David Horowitz is a right wing, supposedly “intellectual” hit-man in the forefront of the attack on dissent and critical thinking in academia. He is the author of the October 22–26 so-called Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week (IFAW) on campuses around the U.S. and in Israel.
A foundational element in Horowitz’s agenda is his demand that academia rule out of order and suppress the investigation of, or the teaching of, the truth about the horrors of slavery and the present-day oppression of African Americans. This needs to be called out, exposed, and refuted in the course of this “Week.”
In early 2001 Horowitz published an ad in campus newspapers around the country that attacked the campaign calling for reparations. The demand for reparations is a demand for compensation to African Americans for the impact of slavery and its aftermath. The call for reparations demands the acknowledgment of the tremendous economic and social inequalities that are the legacy of slavery, and of the ongoing discrimination African Americans confront today.
The content of Horowitz’s ad, “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery Is a Bad Idea—and Racist Too,” reveals the agenda, and the method of thinking, of a modern-day apologist for slavery. And the defense of the extreme inequality, racism, and national oppression facing African Americans today. In his ad (which he continues to defend), Horowitz makes essentially four points in his attack on the demand for reparations:
First, Horowitz claims that “Black Africans and Arabs were responsible for enslaving the ancestors of African-Americans,” not the white European traders and the system behind them that benefited vastly from the ferocious exploitation of African slaves.
And Horowitz says that the “claim that all African-Americans suffer from the economic consequences of slavery and discrimination” is “unsubstantiated.” He even claims that, in spite of a tremendous amount of documentation, “No scientific attempt has been made to prove that living individuals have been adversely affected by a slave system that was ended nearly 150 years ago.”
Horowitz also claims that the demand for reparations sends a “damaging message” and promotes a “renewed sense of grievance” when the real problem is that “Blacks can’t seem to locate the ladder of opportunity.”
And finally, Horowitz’s ad claims that “Reparations to African-Americans have already been paid” in the form of “welfare benefits and racial preferences” for Black people.
For all this, Horowitz claims that African-Americans “owe a debt” to America. And he demands “where’s the gratitude” for all this!
In this article, I’m going to respond to these claims.
Who Benefited from Slavery?
Horowitz’s ad says, “Black Africans and Arabs were responsible for enslaving the ancestors of African-Americans.” Here, as is typical of his demagogic method, Horowitz focuses on tidbits of reality, or makes them up, in the service of a great lie. While the procurement of slaves by the European and American slave traders involved some Africans and Arabs, the group that benefited on an almost unimaginable level from slavery was the slaveowners to whom the slaves were sold. And the whole system of capitalism that arose and throve on the vicious exploitation of African slaves.
The vast wealth generated by slaves in the United States benefited not just the slave owners in the South but also the capitalists of the North, with whom they had a contentious but integrated relationship that was at the foundation of the United States. The massive wealth, literally beaten out of the backs of slaves, played a crucial role not just in the agricultural economy of the South but in the textile and other industries of the North (see Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery, by Anne Farrow, Joel Lang, and Jenifer Frank).
Further, white supremacy, and the economic, political, and cultural expressions of that, permeate and are foundational to everything the United States has been, and is about. Not all whites owned slaves. Not all Blacks were enslaved during the period of slavery. But the fact is that slavery determined the character of the entire society during that period, especially but not only in the South. So even whites who weren’t slave owners found their place within and benefited from that society, including as part of the enforcement of that system. A whole social order arose on this foundation. Morality, values, and a psychology of white supremacy were preached in the churches, taught in the schools, and embedded and enforced in a myriad of ways.
Slavery and the Plunder of Africa
According to Horowitz’s anti-reparations ad, “The claim for reparations is premised on the false assumption that only whites have benefited from slavery. If slave labor has created wealth for Americans, then obviously it has created wealth for black Americans as well, including the descendants of slaves. The GNP of black America makes the African-American community the tenth most prosperous ‘nation’ in the world. American blacks on average enjoy per capita incomes in the range of twenty to fifty times that of blacks living in any of the African nations from which they were kidnapped.”
None of Horowitz’s figures in this ad are sourced, and no one should accept any of his quantitative claims on their face. Yet it is true that African Americans today, while subjected to tremendous inequality, and suffering all-around national and racist oppression, for the most part do have a much higher per capita income than do black Africans. In Horowitz’s twisted mind this is something that African Americans should see as a benefit of the legacy of slavery.
This is another way of arguing that because people in Africa are even more brutally and viciously exploited and impoverished than African Americans, African Americans should feel grateful. By that obscene logic, people living in Africa today should feel grateful that they weren’t almost completely exterminated, in the way a huge percentage of the Native peoples in North America were killed.
