This past summer, the United States Treasury Department began a blog series which focuses on the economics of racial equity (or, to be more precise, I think, racial inequity). The September 15 post describes and discusses “the racial wealth gap.” The authors, Assistant Secretary for Economic Policy Benjamin Harris and Economist Sydney Schreiner Wertz, note that “racial differences in household wealth are some of the most visible and impactful manifestations of racial inequality in the United States.”
The authors describe the racial wealth gap as an historic and current problem to be solved. They also note that “under current conditions, the racial wealth gap will continue to widen.” Apart from specific and sustained policy interventions at multiple levels of government, the racial wealth gap is likely to increase in the future rather than to decrease. This trend runs counter to the economic interests of the national economy, the authors argue. “The basic economic premise,” they conclude, “that returns to investment exhibit diminishing returns suggests that the largest gains to our economic potential as a nation come from addressing disparities that hinder the ability of the least advantaged families to invest in their future.”
The biggest bang for the GDP buck comes from investment in closing the gap.
Most experts on this topic treat the racial wealth gap as a “bug” in the American economic system. But the persistence and the resilience of the the racial wealth gap is strong evidence for the fact that the gap is a “feature” of the system. The existence and growth of the racial wealth gap can be seen as evidence that the system is operating as designed, not that the system has deviated from its purpose and goals.
Western economic systems in the post-slavery era have been designed to compensate the ranks of White wealth for the “losses” they incurred when enslaved and indentured free labor was no longer available to them. The various “emancipations” which have been enacted in the West since the 1700s have shared this feature in common. “Emancipations conserved and then reactivated the racial caste system of slavery,” argues Kris Manjapra, “putting it to new uses that still structure the disequilibrium of life chances in our present societies” (page 15).
In Black Ghost of Empire: The Long Death of Slavery and the Failure of Emancipation (Scribner, 2022), Manjapra reviews the sad histories of five “emancipations” in the United States and Great Britain. I put “emancipations” in scare quotes because of the inaccuracy of the term in our common usage. I won’t bother with that below, for the most part, but please keep those scare quotes in mind. In essence, enslavers stole the bodies and labor of the enslaved. Then, when that system went away, the thieves demanded to compensated for their “loss.” And national systems complied and continue to comply, willingly and happily, with those demands.
I would have understood “emancipation” as primarily a positive event and process prior to reading Manjapra’s work here. That positive reading is itself a feature of the system. A positive presentation of emancipation, he writes, “obscures that when white societies began implementing their antislavery ideas, they did so in ways that prolonged and extended the captivity and oppression of black people around the world. The politicians, administrators, and social elites who implemented emancipation established a historical manual,” Manjapra argues, “for how to breach human rights” (page 5).
I was mildly aware of this process in the case of Haiti. The French response to the Haitian revolution was to punish Haiti and Haitians economically. The first goal of the punishment was to restore Haiti to French control and to reinstitute the enslavement system there. Once that approach was no longer feasible, the secondary goal was to protect the French government and the French banking system from taking any responsibility for the Haitian enslavement system and the economic devastation of the punishment program. Instead, the French system continued to make restitution to the heirs and beneficiaries of the former slaveholders. A brief examination of Haitian history demonstrates that this approach to Haiti is a major cause of that small nation’s continuing impoverishment.
France was supported in this stance toward Haiti by all the other former slaveholding and colonial regimes — the United States, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, and several other nations. This is not an historical curiosity. The United States assisted in the ouster of President Aristide when he became too energetic in demands for post-slavery reparations from France. Western nations continue to turn a largely blind eye to the problems of Haiti because to take an active interest would raise questions about the need for real reparations within their own borders.
“Haiti was the first nation-state laden with emancipation debt as the price for its self-liberation,” Manjapra notes, “in stark contrast to the claims of independence by white settler nations that were universally recognized under international law” (page 63). The United States declared independence, for example, and simply renounced its debts to England at the time. But Haiti was not allowed that same freedom. “To pay the former French masters,” Manjapra writes, “Haiti would be forced to starve its children and deprive its communities for generations” (page 64). As Faulkner might note, even the past in Haiti isn’t really past.
