The debate didn’t last long before it was time to cut to commercial.
It started when Fox News personality Harris Faulkner, the co-host of “Outnumbered,” broached the subject of reparations to a group of four panelists on the Tuesday show, saying she believed it may not be the best way to create opportunity for young African Americans.
She then turned to Katie Pavlich, a Fox News contributor and editor at the conservative magazine Townhall, whose argument against reparations quickly steered the debate on a nose-dive to its end.
“They keep blaming America for the sin of slavery,” she began, without specifying who “they” are. “But the truth is, throughout human history, slavery has existed, and America came along as the first country to end it within 150 years. And we get no credit for that, to move forward and try to make good on that.”
The comments puzzled some fellow panelists. Fox Business Network personality Kennedy immediately reminded Pavlich, “Well, we did have a very bloody Civil War.”
“We’re over that issue,” a voice can be heard saying off-camera in response.
Kennedy continued: “And the racial history, the remnants of the Civil War, particularly for blacks in the South, that was not an easy path. That was bloody and violent and deadly. And we cannot forget that.”
Kennedy’s remarks mirrored the chorus of criticism that soon came from a host of historians on Twitter and elsewhere, who said they were aghast at the “self-congratulatory” or “revisionist” history that Pavlich’s sentiments appeared to endorse before a nationally televised audience.
Pavlich later tweeted a further explanation for her comments, saying she misspoke. She meant to say that America was “one of” the first countries to end slavery within 150 years “from the point of its founding.” “My argument stands,” she said in response to journalist Soledad O’Brien, who called her a “complete moron.” Pavlich added, “But please @soledadobrien please continue name calling as your argument and the smearing of America as the originator of slavery.”
The explanation did not exactly help. Historians maintained that Pavlich was still missing the point.
“Your argument still stands,” Princeton history professor Kevin M. Kruse wrote to Pavlich on Twitter, “but it’s still completely wrong. Sincerely, Historians.”
Faulkner had broached the conversation because several Democratic presidential candidates — former San Antonio mayor Julián Castro and Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) — have come out in support of reparations for the descendants of slaves. The proposal is unpopular among fiscal conservatives and others sharing Faulkner’s concerns.
But the problem that critics raised on Tuesday wasn’t Pavlich’s position — it was what they called the flawed premise she brought to the debate by suggesting the United States led the charge in abolishing slavery and should be rewarded for it.
Robert Perkinson, a University of Hawaii historian who focuses on race and slavery, told The Washington Post that a legitimate conversation about reparations would have to extend beyond the date slavery began and ended and must reckon with the institutional racism that continued for decades after the 13th Amendment’s passage in 1865.
“The argument for redistribution of wealth because of historical inequities creeps much closer to the present than back to 1865,” he said. “It really would have to creep up to 1965, when legal segregation existed — and of course, we know there are all sorts of ways discrimination still functions today.”
On Twitter, numerous historians sought to correct Pavlich. As Lincoln scholar Geoff Elliott put it: “America wasn’t the first country to originate slavery, but it was one of the LAST nations to officially ban it. . . . Just Google it.”
In a tweet, Kruse offered Pavlich a list of 15 countries that outlawed slavery significantly faster than the United States from the date the countries were founded. Haiti outlawed slavery immediately after becoming an independent nation, after slaves led a revolt to overthrow the French government. Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras all trashed the institution within three years of becoming independent countries. It took five and six years in Chile and Bolivia, eight years in Uruguay, 17 in Nicaragua and 19 in Mexico, he said.
Down at the very bottom of his list is the United States: 87 years.
Then comes the next question: Should America get more “credit” for this?
“America doesn’t deserve credit for ‘ending slavery,’” Bernice King, Martin Luther King Jr.'s daughter, said on Twitter. “What America ended (on paper) reflects an ideology and a quest for power at the expense of humanity that are still prevalent in the policies, spirit and mores of this nation.”
She added: “Also, a nation gets no credit for ‘ending’ a violent atrocity that it allowed and cultivated on its soil and in other nations.”
Perkinson, the University of Hawaii professor, said textbooks have long taught a narrative of slavery as a lead-up to the Civil War — but now the paradigm has shifted, stressing the institution should be taught as a “founding American institution.”
“If you just look at the way that the founding capital of the United States was amassed . . . all of the ways the United States by the middle of the 19th century was becoming an economic power came out of slavery quite significantly,” he said. “Slavery’s abolition in 1865 was indeed a historic landmark of human rights — but that same unequal social structure continued for another 100 years, as the descendants of slaves were prohibited from amassing wealth in numerous ways.”
The Democratic candidates pushing reparations have expressed similar ideas.
At a town hall in Mississippi on Monday, Warren said she would support a bill first introduced by then-Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) in 1989 that would create a commission to make recommendations on the feasibility of providing compensation and official apologies to the descendants of slaves and for Native Americans. The bill, as Ta-Nehisi Coates reported in his 2014 Atlantic essay “The Case for Reparations,” has never gained any traction within either party.
"America was founded on principles of liberty and freedom and on the backs of slave labor,” Warren said to the audience at Jackson State University. “This is a stain on America.”
On “Outnumbered” Tuesday, Pavlich tried to clarify her broader opinion by saying: “My point is that we were the country that decided to end it, and we’re still dealing with the issue. But if you want to start a problem and inflame racial tension even more, start blaming people who have nothing to do with slavery for the sin of slavery, that is not fair, it’s not the American way, and we shouldn’t be doing it.”
Faulkner responded: “All right. We’ll move on.”