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Digital Subscriptions > Boston Review > Winter 2017 > To Remake the World: Slavery, Racial Capitalism, and Justice

To Remake the World: Slavery, Racial Capitalism, and Justice

IT IS A COMMONPLACE to say that slavery “dehumanized” enslaved people, but to do so is misleading, harmful, and worth resisting.

I hasten to add that there are, of course, plenty of right-minded reasons for adopting the notion of “dehumanization.” It is hard to square the idea of millions of people being bought and sold, of systematic sexual violation, natal alienation, forced labor, and starvation with any sort of “humane” behavior: these are the sorts of things that should never be done to human beings. But by terming these actions “inhuman” and suggesting that they either relied upon or accomplished the “dehumanization” of enslaved people, we are participating in a sort of ideological exchange that is no less baleful for being so familiar. We are separating a normative and aspirational notion of humanity from the sorts of exploitation and violence that history suggests may well be definitive of human beings: we are separating ourselves from our own histories of perpetration. To say so is not to suggest that there is no difference between the past and the present; it is merely that we should not overwrite the complex determinations of history with simple-minded notions of moral progress.

More important, though, is the ideological work accomplished by holding on to a normative sense of “humanity”—one that can be separated from the “inhuman” actions of so many humans. Historians sometimes argue that some aspects of slavery were so violent, so obscene, so “inhuman” that, in order to live with themselves, the perpetrators had to somehow “dehumanize” their victims. While that “somehow” remains a problem—it is never really specified what combination of unconscious, cultural, and social factors make a “somehow”—I question the assumption that slaveholders had to first “dehumanize” their slaves before they could swing a baby by the feet into a post to silence its cries, or jam the broken handle of a hoe down the throat of a field hand, or refer to their property as “darkies” or “hands” or “wool.” This language of “dehumanization” is misleading because slavery depended upon the human capacities of enslaved people. It depended upon their reproduction. It depended upon their labor. And it depended upon their sentience. Enslaved people could be taught: their intelligence made them valuable. They could be manipulated: their desires could make them pliable. They could be terrorized: their fears could make them controllable. And they could be tortured: beaten, starved, raped, humiliated, degraded. It is these last that are conventionally understood to be the most “inhuman” of slaveholders’ actions and those that most “dehumanized” enslaved people. And yet these actions epitomize the failure of this set of terms to capture what was at stake in slaveholding violence: the extent to which slaveholders depended upon violated slaves to bear witness, to provide satisfaction, to provide a living, human register of slaveholders’ power.

More than misleading, however, the belief that enslavement “dehumanized” enslaved people is harmful; it indelibly and categorically alters those with whom it supposedly sympathizes. Dehumanization suggests an alienation of enslaved people from their humanity. Who is the judge of when a person has suffered so much or been objectified so fundamentally that the person’s humanity has been lost? How does the person regain that humanity? Can it even be regained? And who decides when it has been regained? The explicitly paternalist character of these questions suggests that the “dehumanization” of enslaved people is locked in an inextricable embrace with the very history of racial abjection it ostensibly confronts. All this while implicitly asserting the unimpeachable rectitude and “humanity” of latter-day observers.

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About Boston Review

Walter Johnson, Harvard historian and author of the acclaimed River of Dark Dreams, urges us to embrace a vision of justice attentive to the history of slavery—not through the lens of human rights, but instead through an honest accounting of how slavery was the foundation of capitalism, a legacy that continues to afflict people of color and the poor. Inspired by Cedric J. Robinson’s work on racial capitalism, as well as Black Lives Matter and its forebears—including the black radical tradition, the Black Panthers, South African anti-apartheid struggles, and organized labor—contributors to this volume offer a critical handbook to racial justice in the age of Trump.