“My family never owned slaves” is something you hear White Americans say. Although not racist in itself it has the effect of turning a blind eye towards racism.
The statement by itself is true for most whites: even back in slave days in 1860 fewer than 2% of whites owned slaves! Slaves cost way too much for most people and in half the country it was against the law. On top of that millions of whites came to America long after the slaves were freed, like most Italians and Jews.
The trouble with the statement is not its truth but how it is used: to cut white people off from history. When they say black people live in the past and need to give the slave thing a rest, they are making the very same argument: history does not matter, it somehow magically does not affect anyone alive now. If we are affected at all by history it is only through our families, nothing else.
That is wishful thinking. America’s slave past still profoundly affects its present. Most white people, it seems, refuse to see that: it makes them uncomfortable. By saying “My family never owned slaves” they are trying to buy themselves a pass from American history, both past and present. As if their family had been living on some Robinson Crusoe island all these years – and still does.
Your ancestors did not have to own slaves to benefit – either then or now. If anything the opposite seems to be true: most descendants of slave owners seem to be black, not white, like the descendants of Thomas Jefferson. Most blacks are part white and most of that white comes from slave owners.
A white American saying “My family never owned slaves” is like the daughter of a Mafia boss wearing her diamonds and pearls and saying she never murdered anyone or shook anyone down for money. As if the diamonds and pearls fell from the sky.
America grew rich on the red man’s land worked by black slaves. For a long time cotton was the main thing America sold to other countries. Profits from cotton (made mainly in the North and in Britain, not in the South) in turn helped to underwrite the growth of the country’s industry. The racism that grew out of slavery kept most blacks at the bottom as a supply of cheap labour. That benefited all whites through lower prices.
Even today whites continue to benefit from racism in the form of better education, higher incomes, longer lives and all the other unearned benefits of white privilege that have grown out of slave days.
Whites want to benefit from their ugly past – and their less ugly present – but they do not want to face up to it and set things right. Two attempts were made – the civil war and the civil rights movement – but both were incomplete. “My family never owned slaves” becomes an excuse not to do anything more.