Would President Trump Have Been a Slave Owner?

Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic Books, 2014) gives greater detail to the argument that America’s economic fortune was built upon an infrastructure forged by slavery. In the wake of the bloody Civil War, the second industrial era’s twin links of mass production and mass consumerism birthed unforeseen prosperity and inequality. Yes, good ol’ American ingenuity and innovation had plenty to do with the boom, but as Baptist writes, an economic trampoline had been constructed before the war through the hands, arms, and torsos of enslaved Americans.

Baptist argues that white historians’ over-emphasis upon American ingenuity and innovation is part of the ruse to downplay our enslaving heritage. He also argues that the North wasn’t exempt from the economic benefit provided by southern slavery. Southern cotton fields produced millions of fiber bales that were eventually processed into clothes and durables in English mills, but northern states’ industry supported the enslaving enterprise with bank credit that financed firms selling slaves, and saws to clear-cut fields and shovels to till soil. If you assume that Baptist writes history from a narrow perspective because he is black, check yourself.  He’s white and grew up in North Carolina. He teaches nineteenth-century history at Cornell University, and tells students, as he does readers of his book, that cotton was the nineteenth century’s oil that fueled the majority of its economic activity before the latter resource did the same for the following century.

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The United States outlawed the importation of slaves in 1807, but enforcement lagged. Domestic slave trading was not addressed by the new law. The Half Has Never Been Told chronicles, among other moral transgressions of the era, the constant breaking apart of black families in Virginia – a true feeder system – as the economic locus in southern states and territories shifted from Old Dominion tobacco farms to cotton plantations in the Deep South. While reading Baptist’s descriptions of forceful family breakups (not only in Virginia), the connection between that brutal history and present-day realities suffered by numerous African-American families made me shake my head in shame. Enslavement is inequality at its most basic and gruesome level. Its effects didn’t simply fade away with the passage of time, and have been girded up by prejudice and racism which still thrives, incredibly, in the twenty-first century, in this land where we profess to uphold “liberty and justice for all.”

Of course, I can be aghast. I had a solid northern upbringing in the Land of Lincoln, no less, that included the following teaching about the Civil War: the battle was all about slavery. When I moved to Texas more than twenty-five years ago, I picked up the alternative notion that the Civil War was about the North attempting to dominate the South economically. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the argument, but noticed that a lot of research and footnoting went into it. In recent years, I’ve also read about “states’ rights” as a justification for the war. Both arguments contain some truth, but not enough to override or even dent Baptist’s assertion: the Civil War was not only about the maintenance of slavery, but its expansion. The vestiges of that desire plague this society yet today.

Before the Civil War, ten of the fifteen presidents owned slaves, eight of them while serving the office. This society – down to its core DNA – has always been a conflicted jumble consisting of freedoms, privileges, and advantages for some, and enslavement, bondage, and inequalities for others. I’m not mocking the values that we hold dear and confess to be part of our heritage. I’m doubling down on one of Baptist’s points: the playing field has always been significantly imbalanced and not to recognize it only perpetuates its effects. As I argue in Just a Little Bit More, the pursuit of Mammon has been the overriding spirit that has, in great part, made this country what it is. Our true national religion – the pursuit of “just a little bit more” – is simultaneously a great blessing and curse. This spirit helped build this country into the leading economic power in the world. But it also justified slavery the during the colonial days and the first eighty-five years of the nation’s existence, and the effect of this justification lingers like a permanent hangover.

Reading Baptist’s book made me think: How many kick-ass business types – money accumulation and attainment their modus operandi – would be enslavers if they had lived in pre-Civil War days (or would be today if slavery were still legal)?

Provocative blog posts titles, posed as hypothetical questions, don’t prove anything. They can, however, spur our thinking. In the oval office, the current president proudly has hung a portrait of the seventh president. Andrew Jackson, a slave owner, helped clear out Native Americans from Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi via the infamous “Trail of Tears” in the 1830s. Much of this land, in subsequent years, produced cotton picked by enslaved people, many who had been forcibly marched south and west from Virginia or South Carolina.

