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24.3.08

Pat Buchanan Is Wrong About Africa, Too

There have been a lot of responses (e.g. here) to Pat Buchanan's recent claim that black Americans should be thanking white Americans for slavery, because it meant that they got to live here in America where the standard of living is better than in Africa.

The key points of the rebuttals are: 1) slavery was really, really bad, 2) post-emancipation racism was -- and continues to be -- pretty bad too, and 3) the idea that blacks are currently recieving some sort of net subsidy from whites is detached from reality. These are all good points. However, they are America-centric -- that is, they focus on rebutting Buchanan's argument by challenging his claims about the conditions of black life in America. But I think the appeal of his way of thinking comes not just from a "lucky duckies" view of black American life, but on the contrast between the quality of life of black Americans and black Africans. The implied question is, "if life in America is so rotten, why don't I see you immigrating back to Africa?" (I'll take as given here the simplification that the standard of living of the average black African is worse than that of the average black American, though the reality is far more complex.)

Buchanan's views of Africa can be challenged just as much as his views of America. The punchline is: If the ancestors of black Americans hadn't been carted away by white slave traders, Africa would be a much nicer place to live.

Buchanan's contrast between American and African standards of living assumes an endogenous developmental model. That is, regardless of what whites did to blacks, America was always going to be one of the richest countries and Africa home to many of the poorest. Slavery just shuffled some people (and their descendants) from one location to a (eventually) better one.

The endogenous model is false. Nations' economic makeup is as much a product of interaction with other nations as it is internal developmental processes. That is, economic development is not a 10,000 m race, in which each runner chugs along in his or her own lane. It's more like roller derby, in which players can grab each other and throw elbows and variously impede each other's progress. Africa lags behind because white-ruled nations held it back. Europe directly and brutally colonized Africa just at the moment that capitalism was taking off around the north Atlantic, forcibly integrating Africa into the world economy as a subordinate player. Even after official independence was achieved in the mid-20th century, white-majority-nation corporations used their power to set up shop in Africa in ways that prioritized benefits to American and European stockholders over benefits to Africans.

But the point is made most clearly if we push back to just before the era of official European colonialism in Africa, to the time of the slave trade -- Pat Buchanan's inadvertantly humanitarian rescue operation. The slave trade didn't just remove some black people from nations that whites would later visit economic ruin upon. The very slave trade that brought blacks to eventually-prosperous America also undermined Africa's chances at prosperity. The demographic shift alone greatly upset African economic systems, spiriting away masses of workers and consumers who were not yet interchangeable cogs. The influx of new goods from the slave trade distorted and imbalanced economic incentives. And the demands and threats made by slave traders skewed Africans' abilities to maintain their own political system. The end result was to make America richer and Africa poorer.

This is not to say that Africans bear no responsibility for the condition of their continent. But it is to say that the conditions that made the perfidy of various African strongmen and swindlers possible and so damaging were, to a great degree, the fault of Europeans and white Americans. So the contemporary African poverty that Buchanan uses as his foil is a long-term ripple effect of the very slave trade that he thinks rescued black Americans.

2 Comments:

Blogger LaReinaCobre said...

Very good response! I didn't see the initial conversation, or hear of Robertson's claim until I read this post, but I would have answered in much the same way.

10:56 AM  
Blogger Alon Levy said...

What appeal? When Columbia's Young Republicans invited David Horowitz, the civil rights groups flyered all over campus with that quote of his about how blacks should thank whites for slavery because incomes in the US are higher than in West Africa. They didn't bother to post a rebuttal; the mere statement was so revolting posting it alone would be enough to mire the Young Republicans with controversy.

12:40 AM  

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