Slavery’s Delayed Effects?

This is a quote from Juan Williams’ Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America–and What We Can Do About It (New York: Crown Publishers, 2006). This book has a lot of jewels, let me tell you! It documents how self-appointed African-American leaders make money off of the problems they claim to fight. And it quotes Dr. King making comments similar to the ones Bill Cosby made years later: emphasizing personal responsibility and solid values.

I like the following quote, which attacks the charge that poor African-Americans’ problems today are due to slavery:

“Where [reparations advocate Randall] Robinson skates off the edge of an interesting argument and into a dangerous, self-abasing fantasy is in attaching the impact of slavery to the years beyond 1954 and the Brown decision. In the half-century since Brown, the levels of black education, income, and political power have all grown, evidence that most black people are taking advantage of newly opened doors. Today, half of all black families are middle class, earning at least twice as much of the poverty line. Only one percent of African American families made that claim in 1940. Rates of college graduation have skyrocketed. To make the argument that slavery is responsible for today’s social and economic problems facing poor black people is to take away all of their personal will, diminish their independence, and dismiss their intellect. And how can he explain the fact that at the start of the twentieth century black people had higher marriage rates than whites? In 1940 the out-of-wedlock birth rate for blacks was 19 percent. Today it is close to 70 percent. If slavery is the cause of today’s social problems in the black community, why did black people in closer historical proximity to it do better than today’s black community with regard to keeping families together?” (73)

Excellent question. And, for the record, Juan Williams does not deny that racism and discrimination are genuine problems. Of course they are. But his argument is that poor African-Americans don’t help themselves through their irresponsible activity.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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7 Responses to Slavery’s Delayed Effects?

  1. James says:

    Okay. So where does this leave us?

    Juan Williams is right, of course, that some problems plaguing black America today have arisen since slavery. So it’s important not to attribute those problems directly to slavery.

    However, it’s also true that many problems faced by black families in this country can be traced directly back to slavery. Juan Williams acknowledges this himself, in the passage you quote. For if former slaves were left with nothing after they were freed, and if their descendants have been able to make much progress since the 1940s, there’s still a long way to go.

    Consider that he says that only one percent of black families were middle class in 1940, and today roughly 50% are. We know that slavery and the discrimination which followed were the cause of the 1% figure in 1940, and black families still lag far behind white families in this respect. Ditto for his other example, higher education, and ditto for homeownership, where again blacks have been doing better but where they would have to wait another 1,664 at current rates, before catching up to whites. These gaps all originated with slavery and its aftermath for the black community, and are far from disappearing.

    The other unspoken issue here is what poor white (or Latino, or Asian, or Native American) communities in this country look like.

    For, after all, the rates of marriage have gone down, and out-of-wedlock births have soared, since the start of the 20th century in those communities, as well as in black communities. If phenomena like these are partly the result of attitudes and values in poor black communities, then the same is true of all poor communities in this country.

    Finally, if poor black community are unusual at all in these respects, it’s worth taking a moment to ask why. If it’s not the result of generations of the unique black experience in this country — slavery, which systematically robbed blacks of language, culture, religion, family structure, education, and all values except those of enslaved peoples, as well as the century of brutual discrimation and hatred which followed — then I don’t know what else could explain it.

    Knowing the nature of the problem — which surely includes values and attitudes — is an important key to finding a solution. But then so is identifying and addressing the historical causes of that problem.

    This is a terrifically thought-provoking blog, by the way, and it’s a pleasure to be able to comment here.



  2. James Pate says:

    I appreciate your comments, James. Are there statistics that compare out-of-wedlock birth rates for African-Americans and other groups? I agree that the problem exists in all communities, but I think I’ve read that it hits the poor African-American ones the hardest.

    Of course, the question would then be WHY it hits them the hardest. One author I read years ago said that’s the only way some of them feel they can get any status. So part of it may be a reaction to discrimination. But I think the reason we didn’t see it before is that the previous generations of African-Americans responded in different ways to racism: they did so productively, not in a self-destructive manner. And that’s what many blacks in the middle class have tried to do. But there are many in the lower classes who choose to rebel against anything white.

    But that’s not to say that lower class blacks lack my respect, since they have to deal with an immense number of challenges.


  3. James says:

    Are there statistics that compare out-of-wedlock birth rates for African-Americans and other groups?

    There are, but I don’t have any handy. And I don’t want to premise my argument on that, anyway.

    The issue, I think, isn’t whether those rates are higher for poor black communities than for other poor communities. They’re too high in all such communities, and that’s a matter of changing attitudes and values, as well as supporting poor communities in ways that can help address the underlying causes.

