The Ombudsgod called this issue to my attention recently, and I put some material aside to write about it. Now that he has done so himself, however, mainly what I need to do is call your attention to his post.
In a nutshell (actually, there is more than one nut involved), a defense lawyer in Oregon argued, with the help of an “expert” witness, that his client should not be held responsible for killing his two-year old son because blacks have not fully recovered from the trauma of slavery and discrimination. (See here, here, here, and here for additional discussion of this controversy.)
As I mentioned to The OBG when he first alerted me to this peculiar argument, it reminded me of two old but still classic books: SLAVERY (1959), by historian Stanley Elkins, and THE LEGACY OF THE CIVIL WAR (1961), by novelist and poet Robert Penn Warren.
SLAVERY, likening the insitution of slavery to the Nazi concentration camps, argued that the peculiar institution was so brutal, and so total, that it transformed its subjects into the docile, childlike figures of Southern mythology, creating something he called a “Sambo personality.” Much of the historiography of slavery over the past generation has been an extended effort, largely successful, to refute Elkins by stressing the success of slaves in creating their own culture, etc. In many respects the debate over Elkins’ book foreshadowed the debate over Moynihan’s famous report on the problems of the black family, which he traced back to slavery. To a surprising and unfortunate degree, the “post traumatic slave syndrome” sounds like a farcical reprise of a parody of the Elkins argument.
In THE LEGACY OF THE CIVIL WAR, Warren argued (among other things) that “The War” bestowed two lasting legacies: it gave the North what he called “a treasury of virtue” — no matter what the U.S. did subsequently, the act of freeing the slaves (even if done as a by-product rather than a purpose of the war) provided such stockpiles of moral virtue that it could never be depleted.
The South, by contrast, was provided with “the Great Alibi.” All subsequent problems could be blamed on The War and the Yankees. Nothing was ever the South’s own fault.
If Warren were still alive and revising his small classic, he might be tempted to add some version of the “post-traumatic slave syndrome” to his list of legacies, if, that is, he took it seriously.
In his comment below Andy Lazarus makes the very good point that I should have made clear in my post that the attempted post-traumatic slave syndrome defense was not successful. I think I was too traumatized by the argument to note its failure.