Are modern African Americans worse off for slavery?
Harvard was directly complicit in America’s system of racial bondage from the College’s earliest days in the 17th century until slavery in Massachusetts ended in 1783, and Harvard continued to be indirectly involved through extensive financial and other ties to the slave South up to the time of emancipation. – Harvard President Drew G. Faust, 2016
My alma mater, Harvard University, has just decided to spend $100 million from its $53.2 billion endowment on a new project. President Lawrence Bacow celebrated the effort with a letter to the Harvard community on April 26, 2022, announcing Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery, a 132-page report describing Harvard’s racial history and explaining how the money will be spent.
Why spend this enormous sum in response to centuries-old events? Let’s look at the arguments the Report uses to defend the project and contrast them with arguments that might well have been obvious a few years ago but may now appear novel.
President Bacow’s letter begins, disingenuously:
Veritas is more than Harvard’s motto. It is the very reason we exist. Our commitment to truth means that we must embrace it even when it makes us uncomfortable or causes us pain … The chair of this initiative … has observed, We cannot dismantle what we do not understand, and we cannot understand the contemporary injustice we face unless we reckon honestly with our history.
Veritas is often forgotten by modern universities, and we should, of course, seek truth even if it makes us uncomfortable. But truth is a condition, not a direction. We must be truthful, but that doesn’t tell us what to be truthful about. The search for truth doesn’t immediately point to one institution’s small part in the tangled racial history of 17th– and 18th-century America. The reasons for that choice lie elsewhere. The sentence in italics is simply feelgood adminspeak. As I can personally attest, a little boy may “dismantle” a vacuum cleaner without having any idea about how it works. And why should we begin with the assumption that something needs dismantling before we understand it?
Of course, it is worth understanding the history of Harvard and its colonial context. Slavery is part of that history, but hardly the most important part. And is there really “contemporary injustice”? If so, how does it depend on these remote events?
As the committee’s report powerfully documents, Harvard’s history includes extensive entanglements with slavery. The report makes plain that slavery in America was by no means confined to the South. It was embedded in the fabric and the institutions of the North, and it remained legal in Massachusetts until the Supreme Judicial Court ruled it unconstitutional in 1783.
Yes, slavery and Harvard coexisted in the 17th and 18th centuries, a time when many people (mostly in the South) were economically dependent on it, others, in the North and South, benefitted indirectly from it, and a minority deplored it. It was just a background fact of life, as the first North American legal code makes clear: “Bond-slavery” was prohibited “unless it be of lawfull captives, taken in just warrs, and such strangers as willingly sell themselves, or are solde to us…” Some slavery was okay in 1636 Massachusetts; slavery was not a big deal.
The issue now is, should it be a big deal 150 years after American slavery was abolished, at huge human cost, and when the civil rights movement has basically succeeded? The obvious answer is no. So why the weeping and gnashing of teeth?
Well, there were a few slaves at Harvard before the Civil War:
By , Harvard was nearly 150 years old. And the truth is that slavery played a significant part in our institutional history. Enslaved people1 worked on our campus supporting our students, faculty, and staff, including several Harvard presidents … Some members of our faculty promoted ideas that gave scholarly legitimacy to concepts of racial superiority.
Yes, Harvard profited from slavery in the past, as did all of the original colonies. But there are obvious questions:
Fairness: Is it fair to punish people now for the sins (if so they be) of their ancestors? Do we want to punish the DACA “dreamers” because their parents entered the country illegally? In general, the answer to such a question is no.
Context: How out of line was Harvard with practices common at the time?
Science: Should Harvard repent for so-called “race science,” used by some to justify slavery?
Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery offers some answers to these questions.
1. Is it fair to punish Harvard for its past sins?
Will the faculty, students, and staff of Harvard be asked to pay a price for the supposed evils of a century or more ago? Well, yes, apparently: “[T]he responsibility for involvement with slavery is shared across the institution—by presidents, fellows of the Corporation, overseers, faculty, staff, donors, students, and namesakes memorialized all over campus.”
Some form of reparations are in order. But just reparations must satisfy at least three conditions: They are paid by the individuals responsible; they must be paid to their victims; and there must be demonstrable harm to the victims. Harvard’s action satisfies none of these conditions.
First, a person should never be held responsible for something over which he had no control. This is a fundamental feature of any just legal system—a child born in Germany in 1944 is not, and should not be held, responsible for the Nazi horrors of the time. Why should children born in the twentieth century, Harvard employees and students, present and future, be held responsible for bad practices a hundred or more years before they were born?
Most obviously, neither the victims nor the perpetrators are alive. So living black people (possible descendants of the handful of slaves at Harvard who can be identified) must be somehow compensated by otherwise innocent living whites. But what for? Perhaps due to the contemporary injustice referred to earlier?
