How Slavery Feeds Today’s Racism

The movie 12 Years a Slave exposes why the stubborn roots of institutional oppression refuse to die.

Judy Garland in blackface (Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images); Barneys New York (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The poverty that has engulfed the black community ever since it provided the unpaid labor that built American capitalism is the most obvious present-day reverberation of slavery. Slavery represented a thriving business that helped the Southern, more agricultural economy flourish, but also one that had extensive Northern ties. The unpaid labor of enslaved Africans helped build elite universities, and resources from slavery were used for campus libraries and to propel university endowments.

12 Years a Slave therefore offers a panoramic history lesson that cuts to the very heart of contemporary race relations by implicitly answering questions asked by blacks and other ethnic and racial minorities as well as whites. For white people who may wonder why black people could not simply “get over” slavery, the movie provides searing, lengthy examples of the institution’s political and psychological assaults on both individuals and the nation’s character.

African Americans who feel that the movie may be too painful to view should embrace this historic opportunity to delve into a past from which many remain distant or are even ashamed to discuss and dwell upon. But of course this film goes beyond black-white racial binaries.

The film, while meticulous and heartfelt as entertainment, offers a luminous portrait of a historical era that, however painful, remains virtually ignored in popular culture and national memory. Racial violence, inequality, poverty, mass incarceration and failing public schools all represent parts of slavery’s contemporary legacy. The persistence of these social ills explains why we still need affirmative action. The toxic racial environment depicted in 12 Years, in which blacks are daily assaulted, remains embedded in the nation’s psyche and helps explain the resistance to public policy designed to heal decades of legalized discrimination.

Racial segregation’s origin story remains firmly rooted in antebellum slavery. Only by squarely confronting slavery’s violent legacy and continued reverberations can we not only come to terms with the past but also craft solutions to contemporary problems that, when viewed with an appreciation for history, no longer seem novel or inexplicable at all.

Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root,  is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. His biography of Stokely Carmichael will be published next year by Basic Books. Follow him on Twitter.