Four hundred years ago, in 1619, English privateers sold African captives to Jamestown colonists. Although Spaniards had brought enslaved Africans to North America during the previous century, the English trade in human life and labor jump-started what became known as the “peculiar institution”: an American economy built on chattel slavery.
The ghost of slavery and the curse of racism still threaten us 400 years later, because the colonizers and Founding Fathers sowed seeds of strife into the sacred soil of liberty. Our inability to confront and to overcome this wicked legacy helped manifest the Donald Trump presidency and resurgent white nationalism that, if underestimated, could trigger the first sectional crisis since the Civil War.
U.S. history from the Colonial period to the present is pockmarked with events and debates that underscore the intractable nature of slavery and racism in the American enterprise. The Compromise of 1820, for example, which admitted Missouri into the Union as a slave state and Maine as a free state, maintaining the political balance between North and South, led to a profound reckoning. In a letter to John Holmes, the inaugural U.S. senator from Maine, Thomas Jefferson prophesied ominously: “We have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.”
Jefferson’s wolf was an allegory of the deadly dimensions of slavery and racism. The wolf symbolized the republic’s propensity for fratricide: our own Romulus and Remus saga, the high point of which culminated in the Civil War and its aftermath. Yet more than 150 years after that war, our grip on the wolf of white supremacy remains weak, and the wolf continues to be the nation’s most enduring existential threat.
The ways of the wolf predate the founding of this republic. In the 1600s, fluid settler Colonial societies composed of unfree African and European labor gradually hardened into a regime of brutal racial slavery. From denying Africans the right to bear arms to restricting their movements, Colonial authorities did everything in their power to divide disenfranchised Africans and Europeans. In fact, what we now call white privilege is largely the outcome of similar structural schemes wealthy settlers implemented to elevate poor whites over blacks. This policy safeguarded elites from interracial revolution, especially after Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, when disenfranchised whites and blacks took up arms together.
For this reason, the late Edmund Morgan, the authority on the history of the Colonial era and early republic, wrote, “The rights of Englishmen were preserved by destroying the rights of Africans.” So ingrained is white supremacy and black repression, for example, that Chief Justice Roger Taney concluded in 1857 that a black person “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
The nearly unchecked campaigns of racial terrorism that former Confederate soldiers inflicted on African Americans during Reconstruction, including disenfranchisement and the overthrow of democratically elected African American statesmen in the post-Reconstruction years and the emergence of the dubious “separate but equal” Jim Crow doctrine in 1896, among other crimes, reaffirm Morgan’s and Taney’s assertions.
Jim Crow and racial terrorism continued unabated into the 20th century. Before civil rights legislation in the 1950s and 1960s could begin to slowly correct the effects of centuries of brutality and injustice against the enslaved and their descendants, white suburbanites doubled down on segregation, and white politicians on the left and right, as historian Elizabeth Hinton has shown, championed punitive measures that sparked mass incarceration. Black subjugation, truly, has been integral to white self-determination and white liberation.
No wonder legions of white voters across this country yearn for racial revanchism, unable to recognize the merits of interracial cooperation, even along class lines. From birth, the U.S. racial order conditions most white citizens that true freedom for them necessitates signs of despair for black citizens. Morgan’s “American paradox” thesis, which stipulated that racial slavery and the subordination of blacks allowed democratic liberalism to flourish for the benefit of rich and poor whites, remains one of the incontrovertible truths about U.S. history.
Simply put, poor whites are willing to accept exploitation by white elites, as long as poor whites think they are better positioned in the pecking order than African Americans, the nation’s perennial sacrificial lamb. Whenever African American self-assertion disrupted the system of racial and economic caste, a swift backlash occurred. Anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells, as a result, attributed many lynchings to white anxiety over black economic progress.
Coinciding with the Trump presidency and resurgent white nationalism, the 400th anniversary of slavery in what would become the United States has inspired renewed scrutiny of the curse of color caste on our collective consciousness. Indeed, a new “Era of the Wolf” is upon us. The widening wealth and health gaps between African Americans and whites, hyper-criminalization and mass incarceration of African Americans, the meaning and future of affirmative action, and efforts to save Confederate flags and memorials are but a few contentious issues that will trigger further conflict.
One cannot say categorically the extent to which these events will galvanize working-class African Americans, the intended but forgotten beneficiaries of the civil rights movement. No group in U.S. history has withstood more hardship with fewer resources, overcoming greater odds to assert their humanity than the enslaved and their descendants. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. described the lot of many as a “triple ghetto” of race, poverty and human misery. The zeitgeist, however, indicates something of seismic proportions is afoot.
A case in point: The subject of reparations for slavery, Jim Crow and other injustices has resurfaced organically and forcefully among African Americans. In the lead-up to 2020, some Democratic presidential hopefuls, seeking to harness or to co-opt rising frustration among African Americans, are openly discussing the possibility of reparations, once a fringe demand. This truly grass-roots push for reparations and the need to recognize the unique history and experience of descendants of the enslaved could be the biggest black-led social movement in over 50 years.
In the allegory of the wolf, Jefferson deliberately overlooked a vital point: Justice is the key to U.S. self-preservation. The two are mutually reinforcing, not exclusive. After 400 years of racial slavery, racial terrorism and racial caste, the nation must reckon with the debt (in whatever form) owed to African Americans. Not even immigrants — new and old, black and nonblack — are exempt from this impending national reckoning. We, too, have benefited enormously from the sweat and blood of the enslaved and their descendants who mostly built this nation, and whose agitation for full citizenship gave everyone additional rights and privileges.
The longer racial justice is delayed for African Americans, and the longer it takes to confront the tragic history of elites and politicians who pit ordinary whites against blacks, the sooner the nation will devour itself. Only once the wolf of racial and economic caste is destroyed can we truly secure justice and self-preservation in the United States.
Wendell Nii Laryea Adjetey, a historian of the United States and African diaspora, is currently the W.L. Mackenzie King fellow and lecturer at Harvard University. He wrote this column for the Washington Post.