Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Slavery and the USA - a subject well past its sell-by date

I’ve been enjoying Michael Medved’s 2008 New York Times Bestseller (as it says on the cover), The 10 Big Lies About America (you can see him talking about it here). Medved also wrote the excellent Hollywood vs. America (which I’ve written about) and is co-author (along with brother, Harry) of a whole series of large-format books about terrible films – including, The Golden Turkey Awards: The Worst Achievements in Hollywood History and Hollywood Hall of Shame: The Most Expensive Flops in Movie History , both of which I enjoyed hugely when they were published 30 years ago. A former Democratic Party speech-writer, Medved currently presents one of America’s top-rated right-wing radio shows and regularly publishes books on politics.

One of the chapters in his latest book explodes the fallacy that “America is Uniquely Guilty for the Crime of Slavery”. I won’t bother rehearsing the arguments in detail, as the specific contention he is rebutting is a bit of an Aunt Sally anyway – you’d have to be brain-dead (or a liberal) to think there was anything unique about America’s use of African slaves. America accounted for only 6% of the transatlantic slave trade – it received a total of 480,000 slaves in total, compared to the 3.6 million shipped to Brazil. Industries based on slave labour weren’t all that important to America (no matter what we’ve always been told). By the start of the Civil War,  Northern industry had far outstripped profits from slave-based Southern agriculture. And, as any fule kno, Africans themselves enthusiastically supported the slave trade. As for slavery today, it’s still practiced in many parts of Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, mainly in the form of bonded labour – in Mauritiania alone, there are reckoned to be 600,000 people living in slavery, while Nigeria (which was so keen to go to war with South Africa in order to free their black cousins from apartheid) is estimated to have 800,000 slaves.

Which brings us to frequent claims by American black activists (and some here in the UK) for reparations to be made as compensation for their ancestors having been enslaved. Leaving aside the question of why they aren’t militating on behalf of fellow blacks still living in bondage, Medved makes three interesting points.  By 2005, there were 2,815,000 foreign-born blacks living in the United States. A third of these came from Africa. That’s five times the number of black slaves imported into America during the whole period of slavery. So, some black Americans want to be compensated for living in a country which many fellow-melanoids (a term coined, I believe, by Anthony Burgess) are desperate to enter. Curious.

Medved also points out that, from 1816 on, former slaves were offered the chance to return to Africa to live their lives based on American principles (i.e. the good stuff – not slavery). Despite support over many decades from the likes of Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln, only 5% of America’s freed slaves took up the offer – they wanted to stay. 

For his third salient point, Medved cites the fact American blacks earn nearly thirty times more per capita and can look forward to 25 more years on this earth on than the average Nigerian. American blacks are the richest and longest-lived on the planet. Given that many Americans died to end slavery, this has led some right-wingers to suggest (mischievously) that, if anything, American blacks should be asked to pay reparations to the American government for the enormous advantages they enjoy as a result of their ancestors being shipped to the United States. 

Given that Britain and America have largely forgiven Germany and Japan for World War II, it’s probably about time that the ancestors of black slaves started cutting America some slack. Yes, slavery represents a stain on both America and Britain’s history – but Britain was at the forefront of the fight to end the slave trade, and America waged a bloody civil war to end the practice 145 years ago.

It really is time to get over it.


  1. If everyone did get over it how would Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and all the other CEO's of the race industry continue to make their millions?
    Thursday, May 19, 2011 - 11:07 AM

  2. Sensible people on the left, including me, accept that the reparation argument is a bit silly and that the motives of some race relations activists are dubious but only a white supremacist would airbrush discrimination against blacks out of the West’s recent history. Might the keenness of Africans to emigrate to America and the UK have something to do with the civilising effect of modern anti-discrimination laws? The fact that Perry Black is citing old men as representatives of the race industry suggests that their brand of inverted racism has had its day which is good news for everyone.
    Thursday, May 19, 2011 - 04:27 PM

  3. Sorry to take so long to respond, Gramsci - but you've given me pause for thought.

    I don’t think anyone’s implying that blacks haven’t faced discrimination here and, especially, in the States. But I am certain that, when it comes to immigrants, Britons are the most welcoming people in the world (apart, maybe, from Scandinavians).

    I’m sure the number of Africans settling here has to do with appalling conditions – including discrimination against members of certain tribes - in many African countries, Britain’s “Open Door” policy under Labour, the fact that they already speak English, the generosity of the welfare system (in case things go wrong), the fact that they ‘ve been brought up in the Christian tradition, and the civilised attitude of the British people to newcomers. That, and the fact that black Africans from the old British colonies seem only too eager to fit in and work hard. (The ones that come from countries without colonial ties to Britain, who don’t speak English, and who don’t have a Christian background – well, that’s another matter.)

    What I doubt is that it’s got anything to do with race relations laws. Some of these were no doubt A Good Thing and provided necessary protection for immigrants in the 50s and 60s (who had been invited here by a Tory government) against suspicion and hostility (especially from Trade Unionists) – but it’s all gone way too far. Me, I’ll go with Martin Luther King’s desire for a country “where they [his children] will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.” The mania for positive discrimination and “access” and the metropolitan Left’s warped vision of “equality” and “fairness” guarantee that people are still being judged according to the colour of their skin rather than the content of their character, and that’s rather sad.
    Saturday, May 21, 2011 - 11:15 AM

  4. You make an excellent point, Ex-KCS. I do wonder how many “problems” would disappear if the self-appointed champions for the Left’s favourite victim groups didn’t exist. Many of the world’s problems persist because self-serving demagogues regularly pour petrol on the flames before shrieking in outrage at how big the fire is. The questions I always ask myself when some self-righteous issue Nazi is busy whipping up people’s sense of victimhood are (a) what’s in it for them? (b) if the supposed “problem” went away, what would become of them? (your point exactly).

    The malign dinosaurs of the race relations industry, the leaders of Sinn Fein, the Global Warming fanatics, the myriad spokespersons whipping people into a frenzy over Israel – imagine how dull and unrewarding their lives might be, and how much happier the rest of us would be. Maybe someone should rewrite the words to “Imagine” to reflect this viewpoint.
    Saturday, May 21, 2011 - 11:32 AM

  5. How old is Trevor Phillips-maybe Gramski can enlighten us?
    Remember it was Trevor's wondrous benificence,must have been two yars ago now,that decreed the British people were allowed to have their Christmas.
    We're all ever so grateful.
    Monday, May 23, 2011 - 01:13 PM