The inequality between African Americans (and other people living outside of Africa) and Africans today—expressed by large parts of Africa being racked by wars, starvation, and the AIDS crisis—is inseparable from the legacy of the way in which Africa, both the parts where the slaves where stolen and other parts of Africa, has been ravaged by colonialism and imperialism.
Just the enslavement of the native population in the Congo by King Leopold of Belgium and his rubber industry at the end of the 18th century led to the death and mutilation of as many as ten million Africans (see “King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, by Adam Hochschild).
And the United States has a long “tradition” of being neck deep in the plunder of Africa. Working closely with the notorious white-supremacist apartheid regime in South Africa, the U.S. backed “contra” style forces in Angola and Mozambique in the 1970s, ’80s, and early ’90s. These U.S.-backed forces carried out massacres and systematically sabotaged the infrastructure of these countries, bringing tremendous suffering and death. All in the service of creating a secure corridor around South Africa, where the indigenous African people were rebelling against vicious exploitation.
Or, look at the plunder of Nigeria by U.S. and European oil monopolies, enforced by a succession of murderous neo-colonial regimes. Ken Saro-Wiwa was a community leader of the Ogoni people of eastern Nigeria. He accused Shell Oil of participating in the genocide of the Ogoni people. In 1995, the Nigerian regime hung Ken Saro-Wiwa. Collaboration between foreign oil companies and Nigeria’s government death squads is overt and documented: In an interview with Democracy NOW!, a Chevron official admitted that on May 28, 1998, the company transported Nigerian soldiers to their Parabe oil platform and barge in the Niger Delta, which dozens of community activists had occupied. Soon after landing in Chevron-leased helicopters, the Nigerian military shot to death two protesters.
The capitalist-imperialist system victimized Africans twice—first, by kidnapping and killing literally millions in the slave trade that fueled the expansion of capitalism; and second, by pitilessly plundering and exploiting Africa itself for four centuries. And of this, David Horowitz has the nerve to say that African Americans should celebrate that their incomes are higher than those of people in Africa!
Horowitz’s ad asserts: “No scientific attempt has been made to prove that living individuals have been adversely affected by a slave system that was ended nearly 150 years ago. But there is plenty of evidence that the hardships of slavery were hardships that individuals could and did overcome.”
Here, Horowitz acts like the end of slavery was followed by a revolutionary transformation of all society, where immediately Black people attained basic equality with whites in income, education, health care, political participation and so on, and then, wave after wave, further revolutionary transformations in society unleashed further breaking down of the historic inequality and oppression of Black people. But no such thing happened. Instead, the oppression of Black people took new forms.
There have been many studies attempting to quantify the theft of income and wealth created by Black labor over the past fifteen generations. According to David H. Swinton, President of Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina, one researcher has calculated that the 1983 value of the slave labor expropriated by whites from 1620 to 1865 ranges from nearly $1 trillion to as much as $97 trillion, depending on the rate of interest chosen for the long intervening period. (See Swinton’s essay cited by Joe Feagin in “Documenting the Costs of Slavery, Segregation, and Contemporary Racism: Why Reparations Are in Order for African Americans,” Harvard Blackletter Law Journal, vol. 20, 2004).
Another research study estimated the cost of labor market discrimination for 1929-1969 (1983 dollars) at $1.6 trillion. (These figures are based on calculating the gross value of the production of the Black population of the U.S. at the time, and the interest that wealth would have accrued between then and now.)
An unbroken chain runs through the different forms under which Black people have been oppressed in this country. After the Civil War ended slavery, the short-lived period of Reconstruction initially promised equality to the freed slaves. That promise was betrayed. Serf-like, semi-feudal conditions not that different from slavery were imposed, enforced with terroristic attacks on anyone who fled. This post-slavery oppression inherited many of the elements of slavery, with Black people working as virtual slaves for Southern plantation owners who in many cases were former slave owners. The master’s whip was replaced with Ku Klux Klan lynchings that were so widespread that one psychologist who studied African Americans in the South during that period said, every African American, particularly those living in the South, in effect lived under a death sentence that might or might not be carried out. And these lynchings were so overtly supported by law enforcement authorities that they were sometimes advertised in advance, and celebrated in postcards showing the lynch mob and the victim.
The next great betrayal of Black people took place when, as a result of changes in the world and the U.S. economy, the labor-intensive work they did in southern agriculture was mechanized. There developed a need for cheap, viciously exploited labor in the packing houses, factories, steel mills, foundries and construction sites in the cities—especially but not only in the North. As Black people migrated to the cities, powerful movements for equality broke out. The civil rights movement and the Black liberation movements arose through the 1950s and 1960s. Along with this, changes in the way the U.S. was imposing neo-colonialism on the third world created a compulsion for the rulers of the U.S. to appear different than the old-style colonial powers. In the midst of societal upheaval, small concessions were made to Black people. Overt, officially sanctioned “separate but equal” school segregation was ruled unconstitutional. Some social programs (Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society”) attempted, on a very small scale, to provide openings into the middle class. Some social welfare programs were implemented. These are the things that Horowitz counts as part of the debt Black people owe America!
