The Enduring Psychology of Slavery

Slavery is in the news and on our minds. Any historical figure who participated in the slave economy must be roundly excoriated, condemned, and consigned to oblivion. If such a person happens to be commemorated with a public statue, beware. It must come down—violently and with extreme prejudice. Such figures will not be tolerated—even if they are the Father of the Country or the author of The Declaration of Independence.

But in their condemnation of slavery, the most vociferous social justice warriors ironically, perhaps, champion the same categories they so vigorously condemn. They are, in short, unwilling or unable to extricate themselves from the mentality of slavery. In the process, they perpetuate the psychological structures they claim to abhor. The ongoing pathology of slavery can be seen in two significant ways.

First, the slave economy severed the connection between work and reward. The slave did the work, and the slave-owner reaped the benefits. The injustice is obvious. Significantly, even when slavery was being practiced in America, many observers noted that the institution was harmful to slaves and slave-owners alike. Obviously, slavery degraded and humiliated those in bondage. It broke up families and inflicted untold physical and mental pain. However, in a more subtle way, it degraded the slave-owner as well. It promoted sloth and a false sense of superiority. Such a system could not be anything other than corrupt and corrupting.

But here’s the curious thing: today, radical progressives insist that they be provided an array of free goods and services. They demand free college education, free healthcare, and a guaranteed income even for those who do no work. And now, like the slave-owners of the past, they are showing themselves willing to employ violence and fear to obtain the goods, services, and concessions they demand. One Black Lives Matter activist even described the August looting in Chicago as “reparations.” This represents a remarkable affirmation of the contours of the slave economy: work and reward are severed, one group benefits from the labor of another and uses force to extract the benefits they claim are rightfully theirs. As in times past, this economic structure is morally corrupting of all who participate, especially those who reap economic benefits from the labor of others. For with the economic benefits, they also reap moral injuries: sloth, a sense of entitlement, and a lost opportunity to experience the satisfaction of reward coming as the result of good work.

The notion of group guilt and innocence must be emphatically rejected. Instead, we must affirm the value, dignity, and responsibility of each individual.

The second feature of slave psychology that the progressives refuse to jettison is this: slavery was built around the basic assumption that some groups of people are superior to others. Today, those who embrace identity politics engage in the same patterns of thought. As in the slave economy, superiority and inferiority—today manifested in terms of guilt and innocence—are ascribed to racial groups, but in this new version, the roles are reversed: the descendants of slave-owners—and all whites in general—have ostensibly inherited the inferiority born of guilt, and the descendants of slaves—and all blacks in general—have inherited the superiority of innocence. Individual responsibility is eclipsed by group identity, and because guilt or innocence is inherited, it is for all practical purposes ineradicable—it’s in the DNA. Do public acts of contrition—some of which include kneeling, confession, and begging for forgiveness—assuage the grievances of the descendants of former slaves? Will true forgiveness and reconciliation ever result? At what point will BLM declare that whites have paid an adequate price and that accounts are now balanced? The answer is obvious: never, for to move beyond identity politics would be to abandon the psychology of slavery, and that must not be allowed to happen because it would deprive BLM of its power. BLM survives only by perpetuating the mental and social structures they claim to oppose.

The logic of reparations combines both of the pathological features of the slavery mindset. Those who have done no work will be enriched by those who are compelled to bear the guilt of their ancestors. No good can come of perpetuating the very categories that have caused so much damage.

There are two obvious steps to overcoming this pathology. First, we must make every effort to affirm the connection between work and reward. Rather than succumbing to the social justice mob with its limitless demands of free goods and services paid for by the labor of others, political leaders must focus their attention on the poor and marginalized—the people Christ called “the least of these”—by providing opportunities for meaningful work and the ownership of productive property. When economic reward follows hard work, the social and moral benefits are incalculable. Any economic structures or public policies that obstruct the possibility of ownership or undermine the connection between work and reward must be eliminated. Every effort must be made to ensure that ownership is a viable, desirable, and attainable reality. In short, black property matters.

