Race and Slavery in America

February 28th, 2009

When I was writing “Eric Holder and Cowards” a couple of days ago, I was looking for sources when I came across a 1965 Department of Labor document titled “The Negro Family: The Case For National Action.”  This document, also known as the “Moynihan Report,” was written by Daniel Patrick Moynihan when he was an Assistant Secretary of Labor.  (His small staff included a very young Ralph Nader.) 

I’ve heard of the “Moynihan Report” and read quotes from it, but I had never seen the entire document.  I found it to be interesting, enlightening, and prescient.  It’s the source of the often-quoted (and sometimes misquoted) Moynihan statement,

The steady expansion of this welfare program [ADC], as of public assistance programs in general, can be taken as a measure of the steady disintegration of the Negro family structure over the past generation in the United States. (Chapter II)

Not only was Moynihan right in 1965, every year since has seen his observation re-validated.  He was called a racist then for stating the truth as he saw it, and despite the accuracy of his observation, there are still those who attack him. 

There’s also another statement in the Moynihan Report that was true then, when I had just entered the Army and could see things for myself, and it’s true today:

Service in the United States Armed Forces is the only experience open to the Negro American in which he is truly treated as an equal: not as a Negro equal to a white, but as one man equal to any other man in a world where the category “Negro” and “white” do not exist. If this is a statement of the ideal rather than reality, it is an ideal that is close to realization. In food, dress, housing, pay, work — the Negro in the Armed Forces is equal and is treated that way. (Chapter IV)

What I found most informative was a discussion of why slavery in America was worse than in other places in our hemisphere and what the impact of that difference has been.  About 12,000,000 African slaves were brought to the New World via the hellish “middle passage” over a period of about 400 years.  About 645,000 (5 percent) came first to the British colonies in North America and then to what had become the U.S.  The U.S., which outlawed the importation of slaves in 1807, permitted legal slavery for a total of about 85 years.  From the “Moynihan Report:”   

The most perplexing question about American slavery, which has never been altogether explained, and which indeed most Americans hardly know exists, has been stated by Nathan Glazer as follows: “Why was American slavery the most awful the world has ever known?” The only thing that can be said with certainty is that this is true: it was.

American slavery was profoundly different from, and in its lasting effects on individuals and their children, indescribably worse than, any recorded servitude, ancient or modern. The peculiar nature of American slavery was noted by Alexis de Tocqueville and others, but it was not until 1948 that Frank Tannenbaum, a South American specialist, pointed to the striking differences between Brazilian and American slavery. The feudal, Catholic society of Brazil had a legal and religious tradition which accorded the slave a place as a human being in the hierarchy of society — a luckless, miserable place, to be sure, but a place withal. In contrast, there was nothing in the tradition of English law or Protestant theology which could accommodate to the fact of human bondage — the slaves were therefore reduced to the status of chattels — often, no doubt, well cared for, even privileged chattels, but chattels nevertheless.

Glazer, also focusing on the Brazil-United States comparison, continues.

“In Brazil, the slave had many more rights than in the United States: he could legally marry, he could, indeed had to, be baptized and become a member of the Catholic Church, his family could not be broken up for sale, and he had many days on which he could either rest or earn money to buy his freedom. The Government encouraged manumission, and the freedom of infants could often be purchased for a small sum at the baptismal font. In short: the Brazilian slave knew he was a man, and that he differed in degree, not in kind, from his master.”

“[In the United States,] the slave was totally removed from the protection of organized society (compare the elaborate provisions for the protection of slaves in the Bible), his existence as a human being was given no recognition by any religious or secular agency, he was totally ignorant of and completely cut off from his past, and he was offered absolutely no hope for the future. His children could be sold, his marriage was not recognized, his wife could be violated or sold (there was something comic about calling the woman with whom the master permitted him to live a ‘wife’), and he could also be subject, without redress, to frightful barbarities — there were presumably as many sadists among slaveowners, men and women, as there are in other groups. The slave could not, by law, be taught to read or write; he could not practice any religion without the permission of his master, and could never meet with his fellows, for religious or any other purposes, except in the presence of a white; and finally, if a master wished to free him, every legal obstacle was used to thwart such action. This was not what slavery meant in the ancient world, in medieval and early modern Europe, or in Brazil and the West Indies.