The challenge to look at and understand history in a new way can lead to transformed thinking, which in turn can lead to actions and interactions of greater love, clarity, and justice. May it be so in this land of stony roads and chastening rods that have not wiped out the faith and hope taught – and wrought – even from the dark past.

 

Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m the Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fifteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin. I’m also the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (Blue Ocotillo/ACTA, 2014) and There is a Balm in Huntsville (forthcoming, spring 2019).

 

Ferguson, MO and Isaiah 64:1-2

Thanks to Rozella White, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) Director for Young Adult Ministry, for her November 24th FB post on the ELCA Clergy page calling forth commentary and protest concerning the Michael Brown/Darren Wilson grand jury decision. I wrote the following in preparation to preach (in English and Spanish) on Sunday, November 30, 2014 at St. John’s/San Juan Lutheran in Austin, Texas. What follows is not a word-for-word transcript of my preaching that day (preaching is, or at least should be, a “live event”), but the basis of my thinking for what went into the message that became vocalized.

Almost 30 years ago, I lived for two years in South America. Not only did I learn Spanish and get a thorough introduction to generalized Latino culture, I also learned what was to be one of my main vocational callings: to be a missionary to white folks. Missionary, of course, is an old-fashioned word. It’s meaning, however, is still pertinent in the 21st century world. It’s my mission to bring an important message to people with whom I share common experience and understanding. It’s not that I’m superior to those receiving the message or endowed with special talents; initially and significantly transformed by what I saw and experienced in Perú, that transformation continues as I’ve worked in dual language ministry for close to 25 years in Texas.

2019 will mark the bleak 400th anniversary of the beginnings of slavery in the territory of what is now the United States. Slavery came to an official end in 1865, but its effects still linger. Unarmed Africans/blacks have suffered – including death – under the power and hegemony of whites in these lands since 1619 when the first African slaves came to colonial Jamestown. Michael Brown’s case is sadly a continuing thread in a long narrative. Where I live – Austin, Texas – Larry Jackson, an unarmed black man, was killed during a struggle with white police officer Charles Kleinert in July of 2013. Kleinert has subsequently been indicted for the death of Jackson; his trial has yet to start. Austin – the city that oozes cool vibe with all of its events and attractions – has had a number of similar incidents in the past decade where unarmed young men of color (yes, some involved in criminal activity) have lost their lives on the other side of a police weapon.

Thankfully we live in an ordered society, buttressed by law. Police forces are a necessary part of that order derived from law. We are grateful for those who serve in law enforcement, yet we also recognize that a society that has a long history of prejudice and racism, such as ours, can produce a jaundiced law and order. An order based in injustice is no order at all for a class of persons deprived of power. The power of the dominant race or class must be kept in check; power without accountability leads to domination. Ferguson, Missouri is a community of some 21,000 souls – almost 70% black and 30% white. Its police force of fifty-three consists of three black officers and fifty white officers. Ferguson is one of many ethnically minority communities in the US policed by majority white forces.

I’ve heard white folks say over the years: “Slavery is a distant memory – can’t they (blacks) get over it already?” “The civil rights era has helped transform American society – enough with the protests and riots.” “Now that we have a black president, it’s an equal playing field for all and the age of affirmative action should be over.”

This society has made great strides, socially, over the centuries. Yet, the further we go forward, new light shines to expose many other issues and concerns that need attention and correction. As theologian Reinhold Niebuhr proclaimed decades ago, there is progress as time marches forward, a progress in both human potencies – evil and good. Many things are much better than they used to be, but not all things. America is not yet a society devoid of prejudice or racism.

