Making Race and Nation

Slavery and its Legacy.
The Five Colleges Learning in Retirement (5CLIR) 2005 Memorial Series
Session #1 –  
February 16 at 4:00 PM, Amherst College


Anthony W. Marx
President, Amherst College
author of Making Race and Nation

“Making Race and Nation”

ROMER:  I’m Bob Romer from the Amherst College Physics Department. It’s my privilege to introduce our first Keynote Speaker, Anthony Marx. Professor Marx received his Ph.D. from Princeton. … He has written several books that are directly relevant to the topic of this series, Slavery and its Legacy. Marx was a founder of the Columbia Urban Educator’s Program, a public school teacher recruitment and training partnership in New York City. He also helped to found Tanya College in South Africa, a college that helps prepare Black students for university. Until two years ago he was Professor of Political Science at Columbia University, and now fortunately for us, he is President of Amherst College. Mr. Marx.


MARX:  Welcome all. Welcome to Amherst College. … It’s an honor to follow – not an easy honor – but an honor to follow Representative Swan, and I will be distinguished to be followed by Professor Wilson.

It’s good to have you all here and for this occasion. I was asked to start the conversations that you all will be having on the legacies of slavery by positioning it in a comparative perspective, which is something that I have spent some time thinking about. So with your indulgence, I will endeavor to do that and then try do draw out what I think the implications of the comparison is for the legacies of slavery generally, as well as for the United States in particular.

What I will draw on is a comparison of what are the three great, greatest-I use that word perhaps unwisely-certainly the most prominent instances of race relations, terrible race relations that the world, that the modern world has seen, South Africa, the United States and Brazil. The way I want to just start is to put those three cases on a continuum for you, a particular continuum, a continuum of what race relations looked like in legal terms in the 20th Century in those three cases.

At one extreme of the continuum is South Africa, which by all accounts I think you will agree, at least in the modern era, is the most extreme form of institutionalized legalized racism that the modern world saw in the form of Apartheid. At the other end of this continuum, this particular continuum is Brazil, not because Brazil had in the twentieth century any less inequality or discrimination. It did not. But it did not have any legal form of racial domination. Instead, as I will describe, after slavery was abolished in 1888 in Brazil, Brazil officially embraced something called racial democracy, at least so it said, and so it did not have legalized racial domination. Between these two cases falls the United States. I’m sorry to say, and not all of my Americanist colleagues appreciate this, that I suspect the United States is much closer to South Africa on this particular continuum, with Jim Crow as its legacy of slavery.

The puzzle for me and I hope to engage you in the puzzle, is what explains this difference of outcomes? I’m not suggesting that the difference of legal orders is the only important question of race relations, but I hope you will indulge me with the argument that it is an important form of the difference of race relations because how you are treated legally, whether you’re allowed to live in a place or work in a place or eat with people or have certain jobs, does make a huge difference to life chances. So the denial of those rights in South Africa, at least compared to the legal non denial of those rights in Brazil did make a difference, even though, I would argue, that in the 20th century Afro Brazilians were no better off for not having legal racial domination.

So what explains this difference across these three cases? There are a set of possible explanations. Demographics is one. I won’t belabor the point, except to say that if you think about the demographics of the three countries, the United States with a minority population of African descent, South Africa with a majority of African descent, Brazil with something closer to half and half, though we will come to how to measure that, doesn’t line up with the outcomes. So basic social science says, the demographics can’t explain the outcome I’m after if where these cases are on the demographic continuum don’t accord with where they fall on the outcome of legal orders.

Some have argued that there’s a difference of the colonial heritage across these three countries and that argument generally likes to suggest that if Brazil had a happier form, less explicitly racial domination form, it was because the Portuguese or Catholic colonies generally were somehow friendlier towards their subjects. I won’t belabor that point except to suggest that they should go spend some time talking to the folks in the former Portuguese colonies of Africa.

Another classic explanation here is miscegenation, the argument that because the population of Brazil is more mixed, is closer to half and half and there was considerable mixing across the race lines in Brazil, that somehow that softened the possibilities of drawing rigid lines. It’s an interesting argument. Again, it ignores the tremendous degree of mixing of this sort, forced and otherwise, in the United States and in South Africa. That mixing and the various hues of color produced in the population did not stop the authorities of the United States or of South Africa from trying to draw clear lines. In fact, the more mixing, the more strenuously they worked to draw those lines, whether it be one drop of blood or various other outrageous tests. And so I’m not sure that miscegenation does the work.

