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Does it Matter That McCain's Family Owned Slaves?

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Does it matter that McCain's family owned slaves? Does it matter that unlike his brother, he has not accepted invitations to meet their descendants, likely his relatives? These were the questions posed by a CNN newscaster interviewing Douglas Blackmon about his recent article "Two Families Named McCain" in the Wall Street Journal.

Compare the McCain's story with that of the DeWolfs. Twenty-eight year old Katrina Browne, a DeWolf descendent, uncovered and traced her family's roots as the country's largest slave-trading family. Their incredible journey was documented in the POV documentary Traces of the Trade: A Story of the Deep North." The documentary follows nine members of the DeWolf family as they grapple with their family's history, retracing the triangle trade from Bristol Rhode Island, to Ghana, to Cuba and back. Tom DeWolf has wrote "Inheriting the Trade" to explore his personal experience of this journey.

This profoundly moving film reveals that "the DeWolfs were just one part of a web of broad-based Northern complicity in slavery. With just a small amount of analysis it becomes clear that slavery was the foundation of the U.S. economy, not merely a Southern anomaly" (POV Discussion Guide). It is so much more than the story of the Dewolfs. It is the story of America.

The stories of both the Dewolfs and the McCains are significant for what they can teach us about the ongoing legacy of slavery and racism in the U.S. In the Wall Street Journal, Blackmon tells us that while descendants of the white McCains inherited and still own 1500 acres of the original plantation land, the African-American McCains "built a four room school house with $1,750 they scraped together and $900 from philanthropy and their descendants worked to save "enough to buy a small parcel of farmland."

This is indicative of the inheritance of privilege: when it comes to wealth, white folks have been given a head start.

Wealth has been on people's minds more than usual as of late, as many families have watched their life savings dwindling along with the markets. Sociologists have documented that recessions and depressions do not affect everyone equally, however. Some people have a larger cushion than others.

While the U.S. has a huge wealth gap, the wealth gap is even more dramatic when we take race into consideration. The role of wealth and inheritance is central to this inequality. The typical white family has a net worth of $81,000; the typical black family only $8,000. Black families on average hold one-tenth the wealth of white families. One in four whites receive some family inheritance; only one in twenty blacks do. And the wealth gap is not improving over time--even though net worth increased in the 80s and 90s for both white and black families, the racial gap actually increased. This means that white families are more likely to be able to give their own children a head start in life, whether contributing to their college education, or their first mortgage. And in difficult economic times like these, it can mean the difference between keeping your home or ending up on the streets.

Even among people earning similar incomes, there is still a wealth gap, and it does not decline as incomes increase. As we examine more highly skilled occupations, the racial wealth gap actually widens. It is the reverse that is more important- the wealth gap produces income inequality by limiting one's access to education, one's ability to start one's own business, etc. (on wealth, see The Hidden Cost of Being African American by Thomas Shapiro; Black Wealth/White Wealth by Melvin Oliver and Shapiro)

The wealth gap is the result of group advantage and disadvantage transmitted from one generation to the next. Because of the wealth gap, people of color face a different opportunity structure. Historically, U.S. Policies have limited wealth accumulation for people of color (from slavery, to Jim Crow and legalized segregation and discrimination); and prevented them from owning property (African-Americans legally were property!) while whites have been assisted in this endeavor (via programs like the Homestead Act and the GI Bill) ( see, for example, How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America by Karen Brodkin; Racist America: Roots, Current Realities and Future Reparations, by Joe R. Feagin)

So does it matter if McCain's great-great grandparents owned slaves? YES. In the same way the history of slavery matters for all white folks. Slavery has profoundly shaped the development of our country since it's inception, and the economic development of both the South and North. Even those white families whose ancestors did not own slaves have reaped the benefits of slavery and the ongoing legacy of racial inequity.

In reflecting upon Traces of the Trade, Katrina Browne notes, "I decided to make a film that would ask: In what ways was my family shaped, formed, made by African slavery? What is the broader legacy of slavery for white Americans? And if I could connect the dots that are generally out of my view, then how would I be called to think differently about who I am today and about my responsibility to mend?" These are the questions all of us white folks should be asking ourselves at this time.