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Modern Voices
Deborah Gray White on the legacy of slavery
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Q: Why is it important to study the history of slavery?
Deborah Gray White

A: I don't think you can understand race relations today without understanding slavery. And until we come to grips with it, until we understand people's prejudices, their origins, we really can't even begin to work on getting rid of them and working together as a people. Even though people will say, "Well, I didn't do it," and white people will say, "I didn't do it. My father didn't do it. Even my grandparents, they didn't do it." One of the things that's essential is to know that slavery is not just a southern institution. It's an American institution. And it was an institution that everyone bought into. The North bought into it. The South bought into it. It was cotton that made this country king in 1850 and 1860. It was cotton that fueled the early Industrial Revolution in this country, particularly in New England. So without understanding the past, we really can't understand the future. We can't understand why people have the prejudices they have, how black people and white people came to be at opposite ends on certain issues, like civil rights, human rights.
Deborah Gray White
Professor of History
Rutgers University

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