'Economist' Review Claims History of Slavery Biased Against White People


Ah, slave owners. Such a misunderstood group.

The Economist, a lauded and well-respected title, published a review last week of historian Edward Baptist's new book, The Half Has Never Been Told. The review bemoaned the book's disproportionate portrayal of white people as "villains" in the context of American slavery.

That review has since been withdrawn and replaced by an apology. Yet the move seems born of the widespread condemnation of the review, rather than some profound realization by the editors of how racist the review, posted without a byline, was. Attentiveness to issues of race blindness would never have led them to publish the piece in the first place.

As we've seen in the past, some Americans continue to struggle with the realities of American history, particularly the legacy of slavery and the role of American businessmen in the slave trade itself. Unfortunately, without the tools to process this struggle, it can appear more convenient to simply declare the country part of a new "post-racial" era. This is simply not the case.

Perhaps the most offensive part of the review appears in the concluding paragraph, when the reviewer, comparing Baptist's book to a Hugh Thomas' 1997 work The Slave Trade, writes:

Unlike Mr. Thomas, Mr. Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.

The final sentence of the review attempts to demote the book's status as "history," implying that not only is history objective but that it is determined by a specific group of (white) people. Public intellectual Ta-Nehisi Coates completely deconstructs this viewpoint:

Baptist, who read both the review and the apologia, contended in a high-profile response piece that the reviewer's reaction was symptomatic of a white refusal to acknowledge not only black voices but also black subjectivity and existence.

"[T]he Economist didn't apologize for dismissing what slaves said about slavery," Baptist writes. "That kind of arrogance remains part of a wider, more subtle pattern in how black testimony often gets treated—sometimes unknowingly — as less reliable than white. The Economist reviewer was saying that the key sources of my book, African-Americans — black people — cannot be believed."

This lack of respect for black people, the devaluation of their humanity by refusing to listen to their voices, is still evident today — just look at Ferguson, Mo. We cannot eradicate systemic racism if we refute the humanity of those we oppress. Or, as Baptist nicely phrases it, "Instead, we've still got white magazine writers refusing to believe first-person accounts of history, which reinforces white privilege at the very time when we should be revoking it."