Okay, so a) Ben Carson’s description of slaves as “immigrants” was incredibly tone-deaf, although in his defense we should perhaps note that b) there is some rationale for including slavery as part of the larger American story of immigration — a shameful, dehumanizing part, but Africans brought unwillingly to this country have certainly left their mark as surely as those who came here voluntarily.*

That said: The outraged response over Carson’s comments as if he were a slavery apologist didn’t come from nowhere. It might not be fair to hit Carson with it, but there’s a long history in this country of romanticizing or sugarcoating American slavery (Gone With the Wind being a landmark example) — and even today, in 2017, there are still a lot of people out there invested in at least mitigating its evil. 

Here is an actual comment I just read today on Facebook (in a comment on a friend’s page): Some Africans brought to the U.S. as slaves

were happy to have a less hard time in America than they did as slaves in Africa — most American slaves were already slaves in Africa, usually captured by other tribes or by Muslim traffickers.

So you see, according to this fellow, slavery was already going on in Africa, so Americans and Europeans didn’t really make their lives worse; in fact, in some cases they made them better!

No. No no no no no. Here’s why:

First of all, there’s a huge and important difference between a) various forms of slavery or subordination practiced throughout history — including indentured servitude or bonded labor, penal servitude, villeinage and serfdom — and b) chattel slavery as practiced in the United States, particularly on a commercial scale. 

This distinction is important for understanding why, when the enslavement of indigenous populations in Africa and elsewhere began in earnest during the Age of Exploration (also, of course, an age of conquest and exploitation), this practice was condemned by one pope after another, even though in antiquity and the Middle Ages Catholic theologians generally taught that slavery, while not rooted in natural law, was not strictly contrary to it either. (Cardinal Avery Dulles wrote some typically smart things about this.)

As Dulles points out, the kind of slavery the popes condemned was quite different from the various forms of slavery or subordination typically practiced in Europe prior to the Age of Exploration. Indentured or penal servitude, villeinage and serfdom may be contrary to the aspirations of the natural law, but at least subjects were recognized as human and had some rights (theoretically, in principle, of course). But chattel slavery, which reduces a human being simply to property and no more, is intrinsically contrary to the natural law.

The myth of “Irish slavery,” much beloved of white nationalists and Holocaust deniers, relies on equivocating between these two things. Some proponents of the myth even claim, absurdly, that Irish “slavery” was worse than black slavery, although the forms of involuntary servitude to which Irish were subjected were neither hereditary nor lifelong and they were never legally reduced to property or deprived of all rights.

So, sure, various forms of slavery or involuntary servitude were practiced in Africa prior to the Age of Exploration. Some of this presumably included chattel slavery, although as far as I know — I’m no historian — there’s not a great deal of evidence for specific slavery practices prior to European traders. But that very fact suggests that commercial chattel slavery of the kind and especially on the scale of the European and American slave trade were not characteristic of Africa prior to this time. (You can’t run large markets on a commercial scale without records.)

The best data I’ve seen indicates that, just prior to the Civil War, there were close to 4 million slaves in the Southern and border states, not counting a small number of slaves still held in Northern states (in past decades this amount had been much higher).

The vast majority (nearly 90%) of all slave owners at that time owned 20 or fewer slaves, so there were obviously a lot of slave-owning households.

Probably 30% or more of Southern households owned slaves; in some states, like Mississippi and South Carolina, it was closer to half. Beyond that, a great many more white Southerners who didn’t actually own slaves aspired to do so, and supported slavery for aspirational and other social reasons. 37 percent of the Confederate Army consisted of slave owners, and here again many more supported slavery.

That’s just in 1860. From before the nation’s founding, slavery was a major social, legal, and economic institution, carried out over centuries. It involved whole markets, supply networks and infrastructures, production sectors, jurisprudence, and on and on. Its victims numbered many millions. Forbes magazine reckons the value of their forced labor, in today’s dollars, at $1.75 trillion. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say an entire economy depended on it.

The claim that “most American slaves were already slaves in Africa, usually captured by other tribes or by Muslim traffickers” — as if the African slave market just happened to have millions and millions of slaves on hand and Westerners just came and picked some up, leaving free Africans as they were — is absurd. Western demand unquestionably made the African slave trade. Millions and millions of Africans were abducted, enslaved and spirited away to Europe or the Americas for no other reason than that we wanted the labor. Whatever unjust practices existed in Africa prior to Western involvement, Westerners didn’t mitigate them — we cultivated and industrialized them, ruining countless lives and polluting African communities and cultures in the process.   

You know what you sound like when you say slaves were happy to have a less hard time as slaves here? A slavery apologist.


* If I may quote a friend, a history professor (and, for what it’s worth, a political liberal):

OK, don’t anybody pass out… Let me defend Ben Carson here…

When I’ve taught immigration history classes, I’ve included enslaved Africans because to omit them would be to mark them as not being part of American history in an important way. Of course we must teach that enslaved Africans were brought over here in the worse possible circumstances and that their color marked them out as different for generations. That’s part of America’s story. But we can acknowledge that effectively Africans were immigrants as long as we acknowledge the circumstances. One could even point out that thousands of Europeans were removed to the Americas as part of prison sentences or to avoid certain death. Still not as horrible as enslavement, but we don’t mark them out as “not immigrants.”

…I would certainly have not pitched things the way Dr. Carson did, but he did speak to a level of truth in an extemporaneous manner.