Slavery is its own thing, but, in order to really get your head around it, you have to, I think, compare it to other things. Slavery isn’t rape, though a lot of slaves were raped. But definitely watching how America deals with rape now can give you some clues as to what was going on with slavery. And watching how racism plays out now… well, same thing.
This morning, as I was thinking about it, I realized that racism plays a very important part in slavery beyond the justification for why slavery is “okay.” Racism is very important because it lets bystanders off the hook.
We’ve talked about this with rape–how there are relatively few rapists but they find cover in a society that seems geared to believe that any man, at any second, might be accused of being a rapist or, worse, might, through no fault of his own except having misunderstood his victim’s intentions, accidentally be a rapist.
So, back to slavery. We’ve talked, too, extensively about how it was impossible to really be a good slave owner. You could be good or you could be a slave owner, but you couldn’t be both, because, at some point, if you are a slave owner, you’re going to be buying rape victims from their rapists, torture victims from their torturers or selling people to people you have to know are going to rape and torture them. You are a part of the system that makes that rape and torture possible.
But it’s so important, if slavery is going to work, for the slave owners who don’t rape and torture (I’m drawing an uncomfortable distinction here between people who “just” physically coerced their captives and people who tortured them, but people, in general, were just more physically violent back then. People beat their kids and their spouses. They beat each other up for fun. They beat their slaves. And it’s not like we no longer do those things, but the scale and scope is just different now. So, I’m trying to draw a distinction, just for the sake of this point, between extraordinary violence–torture–and ordinary violence–everyone is getting knocked upside the head at some point–and not to excuse or downplay the latter.) to have a way to not see the rape and torture. And not just that, but to believe that the rapists and torturers aren’t getting a fair shake. That they need defending, because, at any moment, any slave owner might unfairly be accused of rape and torture.
This is where racism comes in. Black people are liars. Black people don’t feel pain the way white people do. Black people are lusty, practically animals in their “mating.” Black people are… oh and we hear the echoes of this right now in that case in L.A. where the school district is trying to argue that a girl with mental disabilities can’t really suffer from sexual abuse the same way a smart kid could… too stupid to really understand what’s happening to them. Black people are just looking for reasons to be upset, when really, they’re exaggerating the problem. Black leaders are just stirring them up. Etc. etc. etc.
America, by now, we all know this song well enough to sing along.
It just helps put up this screen. White people who are racist don’t have to feel the great discomfort that might spur them into bucking or dismantling the system. Racism is the mechanism by which white people learn to be just fine with horrendous evil. Not just racial inequality, should we ever get to the point when that’s the mountain we have to deal with. But the utter… I want to say “disregard” for black lives, but I feel, too, like that’s refusing to look our history and our society now straight in the face. Our society runs on the destruction of non-white bodies. Even our classism, and we’re a deeply classist society, too, is, like our homophobia is built on men being afraid of being treated by other men how they treat women, our classim has an element of treating poor white bodies like the trash (poor white trash) we treat non-white bodies like.
Racism isn’t the cause of slavery. As people will point out, there have been slaves throughout history. But racism, in our society, gathers like a thick fog to both justify slavery and to obscure from view everything that would make it seem unjustified. Racism is the mechanism by which white evildoers are shielded from justice.