Would racism exist if there had been no US slavery?
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As I sat on a shady park bench on a sweltering day in New York City, I had a leisurely conversation with a friend who was hosting me for the weekend. He and I often find ourselves on opposite sides of hot button political issues, because he refuses to see how racism and white supremacy impact the everyday lives of people of color.  

In the midst of our conversation he posed the following question: what would America look like if slavery had not existed here? If all African Americans had come as willing immigrants to this country, would we still have the issues I and many other progressives claim find their roots in generations of institutionalized and systemic racism?


I didn’t answer the question at the time because none of us live in a hypothetical world. The material reality of racism is embedded in the lived experiences of Black and brown people in this country. There is no area of public discourse where race is not a factor, be it health care and outcomes, employment, education, finances, criminal justice, politics and voting, civil liberties, housing, or foreign policy.

However, I’ve decided to take on his question and explain the magnitude of the oldest political system in the western hemisphere.

There is little doubt that had there been no slave trade or slavery in this nation, the United States of America would be different. There would have been no Civil War where 200,000 brave Black men fought for their own freedom and the liberty of their loved ones.

The traumatic experiences detailed by Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth would not have happened in the same ways. The psychological scars of slavery wouldn’t exist or would take very different shape. Yet, I think the answer that my friend and many of you reading this are looking for is that their would be no racism in America. That conclusion is faulty.

The U.S. has a history of (white) nativism and discrimination against indigenous people and immigrants. Slavery played little role in the displacement of Indians. Around the sametime African Americans were lynched in the south, hundreds of people of Mexican descent were lynched as well.

Even white immigrants from suffered the indignities of being discriminated against until they were assimilated. People of African descent have a much harder time assimilating even if that were their goal because they bear a racial marker that categorizes them as ‘other’.

Though slavery is almost incomparable in terms of the level of violence and dehumanization it encourages, several countries throughout Europe that have never had slavery on their soil nor did they take part in the “scramble for Africa” of the late 19th century, have exacted violence on darker immigrants, particularly those from Africa and Asia.  

Greece has been particularly unkind to immigrants and visitors, to the point that the U.S. Embassy warned travelers of the dangers of violently anti-immigrant, racist gangs that roam the streets of Athens. Russia is another country in which the citizens don’t welcome dark skinned outsiders. Skinheads are common and so is nativism, though Russia has no connection to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. These countries scapegoat darker people their nation’s social ills and economic struggles.

In other words, white supremacy still exists as a system without the legacy of chattel slavery. Anti-Black racism is rampant all over Europe, where Africans are treated differently and possess fewer resources. Had there never been slavery in the U.S., we would still have economic and social disparities, and there is no indication that racism would not have become institutionalized.

Today, White Supremacist nativism has claimed lives and eaten away at civil rights for brown people. Before 7 year old Aiyana Stanley-Jones received a bullet from police officer’s pistol due to the military-style over-policing of African Americans, or Trayvon Martin fell victim to a violent anti-Black vigilante, 9 year old Brisenia Flores was gunned down because she was a brown immigrant.

Brisenia and her father Raul were both citizens of the United States and were murdered by white supremacists. The fact that they were presumably not the descendants of slaves in the United States made no difference to their murderers.  

Native Americans suffer from addiction, poverty, dismal unemployment, health disparities, and a portion of the Native population were actually slaveholders during the antebellum period. In essence, in order to improve the quality of life for African Americans, we’d have to eradicate the global phenomenon of white supremacy rather than the simplistic hypothetical involving no slavery in the U.S.

Dr. Jason Nichols is a full-time lecturer in the African American Studies Department at the University of Maryland-College Park and the current editor-in-chief of Words Beats & Life: The Global Journal of Hip-Hop Culture, the first peer-reviewed journal of hip-hop studies.

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