“More important, American slavery was also awful in its effects. If we compared the present situation of the American Negro with that of, let us say, Brazilian Negroes (who were slaves 20 years longer), we begin to suspect that the differences are the result of very different patterns of slavery. Today the Brazilian Negroes are Brazilians; though most are poor and do the hard and dirty work of the country, as Negroes do in the United States, they are not cut off from society. They reach into its highest strata, merging there — in smaller and smaller numbers, it is true, but with complete acceptance — with other Brazilians of all kinds. The relations between Negroes and whites in Brazil show nothing of the mass irrationality that prevails in this country.”

Stanley M. Elkins, drawing on the aberrant behavior of the prisoners in Nazi concentration camps, drew an elaborate parallel between the two institutions. This thesis has been summarized as follows by Thomas Pettigrew:

“Both were closed systems, with little chance of manumission, emphasis on survival, and a single, omnipresent authority. The profound personality change created by Nazi internment, as independently reported by a number of psychologists and psychiatrists who survived, was toward childishness and total acceptance of the SS guards as father-figures — a syndrome strikingly similar to the ‘Sambo’ caricature of the Southern slave. Nineteenth-century racists readily believed that the ‘Sambo’ personality was simply an inborn racial type. Yet no African anthropological data have ever shown any personality type resembling Sambo; and the concentration camps molded the equivalent personality pattern in a wide variety of Caucasian prisoners. Nor was Sambo merely a product of ‘slavery’ in the abstract, for the less devastating Latin American system never developed such a type.

“Extending this line of reasoning, psychologists point out that slavery in all its forms sharply lowered the need for achievement in slaves… Negroes in bondage, stripped of their African heritage, were placed in a completely dependent role. All of their rewards came, not from individual initiative and enterprise, but from absolute obedience — a situation that severely depresses the need for achievement among all peoples. Most important of all, slavery vitiated family life… Since many slaveowners neither fostered Christian marriage among their slave couples nor hesitated to separate them on the auction block, the slave household often developed a fatherless matrifocal (mother-centered) pattern.”

With the emancipation of the slaves, the Negro American family began to form in the United States on a widespread scale. But it did so in an atmosphere markedly different from that which has produced the white American family.

The Negro was given liberty, but not equality. Life remained hazardous and marginal. Of the greatest importance, the Negro male, particularly in the South, became an object of intense hostility, an attitude unquestionably based in some measure of fear.

When Jim Crow made its appearance towards the end of the 19th century, it may be speculated that it was the Negro male who was most humiliated thereby; the male was more likely to use public facilities, which rapidly became segregated once the process began, and just as important, segregation, and the submissiveness it exacts, is surely more destructive to the male than to the female personality. Keeping the Negro “in his place” can be translated as keeping the Negro male in his place: the female was not a threat to anyone. (Chapter III)

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7 Responses to “Race and Slavery in America”

  1. Kevin |

    I find this exceptionally fascinating. Particularly the possible inferences from the culture which created the most heinous form of slavery in the New World. Partly because I wonder about what that says about the apparently monumental differences between the culture in the American South versus the “North”, which was really mostly the New England states and those immediately surrounding them.

    Somehow “culture” doesn’t really seem to do it justice. The Northern and Southern cultures sprang from the same moral and ethical values which produced the starkly different approaches to slavery. Not that the North was pure as the driven snow or anything like that. But it seems to me that the North’s views were much more similiar, morally and ethically, to Brazil’s than they were to the South’s. And I find that most fascinating.

  2. Tom |

    There was definitely a difference between conditions of slavery in the northern and southern states. I think the reasons were largely related to economics. In the South, large numbers of slaves worked in very low-skilled plantation jobs, making the cotton economy possible. A much smaller number of slaves were otherwise employed, of course, but bulk of the southern economy was agricultural. In the North, on the other hand, there were many fewer slaves, and they worked at everything from smaller-scale agriculture to service in homes. The curious thing is that slavery in Brazil should have been more like slavery in the American South, but it wasn’t.

    It’s also interesting that abolition didn’t happen in California, Oregon, and many northern states until the eve of the Civil War.

  3. Kevin |

    Mind you, I’m just thinking out loud – so to speak – here:

    I think that the differences might be better explained by religious differences than by economic. As you note, the economy of Brazil was more akin to the South’s and yet they each had fundamentally different premises upon which slavery was built.

