Is The United States’ History Of Slavery And Racism Worse Than Other Countries’?

Is The United States’ History Of Slavery And Racism Worse Than Other Countries’?

Slavery and racism are global problems as old as humanity itself. By notable measures, the United States is among the most advanced countries in the world on these issues.
Eugene Veklerov

This article is a brief collection of published facts and figures I decided to compile after a conversation with a recent graduate who had studied racism and slavery in several college classes. The facts I cited contradicted everything she had learned from her professors and the books and TV programs they recommended. It sounded as if she and I had studied the histories of two parallel universes.

Her classmates and many other Americans share her beliefs. So I decided to chronicle these facts as a public service, as history is being completely rewritten right before our eyes.

Slavery is an ugly part of our past. In this country, it was inseparable from racism, as almost all U.S. slaves were from Sub-Saharan Africa and almost all slaveholders were whites. Furthermore, many founders of this country, such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, were slaveholders, which some refer to as the “original sin” of this country.

That original sin, they conclude, makes this country uniquely repulsive among the countries in the world, and render its institutions illegitimate. The purpose of this article is not to offer any opinions on these issues, but to provide a few pertinent historical facts.

Some Basic Numbers about Global Slavery

Historians estimate that the total number of African slaves brought to the Americas was around 11 million. About 5 percent of them ended up in the United States, mostly during the colonial period. A law banning the importation of new slaves was passed during the Jefferson administration and went into effect in 1808, although some illegal smuggling continued. The largest number of the slaves in the transatlantic trade, close to 40 percent, were brought to Brazil. These numbers are estimates, but Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., a prominent Harvard historian, cites similar numbers in an interview with PBS.

The transatlantic voyages were not the only source of the slave trade in the world. According to this BBC article, “Muslim traders also exported as many as 17 million slaves to the coast of the Indian Ocean, the Middle East, and North Africa.” Muslims also captured Europeans. In “Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters,” Robert C. Davis estimates that Barbary pirates captured and enslaved more than a million Europeans from Mediterranean countries between 1500 and 1800. Some were kept for ransom; others were sold as galley slaves or sex slaves.

Another source of slaves was Russia and its neighbors. Long before Crimea became a bone of contention between Russia and Ukraine, it was a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire called the Crimean Khanate, populated mostly by the Crimean Tatars. They raided Russia and adjacent countries, including Poland, and captured and enslaved 2 million people between 1500 and 1774, when Russia defeated Khanate and eventually annexed the entire Crimean peninsula. Many of the captured slaves were exported to the Ottoman Empire.

A Timeline of Abolition

1794. France abolishes slavery in France and its colonies. It is reinstated in the Napoleonic era and finally abolished in 1848.

1833. Great Britain passes a law banning slavery throughout the British Empire, including its colonies, with a few exceptions. In 1843, the exceptions are eliminated.

1861. Russia frees its serfs. Serfdom and slavery had some similarities and differences. Briefly, most serfs had to work on land owned by nobles. Some were domestic serfs, who lived with their masters. Their actual lifestyles depended on the owners. Some owners abused their serfs, especially domestic serfs, both physically and sexually.

1865. The United States abolishes slavery.

1886. Cuba abolishes slavery.

1888. Brazil abolishes slavery.

1962. Saudi Arabia bans all slavery practice and slave trafficking.

1981. Mauritania bans all slavery practice and slave trafficking.

(This article does not cover modern-day sex slavery and other similar illegal activities, which are a criminal matter, as opposed to slavery codified into law.)

Racism in Numbers

How do the countries of the world rank by levels of racism now? This question may not have a single answer, because any objective cross-country comparison must be based on an explicitly defined metric or metrics, and racism is a complex social issue with too many facets. On the other hand, there is no shortage of publications on this subject that simply bypass the tedious country-by-country comparisons altogether. Consider, for example, a listing of “The Top 12 Most Racist Countries in the World.” Its preamble states:

What follows is a list of what various websites [italics mine] consider to be the most racist countries in the world. The list is in no order of more to less, given that various researchers and indexes have failed to agree. After researching various studies [italics mine], the following nations have consistently shown up in the top.

This listing includes the United States. It provides a brief explanation of why each country is on the list, but the explanations for different countries use different arguments, which defeats the idea of cross-country comparison.

Only very few studies consistently apply the same valuation methodologies across the countries. One was conducted by an organization called the World Value Survey (WVS), a network of social scientists coordinated by a central body located in Sweden. Part of its funding comes from the U.S. National Science Foundation and its counterparts in other countries and from other sources sponsoring reputable scholarly projects.

One of its surveys conducted in more than 80 countries asked respondents if they would not like to live next door to people belonging to certain categories, such as drug addicts, people who have AIDS, immigrants, people of a different religion, and so on. One of these categories was “people of a different race.” The respondents had to select all undesirable groups of people that the respondents did not want as neighbors.

The percentage of the people who selected the category “people of a different race” is the metric used in a number of publications as an indicator of the level of racism in different countries. The Washington Post presented the results of the survey as a color-coded map in a publication titled “A fascinating map of the world’s most and least racially tolerant countries” in 2013.

The most tolerant countries shown on the map, which scored less than 5 percent, are the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and many countries in South America and Scandinavian countries. Venezuela got the worst score among the large countries in Latin America. Globally, the least tolerant countries are Jordan with 51 percent and India with 43 percent. Many Asian and African countries got low scores, especially Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Indonesia, Vietnam, and South Korea.

Counterarguments About This Survey

Some researchers have expressed reservations about the WVS survey. A follow-up article in the Washington Post lists the following reservations of professor Steve Saideman and others:

One metric may not be sufficient to ‘gauge racial intolerance.’ [Saideman] believes that asking respondents this question – would they be ‘okay with a member of a different race marrying into their family’ – may yield different results.

Perhaps different people interpret the question differently. Saideman conjectures that ‘perhaps the Vietnamese think of the Chinese but not of other races. So it may not be that the people are very racist in general — they just hate one group that is defined by race.’

Others expressed doubts about the truthfulness of the responses. For example, the original Washington Post article puts it this way:

[I]t’s entirely likely that some people lied when answering this question; it would be surprising if they hadn’t. But the operative question, unanswerable, is whether people in certain countries were more or less likely to answer the question honestly. For example, while the data suggest that Swedes are more racially tolerant than Finns, it’s possible that the two groups are equally tolerant but that Finns are just more honest. The willingness to state such a preference out loud, though, might be an indicator of racial attitudes in itself.

These reservations are perfectly valid. No study of such a complex social phenomenon will ever be complete, and it is always easier to criticize a study for what it does not have than for what it does.

Also, racism in any country may be defined only within the country’s context, so for the Vietnamese people this context is different from what it is for the Russians. The truthfulness of the responses applies to all public opinion surveys. Nevertheless, the WVS study is one of the few serious studies, because it uses a clearly defined yardstick for racism that is systematically applied across the countries.

Due to an HTML list formatting glitch, the initial version of this article altered the dates in the “Timeline of Abolition” section to be sequential numbers, starting with the first. They have been corrected.

Eugene Veklerov was born in Russia and moved to the US in 1976. He has worked in a University of California research laboratory in the area of applied mathematics. Concurrently, he has taught several classes in computer science. Additionally, he is interested in modern history and connecting it to current events.

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