The Politics of Empty Symbolism

Every day gets crazier here in Virginia. The politics of symbolism have taken over, and real problems requiring careful analysis and sustained attention go neglected.

For an example of a festering problem with real-world consequences for African-Americans, read the previous post by Richard Hall-Sizemore. An electronic health records system would improve the quality of medical care of Virginia’s prison inmate population, which is disproportionately African-American, but the Commonwealth of Virginia has struggled for years to fund one. The obstacle has not been lack of money but the inability to sort out competing bureaucratic agendas. Meanwhile, Virginians are treated to stories like this…

Governor Ralph Northam, we read on the front page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch this morning, committed the cardinal sin of referring to the first Africans setting foot on Virginia soil as “indentured servants.” They were sold by Dutch slavers, but Virginia law had not yet codified slavery, so, technically, slavery did not exist. As PBS summarized the status of these Africans: “With no slave laws in place, they were initially treated as indentured servants, and given the same opportunities for freedom dues as whites.”

Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, an African-America protested Northam’s description. “Referring to the Africans who arrived here in 1619 as ‘indentured servitude’ is not how I would describe it,” he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Northam’s use of the word “indentured servant” is entirely defensible. But Bourne could argue equally reasonably that if Virginia’s first Africans had been captured in slaver raids in Angola and had been sold by Dutch merchants as merchandise that they were, in fact slaves, regardless of their legal status in Virginia.

But what’s the point of such debate? Whom does it help?

This is an example of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t racism. Let’s imagine that Northam had referred to Virginia’s first Africans as “slaves” instead of indentured servants. Someone then could have accused him of minimizing the guilt of the colonial legislature that codified the slave laws. Africans ever-so-briefly enjoyed the same rights as white indentured servants, but those rights were subsequently snuffed out! How dare Northam fail to gloss over that injustice?

Sound far fetched? There are many examples of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t racism. When whites rejected rhythm and blues and other forms of black music as depraved, they were decried as racist (and rightfully so). But when whites began embracing black music and playing it themselves, they were accused of “cultural appropriation.”

When whites fled neighborhoods when blacks moved in, they were decried as racist. And when whites move into neighborhoods where blacks live… they are damned as gentrifiers and racists.

What’s going on? Most of the problems facing Virginia’s poor African-American community — and poor white communities, too, although they don’t generate the same attention — are highly complex, hence extremely difficult to remedy. The simple fixes have been tried and found wanting. Indeed, many programs designed to increase opportunity for poor blacks — helping them buy houses before the 2007 real estate crash, encouraging them to borrow money to attend college but failing to ensure that they graduate — have in many cases backfired. But rather than question the curative power of activist government, leftists are doubling down on racism as an explanation of what ails the country.

As long as the phenomenon of black poverty remains intractable, expect the politics of empty racial symbolism to intensify.

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18 responses to “The Politics of Empty Symbolism

  1. Yeah, there went the careful (and expensively created) media strategy for atonement….Nope, not indentured servants but fully enslaved. I have ancestors who arrived in Philly as indentured servants, others (I think) in Livingston, N.Y. After a set term of service to pay for their voluntary passage they were free to leave, and nobody sought to “own” the labor of their children. A very different thing indeed from those souls at Old Point Comfort in 1619. All Virginia school children in the propaganda textbooks were told “indentured servants” but it was wrong.

    • So, what is the current scholarly understanding of the status of the first African-Americans in Virginia? With no slave laws in place, were they treated as slaves? Is PBS regurgitating the old propaganda textbooks? Is there authoritative evidence one way or the other? I don’t know the answer. I genuinely want to know.

