What was the original sin of the United States? It was what the European settlers did to the Native American populations. They massacred them; enslaved them; removed them from ancestral lands either by force, coercion, or guile; gave them smallpox-infested blankets; and enclosed them in ‘reservations.’ “Ah, but …,” say the pedants, “that was before it became the United States.” Well, similar treatment continued for generations, long after nationhood had been established.
In The London Review of Books (May 4, 2017), Adam Shatz referred to the enslavement of Africans as the United States’s original sin. In a letter to the editor, I pointed out this error. Here’s the letter in full:
In his otherwise excellent review of Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman (LRB, 4 May, 2017), Adam Shatz errs in suggesting that slavery was America’s “original sin”. The original sin was the genocide and systematic oppression of countless Native Americans, who had been living peacefully on the land for many generations. I should add that Shatz is in very good company; Barack Obama made the same error in a seminal speech on race at the Constitution Center on March 18, 2008.
JJ Amaworo Wilson
The letter wasn’t published, so I’m ramming home my message right here. Without a shadow of a doubt, the original sin was Native American genocide, not African slavery. It was the blood of Native Americans that first made the ground fertile for Europeans, who subsequently used African slave labor to develop the nation’s economy. About the latter, there’s been a wealth of recent scholarship, notably Edward E. Baptist’s magisterial The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and The Making of American Capitalism (2014). But slavery wasn’t the first of the appalling crimes against humanity.