Second, the notion of group guilt and innocence must be emphatically rejected. Instead, we must affirm the value, dignity, and responsibility of each individual. Guilt and innocence must be clearly and inextricably tied to individual action. Identity politics is the grotesque sibling of slave psychology. Both are morally objectionable for identical reasons. Only when progressives emphatically reject the mental structures of slavery can a truly just system be created.

Reader Discussion

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on October 09, 2020 at 09:51:31 am

The idea of a work program for the poor is great, and I have never heard anyone claim otherwise, but until you lay out a plan for how that could happen and what it would look like then its just a mirage, or rather a smoke screen.

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Anthony M Yodice
on October 09, 2020 at 11:38:13 am

"...or rather a smoke screen."

Ineptness, and there has been plenty of that, does NOT implicate motive.

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on October 09, 2020 at 09:57:06 am

Until the author can live 400 years of discrimination in a nation that, though it overcame the institution of chattel slavery, has never allowed the black man or woman a way out, he needs to tread lightly on judging what is happening today. White citizens of this country have mostly sought to keep the black man in their place, a click or two below them, and designed ways to lock their black citizens away from the privilege's and access they enjoy. Segregation, which began in the North before the Civil War, has never gone away. It has persisted in one form or another up today. The violence spoken of in this article is an expression of hopelessness in a society that has never acknowledge them as equals and only as social pariahs. Work and reward? What kind of work? What level of reward?

Violence is not the answer, indeed, but when will America really face the music of its past and do all it can to breakdown the barriers whites have erected against blacks in social and economic access? Enough of the psychology. Let's get to some pragmatic solutions.

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Kevin James
on October 09, 2020 at 10:27:52 am

As a group, they are mental patients arguing that the image in a Rorschach blot really is a moth/angel/labia/whatever. If it weren't for their violence, that's how seriously they would be taken.

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Scott Amorian
on October 09, 2020 at 11:08:00 am

This is an outstanding essay which captures the enduring slave-psychology of the Democrat Party, the Party of Slavery and Racism since 1830. Whig and then Republican support of "free labor" and opposition to the Democrat Party's program of legally-enforced separation between a man's labor and the fruits of his labor were quintessential Lincoln and then became, ever after, Republican Party themes. Since FDR, through Obama's dolorous 8 years in office, through Biden's campaign today, the Democrat Party has been the party of "free stuff." And the Democrat Party since the Great Society has consistently deployed its myriad "free stuff" slave policy so as to separate public reward from personal responsibility and to reward social irresponsibility.

As we now know, the Democrat Party's "slave policy" of separating reward from responsibility has wrought massive mob violence in the name of social justice (both in the late Sixties and today, when it was recently blessed by Michelle Obama as "mostly peaceful protests") and, in the name of personal convenience, the Democrat Party's slave policy has caused the deaths in the inner-cities of tens of millions of aborted prenatal black infants.

This pernicious slave policy has also prolonged indentured servitude, despite the Thirteenth Amendment and the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The Democrat Party's offer of endless "free stuff" and its incessant racial demagoguery has caused tens of millions of blacks to become psychologically-dependent on and politically-enslaved to the Democrat Party, all the while depriving these blacks of an education that is adequate even to recognize their servitude and seek liberation from it.

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on October 09, 2020 at 11:25:06 am

The demand for and practice of affirmative action rests upon the postulate that blacks as a group are inherently inferior who can not meet the standards applied to others. Isn't that what racists have preaching for years?

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John Braeman
on October 09, 2020 at 11:31:42 am

“Second, the notion of group guilt and innocence must be emphatically rejected. Instead, we must affirm the value, dignity, and responsibility of each individual. Guilt and innocence must be clearly and inextricably tied to individual action. Identity politics is the grotesque sibling of slave psychology. Both are morally objectionable for identical reasons. Only when progressives emphatically reject the mental structures of slavery can a truly just system be created.”