      • I don’t know the current scholarly understanding, but a quick survey of what I have available in my library turned up a reference to a 1973 William and Mary Quarterly note by the by the historian Alden Vaughan. In it, he says that the historical record is sketchy, but it is clear that not all blacks that entered Virginia in the decade after 1619 were thrust into permanent bondage. From a legal perspective, the only distinction between white and black indentured servants was that blacks had no written terms of bondage. But that was an important distinction because blacks were “sold, most likely for as long a period of service as the purchaser desired or the law decreed.” Because Virginia had no relevant law and the English law was vague, “the probability is that many purchasers of blacks held them for life or at least far longer than white servants.”

  2. What I’ve read is the 20 or so in that first auction in 1619 came off an English privateer which had stolen them from a Spanish ship transporting them from Africa to a Spanish colony. Looked it up again last night as our governor was taking his most recent beating on national teevee. Virginius Dabney uses the phrase indentured servants but that’s rejected now.

    • I don’t think there is authoritative evidence either way. The presumption by most has been that early colonists followed common law which did not allow life long slavery but a period of labor which could be forced or voluntary. If you look up John Punch, he is generally considered the first case of a life long African slave in colonial Virginia. As colonial legislatures became more independent from Parliament they shifted towards lifelong slavery, which came into force by the early 18th century.

  3. JB and SH, I think you’re both right: the applicable Virginia law in 1619 was that applicable to indentured servants; but as a practical matter, the term of the indenture came to be for life, which amounts to slavery. I don’t believe children of these lifetime indentured servants were initially bound by their parents’ status; that was one of the things the early Virginia slavery laws set out to “fix” along the lines pioneered in the British and French Caribbean holdings.

    For a good and thorough discussion of this, read:

  4. I am not going to research this issue again, but as I recall from previous study, the great bulk of indentured servants during the 1600s were white folks, male and female alike, of meager resources who were sometimes little more than kidnapped, but more often volunteered or were donated by kin, including parents, to serve as indentured servants in America, for a stated period of years, typically less than a decade, whereupon they have a contractual right of freedom. This was done in return for free passage and room and board in return of guaranteed labor and service. As always the case in real life, their fate too often resided in the morals and scruples of their masters, and of their own ability to survive in harsh conditions, particular those imposed by Virginia’s alien climate and circumstances that contrasted greatly from their home country.

    In general the blacks who became in indentured servants under the very same system, often fared just as well or as poorly, as the white indentured servants, and a fair number of blacks gained their freedom, along with whites, and thrived as freeman thereafter in Va. and elsewhere if they moved.

    Again as I recall this system began to fail around the time of Bacon’s Rebellion, when the white and black indentured servants, both now freeman and still indentured, revolted. To settle the dispute, and social unrest, the despicable institution of slavery of blacks only arose, so that that by the turn into the 17th Century, indentured servitude vanished, and the permanent enslavement of newly arrived blacks took its place. This is only my rough recall of history in this regard, so it in not reliable in any detail.

    • Sounds about right to me. The indenturees negotiated with the ship captain to be taken on for passage (those who looked like they could survive the voyage and were healthy enough to fetch a good price on arrival were preferred; others might have to pay a little supplemental cash up front), then he sold them/their indentures at an auction house in the port of entry (at a windfall profit if he could wangle it) to the highest bidder for, typically, a commitment to perform 7 years labor. My ancestor came over to Philadelphia as a teenager and was bought by a general store owner in New Hope, PA because he could speak German. At the end of the 7 years he was free to go, but he stayed and married the merchant’s daughter and settled nearby on the land his savings and her dowry bought. Later they relocated to the frontier — a German-settled region near Concord, North Carolina.

  5. All this talk makes me want to point out this black person:

    ” Gladys Mae West (née Brown) (born 1930[1] or 1931) is an American mathematician known for her contributions to the mathematical modelling of the shape of the Earth, and was one of the team of mathematicians who worked on the development of the satellite geodesy models that were eventually incorporated into the Global Positioning System.[2] West was inducted into the United States Air Force Hall of Fame in 2018.”

    now look at where she grew up:

    ” West was born in Dinwiddie County, Virginia,[2][3] to a farming family in a community of sharecroppers.[1] After gaining a scholarship for achieving the first place in her high-school class,[1] she studied mathematics at Virginia State College.

