How America's Original Sin Lives On
By Nick Fouriezos
America’s original sin — slavery — may have been outlawed more than 150 years ago, but it’s far from an arcane issue that was put to rest centuries ago. It still plagues the soul of that nation, and beyond, with its many modern-day iterations — whether in West Africa, the Gulf or on cruise ships — a crushing reality for countless misfortunate people. And yet, the debate around how, or even if it’s possible, to make amends for the past has rarely been as vibrant. In today’s Daily Dose, we pick up that discussion, exploring how long-standing structures of racism have shaped the modern world, and what’s being done to acknowledge a historic cruelty that continues to resonate in our lives today.
the enduring history of slavery
On the Road to Racism. When the American highway system began taking shape in the late 1950s, it split white from Black neighborhoods. That fueled segregation tactics such as redlining that kept Black families from securing home loans in more desirable areas. Today, such seemingly incidental but ultimately racist practices, born of white attitudes developed during slavery, can be seen in neighborhoods from Cleveland’s Shaker Heights to New Orleans’ Uptown and Chicago’s North Lawndale. Change, however, may be at hand: In March, U.S. President Joe Biden proposed a $20 billion plan to restore neighborhoods carved up by highways, while Democrats since June 2020 have been working on a near half-trillion funding bill to reform highways and transit systems over the next five years. Nearly 30 cities across America are considering removing their highways. Tackling infrastructure to spur racial justice is just one way “our public discourse has gotten more sophisticated,” Ali Zaidi, deputy climate adviser to Biden, tells OZY: “We’ve started to connect the dots.”
Reforming a Rotten Education System. While slavery has been dissected in reams of history books, its long-term ramifications have often been glossed over. Terrifying events such as the Tulsa Race Massacre and destruction of Black Wall Street a century ago remain conspicuously absent from many history school books. To counter this, some teachers are working to spotlight lingering effects of slavery and racism in the education system itself. At the University of Texas at San Antonio, lecturer Stacy Johnson has come to a stunning conclusion: “The problem is that the educational system and its anti-Black praxis is the new slave trade; its educators, often unsuspecting . . . accidental slave masters.” It’s a position that’s hard to argue against, considering that Black kids are routinely directed toward lower-level coursework and often over-disciplined in the classroom, measures that may even contribute to their ending up in the school-to-prison pipeline. Read more on OZY.
An Ailing, Unequal Health Care System. It’s widely known that African Americans face disproportionately worse health care outcomes, such as higher rates of maternal mortality, obesity and diabetes. That’s the result of, in part, a dearth of local care facilities in poorer communities served by badly resourced hospitals and medical centers. Medical racism in various guises has been around for centuries, with white doctors at times treating Black patients as human guinea pigs. The issue persists today, as OZY recently explored in a special episode of The Carlos Watson Show. Other, highly prevalent forms of slavery the medical industry ought to fight against? Sex trafficking, an issue highlighted in an award-winning essay for the Pediatric Trainees Advocacy Campaign. Watch on OZY.
An Industry Out of Tune. Cardi B, Jay-Z and Drake may be superstars of pop, but for many trying to make it in the music industry, the roots of racism still run deep. Formed last year, the Black Music Action Coalition nonprofit has called for industry execs to rectify the “inequities in the treatment of Black artists.” This double standard, writes Maureen Mahon in her book Right to Rock, points to a “racialized political economy” — one in which Black performers occupy a “subordinate” position. Mahon has studied accounting practices that reveal how African American artists have routinely been denied representation and wealth.
Cruise ships. For years, human rights organizations have warned that working conditions on cruise ships are often akin to slavery. That’s especially true when workers are subject to recruitment tactics that place staff into debt bondage, essentially forcing them to work or risk not being able to reimburse their employers for perceived benefits. It’s difficult for workers to lobby in their own defense, since maritime law and multiple, fleeting jurisdictions make understanding and protecting their rights challenging.
Nigeria’s Slavery Capital. Despite making up less than 2% of the Nigerian population, the state of Edo 120 miles east of Lagos was responsible for about half the nation’s human trafficking victims as of 2020. The problem is so pronounced there that the state government signed an anti-sex-trafficking law in 2018 that imposes a minimum penalty of five years in jail for offenders. Edo has a long, dark history rooted in slavery. When Portuguese traders reached the kingdom of Benin (present-day southern Nigeria) in the late 15th century, its leader, Oba Ozolua, didn’t ask whether he should sell slaves to the Europeans — only how much he could profit off the effort. While slavery was technically outlawed in 1833, the illicit practice of smuggling women has continued. Read more on OZY.
Qatari Women . . . Years of global PR outreach has shown that Qatar cherishes the notion that it is a force for good in the world, but is there any truth to that assertion? The tiny Gulf nation has portrayed itself as more egalitarian than its neighbors Saudi Arabia and the UAE, yet the reality is far less rosy. In March, the country made international headlines for all the wrong reasons when Human Rights Watch published a report highlighting the difficulties Qatari women face making key life decisions such as getting married, studying abroad or taking a government job, without a guardian’s permission. In recent years, Qatari feminists have become more active, with many voicing criticism over social media. They allege a culture of domestic abuse exacerbated by women being denied the same rights and personal freedoms as men — mothers, for instance, can’t pass down their nationality to or renew passports for their children. Read more on OZY.
