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The ‘new abolitionists’ and the problem of race

‘New abolitionists’ have failed to engage with the history and legacies of slavery and racism. They must learn more about the past if they are to clearly understand the present.

Contemporary activists in the United States frequently describe themselves as part of a ‘new abolitionist movement,’ which is said to represent a direct extension of the original struggle to end slavery. According to this popular formula, activists today are continuing the pioneering historical examples of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Sojourner Truth. Despite these historical allusions, this new abolitionist movement suffers from a profound ignorance when it comes to what the original abolitionists were actually up against, what they believed, what they accomplished, and where they fell short. As a result, these new abolitionists have failed to adequately recognise the overriding importance of plantation slavery in American history, its long-term consequences in the aftermath of its legal abolition, and its profound significance for African Americans living today. This is reflected in an obstinate form of racial blindness, which has in turn translated into a consistent disinterest in addressing the vicious racial and economic legacies of plantation slavery that African Americans and other non-white peoples continue to struggle against, both in the United States and more broadly.

When today’s activists refer to the ‘new global slavery’, they frequently fail to recognise that African Americans live with agonising memories of plantation slavery and its enduring contemporary legacies. These have far-reaching ramifications in relation to fundamental themes such as poverty and inequality, incarceration and policing, and education and opportunity. Historians have documented beyond all question the central contribution of slavery to the economic and political development of the United States. Politically engaged African Americans have repeatedly made clear that their moral and historical claims to the problem of slavery are no less overriding are those of the Holocaust for Jews the world over. Given this history, what has been the ‘new abolitionist’ response? Check the websites of every major US Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) and in nearly every case all you will find is silence.

This silence extends to many different topics, including militarised policing, ‘black lives matter’, the prison industrial complex, the ‘achievement gap’, and structural racism.  Though eager to remedy the long-term damage to survivors of all kinds of contemporary abuses, this concern does not extend to repairing the historical wrongs endured by African Americans. Could it be that a nation that once enslaved 4,000,000 African Americans is again practicing slavery when it contains the world’s highest percentage of incarcerated people, overwhelmingly non-white, from whose all-but-unpaid labor privatised prisons wring enormous profits? Again, silence. In the face of this obstinate racial blindness it’s hardly surprising that African American participation in the new abolitionist movement has been all but non-existent.

Strip-mining history for banner ads

There are further problems in addition to this widespread silence. Consider visual images. Today’s ‘new abolitionists’ have regularly sought to dramatise their cause by repurposing visual materials left in archives by the largely white pre-Civil War antislavery movement. The results of these efforts have often been far from ideal. Historians have long cautioned against treating historical icons uncritically, because the historical outputs of white abolitionists’ woodcuts, lithographs and sketches frequently ended up voyeuristically stereotyping, patronising, commodifying, and disempowering the very African Americans for whom their creators purported to advocate.

Anti-slavery icons routinely featured fettered slaves, hands clasped, kneeling in supplication; helpless naked slaves being whipped by sadistic masters; scantily clad slaves fearfully trembling atop the auction block; half-naked female slaves being pursued by lust-driven planters, and so forth. Blithely ignoring what the past might teach them, today’s ‘new abolitionist movement’ broadcast images that, once again, feature chains, manacles, barred windows, sexually provocative poses and supplicating victims repeatedly constitute the dominant motifs. This is nothing less than trading in the “the pornography of pain,” as one prominent historian puts it. What might Frederick Douglass make of our ‘new abolitionist movement?’ The question answers itself.

The pornography of pain, then and now. Above: a cartoon from 1792 by Isaac Cruikshank (Everett Historical / Shutterstock.com). Below: a contemporary photo illustration from djsangelsinthefield.com. Fair use.

Then there are those abolitionists who repeatedly tell us that they’re all about ‘ending slavery’ and even abolishing it ‘in our lifetime’. These types of pronouncements are not only unrealistic, since slavery has always been and will always be with us. They can also do profound violence to the past and its meaning for black Americans today, since they suggest that slavery can be easily and definitively expunged. As is well known, many black Southerners were re-enslaved in large numbers following emancipation in 1865 using racist vagrancy laws, debt peonage, and systems of convict leased labor. Further buttressed by the terrorism of lynching, this ‘slavery by another name’ resulted in the exploitation of tens of thousands across the South. It lasted until the end of World War II and anticipated the current US prison industrial complex. Little wonder that African Americans scoff at those who promise to ‘end slavery in our lifetime’. This history of slavery—which continues to colour the day-to-day lives of African Americans—and the slavery opposed by the ‘new abolitionists’ too often exist in separate universes.

Bridging the Divide

 We urgently need to close the current divide between ‘new abolitionists’ and the history of slavery and racism. To help work through what this might look like in practice, let’s return to a topic mentioned above: the ‘slavery by another name’ system of convict labor and debt peonage supported by white racist terrorism that spread across the South in the aftermath of the Civil War. If we were we to transport today’s enslavers and their government enablers back to the 1880s, they would instantly recognise their southern counterparts as kindred spirits. The systemic abuses that African Americans endured in decades that followed the legal abolition of slavery is precisely what vulnerable people the world over regularly endure today. As with southern debt peonage, enslavers the world over demand the repayment of impossible sums for supposed ‘services rendered’ from undocumented people, who they then subject to sexual exploitation and/or brutalising labor. The southern convict lease system likewise replicates itself wherever unscrupulous governments and private recruiters enslave ‘guest workers’ after luring them with promises of employment.

It is thus essential to remember that that historical debt peonage has paved the way for newer forms of enslavement throughout the world. The Central American nations, the British Caribbean Islands, Haiti, and the Philippines—all major exporters of vulnerable and exploited people today—also have a significant history grounded in ‘old’ slavery followed by decades of debt peonage. In China and India today, debt peonage holds millions of people in bondage, many of whom flee only to face similar exploitation elsewhere. Undocumented labor as a springboard to enslavement has hardly ended within the United States either. Exploitative fruit and vegetable growers, for example, have made southwest Florida the site of intense political organising by the Coalition of Imalokee Workers. Properly understood, African American history can help to illuminate the problem of slavery today. Properly understood, the problem of slavery today can help to further illuminate the legacies of enslavement against which African Americans struggle today

Many topics remain unaddressed regarding history’s relationship to slavery within the United States today and today’s abolitionists should insist that historians give them answers. How, for example, might the enslavement of violently displaced Native Americans before the twentieth century help to explain why today’s Indian reservations stand as epicentres of vulnerability and abuse? How might the history of slavery in the American far west, embedded in early twentieth century ‘guest worker’ and ‘coolie labour’ programmes, help account for the exploitation and enslavement of undocumented immigrants today? How might late nineteenth century ‘white slavery’, involving immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe, illuminate current patterns of sexual exploitation of undocumented Asian, Mexican, and Central American women and children?

Most obvious of all, how might the history of slavery’s re-emergence in the post-emancipation South illuminate the massive application of incarcerated labor, prisoners who are of overwhelmingly dark complexion? Convict leasing ended in 1945, but is that the end of the story? Could the current privatised and profit-driven prison industrial complex be the latest iteration of ‘slavery by another name?’ Near the beginning of this article I charged today’s ‘new abolitionist movement’ with racial blindness because of its silence in the face of questions such as these and for other related reasons as well. As this article concludes, my hope is it will prompt them to offer historically informed responses.

About the author

James Brewer Stewart is the James Wallace Professor of History Emeritus at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is the founder of Historians Against Slavery.

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