    Okay – so my point here is to ask about HER parents in terms of where they came from…. and her grandparents and where they came from – and what kind of high schools they attended in Virginia…

    Finally – if we could ask Ms. West about how she feels about how blacks have been treated in Virginia – what would we expect to hear from her?

    that all this stuff going on right now is much ado about nothing?

    • Interesting, Larry. Judging by her age, she also went to segregated schools and still received a decent education.



      • “As a girl growing up in Dinwiddie County south of Richmond, all Gladys Mae Brown knew was that she didn’t want to work in the fields, picking tobacco, corn and cotton, or in a nearby factory, beating tobacco leaves into pieces small enough for cigarettes and pipes, as her parents did.

        “I realized I had to get an education to get out,” she said.

        When she learned that the valedictorian and salutatorian from her high school would earn a scholarship to Virginia State College (now University), she studied hard and graduated at the top of her class.”

      • That is always a wonderful story, no matter the color of a young person’s skin.

  6. Perhaps, indentured servant is technically correct. But in the grand scheme of things, most blacks were slaves in Virginia. Northam must have been a legacy student at both VMI and EVMC. He’s too stupid to have earned those degrees. But since he’s still a Democrat, he was endorsable in the view of the WaPo editorial board.

  7. All this reminds me of a time circa 1982-83 when then-Secretary of Commerce in a Democratic administration, Betty Jane Diener from Cincinnati, Ohio, referred to the plantations along the James River as manor houses in a promotion of Virginia tourism. Much ink was shed in excoriating her in the press while at the same time others were trying to take back her comment. Dick Hall-Sizemore should remember the dust up. People can waste a lot of energy on extremely small things.

    • As folks here may know, I live in Spotsylvania County – and as some might know it was the location of the Waller Plantation depicted in ROOTs.

      That place still exists and as Spotsylvania is also the location of some famous Civil War sites including Bloody Angle and Chancellorsville, one might think that a replica of the Waller Plantation might garner some interest … but as far as I can tell.. not much interest.

      The “story” of black folks and slavery is, in fact, not a significant part of the signage in the National Battlefield Parks even though there are, in those parks – remanents of plantations and slave quarters.

      We do have in Spotsylvania – The John J. Wright Museum – which is the original building for the segregated black school in the county that was converted to an integrated Middle School then the modern-day Museum.

      One can google John J Wright to find out more about him and his role in fighting for Black folks rights to an education. ” July 30, 1905, turned into an important day for black children in Spotsylvania County.

      That’s the day John J. Wright called a meeting of lay people and ministers from all of the county’s black churches. The group, called the Spotsylvania Sunday School Union, gathered in the old St. Luke Church to discuss expanding educational opportunities for black children. Part of its business that day was to take up a collection for a future school.

      Tallied, the collection was $1.25.”

      In Virginia, we also have the Booker T Washington and Maggie Walker National Monuments, then Petersburg and others that do reflect black history in Virgina – but in some respects, they are totally separate and apart from the laws and policies of the state which some, including black folks, feel are still reflecting racial attitudes – which we sometimes actually see articulated on these pages …..

  8. I don’t think Northam is stupid… nor a racist – but he is politically naive and does not appear to have professional, competent advisors.

    Northam is clearly a white guy who grew up in a white culture that did not interact with blacks or developed a real knowledge of black culture and black history in Virginia. He is, by far, not alone… on that but painfully inept in dealing with in publicly.

    And yes.. he.. and most other Dems will be endorsed by WaPo as other media like the Washington Examiner, Richmond TIme Dispatch and others may well not.

  9. “Northam is clearly a white guy who grew up in a white culture that did not interact with blacks or developed a real knowledge of black culture and black history in Virginia.”

    Except he did attend a desegregated, predominantly African-American high school on the Eastern Shore when many of his white peers did not.

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