Responses to Adversity

The New York Times’ “1619 Project” focused on linking the extreme harshness of slavery to the black experience of today. But overstating this link is misleading and promotes inaccurate representations of the behaviors of the enslaved, reinforcing contemporary negative stereotypes that are simply inaccurate if one examines various aspects about the black family, marriage rates and other data that actually reflect strong ethics of black slaves in both moral and economic terms during what is agreed to be the most sinful chapter in American history.

The 1619 Project’s Matthew Desmond’s essay suggests — accurately — that slavery was a vicious system of exploitation, a perception found in influential early post-World War II writings. In “Slavery,” Stanley Elkins claims that the long series of shocks from their African capture, Middle Passage transport to the West Indies and sale to American plantations created a black psyche similar to what Bruno Bettelheim observed in Nazi concentration camps. Elkins believed that typical enslaved blacks would adopt a childlike quality of complete submission, identifying their masters as father figures since “their real fathers had virtually no authority over their children.” This thesis was Elkins’ explanation for the “Little Black Sambo” image that once was widely accepted among researchers and observers of the slave experience.

In “The Peculiar Institution,” Kenneth Stampp believed that terror and brutalization were at the core of the slave experience. As a result, an enslaved black understood that to be the recipient of his master’s paternalism, he had to adopt the pose of “a fawning dependent,” producing a “process of infantilization.” Furthermore, Stampp claimed that family values were so destroyed that most fathers and even some mothers regarded their children with indifference.

Although Elkins and Stampp saw themselves as exposing the inhumanities of slavery they, unfortunately, reinforced negative images of enslaved men and women –– that enslaved blacks lacked a strong work ethic, lacked a strong commitment to the nuclear family, and lacked sexual discipline. For W.E.B. Dubois, later E. Franklin Frazier, and ultimately, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, their work explained the high rate of black births out of wedlock.

This led many whites to consider black laborers as inherently lazy and requiring stern discipline to harness their work effort. The leading early 20th-century labor economist John R. Commons believed that “the backward nonwhite races were lazy, could not compete, and therefore did not need unions.” There continues to be a widespread belief that too many black men lack a strong work ethic.

In the 1970s, Herbert Gutman, Robert Fogel and Eugene Genovese undermined the Stampp-Elkins thesis. Using Freedmen’s Bureau data and records from six large plantations, Gutman found that more than three-quarters of all children were raised in stable, two-parent families. This outcome reflected the fact that fewer than one in five marriages was ended as a result of the slave trade. Family stability was lower on plantations with fewer than 15 slaves. Still, in these smaller plantations, half of the enslaved children grew up in two-parent families.

Slave women still fell victim to white men’s lust. However, according to Genovese, “Many escaped because the whites knew they had black men who would rather die than stand idly by.” So strong was the resistance that it curbed “white sexual aggression” against married women.

For these researchers, the plantation owner’s absolute control was tempered by a primary focus on profitability. Since prime-age enslaved males were costly to purchase, planters took care to not risk their safety. Slaves were whipped and sexually abused, but not employed on high-risk activities when possible. Instead, the plantation owners hired Irish immigrants, who were considered “disposable,” to do these dangerous jobs.

For slavers, the hiring of white overseers was expensive. Fogel found that they were employed on only one-sixth of moderate-size plantations (16 to 50 slaves) and 25 to 30 percent on larger ones. On three-quarters of plantations with no white overseers, there was only one adult male of working age. This required extensive employment of enslaved blacks in supervisory positions, as well as in many craft positions.

Since white supervision was expensive, and it was expensive to purchase slaves, planters found it profitable to provide positive inducements to instill loyalty and improve work efforts. Genovese found that masters who practiced paternalism were more successful than those who used their powers ruthlessly. Ex-slave narratives indicated that stealing was much higher on the plantations that provided meager rations.

Positive incentives took many forms. On many plantations, enslaved workers who performed well were awarded private plots of land on which they could farm and sell their surplus. Fogel estimated that “income of top field hands was 2.5 times basic income; of top craftsmen, probably four or five, and in some exceptional cases, as much as 10 times basic income.”

