If investigated carefully, this question is not nearly as absurd as at first it might seem. Consider this: the institution of slavery had at least two important components, a physical one: involuntary labor enforced under the duress of a tyrannical economic and political system; and the psychological breaking down of the individual minds so that both slave and master would see the slave hierarchy as the only sensible way of life.
It seems clear from the outset, that slaveholders realized the important facts of this reality: that the psychological component of slavery was by far the more important aspect. Accordingly, they went to great pains to take control of the slave's mind even as they went about subduing and using up his body. To say that the "slave had to be broken," as well as "broken in," is to cite more than just an old ante bellum cliché.
But an equally important little understood "other side" of the slave story is that the white mind also had to be colonized and "broken in" almost in the same as the slave's. Whites too had to be indoctrinated and socialized into a new form of unnatural and very much diminished humanity in which brutalization of other human beings would become normal for them. However it is viewed after the fact, this peculiar process of socialization also took a psychological toll on the white psyche and on white humanity.
But as is typical with investigations on the effect of racism on the white side of the racial equation, rarely has the issue of slavery been examined in terms of what its psychological effects might have been on whites whose humanity was reduced to the level of becoming brutalizers of other human beings as a result of it. Although the effects may have generally gone unnoticed, since they were made a normalized part of the culture, there is much evidence that slavery was a heavy psychological burden on the white mind. The rise of the Abolitionists is just the most obvious example of this moral stress. There is a great deal of additional after the fact evidence attesting to the truth of both ends of this two-pronged thesis.
It is clear in hindsight that on the white side of the ledger, the whole white moral cosmos had to be turned on its head to accommodate and contain the guilt and other psychological burdens of turning a whole race into brutalizers of other human beings, and then trying to justify this process of dehumanization as a normal and respectable way of life. There is little doubt that the authority of the Judeo-Christian religion has suffered and forever will be blemished as a result of selective interpretations designed to morally justify the brutality of slavery. An ideology of white superiority was invented specifically for the same psychological reasons and will also remain an enduring stain on white humanity. The same goes for the terror used across the U.S. but mostly in the South to underwrite the new racist way of life.
All of these shameful forms of national behavior were superimposed onto the entire white American way of life and then was smoothed over as morally normal, even if they were never considered morally respectable or morally licit. The fact that white consciousness and identity became one and the same with "the ways" of the brutal system of inhumanity introduced by the slave system, ensured that that the white conscience would carry a heavy burden psychological far into the future. Inhuman laws were enacted to protect the new "pseudo superior" way of life. It was done so out of a deep sense of guilt and out of white fears that blacks would eventually rise in rebellion, and with God's help, be able to extract their "just" revenge for the brutality waged against humanity, as well as against God's own moral laws.
On the black side of this racial ledger, is the infamous (and probably apocryphal) Willie Lynch Memo, which lays out in excruciating details an instruction manual for how blacks were to be "broken in" in the same way as was done for farm animals. The fact that the slave's close personal lives and attachments were brutally severed and stripped away; that they were not allowed to speak their native tongues or practice their native religions; that their families were split up and strewn across the southern states on different plantations; that slaves were severely beaten at the slightest infraction of the rigid rules; and were forbidden to read or write, among many others, all strongly supports this view.
Thus, in the background of the institution of slavery, the white moral world became a confusing house of horrors arguably far worse than that of the slaves, who as clear victims of an inhumane system could always claim the moral high ground. If this reading of history is in any way a reasonable interpretation of its facts, as most evidence would seem to suggest it to be, then the question posed in the title of this article is not only not absurd, but then becomes not the end, but the beginning of a much more interesting story about American culture in particular and its social life more generally.
Contemporary American Society: as a Slave System Continued by Other Means
As the events following slavery were to demonstrate, the Emancipation Proclamation proved to be little more than a legal technicality, a legal device designed primarily to end slavery as a "state sanctioned enterprise," and little more. It remained mute on all of the important follow up issues of the day: What alternative social arrangements were to follow it? What was to fill in the social and political vacuum left in its wake? How was the nation was to undo the psychological damage slavery had done to both sides of the racial divide?
As the very timid attempts to assist the newly freed slaves fizzled out, and Reconstruction ended, a new dark age at least as brutal as slavery, descended upon the nation. And in hindsight, some 150 years down the road, we now know that the Emancipation Proclamation did very little indeed to diminish, not to mention reverse, the psychological effects of slavery on either side of the racial divide. In fact, as the Southern "forces of Redemption" rushed in to fill the psychological and political vacuum created after Reconstruction was dismantled, it safely can be said that slavery returned in its fullest glory. And that its psychological effects were reinforced instead of diminished or eliminated.
The reinstallation of extra-legal slavery parallel with the legal version, was just slavery continued by other more traditional means – sharecropping, prison work-release farms, a return to indentured service, etc. Certainly on the psychological level, this informal brand of slavery was at least as brutal as the legal form before it had been. Only this time it had the added advantage of being able to operate under both the legal and the moral radar. But more importantly, it was also now forever enshrined in, and given the stamp of approval (in the aftermath of the 1876 election of Rutherford B Hayes), of the new "United States of White America."
For the first time, the whole nation, both north and south came together under one unified banner, the banner of a "white" nation. The conscience of the abolitionists, which in large measure had been responsible for placing the issue of slavery on the nation's agenda, had finally been stilled. Thus, DW Griffith's 1910 movie, "Birth of a Nation, was more than just a symbol of the redeemed South, in was (and to some still remains) the birth of a new white (only) nation.
Since then, nothing has changed at the psychological level for American society. With smoke and mirrors alone it has simply seamlessly morphed from one form of psychological slavery to another, with the instruments and sentimentalities of the media and the rest of society following quickly in its wake. All that has been needed to continue justifying this semi-slave social existence of black Americans is the proper rationalizations at the right time, a few tokens blacks thrown in at high places here and there, and the fake language of tolerance and political correctness. QED.
In less than 150 years we have seen the nation repeatedly transformed and then quickly regress from legalized slavery, to soft slavery: To wit, from a brief decade of freedom during Reconstruction, which was quickly snuffed out by the "Southern Redemption," to a century of Jim Crow and rigid Apartheid, to a brief period of fresh air during the hectic sixties and the Civil Rights Revolution, only to be undone by Richard Nixon's "Southern strategy; to today's "new coalition of radical religious right fundamentalists and the "so-called" cultural conservatives," who have installed their own new brand of racial and social intolerance and inequality; to the revocation and nullification of the famous Brown Decision.
And while it is true, that on the surface of American society, there is a veneer of "paper" or "technical" equality -- all carefully decorated like birthday candles with tokens like Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell and Barack Obama, the sad truth is that just beneath that surface, the psychological structure of slavery remains very much intact.
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