Paul Bibeau wrote a great, but deeply disturbing, article yesterday, I Actually Spent the Day Arguing With a Conservative About Whether Slavery Was Bad. Now this is the guy who writes ghost stories about Ronald Reagan, first person notes from a psychopathic Willy Wonka, and Tom Cruise as an immortal Übermensch. So you never know. But this article was straight reporting. And really, we all know its true because we’ve all interacted with these kinds of people. The internet is filled with them.
The argument was over at The Federalist — generally considered a place for smart conservatives. So if you think that Corey Robin is wrong and that conservatism isn’t just a reactionary movement against non-elites, think again. This kind of racism is at the very core of conservative thought. It’s just that it mostly stayed unspoken until the anonymity of the internet arrived. In this case, what most bothered me was this bit, “They got houses or cabins with food, and someone to draw water for them. Most of them were healthier than Africans at the time, and economically, they were better compensated than white workers.” The “they” in this case are slaves in America.
I’ve heard this exact same argument made multiple times by people around the internet. It is usually not made by people who think of themselves as white supremacists (although the guy in question didn’t seem to have a problem with the moniker). But for whatever reason (eg, they are racists) they find it necessary to apologize for slavery. The argument usually goes something like, “Slaves were incredibly valuable! Slave owners treated them very well!” This is at best extremely ignorant. But mostly, it is ideological commitment. They don’t want to admit that anything was wrong in the past.
Well, I did a little research. There are various estimates about the the health of American slaves. I wish all these people would read Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told. But our white supremacist friend claims that slaves were healthier than they would have been in African. I think it is worth while to look seriously at life expectancies. According to Our World in Data, the life expectancy in Africa in 1850 was roughly 26 (or perhaps mid-30s); in America it was 35. But of course, that number for America isn’t for slaves.
Luckily, I found the following nifty data from the 1860 US census. It provides a breakdown of slaves by age for 1850. (The 1860 numbers are similar, but there is a typo in the table, so I’m not using it.) Here it is:
|50 and Over
Based upon this, we can see that slaves didn’t live long. They tended to die very young. Data from Louis Israel Dublin’s Length of Life (see the same website) indicates that in 1850, African Americans in Massachusetts had a life expectancy slightly higher than that of whites: just short of 40 years. In Maryland, the number for slaves was a bit lower: 38. But in Louisiana, it was 29. This is, of course, due to child mortality. Blacks in the south had a 50% child mortality rate compared to 25% for whites. Slaves were not treated well — especially compared to whites.
The most screwed up people I’ve ever known have always been those people who can never admit to being wrong about anything. It is only through admission of error that we can learn and grow. This happens with societies too. You would think after all these years, we would be beyond arguing if slavery was a good thing or not. But as far as I can tell, this argument is coming back. Slavery was unbelievably barbaric and cruel. Slavery is one of our two biggest sins. We didn’t do a favor for anyone. We enriched ourselves using the sweat and blood of others.