Are race relations better in Latin America than in the United States? For many decades, Latin American intellectual elites were delighted to think so. Mexican philosopher Jose Vasconcelos believed Latin America to be morally superior to any other civilization, on account of its miscegenation. The mixing of races, Vasconcelos believed, gave rise to a new race, the so-called Latin American cosmic race, which synthesizes the best of all other races.
Less mystical, but equally proud, Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre coined the term “racial democracy” to describe the state affairs of his country (the term has since been used for Latin America as a whole). In his view, Brazil may have plenty of problems, but racism is not one of them. Like Vasconcelos, Freyre believed that miscegenation had rendered racism inoperative in Brazil, and that—while there are huge social inequalities—if you have money you can climb the social ladder, since miscegenation makes it impossible to discriminate on the basis of skin color.
These narratives have come under great scrutiny—and rightly so. A plethora of race scholars from North America have pointed out the insidious racism of Latin American countries, the depreciation of non-white identities, and most importantly, the persistent racial inequalities of many kinds. One particularly influential scholar, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, is alarmed at the “Latin Americanization” of race relations in the United States, and urges his readers to take action to avoid this.
Yet, while these critics are right to point out the naïveté of the racial democracy thesis, they are wrong to believe, as Bonilla-Silva seems to, that race relations in Latin America are worse than in the United States. Racial inequality is indeed a problem, but, pace Edmund Burke, equality is not the sole virtue in a society. Social harmony and integration are also important. And, when it comes to racial affairs, Latin American countries have been far more efficient than the United States in striving for nationalist unity. Cubans think of themselves as Cubans first, and only secondarily as members of a particular ethnicity—whereas, with Americans, it tends to be the reverse. For all their faults, Latin American nationalisms have been more successful in highlighting the common links amongst citizens, whereas American nationalism has struggled to reduce the importance of the differences between citizens. As Arthur Schlesinger has famously warned, identity politics is at risk of balkanizing the United States—in Latin America, this risk is minimal.
Assuming then, that race relations are better in Latin America (which is open to debate), we may wonder what the historical reasons for this may be. Differences between the Iberian cultural ethos and the Anglo-Saxon ethos have been offered as an explanation. Historian Hugh Thomas explains that Spain and Portugal had a long history of racial mixing on account of the Muslim invasions, and thus found little difficulty in mingling with darker-skinned peoples in the New World; Anglo-Saxon peoples, by contrast, had become more isolated by the sixteenth century, and thus were more reluctant to mix with Africans and natives in the Americas. Thomas, like Freyre and Vasconcelos, believed miscegenation was the key to understanding why Latin American race relations are better than those of the US.
There is some truth to this claim, but there may be an additional reason. Perhaps the way in which slavery ended in Latin America, compared with the events in the United States, accounts for a significant part of the difference in race relations.
Schoolchildren in the US are frequently taught that the American Civil War was a moral good, given that it ended the abhorrent institution of slavery. But an increasing number of scholars are beginning to challenge this narrative. There were proposals to bring slavery to a peaceful end, the most commonly discussed of which was compensated emancipation. If slaveholders were compensated for emancipating their slaves, so the argument went, they would accede to it, and bloodshed would be avoided. Due to pressing economic changes as a result of industrialization, slavery was in decline in the western hemisphere. The British Empire had already abolished it in 1833, and it was foreseeable that, given time, the South would follow.
At the beginning of the war, Lincoln himself came up with a proposal for compensated emancipation for the border states that still had slavery but remained loyal to the Union; however, he failed to pass the motion. Historian Thomas Di Lorenzo argues that Lincoln did not put in the effort of which he—with his famed rhetorical skills—was capable. At some point in the war, Lincoln proposed the plan to the Confederacy, but, since the rebellion was already in full swing, the South rejected it. So, we cannot accuse Lincoln of failing to try to avoid bloodshed, but perhaps we can blame him for doing too little, too late.
Today, anybody who defends the idea that compensated emancipation should have been taken more seriously runs the risk of being accused of defending the lost cause of the South and of being a racist. It is no surprise, then, that anti-racist campaigner Ta-Nehisi Coates opposed Ron Paul when the libertarian politician made that argument. Coates made two basic claims: the US Government did not have enough money to compensate slaveholders; and, even if they had possessed the money, slaveholders would not have accepted it because in the South, slavery was considered a moral positive.
Both of Coates’ claims require some caveats. The financial war effort was roughly the same as the estimated cost of compensated emancipation (around US$5 billion). Yes, compensated emancipation would have required heavy taxation (something antithetical to Paul’s libertarian philosophy), and perhaps in times of peace this heavy taxation scheme would have been more difficult to implement. But it was still feasible and could have been tried.
Coates might also not be entirely right to assume that, even if the money had been available, slaveholders would have refused the deal. Yes, in many instances, slavery was considered by Southerners as a positive good that was not for sale, a position clearly laid out in some of the declarations of secession by Southern States. White supremacy was undoubtedly an essential part of the Southern ethos. But the moral zeitgeist of an epoch usually adapts to the financial realities, or, as Marx might have put it, material conditions determine consciousness. If slavery had turned out to be less profitable, then perhaps white supremacy in the South would have begun to lose ground. It is important to bear in mind how white supremacy originated in the first place. If the account of most historians is to be believed, there was no white supremacy in antiquity or the Middle Ages. Racism (understood in biological terms, as it was in the antebellum South) is a modern phenomenon. Most historians accept the Marxist thesis, according to which entire populations began to be considered subhuman in the sixteenth century, as a way to justify their enslavement. The profitableness of slavery caused racism, rather than vice versa. We may speculate that the profitableness of emancipation might have begun to break the back of white supremacy and racism in the South. In fact, slavery in Latin America was as brutal as it was in the United States, and was also considered a moral good—yet that did not prevent Latin American slaveholders from accepting money in exchange for emancipation. That deal ultimately began to weaken the grip of white supremacy in Latin America, although racism still persists south of the Rio Grande.
