Legacies of American Slavery: A Historical Perspective

Recent acts of police brutality in various U.S. states as well as the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday during the Civil Rights Movement have underscored what still needs to be achieved before true equality is reached for African-Americans. We wonder: Which of the following statements are true?

A. There are more African-American men in prison today than there were in slavery at its height.
B. North America was the world’s biggest importer of African slaves.
C. The African-American population is proportionally about the same today as it was just after slavery.
D. African Americans are still discriminated against on voting rights.

A. There are more African-American men in prison today than there were in slavery at its height is not correct.

As of 2013, 1.68 million African-American men and boys over age 15 were in the U.S. correctional system, at the federal, state and local level. This number includes those physically in prison (526,000), as well as those on probation (877,000) or on parole (280,000) at that time.

This means 8% of African-American males today are currently in the correctional system in some capacity. 2.5% of African-American men — or one out of every 40 — are actually in prison. This compares with 0.7% for the overall U.S. population.

At the height of U.S. slavery in 1860, 1.1 million African-American males at least 15 years old were enslaved, twice as many as the 526,000 in U.S. prisons today.

B. North America was the world’s biggest importer of African slaves is not correct.

Although the United States (and the North American British and French Colonies that preceded it) had one of the biggest chattel slavery systems (in which people in servitude were considered lifelong property), it was not the biggest importer of African slaves.

According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, that ignominious distinction belongs to Brazil, which imported 4.86 million enslaved humans from Africa between 1561 and 1860. Despite extensive efforts in the first half of the 19th century by the British Navy to block the transatlantic slave trade by force — and despite a nominal import ban in Brazil by 1826 — the slave trade to Brazil continued to average tens of thousands a year until around 1850.

In contrast, the United States banned the importation of slaves beginning in 1808. Only about 5,000 more were smuggled into mainland North America from Africa after that point in time.

Instead, U.S. slaveholders relied upon a strongly established a network of domestic slave trade to forcibly reproduce new slaves to be sold around the country.

All told, mainland North America imported 389,000 slaves between 1621 and 1860 — far less than the volumes imported across the Atlantic to Brazil, the British Caribbean, the Spanish Americas, the French Caribbean or even the Dutch Americas. Excluding those who did not survive the journey, about 10.7 million slaves were stolen from Africa to work in Europe, the Americas or other European colonies between 1501 and 1866.

C. The African-American population has about the same share of the U.S. total as just after slavery is correct.

With the ratification of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1868, anyone born in the United States (except Native Americans) automatically held U.S. citizenship. This provision, which also applied retroactively, meant that approximately 4.3 million African-American former slaves instantly became U.S. citizens.

The 1870 U.S. Census — the first taken after slavery was abolished in the United States — reported that the African American population in the United States had reached about 4.9 million, representing about 12.7% of the country’s overall population of 38.6 million. The overwhelming majority of those had been enslaved at some point in their lives.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the African-American population was 12.6% — 39 million out of a population total of 309.3 million — or roughly the same percentage as in 1870.

D. African Americans are still discriminated against on voting rights is correct.

It took the ratification of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1870 to establish the principle that the right to vote could not be “denied or abridged” by “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” However, many states continued to find ways to limit voting rights for African-Americans by other means.

Almost a century later, soon after the violent “Bloody Sunday” suppression of voting rights marchers in Selma, Alabama in March 1965, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed.

The law blocked various shady tactics for preventing voter registration among African-Americans. It also guaranteed federal government enforcement and monitoring in specific states and counties with a history of voter suppression. Most areas in question were in the American South. The latter provision stood until a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in November 2012.

With the Voting Rights Act weakened, more than 30 (mostly Republican-dominated) states have attempted to pass strict laws requiring legal IDs to vote. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, as many as 11% of African-American voters lack the relevant IDs, compared with 7% of the general population.

In states and areas with particularly high concentrations of African-American residents, such as the American South, this could be enough to affect election outcomes.

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