Facing Shared Trauma and Seeking Hope

I came across this nugget of inconvenient truth:

“Indeed, a wave of research over the last 20 years has documented the lingering effects of slavery in the United States and South America alike. For example, counties in America that had a higher proportion of slaves in 1860 are still more unequal today, according to a scholarly paper published in 2010. The authors called this a “persistent effect of slavery.”

“One reason seems to be that areas with slave labor were ruled for the benefit of elite plantation owners. Public schools, libraries and legal institutions lagged, holding back working-class whites as well as blacks.”

This is from The New York Times. It is Part 4 of a series by Nicholas Kristoff, “When Whites Just Don’t Get It”.

It brought back to mind a few similar examples of this type of historical effect. A short while ago, an intriguing book was published that included this topic. It is The Invisible History of the Human Race by Christine Kenneally. I learned of the book from a book review by David Dobbs, also in The New York Times. I have since read it and I must admit it is one of the best books I’ve read recently, right up there with Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. I appreciated what the author accomplished for similar reasons as with Alexander’s book, telling data in support of keen insight.

The data is overwhelming. The way Kenneally brings it all together makes you feel the full weight of history. Institutions and social orders, cultures and social capital, injustices and traumas, they can and often do persist over centuries. This what people mean when they speak of oppression. They don’t just mean a single generation who loses opportunities of betterment. It’s not just about individuals, but entire societies. It continues to impact the descendants for as long as the social conditions sustain it. This is the moral obligation we face. The actions we take now will echo into the distant future. We choose whether to continue systems and cultures of oppression or to end them. Every generation makes that choice, century after century.

The past is never just past. This is particularly true with trauma. It is hard to forget large-scale atrocities that leave deep imprints. Societies can be forever changed. Kenneally mentions an anthropologist who, during the 1990s, stayed with an African tribe in an area that had high rates of enslavement. The memory of slavery was still apart of their experience. Many of them could point to the homes of people who lost family members to slavery. And sometimes they could even name the people who had sold them into slavery, sometimes members of the same family committed the act (“Almost 20 percent of slaves had been betrayed by people to whom they were close.” Kindle Location 2304). These people couldn’t forget.

There are many enduring effects to this. One of these is easier to think about. It is the resulting economic problems. This relates to the example I began with. Areas that experienced slavery and the slave trade in centuries past still have problems with underdevelopment, poverty, and inequality. Some might dismiss this as simply being a continuation of what came before, that these places always were bad off. That is a too convenient excuse and also false (Kindle Locations 2295-2302):

“In order to find a connection between slavery and modern economies, Nunn asked if the differences in economic well-being today could be explained by differences that existed before the slave trade. Were the countries that were already poor the same countries that were more engaged in the slave trade? In fact, Nunn found the opposite : Regions that lost the most people to slavery had once been among the best-developed economies and best-organized states on the continent, with central governments, national currencies, and established trade networks. It was the states that were least developed and had higher degrees of violence and hostility at the time of the slave trade that were better able to repel slavers and not suffer the long-term effects of the trade.

“Could the relationship between modern poverty and historical slavery be explained by the subsequent effects of colonialism or by the natural resources possessed by a country? Nunn found that although those factors appeared to have an effect, neither was as powerful. It was slavery that mattered, and it mattered greatly.”

Another enduring effect connects to that. As has been observed by many, economic development along with wealth and equality seem to be intrinsic qualities of a culture of trust (see Fukuyama’s Trust). Kenneally writes (Kindle Locations 2327-2352):

They began with the intuition that trust could be a channel through which slavery still affects modern economies. But their goal was to find evidence for it. Of course, trust is a crucial part of any economy: Societies must have some degree of trust in order to be able to trade. At the most basic level, if people don’t trust one another, they are less willing to take a chance in business, whether it involves a simple exchange of goods or a complicated contract. But no one in economics had ever tried to measure the relationships among history, trust, and the economy before. After all, trust was an element of culture, and “culture” was a vague, fuzzy concept. Nunn and Wantchekon defined it as simply as they could: Culture, for their purposes, was the rules of thumb people used to make decisions. Do I trust this person ? Do I distrust him? People from different cultures use different rules of thumb to make such determinations.

If trust is absent, a well functioning society becomes impossible. Some would argue that absence of trust can only be blamed on the local population, not outside forces, but the fact that these once were well functioning societies gives the lie to that claim. The point of causation is most clearly attributed to slavery itself. as shown in the author’s analysis (continuing from above):

“Building on Nunn’s finding that the countries that lost more of their populations to the slave trade over one hundred years ago were also the poorest today, Nunn and Wantchekon examined the Afrobarometer, a survey project that measures public attitudes to different aspects of African daily life, like democracy, employment, and the future of citizenship. It is comparable to a Gallup poll, and it includes seventeen countries. The researchers found that overall, people tended to have more trust in those who were closer to them— for example, friends over government officials. This was a universal pattern. But it was also the case that the groups that were most exposed to the slave trade over one hundred years ago were also the groups with the lowest levels of trust today. Modern Africans whose ancestors lost the most people to slavers distrusted not just their local government and other members of their ethnicity but also relatives and neighbors much more than Africans whose ancestors were not as exposed to the slave trade.

