American slavery, Indian lands: on money and marginalization

This is not actually a post about slavery, or really about Ed Baptist‘s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, though indeed that’s where this train of thought begins. Rather, it’s about the study of history, its implications for contemporary policy and community, and some of the questions my students ask. That means it’s a long post–sorry.

If you’re unfamiliar with the kerfuffle that attended The Economist‘s review–subsequently withdrawn–of the book, my colleague Will Mackintosh has written a great piece giving a brief rundown and considering why the review took the stance it did (Baptist himself recommends Will’s post, if you need reinforcement). As Will notes, “the book gets uncomfortably close to the reality that modern capitalism gets its increases in productivity at the expense of its workers,” a truth that suggests “capitalism isn’t an inherently moral economic system.”

The Economist, of course, is hardly the only party invested in that stance; conversations with several of my students who attended Baptist’s talk at UMW a couple of weeks ago have made it clear that they’re struggling to reconcile an economic system they admire (capitalism) with an institution (slavery) they abhor as immoral and unjust. I’m thrilled that Baptist’s talk has forced them to associate slavery and capitalism, and consider the connections between the two–and that students find that challenging. But I also think that’s just a starting point, and hope they’ll continue to develop that thinking to better understand the argument that capitalism in its modern, American iteration couldn’t have developed apart from slavery, or the part of the argument that modern capitalism still bears the legacy of those roots–in particular the professed amorality that poses technologies devoted solely to maximizing production while minimizing costs (stints, the cotton gin, Baptist’s “torture mechanisms,” etc.) as simple means of gaining efficiency, a claim that more importantly serves to absolve proponents of modern American capitalism from any responsibility for the inequities the system produces.

Following his talk, Baptist fielded a question about reparations for the descendants of enslaved people, and it’s a question raised in this Huffington Post article as part of the reason we’re having these conversations 150 years later. Again, history has implications for contemporary policy. Aside from the practical problems of implementation, my personal sense–and I’m open to arguments, especially since I’m not one of those people who would be directly affected–is that monetary payments to the descendants of enslaved people would do little to address the actual consequences of slavery. They might alleviate some guilt, they might address some short-term income disparities, but I suspect that impact would be largely limited to a single generation, with fewer long-term shifts in the experiences and opportunities of black Americans. True “reparations” would have to address the structural inequalities that resulted from racial slavery and other economic constructs, and which still persist today in forms that of course continue to effect African Americans, but also impact ethnic minorities, women, and working and middle class Americans. The cynic in me wonders if this in fact presents the prospect of an even more terrifying and possibly onerous burden for many Americans.

Pondering this brought me back closer to my own academic interests and one of the topics we discuss in my Native American history class, and which I read about this past summer in yet another great Jeff Ostler book, The Lakotas and the Black Hills: The Struggle for Sacred Ground. A short/over-simplified explanation of the situation here is that the Lakotas (and other native peoples) who used the Black Hills of South Dakota were forcibly removed and eventually restricted to reservations, some of which are currently among the poorest in the country. Several lawsuits–how much support they had from Lakotas themselves seems debatable–culminated in a ruling that awarded the Lakota a large monetary settlement as compensation, which so far they have elected not to accept, even as it continues to grow while being held in trust. Surely they could benefit from the money, but that wouldn’t necessarily solve the issue of their dispossession. Reclaiming those lands–which some insist is the only acceptable outcome–would allow them to reclaim a place prominent in their own historical and spiritual traditions. However, it would also allow them to claim a place prominent in a larger American culture, with the attendant visibility and political reenfranchisement that would entail, part of which would be built on a new economic infrastructure in which they would possess the means of generating their own wealth–the Black Hills themselves, as natural and cultural resources–rather than one share of the wealth that would continue to accrue to other parties should they fail to regain ownership.

The reservations to which native peoples have at times been confined–and in this case, I’m thinking about Pine Ridge specifically, though obviously not exclusively–were designed to be marginalized places and temporary refuges for alienated peoples who would someday disappear. Obviously reservations have acquired their own meaning and become important to those identities, albeit in ways laden with their pasts. But reclaiming lands outside reservations entails reclaiming a physical place in the American landscape, and in the case of the Black Hills (with Mt. Rushmore) a place entrenched in national narratives of expansion and progress and democracy and freedom. Reclaiming those lands, then, is about reclaiming a place in the American polity.

That is also, it should be noted, a place that was not willingly relinquished. In my own research and writing, I’ve consistently seen Native Americans carefully maintaining ties to lands even as they relinquished them in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In some instances–the instances that often draw comment in both primary sources and scholarship–they retain some limited usage rights, or request continuing payments or other compensation (or both). The more striking instances for me, however, are those in which they do neither, but instead simply appear to reiterate their historical relations to lands, and insist that colonists acknowledge that history, without requesting compensation. In doing so they worked to preserve the memory of their role in a developing colonial community and the landscape in which it was situated, one from which they were determined not to be displaced.

Effectual reparations/restitution/compensation, then, would involve reversing the systematic dispossession and marginalization of these peoples, and demand a complete rethinking of many of our basic economic and social institutions in ways that would address the long-term inequalities they perpetuate. Cash payments do nothing to address the concerns of people who care less about the money than their marginalization.

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