Does slavery help to explain-does the legacy of slavery help to explain what happened after slavery? Well, first, let us state very clearly the premises of your discussions over these weeks to come, the tremendous, the world historical import of slavery in the modern world. In the half millennium, from 1500 until well into the 19th century, in some instances the 20th, something between ten and thirteen million people were forcibly removed from the continent of Africa as slaves to the New World. Something between one and three million of those souls were lost simply in the middle passage at sea, with mortality then dramatically continuing and even increasing, particularly in Brazil, as you’ll hear, on land. I think we all can agree in this room that the terrible implications, the price that was paid that is continued to be paid of this world’s historical set of events cannot be underestimated.

In early slavery in the 1500s, 1600s, 1700s, slavery was generally understood as a form of property. By the time of the 19th century, the genius, the evil genius, if you will, of European pseudo science began to project a new interpretation of slavery. It was not based simply on property because that didn’t seem to fit. This was not property of the same sort that other forms of property clearly are or were. So a new form of justification was developed, which is the idea of natural or racial inferiority. That, of course, is one of the fundamental legacies of slavery for the modern era, in terms of the discrimination that we continue to live through.

Indulge me for just a minute while I rehearse for you very quickly a thumbnail of the history of slavery in these three countries. South Africa, at least South Africa in the form of White history, was first settled, by Whites, at least when the Dutch East India Company formed a trading station at the southern tip of the continent of Africa. Prevented by-ready for this?-the Dutch West India Company from drawing slaves from much closer African settings, the Dutch East India Company, in competition with the West India Company, had to reach into Asia, east Asia, in order to find slaves to bolster its labor contingent, in part because they could not convince the indigenous folks of South Africa to come be slaves and to work for them. There wasn’t sufficient force. There wasn’t sufficient taxation power. There wasn’t sufficient military power to convince these people who were living fairly comfortably and had been for a very long time to come and work for the Whites.

By 1821, even with this far distant reach to East Asia, Cape Town had a 35% slave population. These slaves had no rights, nor of course did the indigenous African people in the surrounding areas of Cape Town, with whom the Whites did trade. Slavery traded, though on relatively moderate scale until the British, in control of South Africa in 1833 abolished the slave trade and the history of South Africa thereafter is a history of imposed racial domination and imposed labor without slavery.

Of these three cases, South Africa is the case of the least developed slave society. Brazil, by contrast, again White settlers coming to Brazil found the local, the indigenous folks reluctant to labor and then worse than reluctant to labor, those indigenous folks largly decimated by European imported diseases. The Portuguese, with their control of much of the slave trade, from 1549 until well into the 19th century imported three and a half million people from Africa into Brazil. Rio de Janeiro, in the 18th and 19th century was the largest slave city in the history of the world.

Now, there is a tradition out there in the literature-this may strike you as hard to believe-that says despite those numbers, slavery in Brazil was actually “relatively humanitarian.” That’s a direct quote. The argument is that the people, the slaves and the slave holders and non slaves in Brazil shared a degree of intimacy without any taint of race that was inspired by a Catholic sense of universalism and demonstrated by a greater willingness to manumit slaves. I won’t belabor the point, except to say this is an outrageous form of scholarship in my view.

The fact is that slavery in Brazil was a terrible institution and the sheer scale of importation tells you that the degree of mortality of Brazilian slaves was unmatched in world history. The simple fact was that the Brazilian slave holders cared so little about their property because it was so cheap to import more in those large numbers, that they were perfectly happy to work them to death very quickly. In fact, that process would have continued, except for, again, the British end of the slave trade. Since slavery in Brazil was dependent on this constant huge and terrible influx of new slaves to replace those who could not live under the conditions of Brazilian slavery, once the British imposed the end of the trade, as the dominant naval world power, that was the end of slavery, which came eventually to a formal halt in 1888, after a series of dramatic revolts and run away communities by those slaves.

Lastly, what of the United States? Here I will be briefer, because you all will be more familiar with this history. Again, European Whites settling not far from here found the indigenous population unwilling to labor for them, or decimated, again by European imported disease. So by 1619 the importation of slavery began from Africa. By the mid 19th century one quarter of all White families in the South held slaves. The importation of slaves into the United States was on a smaller scale than that of Brazil. The mortality rate, by our best estimates, was roughly half the Brazilian mortality rate. Does that suggest that slavery in the United States was more humanitarian? I think that would be an astonishing conclusion to come to, but it does suggest, because trade of slavery was more expensive, White slave owners valued their property enough-not as human beings, but as property, in order to keep them alive and keep them laboring because they couldn’t be replaced so readily.

