Friday, July 14, 2017

It's a white thing: Elizabeth Key

If the story of John Punch shows a bizarre tendency to shoehorn facts into places they don't fit, the way the Seeing White podcast interprets the story of Elizabeth Key shows something like willing blindness. A blindness not to answers but to questions.

We're told she was the one who got away. She is introduced through a series of quotes from historian Ibram Kendi.
Elizabeth Key was the daughter of white legislator in Virginia and an unnamed African woman, so she was biracial.
Okay, right away questions should be suggesting themselves. Questions such as, "What was the relationship between Elizabeth Key's biological parents?" "Were they lovers?" "Exploiter and exploited?" "Rapist and victim?" And "How do we know this white legislator was her father?" According to several online sources that may or may not be good, we know because he was forced to admit it in court.
Before his death, her father, her white father, basically asked her slaveowner to free her when she became fifteen. He did not do that. Eventually, she wed an indentured servant who also happened to have some law training in England. They sued for her freedom on the basis that her father was free but also because by then in the mid 1600s, she had become Christian and in English common law, the paternity or status of a  child derived from the father and it was also against English Common Law to enslave a Christian.
In 1655, colonial court ruled in her favour.

This also raises some questions. To be fair to Kendi, he didn't edit the show so he may have filled in some of the gaps the quotes above leave. That caveat aside, the line, "Eventually, she wed an indentured servant who also happened to have some law training in England," makes it sound like her choice to sue was an unlikely thing that just happened because she wed this man with legal training. But if there had already been a civil case whereby her father, Thomas Key, that suggests that this sort of case was not unheard of.

There is another detail that is skipped over rather lightly here where there is more to the story. Once he was forced to acknowledge paternity, Thomas Key arranged for Elizabeth to baptized in the Church of England. That's a slightly different story than, "by then ... she had become Christian".

Once he was forced to acknowledge paternity, Thomas Key made a few moves to try to ensure that Elizabeth would be free. He did not, however, welcome her into his house as his daughter. That's weird. He initially doesn't want to acknowledge paternity but he shows some traces of paternal concern. How did he feel about her? And how did he feel about Elizabeth's biological mother? We're told that Thomas Key was married but that his wife lived across the river. That doesn't suggest a happy sex life. So he looked elsewhere and he turned to a black woman. Why? Because she wasn't in a position to refuse him? Because he didn't think he had to worry about getting her pregnant? Whatever the answer to these questions—and I have neither the expertise nor the resources to answer them—it suggests something about the attitude whites of the time had towards blacks.

In response to this, the lawmakers in Virginia change the law so that status is derived from the mother. That's a reversal of the common law tradition that goes all the way back to prehistorical times. That seems pretty drastic. And then they pass a law that makes relations between black men and white women illegal. Why not leave the existing common law status coming from the father in place and simply outlaw all sex between whites and blacks? Well, we know the answer to that: because the white men wanted to be able to sexually exploit black women and white men were making the laws. But isn't that the real story. As I discussed in a previous post, the people behind the podcast are intent on shoehorning these facts into a Marxist mold. We can now see that not only do the facts not fit that explanation, there is another explanation that seems to be a far easier fit.

An offensive analogy

Okay, you've been warned: the following analogy is offensive. I'm doing this because the situation we are contemplating here is offensive and an offensive analogy is a good way of drawing out how it might have worked.

I've had pets that I love. I cared deeply about these animals and did my best to take care of them. But they remained animals to me. That seems to be something like what white Europeans of the 17th century thought about black Africans. Before there was chattel slavery, before there were anti miscegenation laws, before plantation farming, there seems to have already been an attitude towards people who could be defined as other. We see it in what the Japanese did to Chinese, Koreans, Malaysians, Indonesians, Filipinos and Indochinese people. And it explains what Germans did to Jews during the second world war.

People already made a distinction between white and black before chattel slavery. The people behind the podcast think that is impossible because there is no science behind the distinction and there are hard cases where the distinction is hard to make. That, unfortunately, does not make the problem go away. To see why, consider an old logical problem the Stoics posed. If I spill a few grains of salt on a table, you will have no trouble saying that is not a heap of salt. If I keep adding salt one grain at a time, however, we will reach a point where you will agree that it is a heap. But where is the dividing line between "some spilled salt" and "a heap of salt"? As the Stoics realized, there is no way to draw that line. It would be ridiculous to say that one additional grain made it a heap. And yet, there is a point where we can agree that something is a heap of salt. Categories don't need to be rooted in science or have clear boundaries to exist and, sadly, race is such a category.

Categories are distinctions we make—distinctions that are not in the world but created by human beings—for a purpose. That purpose can change. I can make a distinction between the path and the snowbanks I pile on either side and a child can come along and make a slide out of the same snowbank. We can distinguish between people on skin colour and someone else can come along and decide one group is superior to the other. We need to remind ourselves that some people think blondes are stupider than brunettes.

This is what I think we can conclude. As human beings, we easily slide into generalizations about others. Most of the time, this tendency goes nowhere spectacularly harmful. Under some conditions, however, it will, not "can" but "will". I can't prove that. It's what I believe.

How do you solve that? One way would be to try to treat people to distinguish between races and yet treat them as equal. For a long time this was derided. Another solution would be to act as if the difference between "white" and "black" was exactly like the difference between "blue-eyed" and "brown-eyed" is in our culture. And if we followed that through, we'd soon breed race out of existence. The genes that produce lighter skin or darker skin would still be there just as the genes that produce different colour eyes are still there but you'd reach a point where almost every family would have both. Why does no one promote that as a solution?


One recurring explanation that is given for slavery is economics. Indeed, that is explanation given by the Seeing White podcast. People needed labour and so the enslaved others. The distinction between "white" and "black" was a consequence of the need to justify why some people were enslaved and others were not. Power is driven by economics and after power is achieved, racist justifications follow. Again, that's pretty straight Marxism: economics is what actually drives power structures but a bogus ideology is derived to justify the power structures while masking their real cause.

But is slavery efficient? It's easy to see why, for example, the Ancient Athenians, once possessed of slaves, had slaves work in the silver mines. Their mines were awful and dangerous places to work. And the Athenians got to be rich out of the process. But were they richer than they would have been if everyone working in the mine had been getting paid?

Perhaps it was for certain kinds of work such as sugar and cotton farming. Massachusetts was the first state to legalize slavery and yet there never was chattel slavery there. Perhaps some kinds of labour are more viable economically speaking than others?

And what role did the industrial revolution play in this? Lets remind ourselves of when and where the slave trade was most intense.

That's an estimate of the number of slaves transported to different places between 1501 and 1875. Source You'll notice that most activity is outside the United States until the 18th century. The reason that changes is the industrial revolution and cotton.

But that still leaves questions. Why was slavery used in cotton farming? The obvious answer to that would seem to be economic but it may not be as obvious as it first seems.Growing and harvesting cotton made certainly slavery feasible but it doesn't follow from that that it was the most efficient economic choice. It may have been a grim economic choice or it may have been an even grimmer racial choice. Slavery may have been the most efficient economic choice or it may have simply been made feasible by the conditions of cotton farming.

We can be fairly certain that it was not the most efficient economic choice by the end. The secessionists argued that Cotton was King on economic grounds but the war called their bluff and they lost. If the south initially chose slavery on economic grounds, it had stopped being a sound economic choice long before abolition.

I can't answer my own questions decisively. And I don't think anyone else could either. That's important because you'd need far clearer answers to these questions to reach the Marxist conclusions the people behind the Seeing White podcast have reached.

One more post on this next week.

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