A New Hampshire state legislator is under fire for insisting that “owning slaves doesn’t make you racist.” In a private interaction with a former New Hampshire resident and during an interview with The Root, the Republican lawmaker doubled and tripled down on his assertion by altering the definition of the word “racist,” rewriting history and explaining that chattel slavery wasn’t necessarily racist because slaveowners really liked money.
Werner Horn serves in New Hampshire’s House of Representatives for a district that includes the 99.5 percent white town of Hill, N.H., and his 95.9 percent white hometown of Franklin, N.H. His voting record shows that he has voted against repealing the death penalty, allowing undocumented immigrants the opportunity to obtain drivers licenses, raising the minimum wage, increasing access to absentee voting, repealing voter ID laws and prohibiting discrimination based on gender identification. Horn is rated 79 percent by the American Conservative Union and is endorsed by the NRA. But just because he’s a member of the Republican Party who doesn’t live around black people doesn’t necessarily mean one should assume Horn is a racist.
No, there are plenty of other reasons.
Last week, Horn shared his public views on American history, slavery and racism in a now-deleted Facebook post. USA Today writes:
Horn initially drew attention for his comments in a Facebook post by former state House member Dan Hynes, who posed the question: “If Trump is the most racist president in American history, what does that say about all of the other presidents who owned slaves?”
Horn responded, “Wait, owning slaves doesn’t make you racist...”
“I guess not,” Hynes answered Tuesday. “Which is surprising since everything else makes someone a racist.”
Horn then added, “It shouldn’t be surprising since owning slaves wasn’t a decision predicated on race but on economics. It’s a business decision.”
After media outlets questioned Horn’s choice of words, Eboni Sears, who is a black woman and a past resident of the comparatively more diverse town, Dover, N.H., (89 percent white, 1.3 percent black), decided to contact the state representative to challenge his views after seeing the story in the Boston Globe.
“They don’t really get to interact with a whole lot of black people on a regular basis, so I was really just trying to show him a different viewpoint,” Sears told The Root. “I didn’t realize that he didn’t care. So that’s how it started.”
Sears contacted Horn on Facebook, thinking that he wouldn’t respond. However, Horn engaged Sears in an hourlong exchange obtained by The Root that both Horn and Sears confirmed is accurate. The conversation included accusations that Sears was actually the one who was being prejudiced, that Horn couldn’t be racist because of his military background and, of course, the infamous “racist bone” diagnosis where Horn absolved himself of racism. (It should be noted that Sears served in the Navy for five years, which, by Horn’s logic, makes her nearly two times less racist than he is.)
To be fair, Facebook messages can be misinterpreted, so I contacted Horn to clear up any misinterpretations. What followed was a baffling display of what is either a misunderstanding or a complete fabrication of America’s past.
When asked if his initial comment that “owning slaves doesn’t make you racist” may have misconstrued, Horn emphatically replied: “No. When your actions are motivated by your feelings on the race of an individual, that is racism.”
For context, Merriam-Webster defines “racism” as:
1: belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
2a: a doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles
b: a political or social system founded on racism
3: racial prejudice or discrimination
To be clear, buying, selling or owning a human being requires inherent superiority because it is impossible to own an equal. But when I asked Horn if the literal concept of owning another human being fits the definitions of racism, Horn replied: “No.”
“You have to ask and then answer the question: ‘Why is that person owning another person?’” Horn added. “That’s how you figure out if something is racist, sexist, homophobic. You have to figure out what’s the motivation behind the action. If there was a purely financial motivation to owning a slave, then it is not racist.”
OK, well fuck definitions, then.
Anticipating that he would eventually trot out the overused, vapid argument that “black people sold slaves” and “slavery has been around since ancient times,” I restricted our discussion to slavery as it existed in America. Still, the lawmaker went on to recount a revised version of history where slavery wasn’t racist until 1800. He reeled off a contorted, ahistorical view that contradicts every objective account of America’s past:
“Parsing out slavery in America, as opposed to slavery in general, is significant only because of how people behaved themselves after around 1800,” Horn said. “After around 1800, the northern abolitionists tried to destabilize the institution of slavery in the South. So to justify and continue the practice, they [Southerners] came up with a bunch of racist garbage where the blacks, specifically, were a subhuman race. It’s racist garbage.”
But Horn’s “alternative facts” contradict the research of almost every legitimate scholar and historian including Henry Louis Gates, Jr., director of Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African & African American Research (and co-founder of The Root), who notes that the Mid-Atlantic slave trade coincided with the enlightenment in Europe, whose “theorists posited that the key dividing line between a free man or woman and a slave wasn’t religion but race.
“I have no idea where [Horn’s] line of logic comes from,” Gates told The Root. “You can simply look at the 18th century philosophers from David Hume to Immanuel Kant—starting in 1754 with Hume’s racist footnote to his essay Of National Characters in which he claimed that in all of Africa, there were no arts, no sciences, an idea upon which Kant elaborated 10 years later in his Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime—also expounded on the racial differences between white and black people.”
Undeterred by logic or facts, Horn argued that slavery was an economic decision because, he explained: “When you look at the ledgers, the prices brought for men were the highest. Women and children brought lesser prices. That’s an economic driver because if it was racist, they would just be buying everybody at the same price.”
I know, I know. It makes absolutely no sense. Using this explanation, many of the well-paid ISIS soldiers aren’t terrorists because their “motivating factor” is money. Apparently, in Horn’s world, actions can’t be racists, only intent.