“Contemporary injustice” is not discussed in the Report. Perhaps the reference is to the existing wealth, health, and other disparities between whites and Asians, on the one side, and blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans on the other. But these have contemporary causes. To link them to slavery, a ‘cause’ many generations in the past, is essentially impossible, especially as many B-W disparities have increased, rather than decreased, in recent decades, contrary to what we would expect if the cause was in the past.
Contemporary blacks have not suffered as their ancestors did. Indeed, they might well be better off than if their ancestors had remained in Africa—or so says African-American journalist Keith Richburg, who writes:
[E]xcuse me if I sound cynical…it’s Africa that has made me this way. I feel for her suffering…But most of all I think: Thank God my ancestor got out, because, now, I am not one of them. In short, thank God that I am an American.
A solid argument can be made that but for colonization and slavery, contemporary black people in the West would be worse off than they in fact are. Compare the handful of black-majority colonies that escaped colonization or were freed a hundred or more years ago with those that remained colonized until relatively recently: Compare, for example, Antigua and Barbuda (independence from Britain in 1981, GDP per capita $17K) with Liberia (independent in 1847, GDP per capita $677). The more colonization the better, evidently. This is just one comparison, and there are obviously many factors involved. But there are many comparable examples of greater prosperity after a longer period of colonization.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that African Americans’ current condition is considerably better than it would have been had their ancestors remained in Africa. The continuing flood of migrants from modern Africa into the West suggests that they agree. If contemporary American blacks are in fact better off than they would have been without slavery, then no harm, no foul—and no reparations. This obvious argument is conspicuously absent from Harvard’s long report.
2. Should 17th-18th century Harvard have known better?
Many brilliant people in the 18th century had racial views we now find repellant. David Hume (1711-1776), perhaps the most outstanding philosopher of the Enlightenment, commented, rather offhandedly,
I am apt to suspect the negroes, and in general all the other species of men to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation… Not to mention our colonies, there are Negro slaves dispersed all over Europe, of whom none ever discovered the symptoms of ingenuity; though low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In Jamaica, indeed, they talk of one Negro as a man of parts and learning; but it is likely he is admired for slender accomplishments, like a parrot who speaks a few words plainly.2
Immanuel Kant said something similar. Were these eminent thinkers racist, or simply ill-informed? There is, after all, nothing improbable about subspecies with different characteristics. Domestic animals, dogs especially, provided many examples: Spaniels and beagles look different and, in general, have very different traits. Blacks then looked very different from whites, even more different than now, when mixed-race people, usually “identifying as black,” are much more common. Wouldn’t many disinterested observers have expected them to be different in other ways?
Hume and Kant encountered readily identifiable “Negroes” no more than a generation removed from pre-literate rural societies. Based on their own limited experience and total ignorance of modern genetics, it is quite likely that they, like many other educated whites, drew the conclusion that yes, generally speaking, blacks are intellectually inferior to whites.
But that belief was not necessarily racist, since it was merely a generalization from imperfect science and a limited sample—not racist ideology but honest empirical inference. The Harvard report shows no awareness of the many differences between what we think we know now and what was known then.
Nor does a belief in intellectual inferiority require a belief in moral or personal inferiority. In the religion then prevailing, we are all “children of God.” Indeed, the Report itself provides evidence that the house slaves in Massachusetts were usually well-treated and sometimes beloved: “‘When [John Winthrop’s] own slave boy, George, died of the measles, he was mourned as one of the family, not as an unfortunate investment.’ As for [slave] Scipio, Sibley’s reports he ‘was watched over like the white children of the family.”’ On another occasion, “Winthrop himself enslaved the wife of a Pequot sachem and her two children in what he seems to have regarded as an act of Christian benevolence, reciprocity for her protection of two captured English girls during the conflict.” Was Winthrop punishing or rewarding the Pequot lady? Many whites of that era believed that slavery was a benefit to Africans, and some slaves seemed to agree. When a Reverend Parsons, wrongly thinking slavery had become illegal, offered freedom to his two male and one female slave, only the men accepted. The slave woman, who lived to ninety, was buried in the Parsons family tomb. These were not slaves but indentured servants.
Slavery is not a single thing. It ranges from the horrors of a Caribbean plantation/gulag to the relatively civilized life of a house-slave in the urban North-East. The word should not be used without a clear understanding of the actual conditions.
3. The role of ‘race science’
In separate incidents in 1850, three qualified black applicants to the Harvard Medical School were rejected, largely because of objections from a group of white students and faculty, ostensibly on the grounds that “the admission of black students would degrade the quality of their degrees,” although what they really objected to was mixing with blacks. The Report goes on to say that,
This episode took place in the context of the growth of race science at Harvard, which provided an intellectual framework to justify the exclusion and marginalization of Blacks that would endure into the 20th century.
Science is at the heart of a modern university, but what of so-called race science? Which way did the causation really go: was race ‘science’ a cause or a consequence of racial discrimination, or was it perhaps simply irrelevant?
