The following is my own opinion, though it is based in part on Ralph Ellison’s 1970 Time magazine essay of the same name:
Abraham Lincoln was thinking of sending blacks back to Africa after they were freed. He thought blacks and whites could not live together peacefully in the same society if they were both free and equal. Whites saw free blacks as troublemakers. Slave owners favoured the creation of Liberia as a place to send them.
It was not just whites who have pushed this idea. Black nationalists too, like Marcus Garvey, have wanted to set up a separate black nation, either in North America or in Africa itself.
Even today many whites see blacks as a drain on society: America has sent millions of blacks to prison in unheard-of numbers while spending billions in taxes to support a pathological black underclass – or so the Republicans tell it.
Yet without blacks, America:
- Would be poorer – it got rich in part on the backs of black slaves and, later, through cheap black labour. This has helped to underwrite both industrialization and white middle-class comfort.
- It would have far fewer people – it would be thinly populated like Canada or Australia. It would probably have only half as many people: without slave labour the country would have grown much more slowly.
- It would be a weaker country – because it would be both smaller and poorer. And more divided:
- There would be no melting pot – the main division in American society would no longer be race but class, religion and ethnicity. There would be no Them against which to create a common White American identity. Oddly, society would be more divided not less.
- There would neither be rock music nor pizza – the music, language, food and fashion would be different. Not only because there would be no black culture to affect the mainstream but also because there would be no melting pot through which ethnic white cultures could affect it too. American mainstream culture would not just be less black, but, for example, less Jewish too. It would be much Waspier and have worse food and worse music.
- Society would be more unjust, its people less free and equal – because America would have never been forced to live up to its liberal values of freedom and equality like it has. There would have been no civil war or civil rights movement. Equal rights even among white men might not have been achieved, much less any thought of equal rights for women, gays and so on. Think Northern Ireland writ large.
Ellison says of blacks in America:
They are an American people who are geared to what is, and who yet are driven by a sense of what it is possible for human life to be in this society. The nation could not survive being deprived of their presence because, by the irony implicit in the dynamics of American democracy, they symbolize both its most stringent testing and the possibility of its greatest human freedom.