Nell Irvin Painter


Mere Words Don’t Do Slavery Justice, Newsday, 10 July 2003.

By Nell Irvin Painter

President George W. Bush's speech on Tuesday at Gorée Island in Senegal surprised and gratified me. His acknowledgement of African Americans' still raw wound is rare among white Americans, even though the Atlantic slave trade was a business of monumental proportions. Between one and two million captives were shipped out to the New World from the Senegambian region, of which Gorée's door of no return was the main point of embarkation. Conservative estimates put the total numbers exiled from their African homeland between ten and twelve million. Before the massive European immigration of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, more Africans than Europeans entered the Americas. By the time the American Civil War broke out in 1861, the largest enslaved population in the world lived in the United States

Perhaps the power of that chilling place awakened President Bush to the viciousness of the institution that created the American political economy. Most of the Founding Fathers were slaveowners, including Benjamin Franklin. And the power of slavery (which Bush's abolitionists called the "slave power") shaped the compromises of the constitutional convention, the United States Constitution, and the first half of the nineteenth century. Slavery, as Bush noted, was no little thing.

Echoing Thomas Jefferson, Bush tallied up the usually forgotten costs of slavery to the slaveowners: "Years of unpunished brutality and bullying and rape produced a dullness and hardness of conscience. Christian men and women became blind to the clearest commands of their faith and added hypocrisy to injustice."

President Bush mentioned the trauma of transportation and sale; he listed the main economic handicaps related to enslavement. Unpaid labor, restrictions on marriage and, therefore, on inheritance, no property, no accumulation of wealth, and virtually no education meant black people were penniless at emancipation. When African Americans became citizens in the 1860s, they started at economic ground zero. For three or four subsequent generations, racial discrimination and exclusion from public life kept black people the poorest people in the nation. The era of legal segregation ended within my lifetime, but the enduring lack of wealth keeps black people the poorest in the nation.

American presidents–Clinton in 1998 as well as Bush in 2003–seem more able to face the slave trade and slavery outside the US. In Senegal, Bush said: "My nation's journey toward justice has not been easy and it is not over." But back home in the US, Bush, in particular, seems perfectly willing to thwart remedies for disabilities he recognized in Senegal.

Two effective remedies are affirmative action and voting rights. In both cases, Attorney General John Ashcroft's Department of Justice has worked against the correction of black Americans' relatively poverty and disfranchisement.

A Justice Department against affirmative action and black voting rights runs the Bush administration's lap in the "journey toward justice." In 2001 the Justice Department refused to file supporting briefs in the University of Michigan cases in the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In 2002 the President's brief to the US Supreme Court opposed affirmative action. While seeming to oppose the President's brief, the Supreme Court effectively crippled the practice of affirmative action by race. (Even though the Supreme Court's decision in the Michigan Law School case upheld the constitutionality of affirmative action for diversity, the undergraduate decision hobbles institutions such as state universities that receive tens of thousands of applications per year. The decisions also leave intact preferences for the children of alumni and poor white applicants. Students with advanced placement credit and those graduating from "high quality" schools can continue to receive extra credit. The schools most African Americans attend do not offer advanced placement courses or qualify as "high quality.")

The Bush administration also refused to remove the obstacles black voters faced in the presidential election in Florida in 2000. Ralph F. Boyd, Jr., Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, led a severely limited investigation of 11,000 Florida complaints. He focused on only three counties (in which Democrats were strong) and on issues related to language: the provision of help to non-English-speaking voters. Boyd neglected the hundreds of black voters who encountered ad-hoc police checkpoints or were wrongly barred from the polls as felons. Not only did these frustrated voters get no redress, Boyd hired one of the people who had knocked them off the list of registered voters. At the same time that the Department of Justice disregarded and reassigned career lawyers, it replaced civil servants with political appointees. Spanish-speaking voters may receive extra help in Florida's next election. But the Justice Department has not addressed black voters' concerns. Such is the record of the Bush administration's actions.

President Bush's words at Gorée were good ones, and they will doubtless exert a positive influence in and of themselves. However the best of words, even from a President, do not substitute for positive action. Compared with his administration's behavior, Bush's eloquence remains little more than sound.

I welcome Bush's speech in Gorée, which begins to face the gigantic injuries of American slavery. Bush gets much that is right. He dwells on the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade that killed millions and deposited more than 10 million captives on the western side of the Atlantic. Most of those captives lived only short, hard lives in the Caribbean and Latin America. About 500,000 captives ended up in British North America, where everyone lived longer than in the Caribbean and Latin America. By the late nineteenth century, enslaved Americans were forming families and having children.

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