Last week, a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing to explore H.R. 40, which proposes the study of slavery reparations and redressing the injustices committed against African Americans. The witnesses featured high-profile celebrities, public intellectuals, economists and journalists exploring the possibilities of social restitution for black Americans.
Historians, however, were conspicuously absent from the hearing, leaving a void that conservative pundits gleefully filled upon the hearing’s conclusion. The Daily Wire’s Michael Knowles led the critique of reparations on his podcast, arguing that the United States was less responsible for slavery than other countries, and that slavery was not based on race. These arguments have become reflexive right-wing talking points that rely on faulty information and historical misrepresentations to dismiss the devastating consequences slavery had on generations of African Americans.
As the debate over reparations moves forward, now is time to dismantle these historical falsehoods.
Myth No. 1: Due to its lower imports, the United States’ involvement in Atlantic slavery was insignificant.
Critics of reparations often assert that the United States imported a small number of enslaved people compared to other countries in the Western Hemisphere, correctly citing Brazil as the largest importer.
But the low percentage of imported slaves does not exonerate the United States. Instead, it shows the country participating in a transatlantic regime that was deadly and violent for all African captives, regardless of where they disembarked. The sugar-producing regions of Brazil, the Caribbean islands and parts of Louisiana produced horrific brutality. Enslavers determined that it was more economical to import slaves than to encourage reproduction, so they extracted maximum output from the enslaved person’s body before they perished.
In fact, it is this very violent history that has stimulated conversations about reparations in Brazil, despite the claim of conservative pundits who ask why no one is giving Brazil a “hard time” for expanding slavery. Citizens in Brazil and nations throughout the South Atlantic are lobbying for reparative justice, often citing the twin evils of European colonialism and the expansion of race-based chattel slavery as the genesis of racist inequalities throughout the Western Hemisphere.
What’s more, low imports did not necessarily result in a more benign form of slaveholding. The U.S. system was largely predicated upon natural reproduction for a few reasons. First, North America was a greater distance from West Africa, often making imports more expensive for prospective buyers. Second, the United States banned the importation of captive Africans by 1808. To expand their enslaved population, slaveholders focused on “breeding” enslaved people and selling them in the nation’s expanding Western territories throughout the first half of the 19th century. Historians calculate that 1 million people were forcibly uprooted through the Domestic Slave Trade from 1808 to 1865, which devastated the stability of enslaved families while exacting a significant psychological toll on its captives.
Myth No. 2: Slavery was about class, not race.
In dismissing the reparations claim, Knowles states that slavery was “not simply a racial issue,” and could not be boiled down to “white people had black slaves.” Yes, systems of slavery existed in the ancient world, and there are still enslaved people in the 21st century. Each society approached enslavement differently, basing the system upon religious, cultural or ethnic differences between the populations.
But scholars have proven that the race-based chattel form of the Western Hemisphere, and the Anglosphere specifically, was unique in its exclusive connection with blackness. Enslavement became an inherited identity solely based upon one’s racialized classification.
So while conservatives note that Irish bondspeople labored alongside enslaved Africans in the Colonies, they often fail to explain why there were no enslaved white people at the dawn of the Civil War. Unlike people of African descent, their bondage was not generational. Indeed, for all their disagreements, abolitionists and proslavery apologists agreed on one point: that American slavery was predicated upon black labor.
Some of the earliest slave codes passed throughout the South, such as the Anti-Miscegenation Acts of Maryland in 1661, the Virginia Slave Codes of 1705 and the South Carolina law of 1712, determined that slavery was connected to African ancestry and that the status of “slave” was inheritable from mother to child. Similar laws did not exist for the Irish in the United States, nor any other Euro-American group that experienced a form of bonded labor in the early Colonies.
Myth No. 3: A black man was the first slave owner in North America.
The third most egregious point circulating in conservative media is that America’s oldest original sin was, in fact, innovated by a black man, Anthony Johnson, whom Knowles called the first “formally recognized” slave owner in the United States. Yes, Johnson owned slaves, a unique circumstance allotted to some people of African descent in 17th-century Virginia. His status as the “first” known slaveholder probably stems from his successful suit against his indentured servant John Casor, in which Casor was deemed a “slave for life,” an identity that became a determining feature of U.S. chattel slavery.
However, this rendition simplifies a complex biography, ignoring shifts in the larger Colonial legal definition of slavery. More significantly, Anthony Johnson only reflects a single scenario within a much broader saga of human bondage. The defining characteristic of enslavement throughout the Western Hemisphere was predicated on the abuse and exploitation of black bodies. It is the reason that from the inception of colonization up to 1820 at least four Africans arrived in the Americas for every one European.
The focus on Johnson’s unique status is designed to convey their underlying argument: If a black man could own slaves in early America, then black people and white people held access to the same opportunities for social mobility.
However, even if one accepted this narrative, the system evolved and eventually eliminated prospects for black social mobility. Historians T.H. Breen and Stephen Innes’s book “Myne Owne Ground” explored Johnson’s biography extensively and proposed the possibility that forced labor was not strictly determined by racial classification. However, they definitively state that the Virginia slave codes of 1705 subverted any gains made by the state’s free black population. Slave codes proliferated throughout the South by the 18th century, ensuring that the defining characteristic of chattel slavery was interpreted by the captive’s blackness. Those who were “free” and “black” remained an anomaly throughout the Southern states, and legislators ensured their safety was tenuous.
No other ethnic minority in U.S. history experienced a comparable form of oppression via racialized slavery, and its legacy directly affected generations of black people in this country. Any claims to the contrary are deeply ahistorical.
Various groups were subjected to forced labor, but a wealth of historical scholarship demonstrates that anti-black chattel slavery was a uniquely violent and exploitative intervention in the global history of human bondage. Scholars of slavery and the African diaspora must engage the public with renewed vigor and challenge such misrepresentations. Otherwise, we surrender the narrative to dishonest public figures who selectively edit the system’s overtly racist features and its devastating legacy.