The Enduring Damage Of Slavery (For People And Nations)

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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In a recent column titled “The Legacy of Fear,” David Brooks observes that “Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the biggest surprise is how badly most of the post-communist nations have done since.”

He cites a plethora of statistics to back up his claim, and concedes that — in some cases — these countries simply made bad decisions. But ultimately, Brooks concludes this: “Communism ripped at all that bottom-up society-making and damaged the psyches of its victims. Healing from those wounds is gradual. Progress is not guaranteed.”

Interestingly, this week, Nicholas Kristof wrote about a different topic that seems to parallel Brooks’s column:

“[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.'”

Like Brooks, Kristof acknowledges the need for future generations to take personal responsibility as one part of this story. But he also notes that systemic discrimination continued long after slavery official ended. “That’s one reason why black families have, on average, only about 6 percent as much wealth as white households, why only 44 percent of black families own a home compared with 73 percent for white households,” he continues.

It’s always dangerous to compare anything to slavery. But in reading Kristof’s piece, I couldn’t help being reminded of Brooks’ column. It’s not a perfect analogy (nothing ever is!), but there is a common theme.

By uprooting the ties that bind, and attempting to systematically destroy foundational attributes of humanity, regimes and institutions that usurp our freedom do lasting damage. Anyone who thinks of nations or people, “Why don’t they just get it together and bounce back?” doesn’t fully appreciate the lasting damage. As Brooks notes: “Healing from those wounds is gradual. Progress is not guaranteed.”

Matt K. Lewis