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Putting Rights in Their Place

WALTER JOHNSON GIVES A BRACING critique of two ways of telling the history of slavery. One uses the rhetoric of humanity, the other the contemporary discourse of human rights. Rejecting both these trends on ethical grounds, Johnson offers an alternative vision of politics—and thus an alternative way of writing history. By and large I agree with him, but sometimes for other reasons than he gives.

Take “humanity” first. Johnson insists that not only did victims of oppression never risk losing their humanity (an offensive question in the first place, underwritten by the logic of white supremacy); masters did not betray their own humanity, either. Instead, slavery illustrates precisely what humans so often and so willingly do to other humans. Our bleak history is not one of dehumanization or inhumanity, but instead of the all too human capacity for domination.

To this argument some will object that we must attend to the way oppressors view their own activity. After all, their goals have often self-consciously been to dehumanize. In his recent depictions of slavery across the ages, for example, historian David Brion Davis, following a classic essay by Karl Jacoby, explains that from Aristotle forward, slavery was often imagined to reduce people in bondage to the status and functions of (non-human) animals. And, as Terrence Des Pres and others have written, in Nazi camps Germans deliberately aimed at robbing Jews of their basic humanity.

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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.