Over the weekend Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark), in defense of his opposition to teaching the history of slavery and white supremacy in America’s schools, cited the Founders’ claim that slavery “was the necessary evil upon which the union was built.” Tolerance of slavery was in fact the price exacted by the South and agreed to by the North to reach the constitutional compromise that created America. Whether truly necessary is hard to accept. But Cotton illustrated more in his comment than the offhand malice of 18th century racism. He revealed the essence of flawed choices that have kept America from being true to herself from the start.
Many Southern landowners in early America believed that slavery was necessary not just to create America, but to build America. They believed that America could prosper only if they prospered and that they could prosper only by brutalizing and dehumanizing Black people. They believed it so fervently that they not only refused to join the union without it but also tried decades later to destroy the union when opposition to slavery reached a tipping point.
Cotton seems to acknowledge that original sin and then to casually brush it aside on the grounds that over time America has, on the whole, made such extraordinary advances in human equality that slavery cannot still matter. Whether he agrees with the Founders or not, his message seems to be that after freeing the slaves there was little else to do.
When America’s greatness comes only at the expense of others, we all lose.
But if slavery was “necessary” for our country to flourish, is the lingering racism and persistent inequality that results from slavery also necessary? Is that why Cotton and so many of his colleagues show so little interest in redressing modern-day suffering? Is that why he objects to teaching all of our history in schools, instead of just the embossed parts?
The notion that evil is sometimes necessary for prosperity is not a relic of history or limited to academic debates. In America, business executives accept cutting jobs as a “necessary evil” for improving a company’s quarterly earnings (read: “stock price”). Many accept climate change as a “necessary evil” for keeping the lights on. Municipal leaders and parents alike accept resegregation as a “necessary evil” for neighborhood schools. Policymakers accept warehousing lawbreakers, especially if poor and Black, as a “necessary evil” to reducing crime — and easy access to military weapons as a “necessary evil” for protecting gun rights. The idea that slavery was a necessary part of America’s founding implies that for some to flourish in our country others must be hurt.
Look at the hold up in the Senate today over the next round of coronavirus relief. By cutting benefits and making those that remain harder to get, Republicans want to compel workers to go back to factories, meatpacking plants, and shops, even at risk to their health and safety, and then hold the employer exempt from liability if their workers get sick or die. Just the cost of doing business.
Delivery, daycare and maintenance workers, bus and subway drivers are “essential” but not essential enough to warrant paying a living wage. Such inequities are necessary in pursuit of prosperity.
America is great when America is good.
When America’s greatness comes only at the expense of others, we all lose. For what makes America great is not our wealth, our military might, or our historic milestones. Nations of great treasure, formidable armies, or storied history have come and gone with the winds of time. America is great when we affirm, by our actions not just our words, our civic ideals of equality, opportunity and fair play — the essential ingredients of liberty. In a very real sense, America was founded as a nation with a conscience. America is great when America is good.
We all have a stake in that America. And at a time when the public is collectively examining what our responsibilities are to each other and how to account for the inequality we have tolerated for so long, it behooves us to reconsider and to reject the kinds of “necessary evils” we have accepted before — at the founding and since. If slavery was a necessary evil to birth America, then addressing the lasting impact of it, in every way possible, is the necessary good to save us.