And yet, the very value of personhood is challenged by those same progressives who believe the elderly and certain beloved sons and daughters residing in their mother’s womb, to be a burden, and not a Blessing as revealed by the fact that with the arrival of the novel virus, which proved to be most fatal to the elderly, our beloved innocent elderly were neglected in nursing homes, and their beloved sons and daughters prevented from making sure their beloved received the adequate care and attention they needed and deserved, while the destruction of beloved sons and daughters residing in their mother’s womb continued because it was deemed necessary that these innocent beloved, these sons and daughters, be aborted.

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on October 09, 2020 at 11:59:33 am

A highlighted observation:

"Throughout American history, blacks have been systematically cut off from the sources of wealth. It started (but didn’t end) with slavery: Black labor cleared the forests and drained the swamps to create those southern plantations, and black labor built the planters’ mansions, but after the Civil War all that black-created wealth stayed with the whites. The first proposal — forty acres and a mule — would have been simple justice for the people who built the South, but it never happened.

Instead of restoring some of the Confederacy’s wealth to the people whose labor had created it, or even just starting blacks at the bottom and letting them work their way up, it wasn’t long before whites instituted a new system for building their wealth with black labor. In a story told at length by Douglas Blackmon in Slavery By Another Name, blacks in the post-Reconstruction South were blocked from owning land, preventing from leaving, forced back into exploitative relationships with whites, and denied access to the courts when they were cheated. Tens of thousands were literally re-enslaved: convicted of bogus crimes and sentenced to hard labor for a white employer. This lasted well into the 20th century.

Blacks who managed to succeed in spite of the system were often the targets of white violence. Today the words race riot evoke thoughts of black uprisings in the 1960s — Watts, Detroit, etc. — but white race riots against blacks had been going on for a long time: New York in 1863, Louisiana in 1873, Atlanta in 1906, Chicago in 1919, and many others. (Add to that the 3,446 blacks who died in lynchings between 1882 and 1968.) Two riots in particular — Greenwood, OK in 1921 and Rosewood, FL in 1923 — destroyed entire black communities that were thriving and building wealth for their citizens....If you ask, whites will explain that if black oppression happened at all, it is ancient history. We have said this in every era. In every era, whites claim that we have done everything justice demands, and that any remaining problem is due to some inherent black inferiority of either biology or culture. And then a few decades later we realize that wasn’t true then, but it certainly is now."

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on October 09, 2020 at 13:50:46 pm

1923. 1921, 1919, 1906, 1873, 1863

And this:

"In every era, whites claim that we have done everything justice demands ..."

No, not remotely "in every era," though rhetorically it sounds good to say so, no doubt. Perhaps since the 1963 Civil Rights Act, at the very earliest, a few began to say something on the order of what you're suggesting, but not before then. Which is why you don't provide any quotes from any public figures to support your assertion, your rhetoric.

And since 1963, how many trillions of dollars has the U.S. government on all manner of social programs, anti-poverty programs. How many trillions?

And another number. When 70% of current black children, in 2020, not 1863 or 1923, but currently, are born out of wedlock, and when something like 80% end up being raised in a fatherless home, then yea, that's a problem. Again, 2020, not 1923 or 1863.

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Michael Bond
on October 09, 2020 at 18:37:10 pm

I agree with Professor Mitchell's views on group guilt and identity politics. Reading through some of the comments suggests the following hypothesis:

The current turmoil, including riots, cultural vandalism, cravenness of academic authorities, etc. has less in common with abolition and the movements to recognize the rights of freed slaves in the 19th century, or the civil rights movements advocating for the rights of blacks in the '50s and '60s, than it does Tulipmania in Holland in the 17th century. Both phenomena are animated by popular emotions that overcome reason and common sense. Just as Tulipmania created an asset bubble, the present social justice manias have created a grievance bubble. Just as the asset bubble of Tulipmania was inflated by speculation, the grievance bubble is inflated by myths, contradictions, logical fallacies, and dubious theories. Both phenomena share the delusion that emotions will guide the way to happiness.