The Haitian case, however, is only one of several such emancipations. Manjapra notes that historic emancipations in the Western system have a number of features in common. In most cases, emancipation was (and is) agonizingly gradual with the effect of extending White supremacist rule and the regime of anti-Blackness.
A second common feature of such emancipations is that they require the formerly enslaved to compensate the former enslavers for their economic “loss.” This is the reality that grabs me by the historical and moral throat. Post-slavery reparations have been paid and continue to be paid. But they have been paid and continue to be paid by the formerly enslaved to the former enslavers. The question is not whether reparations are to be paid. The question is, rather, by whom and to whom those reparations are being paid. I quote Manjapra at length here.
“…emancipation never required slave-owning society to make amends with the enslaved. Even as the formal institution of slavery was abolished, the rights of erstwhile slave-owners and the broader structure of racial domination was preserved. Emancipation ensured the compensation and gratification of slave-owners and their beneficiaries and disregarded any responsibility to the enslaved. Governments empower perpetrators to shape the postslavery future with their own hands” (page 6, my emphasis). This isn’t some historian’s hyperbole. Manjapra documents the receipts.
To repeat the point: reparations have been paid and are being paid. To argue whether we Americans, for example, should pay reparations is really a red herring. The pertinent question has to do with who pays and who gets paid. We have made that decision and enforced it for two centuries and more. This is a way, I think, to view the “racial wealth gap” and why it will continue to grow without radical policy interventions. This gap is the result of the ongoing payment by the formerly enslaved to the former enslavers and their beneficiaries. As a White man who lives on the positive side of that gap, I am therefore one of the “beneficiaries.” The past is not even past.
And, the system is operating as designed. “Emancipations provided a failed pathway to justice,” Manjapra writes, “just as they were designed to do. This failure was not accidental,” he continues, “but systematic” (page 5, my emphasis). He tracks this failure through the gradual emancipations in the American North, the Caribbean, and Great Britain. He describes this failure in the revolutionary emancipation in Haiti and the violent emancipation in the American South. He tracks the structural realities of this systemic and systematic feature through the colonial conquests and extractive administrations in Africa and Asia following the era of legalized enslavement. In every case, White supremacist regimes stole all they could and then forced the victims to pay for their “losses” when imperial larceny was no longer in vogue.
Manjapra notes that this is a feature of enslavement systems beyond the horizon of White Western hegemony. “Emancipation, regardless of whether we’re talking about racial slavery or ancient Roman slavery,” he notes, “insisted on indebtedness of the previously enslaved to the slave-owning society” (page 58).
One needs only to examine the manumission records and contracts from Roman imperial archives to see that this is the case. While the Roman enslaver might grant “freedom” to the formerly enslaved, that was not the end of obligations by the formerly enslaved to the former enslaver. Obligations continued — social, political, economic, and personal. Most of the time, the enslaver benefited from ongoing support from the formerly enslaved while no longer being responsible for the physical upkeep of these “freedmen” and their dependents.
In the United States, this system of “emancipation” took institutional form in the repudiation of Reconstruction following the Civil War. “As before the Civil War, the social order conspired to deprive black people of land, capital, money, and civil rights. These developments marked not an interruption of emancipation,” Manjapra asserts, “but its promulgation. Emancipation represented an effort in continuity, a process that perpetuated the war on black people, rather than ending it” (page 141). The continuing and increasing racial wealth gap is one sign among many that this war on black people continues. The system operates as designed.
The first step in walking a different path is to hear this clear testimony and simply get our terms straight. As long as emancipation is for the benefit of former enslavers and their beneficiaries, the system will function as it does now. Reparations are being paid. The challenge is to reverse that transaction so that the formerly enslaved and their beneficiaries are on the receiving end rather than the paying end.
I see no alternative other than a massive and multi-generational repatriation of wealth to those communities who have been footing the bill for most of the past five centuries. I’m not optimistic about the prospect, but I’m not completely cynical about it either. And that reversal in the system must be accompanied by some real human contact and reciprocity, as Manjapra notes in his concluding remarks.
When the system works as designed, the only real change comes with changing the system.