    The other question is whether, if poor black communities have responded more strongly than others to such trends as unwed teen mothers, any of that can be traced back to the isolation and stigmatization of black communities during the same time period. In other words, is it possible that poor white communities, while seeing skyrocketing rates of unwed mothers in recent generations, were also able, to some extent, to emulate mainstream values more than black communities and, thus, keep those rates from rising even higher?

    After all, poor black communities have had to adjust over the years to violent discrimination, inadequate resource investment, blatant discrimination in jobs, housing, and loans, and government neglect and even official discrimination by government officials. While many of these factors have improved since the civil right era, not all have disappeared by any means, and their message has been taken to heart in many families. This doesn’t exactly inspire poor families to want to emulate the values they see in more prosperous (largely white) communities. For instance, teenage motherhood will ruin a girl’s prospects for finishing her education and establishing a career, thus harming her and her baby’s future? That may not be especially relevant in any poor community, and particularly if the community isn’t used to getting a fair shot at good education or good jobs for those who do well in school.

    This, of course, addresses precisely the question you ask, about why these communities are hit so hard by these problems.

    As for one answer you suggest, that previous generations of black Americans were more inclined to be productive, there may be some truth to that. The author you mention may, however, have been mythologizing the past. There were plenty of poor black neighborhoods in the past, with people wasting away without jobs. It just wasn’t carefully recorded, and isn’t well remembered.

    Do you have any reason to think that this is more of a problem today than in the past? If so, it may still be a reasonable response to generations of discrimination, and to the rise of an era in which people are less likely to accept such injustices as simply part of the natural order. But I would question whether there’s any reason to believe it’s true.

    It’s good to be able to have a polite, respectful discussion on these issues, and I thank you for that.



  4. James Pate says:

    Your reference to the official discrimination by government officials is a good point. I did a post a while back on Bruce Bartlett’s Wrong on Race, which talks about how Woodrow Wilson and FDR perpetuated that discrimination.

    You ask, “Do you have any reason to think that this is more of a problem today than in the past?” What specifically does “this” refer to? Do you mean African-American poverty?

    I checked out your web site. So are you descended from De Wolfe, or are you assisting in a documentary about someone else descended from him?


  5. James says:

    What specifically does “this” refer to? Do you mean African-American poverty?

    I simply meant to refer to the previous sentences, to the idea you raised that earlier generations of poor blacks might have led more productive lives than is the case today.

    As I mentioned, I’m not sure we have any reason to believe that this is true, that “previous generations of African-Americans responded” to racism “productively, not in a self-destructive manner.”

    So are you descended from De Wolfe, or are you assisting in a documentary about someone else descended from him?

    Good question. I’m in the process of rebuilding the web site, so that may not be entirely clear.

    I’m the fifth-great grandson of James D’Wolf, the family’s leading slave trader. So I’m in the documentary as a D’Wolf descendant. I’ve also worked on the film as its principle historical consultant, and I now work on the film’s outreach, taking the film and its message out to audiences.


  6. James Pate says:

    That’s interesting, James. It would be nice to hear how you got on that journey–finding out your ancestor was a slave trader, wrestling with that, etc.


  7. James says:

    Well, James, it’s a bit of a long story. I grew up hearing occasionally that James D’Wolf was a wealthy merchant who did some slave trading. It wasn’t until a distant cousin of mine decided to make a film about our slave-trading ancestors that the full story came out.

    It turns out that what I’d grown up hearing was true, but only part of the story. James D’Wolf was indeed a highly successful maritime trader around 1800, as well as a U.S. senator, a vital figure in the War of 1812, and an early industrialist. And, in fact, slave trading was only a part of how he made his fortune.

    But D’Wolf and his family were also the leading slave-traders in this country’s history.

    So the film ended up showing ten of us, mostly distantly related, traveling the route of the “triangle trade.” We started in Bristol, R.I., which was the capital of the U.S. slave trade, and went to slave forts on the west African coast, as well as to the ruins of slave plantations in Cuba. Along the way, we wrestle with that legacy, for us and for all Americans.

    There are D’Wolf descendants, particularly those from upper-middle-class or upper-class families, who feel guilt or shame about that part of the family’s past, and who feel that there are deep racial divisions in our society.

    Not all of us feel that way, but having explored the connections between slavery and today, we’re all convinced that the legacy of slavery and the slave trade remain largely unaddressed, and have profound effects on our society today. That’s true for all Americans, including whites who have no direct family connection to this history, as well as blacks, whose relationship to this history is generally quite complicated.

    I hope that’s a decent general answer to your question. I’m happy to answer other questions, and my web site (, for anyone else reading this exchange) goes into much more detail than I was able to do just now.


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