This of course is not to deny that there are in fact issues regarding racial-trait disparities in measures of societal well-being, just as there was some inherent value in tulip bulbs. The calamity results from a loss of sense of proportion, of succumbing to confirmation biases, of deferring to those who seem to believe most fanatically what one wishes to be true, even though reason counsels otherwise. The hysterical nature of the current phenomenon is illustrated by the case in Minneapolis, where a murder suspect who committed suicide became the impetus for disorder and destruction. It is also noticed in the illogical demands that police officers be fired and charged with murder as a matter of "justice" before any legitimate investigation of events occurs, or relevant facts are known. These demands are the limbic system suppressing thought, just as it was when a person in Holland spent a year's earnings on a flower.

I suspect that resolution of legitimate social issues will necessarily await reasoned consideration, good-faith dialogue, and rejection of the poison of identity politics, and this will be true both before and after the grievance bubble deflates. The longer the grievance bubble persists, the more desperate its advocates become to keep it inflated with resentment, unfounded accusations, and proselytization of victimhood. Just as with the tulip bubble, a small group of people will profit handsomely from the grievance bubble. The tulip bubble was eventually deflated by reality, and the same will be true of of our present fevered discourse. The bubble deflates when a sufficient number of people realize that the things most important in their lives are not necessarily the things that have most appeal to their emotions.

That is the hypothesis anyway.

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on October 09, 2020 at 19:20:29 pm

And here we go AGAIN:

As Z9Z99 infers, and I now aver, the grievance bubble" MUST be sustained and if it requires the deployment of the most slanderous, unfounded, ridiculous fantasy
to generate even higher levels of emotional grievance and outbursts, all the better. Below is an example of the puerile projection of the traits more likely associated with those within the "bubble" than those without and directed, of course and without foundation toward the supposed villain, Donald J Trump, who if the childish accusation is to be believed is the White Supremacist Leader.


One wonders where all these Supremacists are hiding. could it be that they inhabit only the deluded minds of the aggrieved?
Or perhaps, by recalling all the past outrages with repeated reference to the same, that these miscreants will somehow emerge fully formed to do battle with the forces of Righteousness, i.e. The Woke, BLM and well-to-do White Progressives.

Well, I am old. And my eyes, at times, fail me. I suspect that MUST be why I am unable to see a large army of White Supremacists, spurred on by The Trumpster marching down Pennsylvania Avenue and assuming control of the Government.

How is everyone else's vision. As bad as I mine, I would guess.

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on October 20, 2020 at 22:45:11 pm

I am a Black American. This article is shallow. So many inaccuracies. It's academic, and not grounded in reality.

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Jack Robinson
on October 10, 2020 at 10:21:08 am

Not all poc demand nor seek anything free! To suggest this is a slight oversight of the key factor: the western world's system of slavery, its ideologies and privileged class enforcing systemic oppression is built into it's legal, social, geographical, educational, banking, commerce, and governing systems; hence, systemic racism! Ideological pathologies of "slave" psychology is essential in the world benefiting the 1%, pacifying the majority, and usurping "law and order" over the targeted "minority", descendants of slave folks. Correct, slave-owners too suffered a moral decline, hence resistance to equality, assuming retaliation of sublime inferences of guilt which is projected onto the "minority" as to shame lives who no longer obligate themselves to "unnatural" subjugation to crimes against divine inheritance.

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Tia Moses
on October 10, 2020 at 22:18:18 pm

I find this article terribly offensive and divisive. Politicizing Christ IS identity politics, and a vain use of that name. Using the atrocity of slavery to refer to the psychology of entitlement is extremely insensitive, in my opinion.