The American Civil War was as brutal as they come. Lincoln did little to prevent atrocities (perhaps the most infamous of which was Sherman’s March to the Sea). He may have intended to be more lenient with the defeated South, but, after his assassination, the so-called radical Republicans in Congress were anything but lenient. Some carpetbaggers from the North seized the opportunity to economically depredate the devastated South. The North failed to pursue victory with justice, and, in some cases, excessively punished the South (by being too quick to impose decree by bayonets, excluding ex-Confederates from political participation, etc). A backlash in the deeply resentful South was inevitable. White supremacy never went away in the South: the Black Codes, the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings and the Jim Crow Laws were attempts to reestablish white supremacy, even though slavery has been abolished. Had slaveholders been compensated, and had Reconstruction been more lenient with the South, perhaps white supremacy would have been toned down, and the situation there would more closely resemble the state of affairs in Latin America.
This is not a defense of the lost cause of the South, or an excuse for the brutal racism in the South after the war. But, just as we cannot excuse Hitler under any circumstance, but may still acknowledge that the Allies in the First World War did not pursue victory with justice, and that the Treaty of Versailles contributed to the formation of that monster, we can declare Southern racism inexcusable, but still acknowledge that the brutality of the war, and the unjust terms of the occupation of the South in the decade that ensued, made it more difficult for the monster of white supremacy to disappear.
The comparison of the South with Latin America is informative in this regard. Slavery was just as brutal in Latin America (Colombian salsa singer Joe Arroyo’s hit “No le Pegue a la Negra” describes the plight of slaves in Latin America). Unlike the Founding Fathers of the United States, Simon Bolivar (the founding father of many Latin American nations) proclaimed the emancipation. But, once he realized that slaveholders would not willingly free their slaves without compensation, he desisted. Unlike Lincoln, he was not willing to go to war over slavery. In the decades following the collapse of the Spanish Empire in the Americas, the newly independent nations raised taxes to compensate slaveholders, and ultimately, when the debt was paid off, emancipation was proclaimed.
Predictably, because slavery was abolished peacefully, slaveholders in Latin America never felt the resentment that the defeated US South did, and white supremacy soon began to lose sway. No Latin American nation has ever had anything like the Black Codes, the Ku Klux Klan or Jim Crow laws. In the absence of these, racism, although by no means non-existent, never reached the intensity it did in the United States.
The only other country in the western hemisphere in which slavery was not peacefully abolished was Haiti. We cannot make the case that Haiti is more racist than the rest of Latin America, simply because, after 1804, no whites remained (they were exterminated), so today there are no racial confrontations as such in Haiti.
In order to gain recognition of its independence, Haiti had to pay France a huge sum in compensation—the resulting debt was only finally settled in 1947. This accounts for much of Haiti’s underdevelopment (although sociologists such as Lawrence Harrison have also highlighted cultural factors). It is now the poorest nation in the hemisphere. Based on this historical experience, some might argue that paying for emancipation in the South would not have necessarily worked, because, while it might have avoided bloodshed, in the case of Haiti it led to extreme poverty.
Yet both the British Caribbean colonies and the newly independent Latin American nations compensated slaveholders—and that was not a factor in the region’s underdevelopment. The case of Haiti is sui generis, because compensation came after emancipation, following bloodshed. Former French slaveholders, not interested in striking a bargain after having lost their property and shocked by the violence of the Haitian revolution, imposed highly inflated compensations. Furthermore, Haiti was a small island nation with little capacity to pay such a debt, and was itself composed almost entirely of freed slaves; therefore, for every contributor to the tax revenue, there was one freed slave to compensate for. The United States, by contrast, was already becoming an industrial powerhouse, and in the antebellum South the slave population never amounted to 50% of the population. The economic conditions of the United States, therefore, would have made it very unlikely that compensated emancipation would have led to the type of underdevelopment that we see in Haiti.
Does the counterfactual of compensated emancipation in the United States have any implications for contemporary racial policies there? I believe it does. As so often in ethical dilemmas, moral intuitions are not always reliable. It certainly is morally repugnant to think that slaveholders, not content with their own brutality, should have been compensated for emancipating other human beings. But, as utilitarian philosophers have always reminded us, the morally repugnant option may at times prove more efficient in maximizing good, and the comparison with Latin America seems to prove this point.
The inverse is also true: sometimes actions that are intuitively good may lead to greater harms. Ta-Nehisi Coates is best known for proposing reparations for African Americans. What could be more noble than giving back what was stolen from them, and leveling the playing field? The same could be said of Affirmative Action, and other measures to correct historical wrongs. Yet perhaps Coates needs to embrace a more utilitarian approach because reparations may lead to unintended consequences.
Historically, Latin American nations have been criticized and unfavorably compared with their powerful neighbor to the North. Latin nations have been castigated for their alleged poorer work ethic, rampant corruption, administrative inefficiency and so on. But Latin American nations can be proud that, in their approach to the abolition of slavery, they made the right choice—when the gringos, perhaps, did not.