Ending our fixation on slavery and focusing on what happened next could help us move on from the argument that racism in America has long been solved.
By James Brewer Stewart
StarTribune, Opinion Exchange, 6 February 2021
Who can identify the historical figure introduced below and suggest how he might be connected to Minneapolis’ ongoing racial agony?
Here are clues, presented as if our mystery man were speaking in our 21st-century idiom:
“ ’We have abolished the slave. The master remains.’ I called out this warning in every speech I delivered (close to 30 in all) as I traveled across the northern states in 1866, the year after the 13th Amendment had ended chattel slavery.
“People jammed into lecture halls to hear me because I was what you’d call today a ‘superstar.’ I possessed charismatic power as a public speaker and that brought me fame, influence, a wealth of box-office income and often red hot controversy.
“Why controversy? Because I believed in my bones that people are absolute equals no matter what their skin color and I lived out that cause for close to half a century. And that’s why I kept insisting back in 1866 that ‘We have abolished the slave. The master remains.’
“Emancipation meant next to nothing so long as viciously bigoted whites ruled over those who were technically liberated.
“To put this truth in your 21st-century terms, I was insisting that equality for Black people was unattainable so long as their world was ruled by the guardians of structural white supremacy.”
For those who have not identified him, our mystery man is Wendell Phillips (1811-1884), abolitionist par excellence and the inspiration for the naming of the Phillips neighborhood, that slice of Minneapolis that is bordered by battle-scarred Lake Street near George Floyd’s memorial.
Were Wendell Phillips to visit his namesake neighborhood today he would very likely conclude that long after the Civil War, still the master remains. The dark-skinned residents of Phillips are indisputably free. But much like those emancipated in 1865 they battle against the profound inequality that results from structural white racism.
What might Phillips recommend as we struggle with today’s racial agonies? Since I’m his most recent biographer I’ll venture that one of his strongest suggestions would be for us to end our addiction to vehement disagreements over slavery and the Founding Fathers’ Constitution.
Was our “more perfect union” designed to protect slavery or to stand as a beacon of liberty? Is slavery truly the “original sin” that obliges our nation to make formal reparations? Phillips’ likely response to such questions would be to stop nattering over slavery and the Constitution. Focus instead on African American history post-1865.
Before the Civil War, Phillips insisted that the Constitution reeked of slavery and he cheered when his close friend and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison publicly burned a copy. But after emancipation, Phillips fixated on amending the Constitution to ensure equality. He no longer cared a whit about the motives of the Founding Fathers. Were he alive today he’d likely have agreed with the view of the New York Times’ “1619 Project” that slavery shaped the original American experiment. But the political pandering and academic posturing over this endlessly contestable question would have seemed to him pointless.
That is because, back in his namesake neighborhood, 156 years after emancipation, it would be crystal clear to him that “the master remains.”
In the Phillips neighborhood, structural white supremacy rules by post-emancipation methods, not by those of the old-time slave masters. It’s not about micromanaging an oppressed but immensely valuable labor force through buying, selling, shaming, threatening and abusing. Instead it means depriving people by marginalizing, exploiting, isolating, underemploying, surveilling and scapegoating.
Racial authority in the world that killed George Floyd does not implicate the legacies of the plantation. Instead it is part and parcel of the post-Civil War North’s all but racially impermeable white neighborhoods, banks, social services, education systems, law codes and police forces.
All the foregoing describes the implacable white regimes that took hold in major cities between 1918 and 1950. It was during these decades that over 6 million African Americans relocated from the South to employment-rich urban centers all over the nation, Minneapolis among them. And as they moved in white folks responded accordingly.
Thus transfigured, far from the plantation, right here and now in Minneapolis, “the master remains.” It is the history post-emancipation white supremacy in American cities that we ought to wrestle with, not the history of plantation slavery.
Ending our fixation on slavery and getting serious about what happened next has lots to recommend it. It stifles white bigots who insist that since slavery was abolished so long ago Black people and their white allies need to “get over it.” By the same token white people can no longer hide behind the excuse that since their ancestors immigrated to the United States long after slavery had been abolished white supremacy has nothing to do with them. A refreshed version of an indisputable history puts the lie to these racist evasions.
This indisputable history is the history of real estate redlining, of “urban renewal” and the destruction of Black neighborhoods. It’s about food deserts, life expectancies, birth weights, arrest and sentencing statistics and toxin producing industries located right where dark skinned people live. What demands recompense through enormous community reinvestments are all the wrongs and so much more, not the specific claims of the descendants of the enslaved. It is about damage being done in plain sight that’s easily quantifiable in terms of dollars and cents.
Back in the day Wendell Phillips took a closely compatible approach. He demanded full reparations for the stolen labor of the emancipated slaves by having the federal government seize the lands of the defeated slaveholders for redistribution to those newly freed. He also insisted that insuring the freed people’s full citizenship required the Army to undertake a massive long-term occupation of the former Confederacy.
For him back then and for all of us today what matters most is what we learn from the past to ensure that “the master” no longer remains. Imagine how “race relations” might be working now had Phillips gotten his way.
What killed George Floyd is a white supremacist history that extends deep into the present from the end of the Civil War. We are all enmeshed in it and responsible for its consequences. We gravely err historically if we thoughtlessly attribute the crime to slavery.