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.

Mark T. Mitchell, Dean of Academic Affairs, Patrick Henry University

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