I'm not the type of idealogue that many L&L articles appeal to, but I come because I value diverse perspectives. It keeps me humble and aids my own pursuit of intellectual LIBERTY -- the ability to think critically and hold truth to the fire of reality. This article speaks of someone who is detached from real people, cloistered in the safety of group think and cultural homogeneity.
I'll be sure to educate my daughter of her "slavery mindset" next time she wants something she didn't work for (unnecessary and insensitive, right?). Besides, who would possibly ever want something for free? (Everyone, if we're honest.)

I appreciate the basic principles you are getting at (the value of work, the power of ownership, the dignity of the individual, etc.). I do not appreciate the metaphor and pseudo-scientic use of psychological language. But, this article will preach beautifully to the choir, so mission accomplished.

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on October 11, 2020 at 19:07:35 pm

I've read Richard Reinsch's essay in this series and Daniel Mahoney's podcast as well. I find them both to be sound, probative and cogently argued and agree with those two pieces in their entirety, their approach to the subject matter and their sobering, even fateful conclusions as well. When Richard Reinsch states: "If the progressive notion of a “living Constitution” threw the law in doubt, woke constitutionalism will destroy all fixed or limited notions of law." - I believe that to be a true and indeed sobering conclusion. Daniel Mahoney's piece is equally fateful, or even moreso.

However, this present piece is pedantic - moralistic in the manner of a just-so story. It's too pat, too sum-certain and self-congratulatory. One example:

"Identity politics is the grotesque sibling of slave psychology."

But obviously slavery is the worse grotesquery, by far. This statement suggests slavery is something of a baseline, if not a norm strictly understood, against which identity politics is the still more grotesque sibling. Presumably the author is seeking to limit the comparison to the psychology of the two, but even that doesn't hold up. Then he states:

"Both are morally objectionable for identical reasons."

Again, the comparison suggested is presumably limited to the psychology behind identity politics and the psychology behind slavery. But it's simply too facile a comparison; it doesn't hold up.

In general there is a blurring of political/ideological, moral and psychological categories and the result is a sloppy, moralistic, just-so story. The subject matter calls for greater probity and a much more taut and coherent line of argumentation.

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Michael Bond
on October 12, 2020 at 08:32:47 am

Thank you. This is good guidance that respects individuals' rationality and capacity to decide for themselves in light of their dignity and liberty. And affirms a moral obligation, and equal justice requirement, to follow that guidance.

Second, the notion of group guilt and innocence must be emphatically rejected. Instead, we must affirm the value, dignity, and responsibility of each individual. Guilt and innocence must be clearly and inextricably tied to individual action.

Obviously (right?) we must resist fundamentalist or millenarian or political ideological cultic ambitions to 'group' individuals into 'the good' vs. 'the evil', the 'elect' vs. the 'damned', etc. This includes grouping gay or lesbian or trans* into stereotyped 'wicked' groupings just as we must resist grouping Black individuals into the racist stereotyped 'lazy', 'lustful', 'weak minded', 'fried chicken and watermelon eating' group, or grouping White individuals into the 'White Supremacist' grouping. There is an awful tendency of human societies, as you say, for "some groups of people [to assert themselves to be ] superior to others", using signifiers - Black phenotypical appearance, White phenotypical appearance, other signifiers - to establish coercive hierarchies with superior castes who will dominate, oppress, enslave subaltern groups.

we must make every effort to affirm the connection between work and reward

Work conveys dignity in many ways. This has been among my frequent statements in forums about public law and policy, organizational and workplace policies and practices. That work conveys dignity is so important that it is obvious (right?) that - as a society, we must practice non-discrimination, non-harassment, non-prejudice in our workplaces, as owners of the enterprise, supervisors, and co-workers. So, non-discrimination policies and practice MUST accompany this guidance and must be fully supported, under your guidance (right?).

Apparently, therefore, Justices had the correct MORAL goal in mind with Bostock even if not the correct jurisprudence.

Thank you.

Edward Strickler
retired, School of Medicine, UVA
member, past chair, Ethics Section/Special Interest Group, American Public Health Assn

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edward strickler
on October 09, 2020 at 07:13:55 am

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Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.