But Slavery Ended 160 Years Ago!
Why Slavery Still Matters Today
The argument that African-Americans cannot possibly be at a disadvantage today before slavery ended 160 years ago, is an argument so frequently heard that it needs to be addressed in detail.
As part of a longer discussion I got this response which I believe captures well very common thinking around the plight of African-Americans in America today:
Ashkenazi jews were rounded up in concentration camps, a mere 75 years ago. Now they’re the highest IQ group on the planet. Why does that history of racist oppression not harm their test scores? Japanese Americans were put in internment camps 75 years ago. They’re doing very well in school today. But you say it’s obvious that slavery 160 years ago is the source of black/white test score gaps today. That doesn’t seem obvious to me.
It is a sentiment I frequently see. The idea that “lots of people” have suffered so African-Americans should stop making up excuses for their failure. While the difference is fairly obvious to me, it isn’t to a lot of people. Even highly educated, intelligent people.
So let us try to break it down.
How does Past Events Influence the Present?
An African-American today didn’t live through slavery, nor did his father or mother, so how can he or she possibly be affected by it?
It happens through cultural transmission. Here it is useful to use a term called meme coined by biologist Richard Dawkins. This is not the silly internet memes you see all over the place. Rather a meme is an analogy to genes:
A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices, that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures.
For instance you language, values, philosophy, morals etc did not get passed down to you through genes but rather through memes. The memes you carry is as important to how you end up as your genes.
Memes spread through a population and based on the experiences of that population. They then propagate from parents to children as well as from people in the close by community: friends, relatives, authorities etc.
African-Americans e.g. speak Ebonics. That a result of memes spreading. A Black-British person would not speak ebonics because those same memes did not spread in their subpopulation.
So what memes did slavery create? What ideas, morals and perspective did slavery create which carried through the generations? Adam Smith, who wrote the Wealth of Nations in 1776 has several remarks on slavery:
A slave, on the contrary, who can acquire nothing but his maintenance, consults his own ease by making the land produce as little as possible over and above that maintenance” (WN III.ii.12).
He is in fact arguing against slavery not merely for moral reasons but also for economic efficiency reasons. Slavery encourage low productivity, because a slave has no personal incentive to put in an extra effort. Quite the contrary. A slave has the incentive to work as little as he can get away with. Smith observes e.g. that is why great estates in ancient Rome that became slave estates rather than being worked by free farmers saw significant drop in agricultural output.
Memes Transmitted Through Irish Farming Culture
This incentive structure plays itself out in numerous circumstances. The Irish who emigrated to America where tenants in Ireland subject to the whims of the British landlord. They could be moved from their farm at any time. Any extra improvements bestowed on the land by the extra efforts really only benefitted the British landlord.
The meme that quickly spread among Irish farmers was thus “putting in extra effort isn’t worth it.” They carried this with them to the New World, which meant Irish people often got discriminated against in America. People often preferred not hiring them. This story is of course more complex. The brutal suppression of the Irish produced a long list of memes the propagated and diminished their success in the new world.
However the Irish has one big advantage that would over time serve them well and allow them to rise up: They looked white. This meant they could not be picked out in the crowd. They did not face specific laws targeting them. People can adapt to new circumstances, especially as you mingle with others. The Irish where not kept separate. They where allowed to move into white areas with other white people. There they could receive other powerful memes from their neighbors gradually improving their success.
East German Work Ethic
Growing up in East Germany caused an entirely different set of memes spreading through the population than growing up in west Germany. These memes keep replicating themselves even after German unification.
One can see that in how East Germans are perceived as different and lesser than West Germans and often discriminated against:
The judgement underlines the legal view of the Stuttgart Labour Court in a now nearly 10 years old decision, in which an employee of a company had written the note ‘Ossi’ and a minus sign on the curriculum vitae of an applicant, who was then rejected in the application procedure.
East Germans usually have lower productivity than West Germans. This has partly been explained by lower human capital. Anyway the point is that experiences in the past can leave lasting imprints on a population. You don’t have to have physically experienced slavery for it to have left an imprint in you as long as there is a hereditary chain from you to somebody who experienced it and which could have passed memes onto you.
But Why Are the Japanese Successful in America?
So we have the argument that somehow the internment of Japanese-Americans 75 years ago should count the same as enslavement 160 years ago.
First of all internet lasted for a few years. Entire generations of Japanese-Americans where not raised in an internment camp system, the way multiple generations of African-Americans where raised within slavery.