Many people – not just whites – are upset that some in Ferguson responded to the no indictment decision of November 24th with protests and riots that included the burning of buildings and destruction of property. More than a generation ago, non-violence prophet Martin Luther King Jr. condemned riots as self-defeating and socially destructive. However, he also understood why an oppressed minority would resort to rioting: he called it the voice of the unheard.

Isaiah 64:1-2, similarly, is the loud and strong call of a minority voice in search of justice. Here’s a concept that is very difficult for many white American Christians to grasp and understand. Bible stories and histories are told in a minority voice – a voice that lacked societal power in the days of the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Romans. The Israelites and the early Christians that speak, respectively, in the Hebrew and Christian testaments did not speak from a place of political, social, or economic power. They spoke from a place of minority status. Isaiah 64 – from the heart of Israel’s Babylonian exile in the 6th century before Christ – is only understood from a minority perspective, a perspective with which many white Americans are unfamiliar.

“Would that you rip open the heavens and come down!” Exile had ripped apart Israel socially and economically. Israel was justifiably mad at Babylon, God, and itself. The raw anger of the prophet’s voice is undeniable. Many of us – regardless of skin color and socio-economic status – have felt this same type of rage and anger as individuals when suffering through one of life’s many tragedies: loss of a loved one, divorce, an injustice. I remember when my three children were quite young, and the personal feeling of parental responsibility that burdened my heart. I can remember feeling potential rage toward God if anything were to happen to one or all of them. Was I justified in pre-loading my anger toward the heavens? Of course not – but sometimes rage is our only recourse when we are confronted with an event that overpowers us (or in my case, the fear of its overpowering potential). Every single one of us, most likely, can personally relate to such a scenario.

The prophetic voice in Isaiah 64, however, was not an individual voice. It was a voice that spoke for the people – for the community. It was a shared experience – the pain, indignation, and humiliation of exile. And here’s where the understanding of Isaiah 64 gets difficult for American whites (defining the term as those who have at least two or three generations of forebears in the country; the circumstances of immigrants – regardless of color – are fraught with obstacles). For more than 400 years, America has been a society where the locus of social power has resided with whites. Barring isolated individual cases, whites as a people have not experienced the social trauma involved with racial bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination. When my son – blonde and blue-eyed – was growing up in Austin, Texas, I didn’t sit him down and tell him the dos and don’ts of dealing with police officers. Maybe I should have done so, but it never occurred to me at the time. Do black and Latino parents – who are my co-workers and neighbors – have the same experience with their sons and daughters? They do not – I have verified it in conversation with them – and out of necessity they have to have the conversation of conduct in the presence of law enforcement with both their daughters and sons.

We who are law-abiding white folks have lived our whole lives under and within a system that, generally speaking, has worked. Go to school, work hard, and stay out of trouble is an effective formula for many. We need to understand, however, the very same formula and system has not worked the same way for many of our minority brothers and sisters. Black men are six times more likely to be jailed than white men. The poverty rate hovers around 25% for blacks (as it does for Latinos) and only 10% for whites. It is time not only to question a system that works for some and not for all, but to change it.

The season of Advent would have it no other way. “Oh, that you would come down and fix our very lives and the structures that govern them, O Lord!” For too long, we in the American church have been complacent with the message of Jesus’s coming among us as one only of personal redemption for personal sin. This is to be expected from a majority voice comfortable with the system as is. We confine Jesus’s work to the personal realm, and rob the larger society in which we live of the message’s greater effect. Jesus was and is a missionary to this world; his message is life-changing not just for individuals, but for people groups and societies. This Advent, let us see with new eyes and hear with new ears – Jesus comes not just to save us from our personal sin, but to take on societal sin and its consequences as well. He comes that joy, peace, and hope be real not just for some, but for all. God’s kingdom will have it no other way. Amen.

 

These blog posts reflect the views that I share in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, published in May 2014. It’s available at all the usual haunts, including Amazon. I write under the pen name T. Carlos Anderson; click here to read the humorous and entertaining story about the genesis of the unique pen name.