Disney Says, “Slaves Built This Country.” Did They?

On the eve of civil war, in 1860, the population of the United States was approximately 31 million people. Around 12 million, or roughly a third of the population lived in the South. There were approximately 4 million blacks in the United States at that time, 3.5 million of them slaves. Blacks thus comprised around 13 percent of the US population in total. Around 90 percent of blacks lived in the South. The proportion of the population in the Southern states that were slaves varied by state, but on average it was around 30 percent for the region. Of the majority white population, three quarters were engaged in agriculture in some capacity. Most others were self-employed in some trade or other endeavor. There was a growing proletariat, a small professional stratum, and an even smaller capitalist class.

The claim in the Disney cartoon that this country was built on slavery is false. The United States was founded on the capitalist mode of production. The majority of slave labor was used on plantations, primarily producing cotton and other agricultural crops. These commodities were sold to markets in Europe and in the US North. Cotton was in high demand for the production of textiles, and the South was able to produce large quantities of the crop. The profits from the sale of these goods helped to fuel the trans-Atlantic economy, and the southern aristocracy was dependent on the labor of enslaved people to sustain its way of life. In this sense slavery contributed to the economic development of the United States. However, as a primary commodity, most of the value added occurred at later stages of production (and mostly overseas), and thus the South remained an underdeveloped region in the capitalist world economy. The Civil War occurred in part for this reason.

Since the United States was more than 85 percent white, and because the majority was involved in agricultural production and a signifiant and growing proportion earning wages in industrial production, the Untied States was built in large measure by white labor. To be sure, black slaves contributed some to past development, but they comparatively made a much smaller contribution than did white labor. To be sure, slaves suffered from the conditions of their situation. But so did whites. Just as we must never forget the suffering of slaves, we must never forget the fact that capitalists built their wealth by exploiting the labor power of white proletarians, accumulating the value produced by their blood, sweat, and tears. To deny this is to deny the reality that lies at the core of the capitalist mode of production, the logic that makes capitalism what it is: the exploitation of wage labor. Slavery has been peripheral to the logic of capitalism since its emergence 800 years ago.

On what basis, then, are the descendants of slaves owed reparations? We are told it is because the wealth accumulated via their exploitation during the period of slavery created the modern day structures of economic inequality. But this is as true of the situation for whites in history. And even if you cite the exploitation of black labor since slavery, then so, too, has white labor been exploited in the same period and in the same way. Wealth inequality exists within the white demographic just as it does in the black demographic. There are black workers and there are black capitalists. There are a handful of wealthy white families and tens of millions of working class whites whose life chances are the result of capitalist exploitation of their ancestors, as well as the ongoing exploitation intrinsic to the capitalist mode of production.

Why aren’t the descendants of the white farmers and proletarians who have made up the majority of the population throughout the history of the United States owed reparations for the value that was appropriated from their toil? I am not arguing that they should be. The premise of reparations is irrational. But if we were to accept an irrational premise, why are blacks entitled to reparations and not whites? Does the irrationality also extend into the racist notion that whites should be denied the accumulated wealth extracted from the labor of their ancestors? We can put the matter this way: are reparations also a racist scheme?

Why do I say that reparations is an irrational premise? Because no person alive today is responsible for the choices men made in the distant past. Indeed, no person is responsible for the actions of another person. And certainly the white majority who comprises the substantial body of exploited labor is not the oppressor of the black minority who suffers the same fate. White workers are not capitalists. Moreover, to determine collective responsibility on the basis of race means to blame each individual member on the basis of skin color, which is racist.

As I write in my June 2020 essay, “A specter is haunting America—the specter of reparations,” “the racialist notion of reparations (besides being intrinsically racist) is a form of substitutionary or vicarious atonement requiring the living to accept the blame for errors and sins they could not possibly have committed and to atone for iniquity of corpses.” (Read the entire essay. Push it out. See also For the Good of Your Soul: Tribal Stigma and the God of Reparations and Reparations and Blood Guilt.)

It’s such a regressive thought to feel sorry for something you didn’t do. Where could these people have acquired such a superstitious notion as that, because of the color of their skin, they are responsible for things that some people with that skin color did generations before them? Who is preaching this primitive gospel of blood guilt and collective and intergenerational atonement? (See Critical Race Theory: A New Racism; What Critical Race Theory Is and Isn’t. Spoiler Alert: It’s Racist and Not MarxistCrenshaw Confesses: Critical Race Theory is About Racial ReckoningAwakening to the Problem of the Awokening: Unreasonableness and Quasi-religious Standards; Equity and Social Justice: Rationalizing Unjust Enrichment; Staying Focused on the Problem with Critical Race Theory.)

Why, after all the progress we have made in the world, do I have to remind people that history is in the past and that no living white person in America ever owned an African slave? As if I were not busy enough reminding people that there is no devil. (See Such a Beautiful Moment—The Self-Flagellating of White People; Against White Privilege: Clarifying the Critique of a Problematic TermDebunking a Sacred Text in the Church of IdentitarianismThe Rhetoric of White Privilege: Progressivism’s Play for Political Paralysis; You are Broken. We Will Fix YouFor the Good of Your Soul: Tribal Stigma and the God of ReparationsNot All White People Are RacistThe Psychological Wages of Antiracism)

I write this today because the reparations talk is once against building. We don’t know how reparations will appear finally, and it may vary from state to state, but it’s coming. It’s a deeply immoral course of action. And it’s dishonest. It’s hard to imagine it will be anything more than a neoliberal scheme to confiscate and redistribute the wealth of the working class upward into the hands of elites, who would then determine the distribution of some of those monies to various NGOs, who would then administer some of those monies to some of those determined to be the descendants of alleged victims of past discrimination. (It will work the same way globally (see Reparations and Open Borders; Totalitarian Monopoly Capitalism: Fascism Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow).

One can imagine other monies going to city governments run by progressives, who would then make meager investments in disadvantaged neighborhoods that would reinforce the custodial apparatus that currently idles the millions of black Americans disemployed by mass immigration, offshoring, and the rationalization of production.

None of this will fix the situation of blacks as the cause of the situation is not merely misspecified but is the work of the very people who pretend to care about the situation of black people. This is to say that the misspecification is strategic. It’s yet another money grab in late capitalism.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

4 thoughts on “Disney Says, “Slaves Built This Country.” Did They?”

    1. What is the Marxist analysis for the oligarchs paying off the blacks for their votes against the middle class?
      (I’m not BSing, leading, or looking for a debate, I am not a Marxist, but I don’t despise Marxist theory either.)

    2. It’s a great question. This is the way the capitalist class maintains hegemony. Progressives (the operatives of the corporate class) need people to vote for a living (instead of working for a living). So they idle them. The globalization projects guarantees redundancy by replacing blacks domestically with immigrants (agricultural, custodial, and other labor-intensive work) and off shoring the jobs blacks traditionally performed (low-wage/low-skilled manufacturing). Multiculturalism justifies the project. Blacks are used and then subordinated in the oppression hierarchy. This is the function of the black underclass since the 1960s. Hispanics are scheduled for the same function (which is why it is so important to peel them away from the Democrats).

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