But then, even these small-scale concessions were reversed. African Americans were again betrayed. Today Black people —particularly those locked in the inner cities—are denied employment both by the workings of the capitalist system and by the conscious policies of the rulers. They are discriminated against where they do get employment, and discriminated against in every tier of society in a continuing way. The Supreme Court recently put a stamp of approval on this when it—in essence—reversed the “Brown vs. Board of Education” ruling that mandated school integration in many school districts.
Where’s the Gratitude?
Horowitz’s anti-reparations ad demands: “What about the Debt Blacks Owe to America?” “If not for the sacrifices of white soldiers and a white American president…blacks in America would still be slaves,” denied “…the greatest freedoms, and the most thoroughly protected individual rights anywhere. Where is the acknowledgment of black America and its leaders for those gifts?”
Only the crudest apologist for slavery could argue that a people whose ancestors were enslaved for 250 years owe a debt to those who enslaved them for the fact that their enslavement was finally ended! Horowitz’s anti-reparations ad ignores the major and heroic role of African Americans themselves in fighting against slavery. There were over 200 slave revolts, including the ones led by Nat Turner in Virginia and Denmark Vesey in South Carolina. The ad fails to mention that nearly 200,000 Blacks fought in the Union army, at half the pay of white soldiers, and one out of every five (almost 40,000) gave their lives in this fight (the casualty rate for Black Union soldiers was double that of whites). Horowitz turns reality on its head when he calls “gifts” the basic rights that people in fact had to fight and die to achieve.
Lies in Service of White Supremacy = Racism
Horowitz chafes at being called a racist. But he is a racist — that is to say, he is a systematic apologist for white supremacy. It’s not an insult, it’s a scientific term to describe the ideology that Horowitz has dedicated himself to promoting. Worse yet, he is not ignorant of the history and present-day conditions of Black people—he lies about them because acknowledging the reality of white supremacy—then and now—would undermine, in his words, “America’s conception of itself as a beacon of freedom.”
Horowitz’s book Uncivil Wars: The Controversy Over Reparations for Slavery presents a composite speech that he gave at UC Berkeley and other colleges around the country in defense of his anti-reparations ad. In that speech, Horowitz actually acknowledges that: “Slavery was a crime against humanity, and is a blot on the American record. I fully support reparations for former slaves and their children. Unfortunately they are no longer with us. Even though no payment can make up for the injury of slavery, American slaves should have been compensated when they were freed. Instead, they were even denied the forty acres and a mule they had been promised. This was a betrayal, as were the years of segregation and discrimination that followed.” (my emphasis).
But then, in the same book, Horowitz reveals both an agenda of whitewashing all this, and an accompanying methodology of extreme and bizarre “political truth.” A methodology of “never-mind the truth, what matters is what serves my political agenda.” He writes that, despite his own earlier admission that Black people’s struggle to overcome “the injury of slavery” was betrayed again and again, “Anyone should be able to see that the reparations claim is really a prescription for racial division and ethnic strife” (p. 39).
Near the end of Uncivil Wars, Horowitz reveals this “logic” overtly: “In making a case against reparations, I was taking sides on an issue that was integral to the ‘culture war,’ a schism that has polarized and embittered debate in America for nearly half a century…an argument over the meaning of American history and the nation’s identity itself. Since the 1960s, the ‘tenured radicals’ have waged a ferocious assault on America’s conception of itself as a beacon of freedom… A nation conceived in liberty is newly described as ‘a nation conceived in slavery.’” (Uncivil Wars, p. 105.)
What Horowitz is saying here, in essence, is that “America’s conception of itself as a beacon of freedom” cannot survive a critical examination of the reality of its own history. And more fundamentally, America will not, and cannot, DO anything about the reality of what that history has wrought. So history itself must be rewritten to conform to this agenda. An agenda consistent with the waves of denial that have greeted the hanging of nooses from a “whites only” tree outside a high school in Jena, Louisiana.
To confront and come to terms with the reality of slavery and everything that it has wrought requires confronting that slavery has been crucial to the accumulation of the tremendous wealth that underpins this country’s global dominance. And it would also mean confronting that the racist inequalities and oppressive conditions of African Americans today are an inescapable part of that same historic legacy. White supremacy and the oppression of Black people is so fundamental to the way this society is held together that the rulers of this country could not do anything about this even if they wanted to. Confronting such truths means confronting that white supremacy and the oppression of Black people are integral to this system, and that only a revolution that gets rid of capitalism can end white supremacy and national oppression.