Why Racists Always Make This Claim

News at Home
tags: slavery, Cliven Bundy

Roy E. Finkenbine is Professor of History and Director of the Black Abolitionist Archive at the University of Detroit Mercy.

For students of antebellum American slavery, the recent racist musings of Cliven Bundy have a familiar ring. In speaking to the New York Times, the Nevada rancher and anti-government folk hero wondered if African Americans wouldn’t be “better off in slavery, picking cotton.” The reason, he suggested, was “because slavery taught work skills and enhanced family life.” Since slavery ended, he observed, African Americans had become slaves of a different kind – to poverty, indolence, and government subsidies. These judgments were based, he said, on observing the lives of poor blacks in contemporary Las Vegas. In slavery times, such words would have fit comfortably in the mouth of the most ardent apologist for the “peculiar institution.”

Let me explain. As abolitionists challenged slavery in ever-more-aggressive ways after 1830, slaveholders and their spokesmen developed their own forceful defense of the institution. The notion that African Americans were suffering in freedom and better off in bondage became a common trope among politicians, professors, preachers, and the press below the Mason-Dixon Line. In his now-classic debate with Daniel Webster of Massachusetts in 1830, Senator Robert Y. Hayne of South Carolina maintained that “liberty has been to them the greatest of all calamities, the heaviest of curses.” Southern newspapers regularly carried stories of free blacks and former slaves wasting away in vice, poverty and all sorts of mental and physical afflictions. African Americans, it was argued, were incapable of thriving without strict white control over their minds and their bodies. That meant slavery.

The best evidence for these proslavery assertions, many thought, came from the U.S. Census of 1840. This first federal enumeration to count the mentally diseased and defective allegedly showed that “the frequency of these afflictions among Negroes decreased from Maine to Louisiana with virtual mathematical precision,” as historian Leon Litwack has noted. In Maine, where all blacks were legally free, one of every fourteen was counted as insane or an idiot. In Louisiana, where most blacks were enslaved, only one in more than four thousand was so troubled. To defenders of slavery, the lessons were obvious. Commenting on African Americans in the census, Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina observed that “in all instances in which the States have changed the former relation between the two races, the condition of the African, instead of being improved, has become worse.” Only later did abolitionists demonstrate that the methods of statistical analysis used in the census, as well as the raw count of the mentally diseased and defective, was fatally flawed. In many locales, the census had initially counted more mentally-afflicted blacks than it did African Americans as a whole. Slavery’s supporters, however, were not dissuaded.

Rumors circulated throughout antebellum America of African Americans supposedly suffering in freedom and desiring to return to bondage. Newspapers regularly published these stories. In the summer of 1852, as she awaited the birth of her first child in freedom, a report circulated in the southern press (and, eventually, in London, where she lived) that black abolitionist Ellen Craft wanted to go back to slavery in Georgia. Craft quickly published an announcement to the contrary in the British press. To those who doubted, she assured readers that she “had much rather starve in England, a free woman, than be a slave for the best man that ever breathed upon the American continent.” In March 1860, the Detroit Free Press reported that C. L. Brown, a white southerner, had responded to similar rumors by opening an office in the city to assist former slaves who wished to return to their masters. Apparently, there were no takers.

Nevertheless, up to the time of the Civil War, slavery’s defenders saw only African American degradation in freedom. Like Bundy, these observations often focused on the supposed laziness, poverty, and family deterioration among free blacks. If African Americans were to achieve a meaningful work ethic and home life, they argued, the strict controls that slavery provided needed to be in place.

That such views still exist in the United States in 2014, a century and a half after emancipation, may seem a bit curious. But biases and beliefs about race in America – once established – die hard. So, too, do romanticized notions about slavery in the Old South. For those white Americans raised with the “moonlight and magnolias” myth of antebellum slavery pervasive in Gone with the Wind and other “southern” films of an earlier time, bondage had its advantages for blacks. This is the case with Bundy, who continues in the tradition of the antebellum apologist for slavery. He is not alone. As I told a colleague recently, if Bundy is a modern defender of slavery, Donald Sterling, the owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers, appears to relish the role of the plantation owner. Both might benefit from viewing the brutality of slavery portrayed in 12 Years a Slave.

comments powered by Disqus