The Japanese knew who they where when they went in and they knew who they where when they came out. Nor did they suddenly loose their skills and knowledge. They organized schools and learning in the camps.
Did African-American slaves organize their own school on the slave plantation? Of course not! If you even tried to learn to read and write you would be beaten to an inch of your life.
Nobody told Japanese-Americans that they where not allowed to learn skills.
I don’t think we need to dwell on the difference between internment for a few years and generations of slavery. The profound difference is obvious.
But we may want to look at factors that have cause both Chinese and Japanese to be very successful immigrants. Malcom Gladwell talks about this in some details in his book Outliers which is an excellent read. It is a great book to understand how culture carries through generations and affect your outcomes.
If you look at terraces of rice paddies it is clear that these are not natural parts of the landscape. People made them. They required massive investment in human labor. Unlike a wheat field you cannot just clear it for bushes and trees and then plow. No, you have to do all these things:
- Carve fields into mountainside in elaborate series of terraces.
- Build complex set of dikes for irrigation.
- Dig channel with gates in dike to precisel control flow of water. Cannot have too much water on your fields.
- Paddy must have a hard clay floor to avoid water seeping out into the ground.
- But rice seedlings don’t can’t be planted in clay so you need mud on top of that. And this has to be setup to carefully drain in the right way.
That is just setting the whole thing up. Next comes managing the whole thing which is also really complex.
- Fertilization has to be applied delicately. Both too much and too little will not work. Use combination of burned compost, human manure, bean cake, hemp etc.
- Rice has to be planted in a specially prepared seedbed, after some weeks it would have to be transplanted into the field.
I could go on but the point is that rice farming is really complicated. Far more complicated and labor intensive than traditional western farming. The reason serfdom never developed in China unlike in e.g. Europe is because it was impossible to get good yields with serfs. Slave labor cannot be use effectively for complicated tasks. Too much diligence, planning and independent thinking is required in rice farming. A guy you just used to being yelled at and bossed around cannot do it.
Thousands of years of this farming technique produced its own powerful set of memes propagating through both the Chinese and Japanese populations. These memes said hard work, attention and care paid off, because that is how rice farming worked. The more labour you put in the more you got out. European farming in contrast did not work like that. Quite the opposite, you had to leave the earth fallow to recover it. Successful European farming was as much about not doing work as doing it. Average number of hours worked per years was roughly 1200 hours per year. Rice farmers in contrast worked about 3000 hours per year.
Japanese took this diligence, attention to detail and work ethic developed through centuries of rice farming to America.
How Whites Forced African-Americans to Develop Poor Work Ethic
The experience of African-American slaves was quite different. What memes developed in their world? What values got instilled in them?
Ironically white people beat into African-Americans that they should work as little as possible. Why?
One can read about some about he weighing of cotton here. I rather not quote some of the passages there as some of it frankly makes me physically ill just thinking about the cruelty of the cotton plantations.
But the cruel logic was simple: If the cotton you picked today weighed less than yesterday, they would punish you in inhumane and cruel ways. There was no mercy. Thus there was an exceptionally strong incentive to not pick extra cotton, or increase efficiency. Because if you did, they would punish you the day after if you picked less than your new record.
This was the meme that spread. Obey your boss. Be subservient. Don’t think for yourself. Don’t take initiative. Don’t do anything extra. Don’t stick out. Do the minimal needed. A toxic collection of memes for anyone who want to succeed in a modern economy.
But these where the memes that was spread among African-Americans slaves. African-Americans did not make these memes. White slave owners imposed those memes on African-Americans. And now they carry these with them. The diametric opposite of the memes spreading through Chinese and Japanese culture.
After slavery ended, whites further made sure that these memes would not get replaced. Blacks where segregated. Outside influence from others with other memes was discouraged.
Are White Appalachians an Inferior Race?
Why is Appalachia so poor? It is populated by white people. Why have they not succeeded when Japanese and Chinese immigrants have succeeded?
If we are to use the logical of “race realists” and treat Appalachians as a race, the way blacks are, then we could by that logic only conclude that Appalachians are inferior. They did not even experience slavery, internment camps, concentration camps, segregation or racism, yet the are poor?
What excuse is there? What other explanation is there than that they must be genetically inferior?
Of course I don’t buy that. They are poor for different but similar reasons to why African-Americans are poor. They received a poor set of memes, which has propagated through their population for generation as well as all sorts of poor societal structures.