. . . And Workers. That troubling state of affairs is coupled with a brewing human rights disaster as more than 6,500 migrant workers have died since Qatar was awarded hosting duties for the 2022 World Cup 11 years ago. Human rights advocates say local officials are confiscating passports and trapping workers in debilitating amounts of debt. That’s making them toil as unpaid labor in a situation the U.K.’s Independent likens to “slaves” forced to build not stadiums but “mausoleums.” While some aspects of the exploitative kafala system have been scrapped, experts worry that the human toll of Qatar’s World Cup dreams are not being fully acknowledged.
the changes underway
Underground Stories No More. Filmmaker Barry Jenkins is trying to change the way people talk about African American history — and it starts with a mind-shift in how slavery is understood. Director of The Underground Railroad, the Amazon series adapted from Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name about a women fleeing slavery in Georgia, Jenkins told NPR last month: “Before making this show . . . I would have said I’m the descendant of enslaved Africans.” His thinking has since evolved: “I am the descendant of blacksmiths and midwives and herbalists and spiritualists,” he says. For decades, activists and others have been trying to advance that view of slaves as individuals with real (even if societally limited) agency. In the 1990s, some in academia advocated for replacing the word slave, arguing it objectifies and dehumanizes those who were enslaved.
Medical Abolitionism. The REPAIR (Reparations and Anti-Institutional Racism) Project is a three-year initiative of the University of California, San Francisco that focuses on fighting anti-Black racism in the medical and scientific fields. A key goal in its first year is to focus on “medical reparations” by “addressing the ongoing legacies of slavery in American medicine.” The initiative has also compiled research on how to address health disparities as part of a broader strategy for reparations.
Subsidized Home Mortgages. Redlining was a major post-slavery impediment for Black families trying to build wealth, which is why some experts are now asking: Why not invest directly in homes for African American residents? A city council resolution in Asheville, North Carolina, to enact a form of reparations chose to focus on investment in Black neighborhoods over direct cash payments. In Chicago, the suburb of Evanston made national headlines in March for offering $25,000 grants for home repairs, down payments and mortgage payments to eligible Black residents. However, reparations that attach strings to dollars in lieu of direct cash payments have been criticized by many experts.
cases for reparations
Reparations in the Past, But for Whom? Reparations are nothing new and have been given out throughout history. But here’s the thing: They have almost always been awarded to those responsible for enslavement. When Haiti declared independence from France in 1804, King Charles X refused to acknowledge that fact until two decades later — and only in exchange for 150 million francs. It took Haiti 122 years to pay off the debt, which went to 7,900 French slaveholders and their descendants. When Britain abolished slavery in 1833, it paid out more than $400 billion (in 2018 dollars) to slave owners. And during the Civil War, the U.S. paid Washington, D.C., slave owners $300 per freed person — for a total of $930,000, or $25 million today. Former slaves didn’t get a penny — other than an offer of $100 ($2,683 in 2021 terms) to permanently leave the United States.
Putting a Price on Slavery. The University of Connecticut’s Thomas Craemer estimates the direct descendants of slaves in the U.S. include about 50 million Black Americans today — and they could be owed around $20 trillion. His 2015 study, however, was intended as a conservative assessment that didn’t take into account wrongs such as labor and housing discrimination that continued post-slavery. That figure, although eye-popping, is low by other measures: Some suggest the amount owed could actually be $97 trillion, a reflection of how difficult (and divisive) the process of trying to calculate the tab for hundreds of years of slavery is proving.
Catholic Guilt. Yet some changes may be underway. As journalist Rachel Swarns recounted in a Twitter thread last March, she received an email in 2016 from a source detailing how Jesuit priests had sold 272 people in 1838 to pay off debts and save Georgetown University from financial ruin. Historians had known this for some time, but it had never seen wide public attention — certainly not in the social media age. After coverage in The New York Times and elsewhere, university officials apologized and enacted one of the first examples of reparations from an academic institution. It offered legacy admissions in the form of preferential or priority status to descendants of the sold slaves and, in 2019, promised to raise $400,000 per year for their benefit. While that sum falls short of the $1 billion descendants have asked for, the Jesuits have promised to raise $100 million across their global order.
‘Creative’ Reparations. Ahead of last month’s hundredth anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, a white-owned, Tulsa-based jewelry store decided to donate 100% of the proceeds from one of its jewelry collections to the Black Moon art collective in support of local artists of color. Is this small gesture something that could be replicated on a larger scale across the art world? In 2020, the Baltimore Museum of Art moved to acquire works by female artists only for a 12-month period, a strategic shift that could be emulated to promote traditionally underrepresented artists of color as well.