06/14/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011


By Michael R. Wenger

Both Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour are well-educated, politically astute, and reasonably bright public officials. But their recent comments about the significance, or lack thereof, of slavery bespeak a level of ignorance or deceitfulness that boggles the mind.

McDonnell, at least, has done a mea culpa. He has issued an apology for omitting any reference to slavery in proclaiming April as Confederate History Month, and he has corrected the omission. Barbour, however, has minimized the significance of the omission, saying it didn't amount to "diddley."

Giving them the benefit of the doubt in terms of their intentions, both of them, as well as those people of goodwill who don't understand what all the fuss is about, could use a bit of a history lesson. So, here goes.

Among the most significant legacies of our history of racial oppression are persistent negative racial stereotyping and a yawning wealth gap. The concept of race and negative racial stereotyping emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries in this country. Prior to that, slavery was a common practice in Europe, but it had little to do with skin color and was largely a result of conquest in wars fought over religious differences, among other things. Those taken as slaves were not necessarily doomed to a life of slavery, nor were their offspring automatically enslaved.

But slavery in this country soon became inextricably intertwined with the economy, creating a strong incentive to maintain it at any cost. Northern states, though they gave up slavery before the Civil War, nonetheless benefited from it economically. An excellent description of how northern states benefited is contained in the Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, issued in 2006 ( Thus, other than the moral argument, there was little incentive to give up slavery. So, to justify the brutal and inhumane enslavement of other human beings within the context of our founding principle that "all men are created equal," we dehumanized enslaved people. We invented the myth that they were lazy, unintelligent, prone to criminal behavior and the like, and thus, unfit for freedom.

Today, pollsters like Gallup, scholars like Dr. Lawrence Bobo, and think tanks like the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, all have data verifying the persistence of such stereotypes. Among the contemporary consequences of these stereotypes are a) research findings irrefutably demonstrating job discrimination, including a finding that young white men with a criminal record are more likely to be hired for entry-level jobs than young black men without a criminal record, b) racist behavior by many top corporate executives, as revealed in the Texaco tapes of several years ago, and c) the disproportionate incarceration of young men of color for illegal drug use despite the fact that the percentage of illegal drug use in the white community is essentially the same as the percentage of illegal drug use in the black community.

The stereotypes are exacerbated by the unequal treatment in the media of whites and blacks accused of similar crimes and by school curricula that leave out most of the significant contributions of black people to our society. In few schools are students taught that a black man invented the traffic light and the gas mask, or developed the first blood bank, or developed a process for the mass production of shoes, and or that the expression "the real McCoy" refers to a black inventor who was noted for the precision of the machines he developed. Ignorant of this knowledge and influenced by inaccurate media portrayals, a significant percentage of white Americans persist in the erroneous belief, originating with slavery, that African Americans are less capable than white Americans.

The wealth gap--by some estimates the average white family has a net worth ten times that of the average black family--is an even more obvious product of both slavery and government policies that lasted for more than 100 years after slavery was abolished. When enslaved people were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, they had no education and no resources. Some lawmakers proposed that they be given forty acres and a mule, but most lawmakers were more concerned about the property being lost by white slave owners than they were about how free black people would survive without resources. So, most former enslaved people were forced to become either sharecroppers on white-owned farms, or servants, or menial factory workers in the Jim Crow South. In these occupations they earned barely enough to survive, let alone accumulate any net worth to pass on to succeeding generations. Furthermore, because the GI bill passed after World War II was administered by the states, many of its benefits--loans to purchase homes, go to college, or start a business--were unavailable to black GIs in southern states.

But it wasn't only blacks in the South that suffered. Government housing policies during the housing boom of the 1940s and 1950s prevented most black families anywhere from accumulating wealth through the purchase of a home and consigned them to rental property in the inner city. Social Security legislation excluded agricultural and domestic workers until the early 1950s, thus precluding participation by most African Americans and placing a disproportionate burden on the next generation to take care of their parents. Many unions barred African Americans from membership, thus denying them the wages and job security benefits available to white workers. The impacts of such practices do not die when the direct targets die. They create disparities that impact future generations.

The research of sociologist Dalton Conley indicates that when the net worth of a white family and a black family is approximately equal, college graduation rates and employment rates are approximately equal, and the high school graduation rate for African Americans actually is slightly higher than the high school graduation rate for white Americans. In other words it is the impact of racial oppression, from slavery to intentionally racist government policies that persisted for at least another 100 years, that is largely responsible for today's racial disparities.

Slavery was evil when it existed, and its legacy still is being felt today. Public officials like Governors McDonnell and Barbour who deny or dismiss this legacy sow further racial divisions that weaken a nation that is growing less white each day. They need a history lesson.