate in it. After all, we cannot understand where we are, or anticipate where we’re headed, until we know where we’ve been. But this discussion is only possible and can only be worthwhile if we look at history with a wider lens, understanding the context of the institutions and attitudes we rightly revile today. If we have already decided from the outset that, whatever happened in history, white people must have been especially bad and the evil they committed must have been unique to them, then there is no point. We cannot have any discussion. We are like children making reality into a cartoon.
But if we are prepared to look honestly at our history as a species, and see that we are all the descendants of deeply flawed human beings, who were often brutal and bigoted, and who, until very recently, had no concept of inherent human equality and little notion of racial tolerance, but who also struggled mightily and made great sacrifices and achieved great things for our sake, then perhaps a fruitful dialogue can finally take place.