When Mitch McConnell confirmed Tuesday that his ancestors had owned slaves, he didn’t say whether he was surprised to learn about it from an NBC News report the day before. But historians, economists and other scholars say that few Americans should be surprised to find a personal connection — direct or indirect — to the exploitation of slaves.
Readily available public and private documents make it possible to find historical connections to a period that ended only 150 years ago. Multiple individuals and institutions have traced America’s slave past into its present. And the documents used to do so — like the census records used by NBC News to trace McConnell’s ancestry — contain details which begin to make at least rough economic assessments possible too.
“This country’s economic standing in the world and its ongoing racial economic divide started with the mass enslavement of African people and Native American genocide,” said Dedrick Asante-Muhammad, a coordinator at the Institute for Policy Studies Program on Inequality and the Common Good. He is a leading expert on the reasons for the enormous gap in wealth between black and white families in America and also serves as the National Community Reinvestment Coalition’s chief of equity and inclusion.
“You simply can not have the pattern of white economic supremacy which has defined this country for the entirety of its existence without,” that enslavement and genocide, he said.
Slaveowners, like today’s owners of the top 1 percent of wealth, were massively influential in local and national politics. They were pillars of their communities, serving as judges, lawyers and doctors, involved in the making of law, the development of the nation’s first police forces and many of its other institutions. Slaveowners’ children ranked among those enrolled at Harvard, Yale and Columbia. Their white workers, business associates and contacts — the other 75 percent of white Southerners as well as many white Americans in the North — largely aspired to join their ranks.
“Race is at the root of our country and so many of our family’s financial foundations,” said Asante-Muhammad.
The nation’s non-white population is growing. But, if current wealth patterns remain, the United States can not remain a middle-class or wealthy country, he said.
“Yet, to this day,” said Asante-Muhammad, “it’s the conversation about reparations that’s regarded — by McConnell and others in favor of concentrating wealth in the hands of a few who are already wealthy — as impractical. To paraphrase Dr. King, and I think it’s apt here, ‘The majority of white Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice. But, this is a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity.’”