The Economist and White Supremacy, with thanks to @jbouie and @hofrench #economistbookreviews

BaptistweetGentle Readers, I don’t mean to occupy your entire day with The Economist. That said, Baptist has published his own reaction to The Economist review, calling it “blatantly racist.” This fact alone deserved and would have gotten a short post from me, but in the past few hours I’ve learned some other facts that did not, as a person familiar with The Economist only by reputation prior today, have on hand to share when I wrote my last. Therein, I referenced how they preserved the review with their apology attached in the interests of transparency. One should own up to one’s mistakes, not try to apologize and then pretend they never existed.

I noted then that while they did this, they removed the image that they published with the article and the caption under it. You can see it in my screen capture of Baptist’s tweet. I recognized it then as the picture of an actor and assumed it came from some recent movie or television program. I did not know then, but do now thanks to Jamelle Bouie at Slate, that the image hails from 12 Years a Slave. The editors at The Economist chose the image to adorn an article arguing for benevolent, humanitarian treatment of slaves by their owners. Patsey had an owner who demonstrated his benevolent and humanitarian interest in his investment by beating and raping her.

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

I can’t say that words fail me as I thought of a great many on learning this fact. They are not, however, the kind of language I like to use here. I don’t know if the editors thought they were being very clever or just picked an image at random, but if they did it at random then they could have matched their attachment to the facts just as well by using the famous picture of Peter from Louisiana to support their point. I don’t know if we should chalk that one up to indifference or to indifference perfected to such sophistication that we cannot distinguish it from malice, but the other thing I learned that I wish to bring to your attention argues at least for the latter. I submit that the combination of the choice of image, its caption, and past behavior indicate worse still on the part of the magazine.

It transpires that The Economist has written similar reviews on the same theme before. One may hope that these came from a long-gone era. That would make the late review a disgusting atavism of more racist times. Such hope is misplaced. The January 18, 2014 review of Greg Grandin’s The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World, which concerns the Atlantic slave trade pushes almost the same arguments word for word. We learn from The Economist that black people participated in the slave trade as well, something anybody who has done even cursory reading already knew but which the author seems to take as positively exculpatory:

It was not just, as is commonly supposed, a matter of white villains and black victims. The crews of naval and merchant fleets of the time included “men of colour”—even, in a few instances, as captains.

One suspects that if The Economist devoted some of its considerable resources to examining the surviving records of slave ships, the editors would find a vast preponderance of white villains to go with the universally black victims. But that would transgress on some esoteric norm of balance. I can’t read the next paragraph without sensing a certain resentment from the author:

When, as happened during the Napoleonic wars, a slaver’s ship was captured by French privateers, the blacks aboard were often treated more carefully than the white seamen. The blacks were prized goods and their worth soared as commodity-based booms in the New World overwhelmed the sentiments of liberty, equality and fraternity. Once enslaved, the Africans were valuable as “investments (purchased and then rented out as labourers), credit (used to secure loans), property, commodities, and capital, making them an odd mix of abstract and concrete values.”

Slaves were an investment, so The Economist apparently draws the inference that they must have been treated well. Certainly better than the free white slavers who could not, poor things, themselves be sold by the successful privateers. If only they had it so good.

But it turns out that The Economist, in its paper heart of hearts, wants a story of good vs. evil after all. It slights Grandin for not giving sufficient credit to the whites who ended the trade:

Unfortunately, the horrors in Mr Grandin’s history are unrelenting. His is a book without heroes. The brave battlers against the gruesome slave business hardly get a look in, although it was they who eventually prevailed. Prominent among them were William Wilberforce and other evangelical Christians. Along with their Quaker allies, they led the campaign that persuaded Britain’s Parliament to abolish the slave trade in 1807. Credit is also due, but is hardly given by Mr Grandin, to the anti-slavery patrols of the Royal Navy which freed at least 150,000 west Africans from slave ships during the 19th century.

The Historianness (@Historianness) shared this excellent summary of the review of Grandin’s book by Howard French (@hofrench), which he posted first to Twitter and then on Storify. I hope he’s fine with my quoting the lot. If not, I’ll gladly cut it down:

1) The Economist’s slavery book review debacle is culmination of a long history of denial.

2) It’s standard lines go like this: Arabs were involved in Slave Trade, and they were much more brutal. Why aren’t you talking more about them?

3) Hey, Africans were involved in the Slave Trade, too. The West wasn’t conducting wars of conquest. Why are you criticizing “us”?

4) The George Washingtons + Thomas Jeffersons + other worthies whose wealth + status was built on backs of slaves mustn’t be judged by the moral or ethical standards of today.

5) Please disregard contribution that Slave Labor made to industrialization in UK and economic rise of US. Only ivory tower academics talk about stuff like that: (Please read the piece.)

6) Problems of African Americans, and indeed of Africa, have nothing to do with slavery. Why are you always focusing on history?

7) Hey, but the UK stopped int’l Slave Trade (please ignore economic and political rationales for doing so. Let’s just agree to call them good guys.)

From this one must presume that the editors care for feel good history for white people. They want to hear all about it when white people do admirable things, but when whites disproportionately wrong non-whites, The Economist will hear nothing of it and insists the author had an ax to grind.

The editors  seem most interested in a history which pushes the world’s great evils off on non-whites while leaving the whites to take all the great moral triumphs. If this is not a white supremacist position, nothing is.


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