The Value of Human Capital
There is another way of looking at human development other than memes. This is through human capital. We can use the language of capitalism. Capitalism states that your economic output is i relation to the capital you employ. The guy with a calculator can make more calculations than the person with just a pen and a paper all other things being equal.
The person with a chainsaw can cut down more trees than the one with a simple axe. The capital we employ to produce things matter. But capital isn’t merely physical objects. You can invest time and money in building a tool. But you can also invest time and money in building skill: Human capital.
People can invest in you to build your skill. Sure you must participate in training, but a lot of the investment in human capital done, is something done to you by others not something you decide yourself.
Parents taking time to teaching you skills, buy you a highly skilled mentor is investing more human capital into you than the parents that put you in an overcrowded class with a talentless teacher. It doesn’t matter how much effort you do. The child with the private mentor has a major upper hand on you if you are in a crowded class room with a teacher that doesn’t even know the subject matter properly.
We are all at the mercy of people around us. Sure we can make decisions later in life to improve ourselves. However all detailed studies of human development show that the first years of our lives are absolutely crucial. That means the year that matter more than any others, are years you have no control over. Years where everything hinges on the family you where born into, and the help say the government is going to provide you and your family.
Thus distant historical events matter also in this scenario. A slave has minimal human capital to invest in his or her son or daughter. It leaves that son or daughter with small amounts of human capital to invest in their offspring.
Like dominos human capital ripple through the generations. How do you break a circle where a group of people are given a poor start in life?
Society as a whole try to compensate by putting in extra effort. But as we know America is not really that kind of society. It is society which worships the rugged individual and is deeply distrustful of the state. Reallocation of income from those who have much to those who have little is by many Americans viewed as theft, and regarded as deeply immoral.
Help has to be “earned” in this thinking. It is a self contradiction. Against all odds you must be exceptional to “deserve” to get some extra help in the form of say a scholarship. The poor conditions you grew up under is used against you. You are expected to rise above your condition. You are expected to excel against all odds. Only then you may be helped. Only then is it earned. It is the old Dickensian concept of the “deserving poor.” If you where not among the deserving poor, you where put in the poor house, which was basically punishment for being poor.
You can read more about the lack of opportunity given to African-Americans. It does cover many of the same issues as covered here though.
Slavery Never Really Ended
The biggest problem with stating that slavery was over 160 years ago is the implication that somehow starting in 1865 African Americans where suddenly having the same playing-field as whites. Of course they did not. It was just the beginning of a long list of creative and discriminatory laws and practices to keep black people down. A practice that never really ended. It just become less visible.
One brutal replacement for slavery was the convict lease system.
The Convict Lease System
To retain slavery what the Southern States did after the emancipation of slaves was to devise a string of laws that basically criminalized being black. Through this approach blacks could be brought back into slavery by simply relabling slavery as forced labor by convincts. This was the convict leasing system.
Ironically this system was significantly more brutal than slavery itself. A slave owner had an economic interest in keeping their slaves alive. After all a slave was property they had to buy, and which they could sell. Leased convincts in contrast since they where not owned could be worked to death. It was of no cost to the slaver as they only leased them. If a convict died, they could simply fetch another one from prison.
The time period it lasted varied, but in e.g. Alabama the system lasted until 1928. Meaning slavery ended a lot later than people imagine. This was not a small program. To get a sense of the scale consider these facts:
Alabama began convict leasing in 1846 and the practice lasted until 1928. The revenues derived from convict leasing were substantial, accounting for roughly 10 percent of total state revenues in 1883. This percentage surged to nearly 73 percent by 1898
The economic benefit of exploiting African American for prison labour created a surge in demand causing ever more African Americans to be imprisoned.
This lucrative practice created incentives for states and counties to convict African Americans, and helped raise the prison population in the South to become predominately African-American following the Civil War.In Tennessee, African Americans represented 33 percent of the population at the main prison in Nashville as of October 1, 1865, but by November 29, 1867, their percentage had increased to 58.3. By 1869, it had increased to 64 percent, and it reached an all-time high of 67 percent between 1877 and 1879.
I advice you to read the wiki article on this system. It was basically a Nazi style slavery system which lasted until 1933 in some states. The Nazis as we know also actively used prisoner for slave labour. In many ways it was the equivalent of the Gulag system in the Soviet Union. Interestingly the Gulags are widely known, but the similar American system is swept under the rug.
