The Myth of “Gradual Abolition”

Some things should be taken slow – but not this:

When I was sixteen and poring over National Park Service statistics on the American Civil War, I was horrified at the sheer number of deaths. Perhaps, I thought, over half a million lives might have been saved with some form of compromise. Slavery was dying out in the 1850s, or so I thought – so perhaps instituting some policy to eradicate it within the next decade or two would have stopped the Civil War and ended the enslavement of Black Americans, in one fell swoop. Maybe then the bitterness of Reconstruction could have been avoided, and America would have shed its systemic anti-Blackness!

As I read more history, I quickly realised how drastically, abysmally wrong – how shamefully racist – that idea was. The idea that American slavery would die some kind of inevitable, “natural” death was a disingenuous one, disseminated by hypocritical slaveholders like Thomas Jefferson – people who hoped they could pacify and pander to abolitionists without actually taking a single step toward abolitionism. In truth, slavery was a booming industry which showed no signs of organically perishing, especially after the creation and distribution of the Cotton Gin.

Thomas Jefferson asserted that “no body” was more opposed to slavery than he was – and yet, he owned over 600 enslaved Black people through his life. Supporting the concept of “gradual” abolition, saying that chattel slavery would just disappear one day on its own without doing anything to actively ensure it would, absolved people like Jefferson of their own complicity in genocide and yet allowed them to pat themselves on the back for being sympathetic humanitarians.

How does this apply to us? Chattel slavery ended in 1865 within the US. Except it didn’t – prisons, which are disproportionately occupied by Black and brown people, are still a huge source of what is, essentially, slave labour.

Image description: incarceration rate by ethnicity, per 100000 people. Source here.

The 13th Amendment itself contains a loophole which legalises slavery in the case of incarceration. As soon as it was passed, many Southern states implemented draconian “Black Codes” designed to let the police throw Black people (including children) into jail, expressly to exploit them as a source of slave labour. As the above graph shows, even though the Black Codes are no longer officially in place, racial profiling and over-policing are nowhere close to having been abolished from Black communities across the nation.

When it comes to any violation of human rights – whether it is legalised transphobia, or the aforementioned prison labour pipeline, or the murder of so many Black people by police officers – the tactic of “gradual” abolition simply does not apply. There is no moral high ground to be found in gradually getting rid of institutional bias, because every moment we drag our feet on uprooting systems of discrimination could spell another murder or suicide within targeted communities. Instead of siding with deplorables like Thomas Jefferson, side with William Lloyd Garrison: make a “full and unequivocal” disavowal of the “popular but pernicious doctrine of gradual abolition.”

Image description: a photograph of the above quote, taken from Ibram X Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning. Also depicted – the left thumb of yours truly. Wow, I really need to trim my nails.

––Aditi Ramaswamy

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