Bringing up the regurgitated argument that racism has less to do with the actions of the enslavers and more to do with their intent, what’s in white people’s hearts or what Horn repeatedly referred to as “motivating factors,” the elected official segued into the claim used by every white supremacist ever: “In the 1600s, Africans were enslaving other Africans so that would seem to take the race aspect out of it,” he explained, conveniently leaving out the fact that European and American traders also raided villages and kidnapped Africans, and the untold number of whites who kidnapped free blacks in America and forced them in to slavery.
“The Europeans...transported them to the New World and the Caribbean not because they were racist, but because they were making money and did not care that they were making money off the suffering of human beings. That’s the key part of it. That’s the key part of it. They’re making money off it.”
And there you have it from the horse’s mouth.
They did not care because they were making money off the suffering of human beings.
Not only were all of those “human beings” black, but the very act of placing an “economic decision” above the suffering of the enslaved indisputably means that the financial needs of white enslavers were considered to be superior to the humanity of the black slaves. But, of course, Horn doesn’t see it that way.
“Calling Thomas Jefferson and George Washington racist puts a stain of hatred on the Founding Fathers,” Horn told The Root. “And since Washington and Jefferson aren’t here to defend themselves, I’ve got no problems pointing out the differences between how slavery was perceived prior to 1800 and how slavery was perceived after 1800. That was the whole thrust of the comment.”
That version of history is not true. Contrary to Horn’s opinion, both men thought that slavery was an immoral institution. Both men advocated for the abolition of slavery. In their writings, both Washington and Jefferson distinctly referenced the racial aspect of the peculiar institution while continuing to own slaves.
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson placed wealth and power above the humanity of black people.
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were racists.
I informed Horn of all of this. But when I asked Horn how he reconciles his definition of racism with these facts, Horne admitted that Thomas Jefferson was a racist, but for totally different reasons…kinda.
“Jefferson for sure was a racist. For sure,” said Horn. “Not because he owned slaves but because he recanted his position that he was going to free his slaves and he didn’t...But let me be clear: When you look at the motivation factor behind the decision, the response is very important. But that’s the difference. If the motivating factor was race, then it is racist. But I don’t buy into the narrative that slavery is automatically racist.”
If that doesn’t make sense to you, you should know that you’re not alone. Gates notes that the Enlightenment-era belief in racial inferiority was, in part, fueled by Jefferson, explaining that Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, which was written the same year as the Constitution, fit the definition of racism.
“In it, Jefferson, in a scientific pose, theorized about the racial differences between the white and black races,” Gates explained. “Jefferson opined that, ‘the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.’”
If that’s not “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race,” then maybe racism doesn’t exist.
Washington, on the other hand, remained a slaveowner despite repeatedly saying that the institution was racist. He knew it but did it anyway. At the end of his life, Washington called slavery his “only unavoidable subject of regret,” writing:
Ages to come will read with Astonishment that the man who was foremost to wrench the rights of America from the tyrannical grasp of Britain was among the last to relinquish his own oppressive hold of poor unoffending negroes. In the name of justice what can induce you thus to tarnish your own well earned celebrity and to impair the fair features of American liberty with so foul and indelible a blot.
George Washington, meet the fulfillment of your prophecy—Werner Horn.
Asked whether Horn’s defense of his beloved Founding Father George Washington was correct, Associate Professor of Africana Studies and Chair of Howard University’s Department of Afro-American Studies, Dr. Greg Carr dispelled the notion with a simple command:
“Show me the white slaves.”
“If [Horn] redefines racism as caring about black people, then yes, Washington loved slaves like Hercules and Ona Judge in the same way that white people love LeBron James,” said Carr. “And all those negroes ran away as fast as they could as soon as they saw a crack of daylight.
“Ask [Horn] to explain why those Founding Fathers came to the conclusion that a slave was worth three-fifths of a white person and enshrined it in the Constitution...in 1787,” Carr continued. “Ask him to explain John Jay, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton debating the very nature of black life in the Federalist Papers in 1788.”
Indeed, Federalist Paper No. 54, which became the basis for the three-fifths compromise, reads:
But we must deny the fact, that slaves are considered merely as property, and in no respect whatever as persons. The true state of the case is, that they partake of both these qualities: being considered by our laws, in some respects, as persons, and in other respects as property...The federal Constitution, therefore, decides with great propriety on the case of our slaves, when it views them in the mixed character of persons and of property. This is in fact their true character.
But Carr completely destroys Horn’s fiction by pointing to scholars like Gerald Horne, whose Counterrevolution of 1776 explained that racism was one of the underlying factors of the American Revolution.
“England was debating ending the trading of enslaved Africans in the late 18th century and offering them extended rights,” Carr explained. “This scared the hell out of the British North American colonies, led by Virginia, which had 40 percent of the enslaved Africans in the colonies. Even though they provided the most eloquent defenses of freedom and liberty and all that crap, they were imprisoning four out of every 10 enslaved persons in the British colonies.
“What people call the American Revolution involved George Washington, Jefferson, Franklin and the Founders getting the hell away from the British precisely because the British were considering creating a legal form of humanity for the Africans,” Dr. Carr said. “There is absolutely no historical evidence to back up what [Horn] said.”
Gates, concurring with Carr, added: “While arguments that slavery was a ‘positive good’ exploded in the Antebellum era, as advocates for emancipation put Southern slaveholders on the defense, there is no doubt that earlier generations had already made a link between race and slavery in order to justify it.”
Ultimately, one New Hampshire legislator’s Facebook comments and fictional history lesson will not affect most people’s lives in any meaningful way. Sears even indicated that she wasn’t offended by his comments as much as she was surprised at Horn’s lack of understanding and thought that people should know what he thinks about race.
“That’s the disturbing part,” explained Sears.
“He really believes it.”