Again, a tradition of slave revolts, Nat Turner most prominently. Whites, including Whites associated with this College and its founding, wrestling with the question of how to deal with this issue. Henry Ward Beecher, one of our early graduates, calling for abolition. Abraham Lincoln, who is generally credited as the great abolitionist, arguing in fact for a greater length of time for exporting the slaves and former slaves back to Africa with the founding of Liberia.

What is one to make of this again, thumbnail comparison, in terms of the legacies of slavery? The first thing to say, pretty straightforward, is that slavery clearly reinforced racism, justified racism and fed racism or visa-versa. That slavery and the idea of racism were intertwined at the very beginning, in all three instances. But that is too simple a conclusion to come to. Another conclusion that the comparison at least suggests is that slavery by itself is not simply the explanation, is not a sufficient explanation by itself for what would come after. After all, the simple fact of, for instance, South Africa having the smallest slave society and yet the most entrenched, most institutionalized form of legal racism in the 20th century, suggests that an easier, intuitive sense of direct causal legacy is going to be more complicated than we might assume.

In fact, you could argue something counter intuitive, although I will not push the point, which is perhaps that Brazil, having such extensive slavery, in some sense the Whites concluded that they didn’t need as much legal structure thereafter to continue the inequalities that slavery had entrenched, as compared to South Africa, without slavery to entrench those patterns of inequality and discrimination, erred on the side of greater legal ordering. I don’t actually believe that argument, though it’s an example of a counter intuitive argument that’s worth at least taking into consideration from this comparison.

I want to suggest to you a different interpretation of the legacy, the direct legacy of slavery for modern race relations, particularly in the United States. It assumes, first of all, the connection between slavery and racial prejudice, racism generally and then goes on to say, “Why did it work out the way it did particularly in the United States?” and I think the answer, at least in large part, has to be the regional concentration of slavery in the United States. Not to suggest that Northern Whites were any less racist than Southern Whites. I think there’s some clear evidence that that’s too easy an interruption, certainly too self-righteous an interpretation for Northern Whites, but the fact is because slavery was concentrated in the South, meant something very dramatic to the history of this country. It meant that our founding ideal of federalism, of the division of the powers between the states became enmeshed with the issue of how to end slavery. So that the South, protecting slavery against the North’s greater efforts to end slavery-not in my view necessarily because the North was less racist, but because it served other state building and other economic building functions, meant that the two fundamental aspects of the birth of the United States came into conflict with each other, which was racism and slavery and federalism. Because of this conflation, we ended up at war with each other, at war with each other ostensibly about slavery but really about whether federalist powers would continue to be distributed amongst the states or concentrated in Washington and therefore centrally and nationally.

The fight was at least as much over power and economics, as it was over the issue of slavery that was the issue of the day, but I think it’s fair to say for many Whites, a sort of flashpoint, not the fundamental issue, because to make it the fundamental issue, would suggest that this country’s Whites went to war at greater numbers with each other than they have ever done before or since, over a sense of racial justice, and I’m not sure that the history of the 19th century will fulfill that image.

The implication is the following. Because slavery was entrenched with federalism and regional dispute, and produced the greatest conflict amongst Whites that the history of this country has ever seen, when it was over and after reconstruction was attempted, in a sense, it also became the basis for the building of the American nation. Because my sense is, by 1877 when the north had been trying to impose greater racial justice in the South, again, for particular reasons with Reconstruction, the possibility of continued intra-White conflict was starting to explode again and at that point the North made a deal and the deal was very simple. We will let you in the South treat the Blacks the way you want. We’ll leave you alone, as long as we can stop fighting over this, so that we can continue to build White unity, White nationalism.

The terrible implication of this argument is that the fundamental turn to the building of the American nation as a united nation across the fundamental divide in North and South was built on the back of institutionalized discrimination and worse of Black Americans. That Jim Crow is not a footnote to the building of America, it was the fundamental building block of the country that we now inhabit, of the nation that we believe ourselves to be.

