Skip to main content

The Real Lesson In The Economist's Insanely Racist Review Of Slave History Book

Their apology, while abject, misses the key lesson that they, and the rest of the media, ought to have learned from this.
Nottoway Plantation - The White Ballroom

The Economist magazine has withdrawn, and apologized for, their review of Edward E. Baptist's The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, but took the additional step of keeping the review's text available for transparency's sake.

Good for them, I guess, but their apology, while abject, misses the key lesson that they, and the rest of the media, ought to have learned from this (emphasis mine):

Apology: In our review of “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism” by Edward Baptist, we said: “Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.” There has been widespread criticism of this, and rightly so. Slavery was an evil system, in which the great majority of victims were blacks, and the great majority of whites involved in slavery were willing participants and beneficiaries of that evil. We regret having published this and apologise for having done so. We are therefore withdrawing the review but in the interests of transparency, anybody who wants to see the withdrawn review can click here.

The most obvious deficiency in this apology is its narrow focus on that two-sentence premise, when there is hardly a syllable in the full review that isn't horribly offensive. Even in the very first paragraph they note that Baptist has written a "grim history of the business of slavery," as though there could be any other kind. What, did he miss the whimsical advertising pitch meetings?

The review, entitled "Blood cotton," proceeds to lapse into several paragraphs of whitesplaining about slavery, graciously conceding that the author "is not being especially contentious when he says that America owed much of its early growth to the foreign exchange, cheaper raw materials and expanding markets provided by a slave-produced commodity," before expressing hurt white fee-fees over his "dismissal" of things like "Yankee ingenuity" and "government policies."

Motherfucker, slavery was a government policy, and white Yanks were nothing if not innovative about it.

You get the idea. The entire enterprise is wracked with the inner rot of white ignorance, but it had the benefit of providing its own opportunity for self-diagnosis. They slam Baptist over his explanation for increased productivity among slaves, because he relied on an oviously suspect source:

Mr Baptist cites the testimony of a few slaves to support his view that these rises in productivity were achieved by pickers being driven to work ever harder by a system of “calibrated pain”. The complication here was noted by Hugh Thomas in 1997 in his definitive history, “The Slave Trade”; an historian cannot know whether these few spokesmen adequately speak for all.

They've certainly got a point, if not a fair one. I think we can all agree that it would have been better if Baptist could have relied on testimony from every single slave, but they're all dead now, and even at the time, the ones who died in the fields and were buried in the yard were kinda hard to reach, as well. While it is true that researchers actually did manage to speak to a whole mess of former slaves while they were still alive, The Economist is correct, they didn't speak to every last one of them. Stipulated.

So, what does The Economist think should be used as a counterweight to the testimony of (some of) the actual people who were enslaved? Essentially, their own intuition (emphasis mine):

Another unexamined factor may also have contributed to rises in productivity. Slaves were valuable property, and much harder and, thanks to the decline in supply from Africa, costlier to replace than, say, the Irish peasants that the iron-masters imported into south Wales in the 19th century. Slave owners surely had a vested interest in keeping their “hands” ever fitter and stronger to pick more cotton. Some of the rise in productivity could have come from better treatment.

Don't ignore the completely horseshit idea of "crediting" slaveowners for maybe possibly attenuating their treatment of slaves to marginally less-lethal, less permanently injurious outcomes, but set it aside for the moment, because that's not where the lesson is. The lesson begins in the equally horseshit idea of giving modern white magazine editors' intuition equal weight to the first-person accounts of slaves. Aside from its remarkable stupidity, the lesson lies in the similarity of those intuitions to the actual PR materials for a former plantation.

Late last year, singer Ani DiFranco drew ire over her plan to hold a retreat at a former plantation, and her hostile reaction to the criticism. In satirizing DiFranco's reaction, I noted the (since-deleted) promotional "Plantation History" page at the Nottoway Plantation resort website, which made tough observations about the "very physically demanding" lives of the plantation's slaves, but also attempted to place the plantation's owner in the most favorable light possible. See if any of this sounds familiar:

Considering his slaves to be valuable tools in the operation of his business, Randolph provided the necessary care to keep them in good health. He understood the importance of hygiene in controlling the spread of illnesses and disease, so he provided a bathhouse where slaves could bathe daily if they wished. He also had a slave hospital; he paid a local physician to make weekly visits and trained one of the slaves as a nurse to care for his slaves.

Ever the astute businessman, Randolph knew that in order to maintain a willing workforce, it was necessary to provide not only for his slaves’ basic needs for housing, food and medicine, but to also offer additional compensation and rewards when their work was especially productive. Every New Year’s Day, John Randolph would give the field slaves a hog to cook and the Randolph family would eat with them in The Quarters. There would be music and dancing, and the Randolphs would give the slaves gifts of clothing, small toys and fruit, as well as a sum of money for each family. In addition, the workers received an annual bonus based on their production.

It is difficult to accurately assess the treatment of Randolph’s slaves; however, various records indicate that they were probably well treated for the time.

I've written a lot about the importance of diversity in media, and the obvious takeaway here is that it's important to listen to other points of view, but the real lesson is that this is not enough. If you've never owned a slave, and yet you argue just like a plantation's PR department, you need to recognize, not just that other points of view have value, but that yours just might be virulently, irredeemably defective.