    The Northern states had a lot of Lutherans and Episcopalians – both less distinct from Catholicism than the Calvinist Baptists which came to dominate the South. And Brazil was and is dominated by Catholics. But I don’t think that relatively simplistic Catholic/Protestant difference is all or necessarily even most of the backstory. For one thing, the North also had Quakers who ended up influencing some of the more dominant Baptist denominations in the North (as opposed to the Southern Baptists…)

    But perhaps the crux lays with the sectarian Pietists (Amish, Mennonites, etc.) which reportedly have their roots in Lutheranism, which in turn viewed itself as a sort of reformed Catholicism rather than the much more antagonistic Protestantism of Calvinists and Anabaptists.

    Some interesting reading: Religious Diversity in Colonial America

  4. Brian |

    Kevin, you might rethink some of that. The Amish and Mennonites are historically considered Anabaptists. And Calvinism has never been very widely associated with Southern Baptist conventions – it is more so with some and less so with others, but each congregation is autonomous and choses its own path in that regard. It (Calvinism) is much more in line with Presbyterianism and Quakerism than any other denomination, and always has been. Most Southern Baptists that I know reject predestination out-of-hand. It would be a stretch to identify as a Calvinist someone that rejects one of the primary tenets of Calvinist theology.

    Moynihan’s report identifies paternalism as a hallmark of slave ownership in the United States. I’d submit that it is also a hallmark of liberal philosophy with regards to blacks here now. Though it may not be spoken of in such terms any more, can anyone not associate liberal policy regarding Affirmative Action set-asides/quotas with what was termed “white man’s burden” one and a half centuries ago?

    Even LBJ spoke of it (the paternalism) when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was being debated. He was quoted as saying that if we (the democrats) could get it (the bill) passed, we’d “have the ni****s eating out of our hand for the next 40 years.”

    I don’t disagree that Protestant and Evangelical theology contributed to the problem here, but it is considerably more complicated than that, or at least appears to be. It’s kind of a chicken-and-egg question though. I think a better argument could be made that Victorian philosophy, such as it was, had more to do with it than anything else, and that’s the big question: did Victorian England make possible that breadth of Protestant theology, or did Protestant theology give rise to Victorian England? Yes, I realize Victorian England didn’t arise until better than 200 years after Calvin and Knox, but Calvin and Knox didn’t have a particularly wide audience until that time, either. Calvinism was largely confined to Scotland until that time.

  5. Anonymous |


  6. Gee Gee |

    I am very impressed with this article. It has enlightened me very much. I was a young girl when Moynihan became well known for this report. We as black people are in a state of crisis, largely because we do not know our history, the sacrifices and sufferings of former generations. It continues to be challenging to bring this knowledge to the forefront.

    So many euphemisms are being used when history is taught. As a social studies teacher, I have to introduce the crimes of slavery as a result of motivation: land/power, religion and economics which added together results in GREED. Our curriculum mentions slavery as “an evil institution”, but the intense degradation and sorrow suffered by slaves as human beings is NEVER addressed.

    I believe that unless we deal with history in real terms, our young people will never recognize the outstanding contributions of our forefathers. I am reminded of the African Proverb: “If you understand the beginning, the end will not trouble you.”

  7. Kenny |

    The Economic systems of the two sides were so drastically different. The south generated most of its wealth amongst the backs of slaves. The common misconception though is that every person in the south was a slave owner. This is entirely false, only the rich owned slaves. The rest of southerners were poor “yeoman” farmers who usually got the poorer land and had a real rough time surviving.
    There was also a difference in the way plantations were run in both the upper and lower south. In the lower south they were run mainly on with the view of “paternalism”, the slaves were tasked oriented, the plantation owners would often live off sight and have an overseer to watch over the slaves, due to the high risk of contracting malaria in the rice patties and what not of the deep South. The northern south on the other hand treated there slaves more like property and the whole way of running the plantations was different.
    The north on the other hand was entirely tied to the market economy and used the idea of free labor, compared to slave labor. The norths society was much like our modern society we see today. Workers had the chance to come and go as they please, and also if they worked hard enough they could possibly work their way up the ladder. The north were full of educated people, compared to the south where education was only for the selected few.

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