Interestingly, the South African-Brazil comparisons I think helped explain this argument. On the one hand, Brazil has no major intra-White conflict comparable. It has conflicts, but nothing comparable to the Civil War. I could rehearse for you the amazing history of Brazil, but in a sentence, the Brazilian Whites managed the transition-let’s see if I can do this-from colony to empire to republic, from slavery to abolition to democracy, dictatorship, democracy, dictatorship, democracy-I think I got that-with nary a shot fired. In fact, you know, this thought occurred to me when I was doing my research in Rio-nice place to do research-and my view looked onto an island in the bay, which I asked about. It was explained to me that the palace on that island had been built for the going away party for the Portuguese Emperor after the end of Empire in Brazil. Think about the contrast with American history. Then think about the South African history – again, not regional conflict between Whites, but ethnic conflict. The Afrikaners and the English go to war with each other again for control of the state and I believe in the end the English in South Africa made exactly the same deal that the Northern Whites in America made, which is “We went to war with each other in the Boer War. We’ve killed each other. Now we need to make a functioning nation and an economy, and the one thing we can agree on is to discriminate against the Blacks.” So Apartheid, what would become Apartheid, is the fundamental building block of the South African Nation for White South Africans, in a much more comparable way than we would perhaps like to admit is the case for the American nation.

Two questions I’d just like to pose for you to think about from this comparison, and then I’d like to leave enough time to hear your thoughts, your questions, your voices of dismay-I get those. That’s without my trying to be provocative in a way that some of my fellow college presidents have -never mind. So two questions that I’m left with that I think might be useful to ponder, as your discussions continue. Let us go back to the beginning of my argument, which is remember I made a sort of artful little social science move. I said, ‘assume that racism is prevalent across these three cases.’ All right, and then the question is, what produces the different results? What are the different legacies of racism? What are the different legal orders? Go back to that first presumption. It’s a mind-boggler. What does it say about us human beings as Whites – I’m not sure Whites have a complete monopoly on this, but certainly in the history I’ve described they have a good deal of monopoly. What explains this sort of natural, seemingly natural-that’s a terrible thing for a social scientist to say-predilection towards discrimination, to put it mildly. Prejudice, a sense of others having to be not just different, but inferior? All right? Remember, that the argument started with that assumption and said, “let’s hold that as constant and then try to figure out the variations of what happens as a result.” I now ask you to come back to the question “Why is that so constant? What is that telling us?”

The second, which brings us to more modern issues, is to acknowledge one of the fundamental questions that America currently faces, particularly in race relations, but not only in race relations. This is to acknowledge one of the fundamental questions that America currently faces, particularly in race relations, but not only in race relations. That is, and Ellis Coats who was here last year, or the week before, also addressed this question, what does it say about us, us the United States, that we have this ideal of a color blind society, an ideal that Martin Luther King eloquently spoke to, that we hope for an end result and yet every step along the way of how we tried to build the society and I’m arguing fundamentally how we built the society, has been race, color, conscience. Not only was that true for the building of the American nation, but now we are faced with the dilemma, and I think it is the American dilemma that says, “How can we use color conscious public policy and efforts in order to achieve color blindness as an ultimate ideal?”

Conservative folks in the land will tell you that’s exactly the problem. That you can’t get there in that way and that therefore we should abandon color conscience, of any public policy sort, including proactive sorts. My personal view is that that’s an outrageous argument, that if there is a reality of color consciousness in a society, and it is still deeply imbedded in ours, you cannot address it if you are blind to it. That you are not only closing your eyes, but you’re tying your hands behind your back. This institution, I’m happy to say, many of institutions of our society, are committed to living with that dilemma, and yet I think it’s one we best think hard about, because it is a fundamental one of how to square our dedication-how to square our terrible history of race consciousness, our embracing somewhat complicated these days in Washington, of color consciousness as a positive or proactive stance, with our sense of color blindness as an idea.

Let me just conclude, if you think this is complicated in America, I simply want to remind you of the Brazilian comparison because Brazil is a country that has dedicated itself, at least officially, to color blindness, while remaining highly color conscious and unequal, and the result in some terrible ways is worse than the American experience, because Brazil can’t even figure out as a form of public policy, how to talk about this issue or how to try to address or reform this issue.

Let me stop there and open the floor to questions.


Questions and Answers
(questions not recorded – must be inferred from answer)

Q1 … AM: Certainly, I heard that and I hear that. I will confess I wanted to try to be clear about the history here and I will confess to using the shorthand, if you will, of slave rather than people that were enslaved and I acknowledge that I should use the longer and more correct version.

