Last month, researchers with the Reuters news organization undertook a study of the genealogies of more than 100 leading American political officials – presidents, governors, senators, representatives, and Supreme Court justices. The study focused on determining whether or not these officials had ancestors having been slave owners. They also solicited the officials’ comments on or reactions to their findings. Reuters’ findings were both revealing and supportive of what other researchers earlier found.
Among the U.S. Senators Reuters discovered descended from slave-holders, 20 of the 28 come from former slave-holding states. This is 71.4% of the number of slave-holding descendants nation-wide. Of those 28 senators, 64% are Republicans.
Among the U.S. Representatives, 51 of the 72 representatives come from former slave-holding states. This is 70.8% of the number of slave-holding descendants nation-wide. Of those 72 representatives, 82% are Republicans.
Among U.S. Governors having slave-holding ancestors, 10 of 11 governors come from former slave-holding states. This is 90.9% of the number of such descendants nation-wide. Of those 11 governors, 72.7% are Republicans.
These statistics alone may not mean very much. Examining the reasons behind them, however, can help us understand much about contemporary politics. In some instances, it shows that “the apple does not fall far from the tree.”
While neither the purpose behind Reuters’ research, nor this reporting of its findings, are about shaming these present-day law-makers, the following ten separate, but contextual, comments are offered to help explain some aspects of the politically divided United States of America, which stems largely from Republican descendants of slave-holders.
(1) It may not be surprising for many to realize that a large percent of the slave-holding descendants come from slave-holding states because that’s where slavery was permitted. Those from outside the slave-holding states whose ancestors were slave-owners are the result of later family migrations, of slavery having existed in nearby U.S. territories, or other such extenuating circumstances.
(2) The fact that the vast majority of the slave-owning descendants today are Republicans generally reflects changes in party affiliation or a shift in party philosophy, as in the case of the dramatic shifts in the 1940s and 1960s. Those who originally opposed the expansion of slavery into the territories were Republicans. When the Democratic Party came into existence, it opposed the civil rights agenda of the Republicans. As a Democratic strong-hold, the southeast became “the Solid South,” overthrowing Reconstruction and instituting Jim Crow policies, which it called “the Southern Way of Life.” Then by the late 1940s, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman began promoting civil rights policies, which when extended by John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, initiated the mass exodus of southern whites into the Republican Party of Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and later Republicans. That is why today, the vast majority of southern officials are members of the Republican Party.
(3) In these comments, the idea should not be lost that areas which solidly support individuals with slave-holding ancestors often reflects generation after generation of mass mis-education and cultural orientation. We are here talking about a fairly solid south when it came to enforcing Jim Crow laws, economic exploitation, and other forms of racial oppression. Furthermore, family loyalty or sentimentality, and the desire to retain the wealth, privileges, and advantages derived from having had slave-holding ancestors continue to be major factors accounting for the conservativism that characterizes many of the residents of the southeast and the politicians representing them. The same kind of psychology, that led to Southern secession and the violent overthrow of Reconstruction, underlies support of the descendants of slave-holders as they strongly display efforts at white supremacy, even white nationalism. Political leaders spread the hysteria among their racial-kin and then ride the wave of the fearful people into office over and over again.
(4) Gerrymandering in many southern states enables their House delegations to be even more racially conservative than the states as a whole. Lawsuits in Alabama, North Carolina, Mississippi, and elsewhere illustrate the problem. Texas, Tennessee, and several other states reflect the opposite trend. They pass laws designed to weaken the voting strength of more liberal voting neighborhoods. It can be seen in places like Houston, Dallas, Jackson, Memphis, Nashville, Atlanta, and Birmingham. In line with that same thinking, many southern congresspersons often ignore the urban voters of the cities, favoring voters elsewhere.
(5) Large, diverse population centers enable the senate delegations to be more liberal and enable the elections of individuals who have fairly credible records on racial matters. It helps explain why people like Bennie Thompson, Sheila Jackson Lee, Lloyd Doggett, Jon Ossoff, Jim Clyburn, and others keep getting elected in “red states.” Although they get elected, they are usually in the minority. Georgia’s senatorial delegation is definitely an exception, but could become a wave of the future.
(6) The silence of many of the politicians regarding their slave-holding ancestors, when confronted, often reflects the fact that they have no problems with the history of slavery and Jim Crow. More dangerous, or destructive, those remaining silent are those who attempt to downplay that history. One official, for an example, talked about slavery in other areas of the world as if that lessens the evil of America’s transgression. One talked about how knowing the history of this past does not cause things to be any better today, so let bygones be bygones. One talked about the fact that in his case, the study pointed to only one out of scores of his ancestors. Such excuses go on and on, but without comments about correcting the wrongs or making amends.
(7) Several politicians spoke very clearly about the evils of slavery and/or the continued existence of systemic racism and how they have committed themselves to try to correct the mistake and make amends. Such comments are unique, but are the kinds of responses that one would hope to hear, if America is to move forward. Those comments generally came from officials who represent areas that are more racially diverse or who have become more “enlightened.”
(8) Support for or opposition to the idea of paying reparations to African Americans descending from enslaved ancestors says a great deal about how the descendant of slave-holders feels. Senators Tommy Tuberville and John Kennedy, for example, made sure that they were registered as opposing reparations, while Elizabeth Warren and Chris Van Hollen displayed their support for reparations. Similarly, support for or opposition to affirmative action programs speaks to how the descendant of slave-holders feels.
(9) The bottom-line to the Reuters study is that it helps reveal how the past can and does color the present, especially in the area of American race relations. Its expected outcome from people who are committed to correcting every flaw that diminishes America’s statue and every stain that blurs its luster, is that it moves us in the right direction, toward greater justice and human rights for all citizens.
(10) It is along that line and with a spot-on quotation from Representative Lloyd Doggett that we close this article. His words, to a large extent, reflect the sentiments of several other law-makers whose ancestors owned slaves. Those officials include, but not limited to, senators Tammy Duckworth, Martin Heinrich, Elizabeth Warren, and Chris Van Hollen as well as representatives Earl Blumenaur and Rick Larsen. Doggett said,
“Learning of my ancestors’ involvement over 180 years ago in the pernicious evil of slavery stains my family’s history as it does the history of our nation. I would have hoped that you instead discovered an abolitionist in 1840, committed to greater justice rather than greater suffering. Through my decades of public service, I have emphasized civil rights, human rights, and responding to the needs of those with the least. Though your discovery is troubling, it only invigorates my support for the cause of truth, justice, and equity today. I reject the efforts of those who would sugar-coat our history, denying our youth an honest accounting of how the legacy of slavery, defeat of Reconstruction, and advance of Jim Crow continue to inhibit progress against discrimination and racism.”