The Report discusses several race scientists at Harvard, the most eminent being Swiss-born biologist Louis Agassiz (1807-1873), famous for his specimen collections, his work on glaciers, and the paleobiology of fish, as well as his teaching innovations. He believed in a form of creationism despite the mounting evidence in favor of Darwinian evolution. It was quite natural for him to think that creatures who looked very different were in fact separate species, or at least sub-species. Of course, he knew nothing of genetics, which was decades in the future.
Classifiers in all areas of science can usually be divided into “splitters” and “lumpers,” so also in biology. Agassiz was definitely a splitter and always sought to divide and subdivide species. Not unnaturally, he applied his skill and style to human beings, claiming that black, white, and other identifiable racial groups represent separate species, although he did little to explore the proposal in detail. Agassiz had never even seen a black person until he came to America when, in slave South Carolina, he was repulsed by their appearance. But he probably doesn’t qualify as a racist.
Agassiz’ reputation has been tarnished in recent years, despite his many undisputed contributions to biology and natural history, because he applied an approach that had worked with fish to actual human beings. He treated humans like any other animal species—or at least tried to. He commissioned a South Carolina photographer, J. T. Zealy, to take pictures of seven plantation slaves. He was excited by Samuel Morton’s huge collection of human skulls, from which Morton concluded that blacks had a smaller cranial capacity than Native Americans or whites. Phrenology, which attaches great behavioral significance to skull shape, was soon to become popular. Cesare Lombroso’s theory that physical appearance can predict criminality came a little later but followed the same line of thought. The trend persisted until at least the 1950s, at Harvard and elsewhere.
All these movements took for granted that individuals, certainly, and races, probably, differ in their behavioral and mental characteristics, and that these differences can be assessed by correlated physical dimensions. This is a scientific hypothesis that Agassiz pursued.3 But trying to measure the reality of human differences, between individuals and groups, is not racist. The racist behavior of the white undergrads in 1850 cannot be blamed on ‘race science.’
Agassiz was celebrated at Harvard even though he was completely wrong about evolution. But the fact that he entertained the “polygenist” hypothesis means that Harvard now contends that the buildings and professorships named “Agassiz” generally refer to his wife and son. Modern Harvard seems to be OK with Agassiz’ huge error about evolution, but cannot even contemplate polygenist wrongthink, no matter how plausible it was at the time.
A trivial detail illustrates the problem faced by any contemporary effort to discuss race. This sentence prefaced the March 18 Harvard Crimson article I cited earlier: “Content warning: Vivid description of racist language and actions.” Yet there is nothing, nothing in the article that should be considered insulting, inappropriate, abusive, or in any way improper. It seems that simply describing the facts of slavery and past discrimination is disturbing to Harvard readers, untroubled by frequent obscenities in prestigious liberal publications,4 but shocked by factual statements about race. This is just one of many examples showing how the modern academy can no longer separate fact from passion, a limitation which makes rational thought about difficult subjects literally impossible.
And so it is with racism and slavery. A dispassionate analysis of the costs and benefits might well conclude that past slavery was a net benefit to modern Americans, black as well as white, that modern African Americans are in fact generally better off than if their ancestors had never left Africa. So why the rush to, in effect, pay reparations?
For President Bacow, at least, the current intellectual climate provides a ready excuse. As University of California President Clark Kerr pointed out many years ago, one of the chief duties of a “multiversity” president is to “keep the peace.” Bacow swims in a pool of racially sensitive sharks. Many other university presidents have already succumbed to White Guilt. Clearly, Harvard must do something—more than others if possible.
So, guilt and fear seem to be the real drivers of Harvard’s generosity: guilt about the current status of black Americans, who may be better off than their African counterparts but are often on average worse than the condition of whites (and Asians). And fear of deviation from ‘woke’ groupthink. Despite President Bacow’s protestations, this combination has robbed Harvard of its pretended dedication to veritas. The Report contains truth, but not the whole truth. Simple logic refutes any claim that Harvard should bear guilt for long-ago practices, practices that in the end benefited rather than injured contemporary black Americans. By diverting resources which might have been used for research, scholarships, or any number of other worthy causes to yet another racial pacifier, Harvard has bowed to social pressure at the expense of intellectual integrity.
1 “Slave” is disfavored in recent writing on this subject. “Enslaved person” is preferred even though it can lead to misunderstanding, e.g., “individuals enslaved by Harvard leadership…” when these folk were purchased, not captured—“bought,” not “enslaved”. Somebody else “enslaved” them.
2 David Hume, footnote to “Of National Character” (1748) in The Philosophical Works of David Hume, Bristol Thoemmes Press, 1996, 3:228.
3 I have deliberately omitted any discussion of the inflammatory topic of eugenics, which was indeed favored by many intellectuals in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The reason, as I have explained elsewhere, is that eugenics is about political action, not science.
4 Check out the New Yorker or New York Times for the f-word, for example.