“Did the slave trade give rise to a culture of mistrust that was passed down from the slave era even to individuals who live in the same places today? There are good reasons to believe that it might have. For those who witnessed the ways an innocent bystander might be swept up by or somehow betrayed into the slave trade, it would have made more sense to distrust people, as a general rule. People who automatically distrusted others were probably more likely to do well, or at least to not be enslaved . Wariness would also have been a smart strategy to teach the next generation.

“There’s another way this terrible correlation could be interpreted: Perhaps the slave trade made people not less trusting but less trustworthy. Perhaps people weren’t trusted in countries like Benin because they didn’t deserve to be trusted. After all, chiefs turned on their own people, and families sent some of their own literally down the river. Was a culture of betrayal passed down as well as a culture of distrust? This could partially be the case. Nunn’s analysis reveals that ethnic groups and local governments in the regions that were most affected by the slave trade in the past are also least trusted today. People whose ancestors were more affected by the slave trade were more likely to report that they did not approve of their local councilors, who were corrupt and did not listen to constituents. As Nunn explained , it’s quite likely that this is an accurate assessment of the local councils in these areas. Nevertheless, when they controlled for this effect, there was still a significant amount of distrust in countries most affected by the slave trade— regardless of whether the object of trust was truly worthy.”

A culture of trust is easier to destroy than to re-create. Once trauma becomes society-wide dysfunction, healing those shared wounds will be a slow process. The reason for this is that it hits people at the most personal level, their social identities and relationships (Kindle Locations 2430-2444):

“It seemed that both families and social institutions matter but that the former is more powerful. The data suggested that a region might develop its own culture of distrust and that it could affect people who moved into that area, even if their ancestors had not been exposed to the historical event that destroyed trust in the first place. But if someone’s ancestors had significant exposure to the slave trade, then even if he moved away from the area where he was born to an area where there was no general culture of mistrust, he was still less likely to be trusting. Indeed, Nunn and Wantchekon found evidence that the inheritance of distrust within a family was twice as powerful as the distrust that is passed down in a community.

“This accords well with our personal intuitions about families: The people who raise us shape us, intentionally or unintentionally. The people who raise us were likewise shaped by the people who raised them, and so on. Similarly, the way we treat other people, even our offspring, is shaped by the way we were shaped. This is not to say that our peers don’t affect our attitudes, nor does it mean that the society in which we choose to live doesn’t contribute as well. Obviously, the older we get, the more we develop the ability to shape ourselves. Family history doesn’t necessarily determine who we become, but this body of work suggests that the effect of a family may be so powerful that it can be replicated down through many generations, over and over through hundreds of years. It’s no wonder that so many people choose to study the distant histories of their families to understand how they work today . If genealogists believe there isn’t enough in their daily lives or their culture that sufficiently explains who they are— either to others or to themselves— it may be because they are right.

“In fact, the legacy of a family may be so powerful that it will not only last over extraordinary periods of time but extend over great distances as well.”

In regards to slavery in the United States, this last insight may point to an even further problem.

Africans who weren’t enslaved lost family members and had their functioning societies destroyed, but they maintained their family structures and cultural traditions. This did offer a pathway of transmission for trauma. At the same time, it also offered a certain kind of social stability. These people remember who they are and where they came from. They don’t suffer historical amnesia, as do many Americans. Trauma remembered allows for the opportunity of healing.

African-Americans, on the other hand, didn’t just lose their freedom. They lost everything. They lost their communities, traditions, and every other aspect of their social identities. Once enslaved and brought to America, they sought to rebuild the social bonds that had been lost. However, the slave system and the racial order that was built on it continually destroyed those social bonds or at the very least made it a challenge to maintain them over the generations. Slave families were regularly separated and this enforced instability continued for centuries, for longer than African-Americans have known freedom. They weren’t allowed the extended kinship ties that were traditional in Africa nor were they even allowed to develop dependable nuclear families.

If families are a major factor in passing on culture, what happens when a culture of oppression has been forced onto an entire people such that the foundations of family are undermined? African-Americans adapted to this challenge. Once free, they created new social bonds that could help them face the nearly insurmountable odds set against them. After slavery, the ruling white society continued to send black men off to other forms of unfreedom, from prisons to chain gangs. Their communities were ghettoized and racialized social control kept them trapped in poverty. So, they turned to the people around them and developed extended social networks (see Carol Stack’s All Our Kin; also see The Myth of Weak and Broken Black Families).

This source of strength, within their inheritance of injustice and oppression, is not to be dismissed. These communities still struggle against the legacy of slavery. Bigotry still lives on and racial bias remains institutionalized. Yet these people aren’t mere victims to be pitied. Just imagine what they might accomplish if they were ever allowed to heal from centuries of shared trauma.

Part of the reason so many African-Americans left the South was because they hoped to leave behind the very oppressive social orders that had kept them down for so long. If not for the mass exodus to the northern states, the civil rights movement may never have happened. They had to escape the persistent culture of poverty and inequality. By changing their environments, they were able to begin to see new possibilities and organize around new visions. Now many of their descendants are returning to the South for jobs and cheaper housing. This could in turn transform that old Southern society built on slavery, and so transform all of American society that has been complicit in the continuing racial order.

I’m not sure what specific hopes this offers, but there is a potential there. Some things persist over centuries while other things become transformed. Positive changes only ever happen when entire systems are shifted toward a new balance. One thing that seems clear to me is that this country is in the middle of a shift, whatever that might entail. Remembering the past lights the path toward a different future. That future will be determined by the choices we make now. What kind of world will we leave for the generations that follow after us?