Institutionalized Racism and Segregation
Until 1968 we have racial segregation which obviously meant discrimination. Blacks got considerably worse schools and worse social services of any kind. Worse public health care, you name it. And of course there was red lining.
One of the interesting things about reading “An American Dilemma” by Swedish economist and socialist Gunnar Myrdal studying American racism towards blacks, is that he gives a more in depth understanding how how a society and its institutions can be deeply racist without there being any explicit racist laws on the books. Or rather no laws specifically mentioning race or color.
In Chapter 24 (page 523) on Inequality of justice he remarks on a peculiar American phenomenon of electing almost every public office at lower level. This removes talented professionals from these positions. Instead it create a sort of tyranny of the majority:
The elected judge knows that sooner or later he must come back to the polls, and that a decision running counter to local opinion may cost him his position. He may be conscious of it or not, but this control of his future career must tend to increase his difficulties in keeping aloof from local prejudices and emotions.
I will not go further expanding on this as it is a large topic, and really it is best to read relevant chapters yourself. There are just a myriad of informal ways in which public institutions can work against blacks despite there being no laws mandating it.
In particular in the southern states, keeping black people down has been one fo their chief occupations and concerns in a way that it has not been regarding other immigrant minorities. Thus arguments of type race X experienced injustice Y, is not an argument towards equivalence between the African-American experience and that of others.
Of course racism should not be a competition. We should care about all racism, but this is an important issue to push against when the discrimination against other groups is used as a means to belittle and trivialize the African-American experience.
Blame Black Single Moms!
The last point to add to this, is a favorite conservative accusation against struggling African-Americans. It is all their fault because they are not in good conservative family units with a mother and a father. If these hapless people only knew what was best for them and build solid wholesome families, they wouldn’t be in the predicament they are in!
Or rather that is the racist narrative. A narrative completely devoid of any consideration of the history of the African-American family unit. African-Americans under slavery had no right to marry. The slave owner decided who would marry at a whim. He could change this at any point and turn somebody’s wife into his personal concubine.
To conservatives this is not a mystery that needs any historical examination. All those single moms is just a product of evil liberals with their evil welfare they say. It makes the father redundant.
Of course reality is more complicated. A core problem is the conservative ideal of “deserving poor.” Money is only given to those deserving it or absolutely needing it. There is a disdain for public goods.
This was one of the key realizations of social democrats. You need universal social goods rather than means tested programs for the poor, because means tested welfare creates a welfare trap. Often people cannot get a job without loosing benefits, hence destroying incentives to do so.
Of course conservatives will not be able to sleep if they go to bed thinking somebody gets something they don’t deserve. Hence their solution to the welfare trap, isn’t to create universal goods, but rather to deny everybody help. The idea is that the desperation of poverty will squeeze people and force them into work.
It is a cruel take on humanity, that we will only push ourselves to betterment under the threat of starvation or living on the street.
Jewish Advantage Over African Americans
That Jews got killed in concentration camps and where subject to pogroms all through their history is not the same kind of oppression as African-Americans experienced. This is not some kind of marathon in oppression.
When trying to explain the outcomes of different groups of people today we cannot dumb down the discussion into a question of who got hurt most badly. Your economic prosperity or IQ test score will not be determine by the percent who got killed or how many lashes of the whip each oppressed person got on average.
What matters is the specifics of how the oppression change culture in specific ways, and how that carries over through the generations. Let me iterate some key differences between Jewish and Black experience which gives a very different outcome.
- Jews have not been slaves since biblical times. The influence of slavery from that far back is very hard to trace.
- Jews may have been persecuted but where generally allowed to pick their own wives and raise their family as they wanted.
- Jews where allowed to learn how to read and write unlike African-Americans in slavery. In fact their written tradition is very strong and a source great advantage.
- African-American slaves primarily worked as simple agricultural workers and did not pick up skills with a varied application. Jews in contrast where denied the right to own land and hence became craftsmen over 1000 years ago. Thus over centuries they acquired far more valuable skills than African-Americans.
We know Jews are known as bankers, gold smiths, jewelers and many other craft professions. This developed before industrialization. It would have been harder in an industrial economy that blacks e.g. entered.
Hence Jews have always had a lot of the skills very valuable in any modern economy. Being a craftsman or banker, is much closer to what most of us do in a modern economy as opposed to being a farmer.