Black History Scholar Ben Shapiro Lectures Ibram X. Kendi About Slavery
We're entering the last week of Black History Month, and as usual, some of the worst people on the planet couldn't refrain from annoying us for just four weeks. It's the shortest month, for God's sake!
Ben Shapiro pounced on a Presidents' Day tweet from author Ibram X. Kendi, who you might recall from a banned book list. Kendi wrote, "On #PresidentsDay, it is important to recall that at least twelve US presidents enslaved Black people, eight while in office. Two-thirds of the first 18 presidents collectively enslaved nearly 2,000 Black people. We know what largely built this nation, and it wasn’t freedom."
That's an admittedly a bummer to read while you're buying a mattress, but this is still Black History Month. Besides, an honest account of US history in general should reckon with the fact that the founders of supposedly the world's greatest democracy owned people. This isn't somewhat ancient history like how Beyoncé was once in a 1990s girl group called Destiny's Child. This is a relevant if uncomfortable reality.
Shapiro's response was small, petty, and racist, so perfectly in character: "It’s also important to remember that many of them built the Constitutional system that allowed for future generations to abolish slavery, and the system that has allowed you to become extraordinarily wealthy and famous grifting about the evils of the country that has given you those things."
You might've noticed how white men rarely say that the country “gave” them their wealth. They almost always reserve that for Black people. Back in 2012, Republicans freaked out over Barack Obama’s out-of-context “you didn’t build that" comment. Shapiro apparently thinks it's "grifting" to make money selling what your critics consider empty grievance politics. Christopher Rufo, also projecting like mad, described Kendi as "the false prophet of a dangerous and lucrative faith." (Rufo is the inventor of the Critical Race Theory panic, and a major contributor to the invention of the Drag Queen Story Hour panic.)
Shapiro and Rufo are free to envy Kendi's success, which didn't come from tap-dancing for their amusement. However, it's absurd to suggest America's founders deliberately put systems in place that would someday advance a Black person's self-actualization.
Shapiro repeats a popular, yet idiotic, right-wing argument: the founders started the noble process of ending slavery by codifying it into law and providing constitutional protections for the enslaver states. That might seem like the actions of people who are actually promoting slavery but maybe you just don't love America.
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Let's grant the point that the founders made a difficult choice to continue slavery (I mean, not too difficult, because they weren't the ones enslaved) so that they could form their fancy new democratic nation with people so committed to holding other humans in bondage they'd have bailed otherwise.
From the Gilder Lehrman Institute:
The framers of the Constitution believed that concessions on slavery were the price for the support of southern delegates for a strong central government. They were convinced that if the Constitution restricted the slave trade, South Carolina and Georgia would refuse to join the Union. But by sidestepping the slavery issue, the framers left the seeds for future conflict. After the convention approved the great compromise, Madison wrote: "It seems now to be pretty well understood that the real difference of interests lies not between the large and small but between the northern and southern states. The institution of slavery and its consequences form the line of discrimination."
The enslaved population exploded in the South after the American Revolution, growing from around 650,000 to 3.9 million in 1860. The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 doubled the size of the United States but also expanded American slavery into the West. The founders' moral cowardice condemned millions to die in bondage, and forgive my "wokeness," but slavery was not a fun life.
It's overtly evil to obtain a desired goal at the callous expense of millions of lives. Conservatives like Shapiro want to credit the founders for ending the very crime they enabled. That's the biggest and most lucrative grift of all.
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. Once, he wrote a novel called “Mahogany Slade,” which you should read or at least buy. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."