Renowned linguist and activist Noam Chomsky has been speaking with philosopher George Yancy as part of a feature for the New York Times in which he discusses race and racism in America. In the most recent installment, Chomsky discusses the roots of American racism and the legacy of black enslavement and subjugation in America, going into detail about how “fears that the victims might rise up and take revenge are deeply rooted in American culture.”
The conversation begins with Yancy pointing out that when terrorism and the United States are discussed, there is often an omission of “the fact that many Black people in the United States have had a long history of being terrorized by white racism.” Chomsky elaborates by saying, “We…cannot allow ourselves to forget that the hideous slave labor camps of the new ‘empire of liberty’ were a primary source for the wealth and privilege of American society.” As Chomsky puts it, “The America that ‘Black people have always known’ is not an attractive one.”
When the exploited labor force of slaves was no longer available because of the abolition of slavery, “Blacks were arrested without real cause and prisoners were put to work for…business interests. The system provided a major contribution to the rapid industrial development from the late 19th century.” The Thirteenth Amendment’s Exception Clause, allowing slavery to continue if a person was convicted of a crime, was being used to its fullest extent. Reagan’s War on Drugs provided more Black bodies to be exploited for their labor, leading to what Michelle Alexander terms, the new Jim Crow.
While slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration have been the source of innumerable tragedies, Chomsky points out that perhaps the greatest tragedy is America’s refusal to acknowledge its own history of oppression, violence and genocide. Chomsky describes it as an ‘intentional ignorance,’ that compels Americans to put the horrors of slavery, genocide, racism, and mass incarceration, “…behind us and march on to a glorious future, all sharing equally in the rights and opportunities of citizenry.”
While this may sound like a compelling ideal, reality is much uglier. Black people in America continue to fall at the bottom of nearly every statistical indicator for wealth, economics, education, and health while white America seems to all to easily forget how much their “wealth and privilege was created in no small part by the centuries of torture and degradation of which [white people] are the beneficiaries,” and Black people are the victims.
Hundreds of years of forced labor, racism and subjugation have inevitably led to resentment and anger, and Chomsky does not shy away from acknowledging that white people have long been gripped by the fear that those they have oppressed will rebel against the forced racial hierarchy.
Chomsky states, “Some of the slave-owners, like Jefferson, appreciated the moral turpitude on which the economy relied. But he feared the liberation of slaves, who have ‘ten thousand recollections’ of the crimes to which they were subjected. Fears that the victims might rise up and take revenge are deeply rooted in American culture, with reverberations to the present.” Alongside this acknowledgement, Chomsky admits that there is not easy answer to ending racism, no magic wand that can erase hundreds of years of violence and terrorism against nonwhite American citizens.