I’m glad I live in a time of automobiles, air conditioning, indoor plumbing, the Internet and great medical advances.
But if I had to live in an earlier period, I’d want to be a soldier in the Union Army. I can think of no greater cause than to fight to eradicate America’s original sin.
Slavery isn’t America’s original sin because it was unique, or uniquely horrible here. If prostitution is “the world’s oldest profession,” slave trading is second. Since the dawn of recorded history, slavery has been practiced in nearly every society known to man.
The words “slavery” and “benign” ought never to appear in the same sentence, but slaves in the American South and the British Caribbean (usually) were treated less harshly than in most other places where slavery has been practiced — especially in ancient times.
Our word “slave” is derived from “Slav,” the peoples most frequently enslaved during Roman times. Throughout history, only a relatively few slaves have been black. And for every African brought to North America on (mostly British) slave ships, dozens and possibly hundreds more were taken east by Arab slave traders.
What made slavery America’s original sin was its violent conflict with our founding principles. If “all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” what gives some men the right to own others?
Racism is as ancient and ubiquitous as slavery. The word some Chinese use for “foreigner” can be translated as “foreign devil.” Russian slang for black Africans translates to “wood chips.” Chinese, Koreans and Filipinos can attest that until recently Japan was among the most racist nations on Earth.
But it wasn’t until after Britain’s “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 and the American Revolution (1775-1783) that slavery and racism became widely and inextricably linked. Before then, not many thought men were created equal or that God-given rights took precedence over the whims of kings and emperors.
And before publication of John Locke’s “Second Treatise on Civil Government” (1689) and the Declaration of Independence (1776), not many believed the people were sovereign and that government was supposed to serve them, not the other way around.
Slavery was considered mostly a matter of bad luck. It was common practice for survivors to be enslaved when a tribe lost a war. Wealthy Romans bragged about how learned and cultured their Greek slaves were. That’s why they bought them to tutor their children.
“If God wills that … until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword … the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether,” said Abraham Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address.
Four hundred thousand Union soldiers died to free the slaves. That blood debt was paid long ago. Abraham Lincoln was white. So were those who voted for him. About 90 percent of Union soldiers were white.
It says something good about today’s white Americans that so many feel guilty for a sin neither they nor most of their ancestors ever committed. But white guilt has a pernicious effect on our politics.
The assertion that only people of certain ethnic groups can be racist is pure racism. Black racism is as vile and prevalent as any other kind.
Slavery was horrible, but no black American living today has suffered from it. Most are better off than if their ancestors had remained in Africa.
The black community is uniquely troubled, in large part because white racism is blamed for social dysfunction that has other causes. To address those causes, white Americans must abandon an undeserved guilt, and black racists who blame all their problems on white racism must stop preying upon it.
Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (jkelly@post-gazette. com, 412-263-1476).