Not only was the Elkins-Stampp view wrong about the place of the nuclear family in slave lives, it was wrong about the black work ethic. As mentioned, enslaved blacks were employed in many skilled and semi-skilled positions. In the agricultural sector, Fogel estimated 20 percent of enslaved blacks were employed in management, skilled artisan and semi-skilled positions. As a result, the early 20th-century researcher Charles Wesley claimed that at emancipation, black workers made up over 80 percent of the artisan class in the South. Indeed, in “The Negro Artisan,” DuBois commented on the potpourri of occupations available to black workers in the South, compared to the North where craft unions almost universally embraced racial exclusionary practices.

Fogel lamented the mistaken view of black labor by slavery critics: “That the quality of slaves … could have been so completely misrepresented … is testimony to the extent of their racist myopia. What bitter irony it is that the false stereotype of black labor, a stereotype which still plagues blacks today, was fashioned not primarily by the oppressors … but by the most ardent opponents of slavery, by those who worked most diligently to destroy the chains of bondage.”

Similar to the Stampp-Elkins narrative, some observers today stress the impact of deeply-rooted oppressive circumstances. Besides ongoing violence perpetuated by racist policing, they emphasize deep intergenerational poverty. They point to Patrick Sharkey’s estimates that 67 percent of black American families hailing from the poorest quarter of neighborhoods a generation ago continue to live in such neighborhoods today. Among all black families, 48 percent have lived in poor neighborhoods for at least two generations, compared to only 7 percent of white families.

These deplorable conditions, we are told, create pervasive hopelessness. According to researchers Melissa Kearney and Kathryn Edin, the high levels of teen pregnancies that have afflicted the black community are the result of a “culture of despair.” Hopelessness presumably explained the causal sexuality that Ta-Nehisi Coates witnessed growing up in Baltimore in the 1980s. “Lexington Terrace was hot with gonorrhea. Teen pregnancy was the fashion,” he wrote in “The Beautiful Struggle.” “Husbands were outies. Fathers were ghosts.”

Unfortunately, the liberal position is based on a misreading of contemporary behaviors, just as the severest critics of U.S. slavery misread the behavior of enslaved blacks. The “culture of despair” explanation for high teen birth rates ignores the role of predatory male behavior. Typical of the decade, in 1993, 20.9 percent of black teen girls became pregnant, 7.8 percent had abortions and 10.7 percent gave birth. At that time, many poor black girls who lacked employment sought money by hooking up with problematic men. Patricia Collins documented how “young women engage in casual sex with men” with the “unstated assumptions that they will be rewarded with a little financial help.” Some scholars have suggested that unwanted black pregnancies were strongly associated with younger teens entering coercive sexual relationships with older men. My own study with Chun Wang found that states with high employment rates of 20- to 24-year-olds also had higher rates of birth among 15- to 19-year-olds.

You, however, would be unaware that teen pregnancy reflected these abusive and coercive relationships if you had read only Kathryn Edin’s books. None of the teen mothers who dominated her two books –– “Making Ends Meet” and “Promises I Can Keep” –– were victims of coercive or predatory males. Neither did the intimate violence so prevalent in poor black neighborhoods appear in her work. Not surprisingly, she was quite willing to “highlight how growing up in an environment where there is little chance of social and economic advancement can lead young women to have babies outside of marriage.”

In support of the “culture of despair” thesis, Philip Levine and Melissa Kearney found that, on average, states with higher levels of income inequality had high rates of teen births. As employment plummeted during the Great Recession, the “despair thesis” would have predicted teen birth rates to rise. Instead, they decreased by 44 percent between 2006 and 2014.

One of the important reasons for this decline was the growing educational attainment of black women. Rather than being trapped in despair, increasingly they sought to better their lives through education that freed them from problematic black men. Between 2006 and 2015, the share of black women ages 25-29 with at least an associate’s degree rose by 28.1 percent. As a result, black adolescent women had reason to believe they could attain educational credentials to better their lives, so they rejected teen motherhood.

We should not trivialize the deprivation and discrimination black Americans have faced. Nor should we ignore the debilitating effects of some of their experiences. However, we should limit the victim narrative and, instead, focus on the broader evidence that many have triumphed over these roadblocks.