About a week ago, Tim Kaine tweeted about racism and discrimination and how our, “founders and our government carefully created it”. (You can view the entire tweet here.) In the thread there is also a video in which Kaine talks about how “we” didn’t inherit slavery, “we” created it. Reactions ran the gamut from “you are correct” to “you are crazy” pretty much along political lines as you would expect. All the so called experts chimed in and before long, in addition to the Democrat bashing, lots of folks had lots to say on the subject of slavery.
As I read through the various mocking comments, something that a friend of mine reminds me of from time to time popped into my head: language matters. Many posters pointed out that slaves built the pyramids, the Romans had slaves, and even the ever popular “slavery is mentioned in the Bible” were repeated over and over (Moses might argue its more than mentioned, but that is just a guess).
Language Matters. The funny thing about all this (and I don’t mean HAHA funny), is that both sides are right, and both sides are wrong (or really both sides are wrong, because Language Matters) – the reason is that both sides are using the same word to describe widely different practices.
Tim Kaine is talking about a specific type of practice that developed in a specific place at a specific time: CHATTEL SLAVERY. This is something that those of us who study, teach, and interpret the subject know quite well – and understand when we see his speech in the video. In addition, a quick internet search shows that websites like The Abolition Project, Freedom Center, and even Wikipedia (insert collective surprise here) all draw the distinction between Chattel and other forms of slavery, so the information is out there if anyone wants to seek clarification. Those commenters who choose to ignore the distinction are either grossly misinformed or acting intentionally.
So what? Language Matters. Anyone who who has conversations about this topic in a public forum needs to be quite intentional in making sure our terminology is correct when discussing, teaching, or interpreting the practice. This is especially true in this political climate. Historians are “revisionist”, college professors are the “liberal elite”, words are contorted, and “alternative facts” all serve to twist reality. With that in mind we have to be intentional with what we say so that there is no misunderstanding.
Language Matters. The bottom line is that the British Colonies that eventually became the United States, and the new nation itself, developed and refined a system of labor called Chattel Slavery to suit its needs. That is what Tim Kaine was taking about and we all need to be intentional in drawing that distinction.