Q2 … AM: I think it was Bill Clinton who said “denial is not just a river in Egypt.” I think America will attempt and does attempt denial of its history – it certainly will deny the argument I made that our denigration and exploitation of African Americans was fundamental to the building of the American nation. I think that we are very much still in denial about that, much as Brazil is in denial that there is any issue of racial inequality at all. So there is denial out there. I think in the United States we have enough history not only of the terrible cost that we imposed upon millions of people, but also of a history that we celebrate as a nation of the struggles to end that history or at least to get rid of aspects of it – ending is probably an over-statement. I think Americans have a hard time denying at least that aspect of this reality. South Africans are living with this reality as a very close form of history and it plays out in their politics really very dramatically. As I have suggested, Brazil is much more in denial and one of the – let me be a little more provocative – one of the questions you might ask, is if racial domination worked so effectively in the United States to bring Whites together across North and South why did it end? I think there are two reasons for that – why did Jim Crow end? Sorry, I apologize for that. The answer I think is complicated. One is, just as Whites used racial domination to bring North and South together in doing so they consolidated Black resistance to that process and the history of the 19th and 20th Centuries is at least as much a grand history of the emergence of mass movements and ideology in opposition to that. And one of the things that happened by the 1960’s and I think you could argue that the same thing happened in South Africa, is that the threat of intra-white conflict diminished because racism worked for Whites and the price of increasing Black-White conflict began to be felt in the body politic and in the economy. And then I think, though Lyndon Johnson would have never have said it this way, of course, I think at that point it didn’t make any sense anymore. Or put more cynically it wasn’t necessary any more. The damage of inequality, of entrenched privilege had been established, the legal superstructure could be removed without threatening that inequality in at least a direct or immediate way, at least immediate, and that that would reduce the target of Black resistance that remember by the 1960’s was pretty seriously shaking this country. I actually I’m sorry to say, I think that cynical interpretation helps to explain why White South Africans made the transition that they did which is the inequality was entrenched, Black resistance was creating increasing heavy burdens upon the economy and the state and in a sense Afrikaners came to the belief – English as well – that it wasn’t necessary in the same way. So in that sense it fed a sense of denial so that we could celebrate our liberalism by saying look we got rid of Apartheid we got rid of Jim Crow, while Whites could continue to enjoy the benefits of the legacies not just slavery but the legacies of entrenched legal inequality over the centuries.

Q3 … AM: I don’t have enough time to do this except to suggest it was precisely that question that led me from the comparison of Brazil, South African and the United States in terms of race and nationalism to looking at Europe itself in the early modern period. I can’t give you the whole argument here, but actually I think France and England as the quintessential nations of old Europe were founded in a process not too different from the one I’ve described for South Africa and the United States. The difference wasn’t race in the modern sense of Black and White, it was Catholics and Protestants going to war with each another and peace being established – therefore state building and economy building – based on the exclusion of the Protestants in France and of the Catholics – even Catholic crown – in England. So in that sense this trajectory in some general sense was pretty well rehearsed in European history. Though talk about denial that is not the image of say English liberal nationalism that we all are trained to in schools where it is all Locke and tolerance and etc. Actually I think the English particularly and the French mastered the art of excluding a group in order to cohere the core group using religion as a form of race in that sense. And then heavily into denial and celebrating liberalism and toleration after the dirty work was done. So I certainly agree at least my reading of European history. But if you think my reading of American history gets me into trouble you should see what they do to me when I go to England or France.

Q4 … AM: I appreciate that and I will use this as a concluding remark as I know we are all eager to hear from Prof. Wilson as well. We do what we are doing here today and over the next seven weeks not just because we need to resist denial and not just because we need to recapture the history and the emotions that Rep. Swan referred to. We do so because – I don’t now how to put this in a nicer way – our lives depend upon it. Only if – much damage has been done and we are talking about that. And there are ways to undo some of that damage, but that is history. The point is what can we learn from that history? And that’s including the legacy of slavery as well as the legacies of racial discrimination, domination, exploitation generally. Or religious conflicts. The point is that we find ourselves at a moment in world history where we have the military capacity, the economic where withal and at least some ideological predilection to play the same process out on a global scale. Whether you see that in terms of the Clash of Civilizations or whether you see that in terms of economic inequalities North and South or First World, Third World, it seems to me one of the reasons why it is so important and timely to address our history and to grapple with its lessons is that we as a people – as a species – learn from those lessons so that we avoid the temptation which seems to have been so prevalent for so long to go into these processes in a destructive way because the prospect of destruction, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but in historical time are so great that we have to learn from history to avoid them and one of the reasons why we gather in a group like this – one of the reasons we invest in education as a society – Amherst College, our school systems, etc. – is, hopefully, that we can get to understanding the lessons of the past so that we won’t repeat them at terrible cost.

Leave a Reply