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The GOP are now claiming slaves could have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps

As the GOP’s arguments about slavery show, meritocracy, taken to its logical extremes, ends up functioning as an apology for cruelty, violence, and hate

Noah Berlatsky
Tuesday 25 July 2023 21:05 BST
Ron DeSantis
Ron DeSantis (Getty Images)

Enslaved people did not benefit from being kidnapped, tortured, sexually assaulted, and forced to labor for their tormentors.

This doesn’t seem like a controversial statement. And yet, over the last week, conservatives have rushed to defend the proposition that slavery was in many ways a kind of unpaid internship program, from which people emerged with valuable skills and improved prospects.

It’s a ridiculous argument, but not a surprising one. The right, as a party and a movement, has a limitless, credulous, unshaking belief in meritocracy – the idea that in our society, the smartest and the hardest workers rise to the top. The faith in bootstrap, scrappy self-advancement is presented as synonymous with industry, virtue, and self-respect.

In fact, though, as the GOP’s arguments about slavery show, meritocracy, taken to its logical extremes, ends up functioning as an apology for cruelty, violence, and hate.

The Florida Board of Education, recently stacked with conservatives by Governor Ron DeSantis, issued new history curriculum guidelines. These included a standard saying that students should be taught that “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

As numerous experts have pointed out, this is pernicious nonsense. It’s true that enslaved people sometimes were able to learn skills. But this was generally done despite the best efforts of those who enslaved them. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass said that his enslaver would literally snatch newspapers from his hand because she was afraid he would learn to read. In some states enslaved people who were caught trying to learn to read could have their fingers and toes cut off.

The Florida Board responded to critics (including vice-president Kamala Harris) by listing a number of skilled Black individuals they claimed had learned their trades while enslaved. Many of the names on their list, however, were Black people who were born free. Another person they cited, the famous educator, Booker T Washington, was freed at age nine. He benefited from the abolition of slavery, not from having been enslaved.

The essence of slavery was that enslaved people worked for their enslavers, not for themselves. They could not accumulate capital; whatever they made was stolen from them. When they had important knowledge about, for example, ironworking, those who enslaved them took the credit for their achievements. They could not store away knowledge or money for their families, since their children could be sold away from them at the whim of their enslavers. Slavery was not a jobs skills program.

And yet, conservatives have doubled down. DeSantis blitheley said the new curriculum would teach about “some of the folks that eventually parlayed, you know, being a blacksmith into doing things later in life.” Fox News Host Jesse Watters, somewhat confusedly, insisted that “No one is arguing slaves benefited from slavery,” and then argued that enslaved people did learn skills that “could be applied for their own personal benefit.”

The narrative the right is pushing here is shocking, but it’s also familiar. They are essentially framing slavery as a Horatio Alger myth. Enslaved people are poor and have little. But their “bosses” give them an opportunity to start at the bottom, learn important skills, and then start on the path to personal enrichment and happiness. No matter how little you have, you can always make something of yourself through thrift, intelligence, and a willingness to work. That’s the American Dream.

In reality that American Dream is nonsense; class mobility in the US is much lower than in many other countries. But the belief in meritocracy is impervious to data, or even logic. The GOP wants desperately to believe that the current hierarchy is virtuous, because they are the party of entrenched hierarchies. If you are crushed under student loan debt, it’s because you’re irresponsible. If you are choked to death by a vigilante on the subway, it’s because you were asking for it. If you are poor and your children are hungry, it’s because you’re neglectful. (The solution to the last is to punish poor people with hungry children rather than providing free school lunches, according to conservative pundit Ben Shapiro.)

For conservatives, everyone deserves what they get. And that means that the powerful are righteous, and the meek are immoral failures who must be chastised. The new Florida standards simply apply that logic to an earlier time period. The Florida Board standards deny structural inequalities and the reality of oppression. They suggest, instead, that the logic of meritocracy prevailed even under chattel slavery.

But it did not. Wealthy enslavers like, say, Thomas Jefferson, were not wealthy because of their hard work and good business sense. They were wealthy because they used force to steal the labor of human beings they had kidnapped. Enslaved people were not disadvantaged because they failed to seize the opportunities to learn blacksmithing. They were disadvantaged because of a vast, cruel, ruthless system which robbed them of their labor, their rights, and their children.

The injustice of then is mirrored in injustice now; Black people continue to face structural oppression, continue to be denied opportunities, continue even to be enslaved. Florida wants to project meritocracy into the past in order to make the case that we live under a meritocracy in the present. But we do not. If we want a just and equal society, we need to acknowledge that we do not have one yet. You can’t get to freedom if you refuse to see any chains.

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