Slaveholders Are People, Too!

First, the record needs to be corrected. Earlier I called Illinois’s new Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate Alan “I’m Movin’ to Peoria” Keyes. Turns out he’s actually Alan “I’m Movin’ to Calumet City” Keyes. The candidate says his swankless new address — he’s taken the upstairs unit in a two-flat in a tough neighborhood — will put him in touch with the day-to-day realities of people in his barely adopted state. Good on ‘im. Hope someone out there is keeping track of how much time he actually spends in his new digs.

Second, and more important: I want to be the first in the highly exclusive Internet pundit corps to congratulate Keyes for rewriting the history of slavery. Turns out it’s not a black thing, and we can all understand it.

Last night, I read the transcript of Keyes’s interview with NPR’s “Fresh Air” show. During his appearance, Keyes revealed that the key issue in the Illinois Senate race is — surprise! — the right of unborn Illinoisans to pursue life, liberty, and Huggies. And he talked all about how important it is for candidates to make rational arguments for their positions instead of resorting to name-calling and unsupported assertions. He’s so high-minded it makes you woozy.

Then he was asked about his statement that Barack Obama has taken “the slaveholder’s position” on the abortion issue.

The interviewer suggested that Keyes had introduced race into the campaign by using the slave rhetoric. Oh, no! Keyes said. Nothing could by further from the truth:

“One of the things I learned–because I had slave ancestors, and I, as I said, have deeply looked at, and thought about, meditated on the injustice involved in slavery. Slavery is not a racial issue. It’s an issue of human justice! And that means that when someone is enslaved, in violation of the fundamental premise of human dignity, we are turning our backs on our decent humanity.

OK, he’s right about one thing: Enslaving others demonstrates a “disregard for decent humanity.” But saying race wasn’t a factor in the American slave experience — because when he used the word slaveholder, I think he was thinking of Scarlett O’Hara’s pop, of slavery down yonder, not the ancient Roman guy who owned Russell Crowe in “Gladiator” — is like saying, “Murder’s not about violence! It’s about not caring for your fellow man.”

Of course race was a factor — the central factor — in American slavery. If you’ve got any doubt about the history Keyes is trying to wriggle out of, check out the Supreme Court’s excruciatingly rational argument in the Dred Scott decision. The court concluded that blacks, slave or free, could never be citizens. This “unfortunate” race was “separated from the white by indelible marks.” The decision defended the view, which it imputed to our founding white male parents, that blacks were “a subordinate and inferior class of beings”:

They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.

You’ve got to love that term “beings.”

So, slavery: Yes, a failure of decent humanity. But race is written all over it, and those ancestors Keyes talks about could have told him all about it.

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